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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

An In-Depth Study of Sidechaining

Sidechain Compression Tutorial, Sidechaining, SSS Side Chain Compressor. The whole french house scene is practically defined by a signature sound. While the music itself is very different, every track seems to have this really loud sound. Some DJ’s call it a “push, pull”, “breathing”, or “suction” sound. It isn’t just artistry that creates this signature sound, it’s a lot of studio magic. That magic has a name: Sidechaining. After reading this tutorial, you’ll know exactly how to do it.
To follow this lesson you will need:
  1. A VST Host (e.g. Ableton Live, Cubase, Pro Tools, etc.)
  2. SSS Stereo Side Chain Compressor – Free VST Compressor (now for Windows and OS X). Click here to get the SSS Stereo Side Chain Compressor.

What Does Sidechaining Do?

Sidechaining takes one sound and uses it to manipulate another sound. Most often you will see it on compressors, gates, limiters, and expanders. However, it can also be found on vocoders, synthesizers, and other effects. It is a really, really useful feature on compressors and gates because it allows you to place multiple instruments in the same frequency range without clashing. Or, more succinctly, it can make your mix sound really good.
This tutorial is going to demonstrate ducking using a sidechaining compressor. Ducking is the technique used by french house producers to get their characteristic “pumping” sound. Here are two snippets from popular french house songs that make heavy use of ducking:
Listen to the horns in the Daft Punk sample. Notice how they become quiet when the kick drum plays? That’s ducking. The horn volume is ducked to make room for the kick drum. Listen to the DJ Falcon sample. The vocal loop gets ducked for the kick drum in the exact same way.
Now go grab any french house record from the last eight years. Almost all of them do it.

How Does Sidechaining Work?

Sidechaining really just means feeding sound into an effect that works on some other sound. But when most people talk about sidechaining, they are really talking about using sidechain compressors and gates to produce ducking. That’s what you will do today. This tutorial will guide you through setting up a Side Chain Compressor.
So, what does a Side Chain Compressor actually do anyway? It uses one of your audio tracks to control the volume of another audio track. To get a ducking sound, it will lower the volume of one of your audio tracks when the other gets loud. The screenshot below shows the volume of a synth pad before it is effected and after it is ducked to make room for a kick drum.
Now that you know how it works, it’s time to do it yourself. Read on.

Setting Up the Audio Tracks

First you need to prepare two audio tracks to feed into the compressor. The first audio track will hold a four-on-the-floor kick drum loop. The second audio track will hold a synth pad loop. Click the link below to download a ZIP file containing the two loops.
Start your VST Host (e.g. Ableton Live) and create a new song. Then open the ZIP file and place the two loops on separate audio tracks in your VST host. Make the loops repeat at least a couple times. Label the audio tracks if you prefer. When you are done, your VST host should look like the screenshot below.
When you press play you should hear the kick drum and synth pad playing on top of each other. The goal is to get the pad to “duck out” for the kick drum. You’ll need the SSS Side Chain Compressor to make that happen. Read on to learn how to set it up.

Setting Up the Compressor

Before you can use the compressor, it must be installed in your VST plugins folder. If you haven’t already done that, do that now. Next, load the SSS Side Chain Compressor effect onto the track with the synth pad. If you are using Ableton Live, you can click here to read a tutorial on using VST plugins with Ableton Live.
When press play you hear that nothing has changed. Before the compressor can work its magic you need to route the audio from the kick drum track into the compressor. If you are not using Ableton Live, then consult the manual on your VST Host’s audio routing procedures. Or, write a request on the SonicTransfer Forums. If I receive a request then I will usually write a tutorial for your host. Click here to visit the SonicTransfer Forums. If you are using Ableton Live, then reference the animated screenshot below.
Once you have routed the kick drum audio into the compressor, you are ready to start ducking the pad. The next section explains how to tweak the compressor’s settings to get the french house “pumping” sound.

Tweaking the Compression Settings

Now when you press play you hear the pad ducking out for the kick drum! But, you don’t hear the kick anymore at all. This is easily fixed. Turn the knob on the far right of the compressor labeled KeyVolume. Turn it all the way up to 0.0db and the kick drum will return in full force. Wasn’t that easy?
The rest of the adjusting is up to personal preference. The threshold is a bit low so you may want to move it up to around -13 or -10db. Since the goal of this exercise is just to duck out the pads, you should turn the ratio knob all the way to infinity to give the pads the largest dynamic range possible. Keep the attack low at around 5ms. The hold knob will keep the pads quieter a bit longer and for this exercise should be somewhere around 40ms. The release determines how long the pads will fade in after each attack (and hold) and in this case should be around 90ms. Lastly, there is no need for any makeup volume so the gain knob should stay at 0db. (See the screenshot below.)
If you are using Ableton Live, you can click here to download the finished arrangement file.
Now you are ready to write some funky french house. Or, at least you’re on your way :)


I hope you enjoyed learning about Side Chain Compression. This technique alone can really improve the quality of your music. Keep experimenting and remember that this tutorial only scratches the surface of what is possible with sidechaining. If you have any questions or comments, please post a message on the SonicTransfer Forums. Click here to visit the SonicTransfer forums.
For more advanced side chaining, read this tutorial on side chain compressing a submix in Ableton Live.
Happy Producing!
Matt Sonic
(Note: Mac users might also be interested in the commercial Sonalksis Analogue Gate. )
Also, check out the free MdspCompressor for more sidechain fun. (Thanks Ben!)

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