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The Newbie's Guide to Sidechaining

written by: Ricardo de Jong•edited by: Amy Carson•updated: 7/9/2011

Many producers starting out at one point want to emulate the popular 'pumping' dance sound that's out there. With this guide I will explain readers how to lay out the basics for such a track using sidechain compression.

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    A mixing technique that is widely used throughout popular electronic music these days is sidechain compression. With this technique you can let one musical element influence one, or several others. This is particularly useful when you want to prevent musical elements from clashing with each other when they are in the same frequency range. The most common use of sidechain compression is letting one or more musical elements "duck under" the bass drum. In this case, whenever the bass drum is triggered the volume of the other element(s) is temporarily lowered (how long depends on how the compression is set up). Depending on how rigorously you have configured your sidechain compression this can create a sucking or pumping effect which is heard much in electronic dance music nowadays. This way, the bass drum will cut through your mix easily, without tediously editing or automating your other musical elements to achieve the same effect.

    As long as you have set everything up right, sidechain compression can make your mix sound cleaner, fuller and have more of an impact when it is played over club speakers. Songs that make heavy use of sidechain compression to the extend of where it’s more an effect are Daft Punk’s "One More Time" and Eric Prydz’ "Call on Me." These songs will really let you understand what can be achieved with this mixing technique. When you gain some more experience with this mixing technique, you can tell exactly when to use sidechain compression in your mix.

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    Sidechain Compression in FL Studio

    Sidechain compression can be achieved in almost any music DAW that’s out right now, more than often in several ways. Since a lot of starting producers use FL Studio because of the easy learning curve I will explain how to set up sidechain compression in FL Studio’s software mixer to give your mix just a little more "oomph." This procedure should work from FL Studio 9 and upwards (sidechaining was officially incorporated into the software from version 9, in previous versions you had to use a different way of setting up sidechaining involving the Fruity Peak Controller).

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    Using the Fruity Limiter to Set Up a Sidechaining Event

    First, set up a kick drum pattern. The standard FL Studio kick loaded in a four-on-the-floor pattern (where the kick drum is triggered every beat) works well for this example. Also load up an instrument of which you want to have its volume dictated by the kick drum triggering. A continuous pad or long loop sound works best for this example, so play or program something into the piano roll that has long notes which overlap the spots where the kick drum is playing.

    Next, assign your kick drum to one mixing channel and your instrument to another. Have your kick drum mixing channel (i.e. Insert 1) selected and then, right-click on the arrow icon on the bottom of your instrument channel, then select Sidechain to this channel.

    sidechain to this track After this, select the instrument mixing channel and add the plugin Fruity Limiter to it (in one of the drop-down menu's on the right). When the compressor loads up, click on Comp and in the sidechain field select your kick-drum mixing channel. Now, your instrument volume will be influenced every time the kick drum triggers, but you probably can't hear it yet.

    Next, fine-tune the compression with the knobs Ratio, which controls the amount of compression applied when the threshold is exceeded and Threshold, which sets the level above which the signal is compressed. Use the visual representation of your audio signals in the Fruity Limiter as the guideline to adjust these values. Have your threshold sit just below the kick drum’s peaks for the best effect. The more you lower your threshold and the higher your ratio is set, the more pumping you will hear in your mix.

    Sidechaining In Action On The Fruity Limiter For more advanced control over your compressed signal you can also use the Att (attack) and Rel (release) knobs, where Attack influences how fast the compression kicks in when the kick is triggered and Release how long it takes before the compressed signal goes back to normal.

    In order to have multiple musical elements sidechained to the kick drum you can either route each of your instruments and loops to their own mixer channel and load a Fruity Limiter on each channel for greater individual control or route your instruments to a group channel on which you place the plugin to sidechain all elements at once.

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    Use Sidechain Compression Wisely

    So now that you have learned the basics of setting up sidechaining in FL Studio you can go out and experiment in applying it to your existing mixes. Each mix will require different sidechaining settings, but your personal taste and production style are also an influencing factor in deciding when to use sidechain compression. Be careful not to overuse sidechaining, because too much can cause fatiguing of your listener's ear.

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    Author's own experience.

    Image Line's sidechain compression video tutorial:

    Screenshots by author