“Sound Smack” by AfroDJMac: Sidechaining Makes Your Tracks Interact

Hello, this is New York-based producer, songwriter, guitarist, and live electronic musician AfroDJMac.  I like to describe my music as being futuristic yet nostalgic: it’s a blend of indie rock, electronica, glitch, and chip tunes, all wrapped up into catchy, fun, and sometimes introspective songs.  It’s music that is great for a party, yet has another layer — perfect for a night alone contemplating life’s larger questions.

AfroDJMac has arrived to help you max up your sound.

I’ve gotten myself pretty involved in the Ableton Live community by releasing a free Ableton Live Device Rack every week for the last 20 weeks and have no plans of stopping.  I try to create instruments and effects that have lots of character and are practical for the live electronic musician.  Stop by my site and check them out (even if you aren’t an Ableton Live user, the samples may come in handy).

I’m excited to write for SonicScoop to share some of the knowledge that I‘ve picked up along the way. For my big debut, let’s take a look at the dark art of sidechaining.

Sidechaining — What It Is
Sidechaining is the technique of using one sound signal to change certain parameters of a different sound signal.

Here’s a simple, real world example:  Imagine we’re both listening to our iPods.  If your music gets to a certain loudness threshold, you turn down your iPod; when the music drops below that loudness level, you raise the volume of your iPod back up.  If we were “Sidechained” together, when your music reaches that loudness threshold, you would turn down my iPod, and when your music drops below that loudness level again, you turn my volume back up.  So in this case, my volume is changed depending on the volume of your iPod.

The most basic example is known as “ducking” and it stems from radio broadcasting.  Engineers placed compressors onto background music, but sidechained them to the announcer’s voice.  So when the announcer spoke, the background music would get lower, and when he stopped speaking, the music would get louder again.  This allowed listeners to hear the music clearly, but when the announcer had something to say, it wouldn’t be drowned out by background music.

It wasn’t long before audio engineers began using sidechaining in music for interesting effects.  Following are some of the stimulating possibilities when you sidechain a compressor, gate, and filter.

Note: I used Ableton Live to demonstrate the following techniques, but the principles are the same in any DAW.  Ableton Live users can download the Live Set here. And this handy dandy video explains it all with luv:

Sidechain Compression
By sidechaining a compressor to a different sound source, many different effects can be achieved, and there are various ways to set up a sidechain. Let’s start by looking at the analog word, where most hardware compressors/gates have an input marked “sidechain.”  Though the method may vary between different pieces of gear, usually sidechaining is a matter of simply patching your desired sound source into the sidechain input.  The compressor then reacts to that signal instead of the one that is actually being compressed.

Ableton Live makes sidechaining a breeze. On the top left of your Compressor, Gate, and Auto Filter plug ins, there is a small yellow arrow.  Clicking on this arrow opens up some new parameters, one of which is a rectangular button labeled “Sidechain.”  Click this button, and then below you can choose the source you want the device to react to.

For example, if I had a compressor on the bass and wanted to sidechain it to the bass drum, I would click the yellow arrow, click the Sidechain button, and then select my bass drum from the drop-down menu.

Live also allows you to place an EQ filter on the sidechain signal.  This is extremely useful if all of your drums are on one track.  In order to isolate the bass drum sound, simply click the EQ button, select the low pass  filter and lower the frequency until the compressor is only reacting to the bass drum hits.

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  • Mobilohm

    Nice to see the various applications of sidechaining …. thanks

  • Mobilohm

    Thanks for showing various applications of sidechaining.

  • All this time I’ve never used sidechaining cos I just didn’t see how it was important. But this vid is so clear and concise, you just shed the light on sidechaining for me! I’m gonna use it now!! Thank you, AfroDjMac!!!

  • I love you, man.