Side Chain Compression Tutorial (What You Need to Know)

In this video I’m going to show you how to set up and use sidechain compression. I’ll also give you a couple of ways you can use sidechain compression to improve your mixes today.

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Male Speaker: In this video, I’m going to show you how to set up a new Sidechain Compression. I’m going to explain exactly how it works, because it can get a little bit tricky and then I’m going to give you a couple of ways to use Sidechain Compression to improve your mixes today. So keep watching.


First of all what is Sidechain Compression? Because we really need to understand this properly for any of this to make sense. Now the stock compressor in your DAW should have a sidechain on it. If it doesn’t you might have to go download an additional plug-in, but most DAWs will enable a sidechain natively as well even on third-party plugins.

In essence, what the sidechain does is allows us to trigger the compressor with a different channel instead of the source that it’s actually on. So you can think of a compressor in two parts, there’s the part that triggers the compressor and then there’s the part where the compressor actually reduces the volume.

So normally we have both on the same channel. So if I have a compressor on this acoustic guitar here and I set the threshold…


The compression is triggered by the acoustic and every time the acoustic gets louder, the compressor is clamping down more, and then the thing that is actually clamping down on the thing that is actually compressing is the channel itself too. But we can split that up so that we actually use something else to trigger the compressor but then still compress the acoustic guitar, and that’s where this trick really starts to become useful.

So we start by setting our sidechain to another channel in the track. So we can just slight our vocal down here which is our lead vocal. We can see here, it’s just called vocal. So that’s it we’ve set the vocal as a sidechain.

So now what’s going to happen is the compressor is going to clamp down when the vocal gets louder, because we’re using the vocal to actually trigger the compressor. But then because we’ve got the plug-in on the acoustic channel, it’s going to compress the acoustic guitar.

It’s going to be easier just to show you, so have a listen and look what’s going on with this meter.


So hopefully there you noticed that the needle moves when the vocalist is singing, even though we’ve got this compressor on this acoustic guitar channel and that’s because we set the vocal as a sidechain. And also if you listen what happens is the acoustic guitar gets much quieter when the vocalist is singing and then as soon as the vocals stop, the acoustic guitar comes up in volume.


So now we have to think of these controls a little differently, because the threshold is basically the one controlling the vocal. So this is saying, okay well we’re setting a threshold on the vocal so that when the vocal hits a certain point, we’re going to start compressing. But then all the other controls are still affecting the acoustic guitar, because how much we compress by, how fast or slow the attack and release are, how much make-up gain we’re applying.

Well that’s all being applied to the acoustic itself. All we’re really using is this threshold control now to dictate how much of the vocal we’re picking up on. So if I use no threshold.


The compress is not being triggered because we haven’t set the threshold low enough that the vocal is actually crossing that threshold, as if we set this down here…


The vocals now going above that -34 dB point. If we set all the way down.


You can really see what’s going on now.

So that’s how it works with your DAW, you might have to do it on a bus instead. So with logic, it’s really handy. I can just go to audio and just pick one of my normal audio channels, but in some cases you have to set up a bus.

So to do that we might create a new bus here and we’re going to bus the audio to let’s just say 30, and we want to set this to 0. So right now that’s not actually going anywhere. It created this new channel for us, but we can just mute that and if we wanted we could hide it, delete it, something like that, but now we actually have this audio going to bus 30.

So now we go into our compressor and we can go to bus and you can see it tells us here, gives us a little hint as to the vocal that’s been sent to, and we’re going to have the exact same thing.


So there you go. That’s how you set up and hopefully that gives you an understanding of what’s actually going on behind the scenes. So now let’s talk about some practical applications of this.

Now in this video, I’m going to focus on the applications within the mixing process, because you can actually use Sidechain Compression to create pumping baselines and pumping synths and it’s quite a popular technique in a lot of EDM and that kind of stuff, but I’m not going to cover that here. Instead I’m going to focus on some really useful techniques we can use during the mix.

So the first one is using Sidechain Compression to control an instrument and get out the way of the vocal. So we’re already doing this here with the example I gave you. We just need to back this off and make it a little more subtle. So the acoustic guitar is kind of getting in the way of the vocal in this chorus.


I wanted to be quite loud in the mix, because it’s playing a really important role in the track and I wanted it to be front and center to give it that kind of singer/songwriter vibe, but at the same time it is getting in the way of the vocal a little bit.

Now we’ve already got this set up, so luckily we can just turn this on and tweak the settings a bit more. So first we just want to address the threshold, so that the vocal is actually triggering the compressor.


Cool. And then we want to reduce the ratio because we probably don’t want it that aggressive, somewhere between two and three is going to give us enough compression.


Now we’re still applying 5 dB of gain reduction which is pretty drastic. When it comes to Sidechain Compression in this context, we’re just trying to drop the instrument that’s competing with the vocal, just a couple of dB while the vocal is in.

We don’t need it to be this huge noticeable difference in volume. We just want to subtly kind of nudge it down a bit to create a bit more room in the mix for the vocal. So now I’m going to tweak the threshold in the ratio just to get kind of 2, 3 dB of gain reduction.


Cool. Make-up gain, I’m not actually going to apply any, because we’re trying to dip the guitar when the vocal comes in. So we don’t want to then bring up the volume even more. So I’m going to leave that as it is, make sure Auto Gain is off.

Then the Attack and Release we can just tweak a bit so that it sounds more natural. If we use a fast attack, the acoustic is going to come back up in the mix quicker, but that could sound a bit unnatural because it’s going to just suddenly get louder. If we use too slower release, we’re not actually going to get the acoustic coming into the mix between the different phrases.


So it still works, but it’s taken quite some time to actually bring the acoustic back up. So we’re just going to use kind of like a medium attack and a medium release.


And imagine you can use a bit of a faster attack, so that as soon as the vocal comes in, it drops that acoustic a bit.


I’m going to make the release a bit slower, because it’s kind of coming in quite quickly at the moment.


So let’s do a comparison so this is without any Sidechain Compression…


And then with…


So really focus on the vocal because that’s where it’s the most obvious. If you focus on the acoustic, you’re going to hear it kind of dropping in volume anyway, but if you just focus on the vocal and how easy it is to hear that in the context of everything else, then you’ll notice with this Sidechain Compression, it just has a bit more space in the mix because we’re dropping that acoustic.


So there you go, that’s it. And we can also do this on buses. So if we wanted to reduce the whole drum kit, we could do it on the drum bus, and even though I did it on the acoustic bus here, we only have the acoustic going to have just bus, the DI and the mic together to mix them at the same time, but we can do it on whole groups of instruments. You can even do it on all the instruments.

So sometimes before I’ve taken the piano, the electric, the drums, the acoustic, and the bass and send all of these to a bus that I would then call instruments, and then I can actually move the Sidechain Compression there, so that we dip in pretty much the whole mix besides the vocal.


So that can be quite drastic. It doesn’t sound too bad here. I would just want to reduce the ratio a bit now, so there was only kind of 1 dB of gain reduction, but that’s another good trick if you’ve got a really, really dense mix and the vocal is getting lost by. I tend to find it’s better to just isolate one, two, or three instruments that are really getting in with the vocal the most and just use Sidechain Compression on those instead. So we can drag this back to our acoustic and leave it there.

Now there’s one more technique I want to show you and I actually did a video about this very recently, and it’s using Sidechain Compression on the vocal reverb, so that we can actually get the reverb out of the way of the vocal.

So you can see a trend here. We’re using Sidechain Compression to just get one thing out of the way of something else. So here we used it to get the acoustic or even all the instruments out of the way of the vocal. Well we can do it on effects too. So we can use Sidechain Compression to actually duct the reverb a bit when the vocal is in and then bring the reverb back up as soon as the vocal stops.

Now in the last video, I kind of focused more on how that sounded and tweaking that in a real-world mix, but this time I just want to focus more on the actual setup of that, because I had a few comments that are like, hey, this is awesome but I’m not really sure I understand all the busing and the routing of that.

So let’s start by just soloing this vocal, and we’ve actually got two channels here. So we’ve got the vocal itself which is where I’m doing some subtractive EQ and some automation on this channel, and then I’ve sent that to a bus.

So if you’re not already familiar with kind of how buses and sends work and all of that you just have to look up for a tutorial that actually applies to your DAW, but you can see I’ve got this output set to bus 11 and bus 11 is coming in here.

So you can literally think of it as a bus as in one of those vehicles you get on that takes you paces, and it’s taking the audio from one place to another. So bus 11 is taking the audio from this output to this input, and then we’ve also got this bus here which is bus 30 and that’s what we set up as a send is kind of creating like a duplicate. We’re sending a version whereas output is actually changing the literal output of that channel.

So we’ve got output bus 11 that’s coming in here to my lead vocal bus, and the reason I do that is because I’ve got automation on the actual vocal channel itself. So if I wanted to just turn the whole track upward down, it’d be kind of tricky because I’ve automated it, and also I like to automate before compression.

So now the level going into the compressor is already consistent, because it’s getting automated on this fader, then it’s coming out of here and into here, then into the compressor. So that’s kind of the routing that I’ve got set up, then I’ve got the rest of my processing on this actual vocal channel.

And at the moment I’ve actually got the reverb on the vocal channel itself, because it was just a quicker easier way to do it in the heat of this mix. But what I’m going to do instead is move this onto a bus so that we can actually add some more plug-ins to it.

So we can add a compressor after this, because right now if we added a compressor here we would just be compressing the whole channel, we wouldn’t be compressing the reverb. We just want to compress the reverb so to do that we need to move it onto the same channel.

So first thing we’re going to do is set up a new bus, 21, and we’ll just set this to 0, and now we’ve got down here 21, and we can call this Vox Verb, and let’s give all of these, because they’re effects, they should all be the same color. I’m just going to tidy these up a sec.

So now I’ve got all my group channels here in this color and then I’ve got my two effects channels here. So you could call these a number of things. You could call them aux tracks, because they’re auxiliary tracks that we’ve got the bus going to.

That term is also kind of interchangeable with buses and this is where it starts to get a little bit confusing, because the bus is actually the thing that sends the audio from one place to another, but we could call this a reverb bus, because it’s kind of like we’re just adding reverb to this bus. So it does get tricky, you can call this aux track, a bus, an effect track, whatever you want.

So now we’re just going to pull this up to where our vocal is and our lead vocal bus. Again, you can see there even though this is technically like an aux track or a subgroup you could call it as well, I’ve just called it a bus. You can see here same thing with mix bus. Technically, it should be kind of like mix aux I guess or stereo out something like that, but it’s just shorthand, okay, so we’re going to call this a bus as well. So it can get a little bit confusing.

So now we just need to move the reverb onto its own channel and let’s have a listen.


Now because I had this directly on the vocal channel before I set the wet mix to only kind of -21 there, but because it’s now on a bus, whenever we add effects on buses or aux channels, again whatever you want to call them, we want to make sure it’s a hundred percent wet, because then we’re going to use the send to dictate how much reverb has been added. So if we listen to the actual channel on its own now.


That’s just the reverb. So now if we soloed the lead vocal, we can use this send here to dictate how much reverb is being applied.


So for the sake of this demonstration, I’m going to make this kind of very late and long reverb, so we’ve just got a really lush tail on it.


So we’ve got this really over-the-top reverb, and I’m just going to make this really easy to hear so it wouldn’t necessarily do this in the context of a mix definitely not that aggressively. But now I’ve got my compressor on the reverb channel. So remember with Sidechain Compression, we want to add the compressor to the thing that we want to control not the thing that we want to use as the trigger.

So we’re adding the compression to the reverb because we want to duct the reverb, the same way we duct the acoustic guitar. So then I set the sidechain to our vocal. So now is going to be triggered by the vocal but compress the reverb.


So listen now to how the reverb dips down when the vocalist is actually singing and as soon as they stop singing, the reverb just comes up in volume.


I’m just going to make this even longer so you can really hear what’s going on.


So you can hear now how the reverb just kind of swells up between the phrases. So that’s what we’re trying to do. Of course it would normally be a lot more subtle. So if I wanted a really lush reverb tail on the vocal but the reverb itself was just pushing the vocal too far back in the mix, this is where Sidechain Compression on the vocal reverb will really help to just clean up the actual vocal itself so that we don’t have too much reverb when the vocalist is singing, but as soon as they stop bring in that nice and lush reverb tail.


And then I just need to adjust the level of the send.


And there you go. So I actually talked more about the context and when you would use this trick and how to really tweak it in a real-world mix in the other video, so again check that out. I just wanted to spend a bit more time here actually going through the setup process for that.

So two different Sidechain Compression techniques you can start using in your mixes today. I don’t recommend you use these in every single mix. They’re just good little tricks to have in your arsenal and certain situations you come across where you think, huh, Sidechain Compression would be a great technique here to just control this thing that’s getting in the way of something else. And that’s just the way you want to think of it. When there’s one thing getting in the way of the other, we can use Sidechain Compression to control those things.

Of course, this is just one small part of the mixing process. You can get this perfect and still end up with mixes that don’t sound great if you make mistakes in other areas. Once you’ve learned Sidechain Compression, there’s still a lot of other stuff you need to get right if you want your music to sound professional.

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