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How To Use Ableton Sidechain Compression (Easy 5 Step Guide)

If you’re looking for a way to blend instruments, bring out a vocal track, or make a bass drum pop through the mix, sidechain compression is a potent tool that every producer should be familiar with.

By allowing you to compress signals together whilst simultaneously adding an EQ filter, you can create a responsive sonic environment where certain sounds precede. Some sounds subtly shine through whilst others fade seamlessly into the background.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably spent hours staring at Ableton Live, nudging the levels of tracks to get that elusive perfect mix. Dial-up the bass a tad, but now it’s drowning out the kick. Boost the compression gain on the kick drum track, and now the master is clipping. Turn down the bass on the acoustic guitar, and it’s a whole domino effect of fidgeting with levels.

How To Use Ableton Sidechain Compression

Compression Guides the Ear Towards Focal Points

Any producer will tell you that one of the most difficult parts of music production is understanding what compression actually does and how it can maximize the song’s feel.

Compressors manipulate a signal by taming peaks and boosting low volumes, creating a smaller range in volume.

Think about an opera singer in an auditorium. When she whispers, you can’t make out what she’s saying. When she belts at her loudest, your ears go deaf for a second, and your wine glass explodes. Now imagine putting a compressor audio effect on her. (Stay with me, folks.) Now you can make out what she’s saying when she whispers, and you don’t get tinnitus when she belts out, plus the wineglass is intact!

Opera Singer

Now imagine a guy with a bass drum comes on stage and starts playing with her. Whenever he hits the drum while she’s singing, her voice drowns it out. 

This is when it’s time for a sidechain compressor, by adding one to the opera singer and referencing it to the drum so that whenever he hits the drum, her voice reduces in volume temporarily. Now you can feel the drum.

Thanks for sticking with me through that bizarre analogy (and please don’t invite me to that show.) I hope you now have a good grasp of the concept behind compression and side compression. Now I’ll show you how actually to do it.

What Do You Need?

Ableton Live. 9 or 10 are recommended, but if you’re working on 8, it’s a little different, though you should be able to use this Ableton tutorial. You’ll also need multiple tracks to work with. I have a song with a drum loop, guitar, bass guitar, synth piano, organ midi clip, harmonica, and vocals for this tutorial. That’s a lot of instruments, but that shows how much time sidechain compression can save.

I’ve got a real snappy-sounding snare track that I want to pop, but with so many instruments going on, it’s hard to get the levels just right. I’ll use a sidechain compressor to maximize the snappy snare sound.

How to Use Ableton Sidechain Compression in 5 Steps

Step 1: Add Compressor to Track

First, select Live’s Compressor from Audio Effects and drag it into an audio effect rack. I’m putting it on an instrument group that includes the bass track, guitar, synth piano, mandolin, and organ.

How To Use Ableton Sidechain Compression

Step 2: Enable Sidechain

Click on the triangle on the top left of the window, between the yellow circle and where it says “Compressor.” This shows you more compressor settings.

Select Sidechain Compressor From Dropdown

Click on “Sidechain” to enable it.

Turn on the Sidechain Compressor

Step 3: Set Sidechain Routing and Parameters

Under “Audio From,” select a track to use for the sidechain input. I’m selecting the snare as the sidechain trigger so that the input signals will compound with signals from all the instruments.

Select Input for Sidechain Compressor

Set Sidechain Routing and Parameters

Now that I’ve activated the Sidechain, I set the Threshold around the middle so that it catches the snare hits and noticeably diminishes in volume. I set the attack at a pretty quick 0.3 ms, so it triggers shortly after the snare input signals reach the Threshold. The 8.81 ms release makes for a small window of time that the instrument signals are being reduced.

Adjust Sidechain Threshold, Attack, Ratio, Release

The snare now sounds louder and clearer without clipping or crowding the mix. It’s almost perfectly snappy, but it’s a little too boomy-I’d rather let the crispness of the snare bleed through.

EQ filter is a sidechain filter that allows you to equalize the sidechain signal.

Step 4: Enable and set up EQ

Sidechain - Enable and set up EQ

To accentuate the snare crack, I want to direct focus towards the trebly space on the tail end of each hit. I bump the attack up to 0.5 ms, turn on the EQ, and select 1.34 kHz to boost.

That way, the high timbre of the snare triggers the compression of all instruments. I listen to it now, and the snare perfectly shines through in all its crisp, snappy glory.

Step 5: Have fun and experiment

I know whenever I discover a new plugin, it takes me a while of messing around with it and listening to it in the wild to understand how it works.

I recommend lowering the Threshold and upping the Ratio at first so that the track compresses down quite a bit. It will make the signal cut out or wobble depending on the Attack and Release times.

Then you can see how different EQ filters alter the triggering and how parameters shape the compression.

I recommend taking the time to get acquainted with Ableton Live‘s native sidechain compression. Ableton does a great job of providing visual representations to show what exactly plugins do to manipulate audio signals. Once you’re familiar with how sidechain compression works and have a few favorite setups, I recommend using the sidechain option on Live’s multiband compressor.

Ableton Live Multiband compressor

Third-Party Compressors

If you don’t want to go through the motions dialing in Ableton‘s compressor, there are plenty of third-party sidechain compression plugins out there as well. Some of the best out there today include:

Audio Damage RoughRider 3 (FREE)

Audio Damage RoughRider 3 - Compressor

Klanghelm MJUC

Klanghelm MJUC Compressor

Native Instruments Solid Bus Comp

Native Instruments Solid Bus Comp

FAQ

What does Sidechain Compression do?

It compresses the volume of a track in response to the signal of another track. If a vocal track is side-chained to a bass drum, the vocal compression will be triggered each time the vocal and drum signals are added together and hit the threshold.

When should I use Sidechain Compression?

Use it anytime you want something to “shine through” something else. If you’re making a sweaty EDM song and want the kick drum to dominate everything else, then put everything else through a sidechain compressor; if you want vocals to cut through a guitar without bumping up the volume, sidechain the vocals to the guitar channel.

Is Sidechain Compression necessary?

It’s not necessary, but for most mixes, sidechaining can be applied in some way that will, at the very least, save you some time and enhance the listening experience. That being said, most Ableton Live pros use sidechain compression in one form or another, even if it’s to make a drum rack pop a tiny bit.

Should I Sidechain vocals?

Yes. Conventionally, you’ll want to make sure vocals stand out and float above instruments. By sidechaining from vocal tracks to instruments, you can soften the instruments with the singing. This is quicker than automating down instrument track volumes and makes a natural-sounding focal point out of the vocals. You can also sidechain vocals to a drum rack to make the hits shine through the vocals.

Should you EQ or Compress first?

Every decision you make while mixing is a creative one… it really depends on the situation and how you want to change the sound. Suppose you EQ before the compressor might ruin that perfect color you have. Then you adjust the EQ, but you have to change the compressed signal again in a tedious back-and-forth.

I prefer both: I usually cut the sub-bass frequencies and any other tones I don’t like and then emphasize frequencies I like after compression. This is called parallel compression and is a great way to make a guitar sparkle through a voice.

Another powerful way to address compression and EQ simultaneously is using Ableton Live‘s Multiband Dynamics plugin to compress 3 EQ bands at a time. You can also Sidechain compressed signals using the same process as the regular Compressor track.

When should I use a Sidechain?

Anytime you’re trying to establish a hierarchy of tracks, want to make something pop or shine through, or when you need something to respond in volume to something else. For electronic dance music, sidechain compressing synths and routing to a bass drum track is almost always advisable to make that kick track drive the song.

Excessive use of this creates the classic “pumping effect” popular in European House music.

If you set the synth tracks to become completely quiet when the bass drum hits, you get the “gate effect.”

Fun Ideas for Sidechain Compression

I may be a sidechain compression super-nerd, but if you’re not excited about the plugin, you should be. I prefer Ableton Live‘s native sidechain plugin because it’s one of the most powerful and easy-to-understand out there.

Here are some things I like to do when Sidechain Compressing.

Fun Ideas for Sidechain Compression

Ringing Singing

I’m a big fan of vintage 60s-70s vocals, particularly the spring reverb sound. While Ableton Live has some decent presets that emulate spring reverb technology, I like to make the reverb respond to the singer’s volume to mimic the ‘ringing’ you hear in older recordings.

To do this, make an effect send track with reverb emphasized around 4-6kh, a quick high-timbre delay with moderate feedback, and then use the signal in a Sidechain for the vocals.

You can then set the threshold so that when the singer hits louder notes, the vocals are compressed, accentuating the reverb and springy delay.

If you make the time short, you can make it sound like an analog clipping event (for any Lofi friends reading.)

You can even take it a step further by putting a sine wave auto filter on the track before compression, forcing it to clip, and creating a manual type of distortion.

Finishing Touches

Before sending your track off to be mastered, it’s a good idea to do some slight final Sidechaining so you can create a clear mix with popping focal points and backgrounds that stand back.

This is a great time to make groups like ‘everything but vocals’ or ‘everything but the kick drum.’

I like to make anti-groups for melodic instruments like guitars that solo. Usually, I automate Sidechains so that they’re only in effect during solos or flourishes.

For example, with electric guitar tracks, I’ll have the compressor activated during solos and sometimes during nasty licks that don’t interfere with other melodic tracks like singing.

Mixing and Mastering

Pulsating, Waving, and Pumping

By Sidechaining from rhythmic tracks and adjusting time parameters, you can create dynamic rhythms in tonal tracks.

Want it to sound like gentle ocean waves? Try longer attack and release times. Want to make a hot House beat? Sidechain the kick drum and make narrow windows for the bass drum to thrust through the mix.

Dark Shadow

Another vocal effect I like is adding a vocoder tuned to an octave below the vocal track. I turn it down in the mix so that I feel it rather than hear it.

Sometimes that can crowd the mix, but adding air to the vocals by sidechaining it to other tracks and EQing low frequencies. Then I turn down the vocoder even more, creating a mysterious dark shadow under the vocals.

This is a great way to inject a subtle spookiness into a voice.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, you can achieve lots of different effects with sidechain compression besides its ‘regular’ use.

In the example above, I’ve used the sidechain to create more space for the snare.  Another common method is to use sidechaining on the kick drum and sub-bass, as they both sit in the same frequency range, so it is beneficial to duck the sub and allow the kick to punch through.

The native Ableton Live compressor is an excellent tool, and I encourage you to play around with it and learn how to use it to its full potential.

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