Everything You Need to Know to Sidechain in Ableton
“The more you create, the more powerful you become. The more you consume, the more powerful others become.”
— James Clear
Want to learn how to sidechain in Ableton? This is your one-stop shop for learning everything you need to know about sidechain compression in Ableton Live.
You’re about to learn what sidechain compression is, why it’s important, who sidechaining is for, and (of course) how to set up sidechain in Ableton.
Overview of the Ableton Compressor
Meet the Ableton Compressor. It is an audio effect generally used to even out the volume of audio signals or to add punch and sustain to sounds. It works by reducing the volume of the loudest parts of your audio while leaving the quieter parts unaffected, smoothing out the overall level and making it easier to mix.
The Ableton Compressor has a number of adjustable parameters that allow you to manipulate how it works on your audio. These include
- Threshold: The level at which the compressor begins to take effect. Only signals that exceed the threshold will be affected by the compressor.
- Ratio: The amount of gain reduction applied to signals that exceed the threshold. For example, a ratio of 2:1 means that for every 2 dB the signal exceeds the threshold, the compressor will reduce the gain by 1 dB.
- Attack: The time it takes for the compressor to start reducing gain after the signal exceeds the threshold.
- Release: The time it takes for the compressor to stop reducing gain after the signal falls below the threshold.
- Makeup Gain: An additional gain applied to the signal after it has been processed by the compressor. This can be used to compensate for the gain reduction applied by the compressor, allowing you to maintain a consistent overall level.
In addition to these parameters, the Ableton Compressor also includes features that can be used to shape the character and behavior of the effect, like sidechaining. Sidechaining allows you to use the signal from another track to control the compressor.
In a nutshell, sidechain compression is used to create a pumping or ducking effect on a sound.
For example, listen to the song “Ghosts ‘n’ Stuff” by Deadmau5. Rob Swire’s vocals pump every time the kick hits. That’s sidechain compression!
First, Why Sidechain in the First Place?
Sidechain compression is often used to create a rhythmic effect. By using a separate signal to control the gain of the main signal, producers can create a pumping or ducking effect that follows the track’s rhythm. This can be used to add energy and excitement to a track, as well as to create a more dynamic sound.
Sidechain can also be used to create a more focused mix. Sidechain allows you to emphasize certain frequencies and de-emphasizing others. This can be used to create a more balanced mix, as well as to create a more distinct sound.
How to Set Up Sidechaining
Setting up sidechain in Ableton Live requires two tracks. Two audio tracks or one audio and one MIDI track. The first track will be the source track, and the second track will be the target track. The source track will be the track that will be used to control the volume of the target track.
Create your audio track(s) with the mac (or PC) keyboard shortcut ⌘+t (Ctrl+t). To create a track, use the keyboard shortcut ⌘+Shift+t (Ctrl+Shift+t).
Next, you will need to insert a compressor on the target track (the track you want the pumping effect on). In the compressor settings, you will need to select the sidechain option. This will allow the compressor to be triggered by the source track.
Once the compressor is set up, you will need to route the source track to the sidechain input of the compressor. This can be done by selecting the source track in the sidechain input dropdown menu.
Finally, adjust the compressor settings to achieve the desired effect. The attack and release settings will determine how quickly the compressor responds to the source track. The threshold setting will determine how much of the source track will be used to control the volume of the target track.
We recommend the following settings (in the image below) as a starting point for most EDM kicks:
Once you have adjusted the compressor settings, you can listen to the effect of the sidechain compression. Use this technique for subtle rhythmic effects or dramatic pumping/ducking. Experiment with different settings to find the sound that works best for your track.
PRO TIP: Save your favorite sidechain compressor settings as a preset!
Multiband sidechain in Ableton is a more advanced technique of sidechaining. It takes the concept we just discussed but splits the source and target audio signals into multiple frequency bands before applying the sidechain effect.
The compressor of each band can be tweaked individually depending on the target and source audio.
The benefits of a multiband sidechain in Ableton allow you to have a more ‘transparent’ effect of the sidechain. That pumping/ducking effect isn’t always desired in all styles of music. But with a multiband sidechain, you can give more clarity and space to certain elements of your mix.
Getting the EQ crossover and sidechain settings right takes a good ear and experience. We encourage you to try it, even if you’re a beginner. But we don’t recommend using it on published music until you’re comfortable with what you’re doing.
How to Set Up Multiband Sidechain in Ableton
Take the sidechain compressor and add it to an audio effect rack. You can quickly do this by selecting the compressor and pressing ⌘+G (Ctrl+G). Or right-click on the compressor and clicking “Group.”
Next, click on the “chain list” button (shown below). Then duplicate the chain by selecting it and pressing ⌘+D (Ctrl+D) until there are three total chains.
Styles of Sidechaining
Sidechaining for Vocals
Most of the time, the term “sidechain” is associated with percussion. But it can be used with other sounds as well. Even vocals.
When processing vocals, you typically put reverb on it via a bus or send channel. Sometimes, you want to create a larger sense of space by turning up the reverb signal. However, it starts to get muddy or washes out the main vocal.
But if you put the sidechain compressor on the reverb signal and route the dry vocal signal to it, the compressor will push down the reverb, making more space for the vocal.
BONUS: Top VSTs for Sidechaining
Shaperbox is one of the best plugins for sidechaining. But it can do so much more. It has effects for panning, volume modulation, noise, filtering, and more.
Here are some key features:
- Nine Shaper effects
- Easier waveform editing
- Locks to the beat
- Follows any rhythm
- Triggers from any track
- External sidechain view
- Multiband power
- Enhanced browser
- Oscilloscope Tool
- Drum & cymbal noises
You can buy the sidechain module (AKA VolumeShaper) separately for $29, but if you can afford it, get the whole Shaperbox bundle ($300). Tons of crazy effects will upgrade your sound design too.
Kickstart 2 is also another powerful plugin. It’s simple and lightweight (low CPU usage) and comes with a waveform scope so you can see your kick/bass relationship.
The new upgrade comes with the ability to trigger the effect with an audio or MIDI signal.
Here are some key features:
- Instant setup
- 16 hand-crafted curves
- Big Mix knob
- Fits any kick
- Follows any rhythm
- Multiband sidechain
- Visual kick view
With this plugin being $16, it’s a no-brainer to grab for yourself.
Here are some key features:
- Customizable point+tension-curve editor
- Up to 4 graphs simultaneously (Cutoff/Reso/Pan)
- Graph preset shapes from a drop-down menu, able to save your own
- Can optionally send MIDI CC out to control other softsynths, effects, or external hardware
- BPM (with optional swing) or Hz LFO rate control
- Sample-accurate sync
- Dozens of presets included
Grab this plugin for $50.
Congrats! You’ve just learned one of the most pivotal skills in your music production career. Sidechain in Ableton is a simple tool but makes a big impact (pun intended).
Next, create your first sidechain compressor preset based on the steps outlined here. Save it to your favorites folder and experiment with the settings (attack/release/ratio/etc.). Keep making presets and call upon them when you’re making music.
Now you’re ready to make bangers. Happy producing!