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Sidechain Compression in Ableton Live

Sidechaining is an essential item in any producer’s toolbox.

And while it might seem complex at first, with a little practice, it will soon become simple and fun to use.

To get started sidechaining in Ableton Live, we are given a wide selection of several excellent stock plugins to experiment with.

I’m currently using Live 9.5, but these features should by and large also be present in earlier versions of Live (and are applicable, with a bit of work, to other DAWs!).

Sidechaining is when we choose to control an effect on one track based on the audio in another track.

When you activate sidechaining, you’ll have the option to select a track to sidechain from. The track you choose will govern the effect applied, depending on the plugin doing the sidechaining.

A common scenario involves compressing a bass track sidechained to the drums. When this happens, the bassline’s volume is lowered temporarily.

Sidechain compression in Ableton Live is easy, so we’ll try that first. If you are completely inexperienced in compression, here is an excellent article on the topic.

Ducking an Instrument Out of the Way of Drums

As previously mentioned, one of the most fundamental techniques involves ducking an instrument, most commonly the bassline, out of the way of the drum transients and hits by using a compressor sidechained to the drum track.

The volume of the bassline “ducks” under the volume of the drum track. This is highly effective as certain key sounds for both bass instruments (synthesized or otherwise) and the core of our drumline are close together in the frequency spectrum.

A notable use of this appeared in pop music on Daft Punk’s Homework album. In particular, this song:

(Around The World)

In honour of that, let’s use the “French House Chillout” samples from MusicRadar to sidechain some French House. You can get them here. Here’s our initial loop:

FHChainNoComp

[sc_embed_player fileurl=”https://bassgorilla.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/FHChainNoComp.mp3″]

Sounds groovy already. And it does have quite a bit of that movin’ and groovin’ French House vibe.

Yet we’re going to take the groove even higher by adding some Sidechain compression. Drag and drop a compressor audio effect into our bassline track.

Then, by clicking the small arrow just to the right of the power button, we can open the sidechaining panel. Enable the sidechain by clicking the “sidechain” button and then in the “Audio From” window, select our drums track and “Pre-FX”.

In this example, I’ve left most of the settings vanilla, except I’ve dropped the threshold to really bite into our audio, and done the same for the ratio.

The higher values demonstrate the effect more drastically, and this heavily compressed effect is the most common anyways.

I also activated the waveform view by clicking the icon just to the left of “Knee” in that little graphical screen. Here’s how that looks:

Note in the following sample how much clearer the drums come through, and how much snappier they sound, especially the snare.

The graph in the previous screenshot tracks the compression, with the dark white shadow showing the compression and the yellow line showing the level of the bassline. You should definitely be able to hear the bassline “pumping.”

FHChainCompOn

[sc_embed_player fileurl=”https://bassgorilla.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/FHChainCompOn.mp3″]

We can still improve this, however. In the previous example, our compression appears fairly “jagged”. For the true pumping vibe, we want a smoother compression curve and graph.

Let’s do this by choosing what frequencies the sidechain will “listen” to, to decide when to apply compression.

This is where the EQ and cue button come in handy! The EQ section filters the input signal before it actually gets to the compressor, meaning we can apply a Low Pass Filter, cutting our high frequencies, so that we only compress based on where our bassline mostly dwells (as shown below).

To activate the EQ, click the EQ button and then choose the LPF icon (lower left corner).

Next, route the audio of the input to your monitors by clicking the headphone icon.

Now, we’re good to go. Start dragging down the Frequency knob until what you hear becomes the snare’s “punchier” sound and the kick drum.

This should be no higher than 250Hz, as most snare transients fall near 200Hz and kick transients near 100-150Hz.

Next, decide if you want to duck based on just the kick or the snare and kick together. Drag the filter until the majority of the sound is made up of just what you want to hear come through.

Next, deselect the headphone icon to hear what we’ve done. Ideally, you’ll notice that the bassline stays steadier in volume, and the graph especially becomes much smoother.

I’ve changed a few settings here, most importantly shortening the attack and release.

I unfortunately can’t explain Knee settings in detail here, but for now just go ahead and leave it at zero for this application.

For drastic sidechaining, we need a short attack and release time so that the compressor is able to both fully compress the audio down and to release it back to its original level fully. Otherwise we end up with a sound that is too muffled when the release is too high, or a sound that barely ducks at all if the attack is too high.

Setting it low helps give that pumping vibe, and tuning the release to hit better with the song tempo is a fun experiment to try as well (this will require some practice, however).

So with our final compressor values tweaked, here is the loop:

FHChainCompOnTuned

[sc_embed_player fileurl=”https://bassgorilla.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/FHChainCompOnTuned.mp3″]

You might notice that in the previous example, the bass now appears to actually return almost to its full volume.

It moves between ducking and releasing much faster, too. Overall, this is an effect that is not apparent to your average listener, but akin to good mastering it adds a lot of character and flavour to a track.

Lastly, I added a bit of Chorus, some light EQ in the low-mid’s (since we’re ducking out of this area, we can boost a touch here) and applied some sine saturation since this subtly warms the signal without distorting it too heavily.

With all of that, we have our final vibin’ French House loop:

FHChainCompOnTunedFX

[sc_embed_player fileurl=”https://bassgorilla.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/FHChainCompOnTunedFX.mp3″]

Alternative Applications:

Filter Delay vocals

Sidechain Compression in Ableton Live is neat enough just on its own, but we can get really inventive by combining what we’ve already done with effects placed before a compressor in an audio chain.

This allows us to add effects that would usually completely wash out our sound at high levels, without actually washing out the sound.

The Filter Delay plugin is great at responding to compression.

The Filter Delay has the best of both the Ping Pong and Simple Delay modules, but adds even more features. We have three delay “lanes”: Left, Right, and L+R. Each lane has its own bandpass filter, delay time, delay feedback, and volume adjustment.

We won’t go in depth about this now, but it’s something worth playing with!

Let’s start by grabbing some vocal samples. I’ve used the “Female Vocal” samples from MusicRadar, which are free and can be found here.

I chose only two loops (from the House/Disco folder) that I thought would work well, and placed them down. Here’s our completely dry vocal sample:

VocalsDry

[sc_embed_player fileurl=”https://bassgorilla.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/VocalsDry.mp3″]

Pleasant already, and certainly something we can build on. We’re now going to grab a Filter Delay plugin and drop it onto our audio track.

Once we have that, we’ll click on the plugin and hit Ctrl-G (or Command-G on Mac) to group it up. At this point, we should have this setup:

Now, let’s setup a dry chain using this group view. What we’re doing here is splitting our audio stream like a fork in a river: One stream will be allowed to pass through unaffected, while the other one is going to pass through the effect we have and the sidechain compression that we’ll add shortly.

To open the chain view, click the highlighted button in the following picture. Then, right click in the blank space available and choose “Create Chain”. To make things easy, let’s label one “Dry” and one “Delay”.

Here’s our setup now:

Let’s hear how this sounds, just as it is:

VocalsDelay

[sc_embed_player fileurl=”https://bassgorilla.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/VocalsDelay.mp3″]

Oh boy. That’s a bit washed out. So, let’s fix it. First, we’re going to disable the L+R channels and adjust our volumes.

Click the L+R icon to turn it off, and drop its volume to –inf dB. Drop the dry volume to –inf dB as well, since we already have a separate dry chain.

We want it to echo a bit more though, and we’ll space the delay a bit more so that something remains when we release our eventual sidechain.

To achieve this, I set the feedback to 50%, the delay on the left channel to 5, and the right channel delay to 6. Lastly, let’s adjust our chain volumes a bit, to account for the delay still being able to wash out the signal and for the sake of headroom.

This is what we end up with:

VocalsDelayTweaksNoComp

[sc_embed_player fileurl=”https://bassgorilla.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/VocalsDelayTweaksNoComp.mp3″]

This already sounds much better, but the higher feedback is still going to wash things out.

Time to sidechain! At this point, I’ll assume you know how to add the compressor in and set it up initially. When it’s time to select what to sidechain to, select the audio track the vocals are on as the first setting.

Then, check the next list and find “Audio Effect Rack | Dry | Pre-FX”. This is what we’re going to sidechain to. EQ shouldn’t be needed here, so play with the attack and release settings to get the best results.

In general, the attack should be fairly short and a release of 200ms or greater leads to a lovely swelling effect.

The ratio is relatively high and the threshold is low to make sure we are really ducking the audio, and we use RMS here as this does better with subtly varying audio. My final settings looked like this:

Yours can (and most likely will) vary much more, as the vocal samples themselves can be so distinct, and you can use the type of effect here in many different fashions and magnitudes. Here’s what my final vocal one-shot sounds like:

VocalsFinal

[sc_embed_player fileurl=”https://bassgorilla.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/VocalsFinal.mp3″]

To tie this up, I’m going to briefly outline a few other ideas that you can use sidechaining on.

Audio mad science and experimentation is excellent for learning.

Consider what I’ve done here like a college lecture: I’ve outlined a few potential applications, and you’ve been following along and maybe even taken notes.

Now, it is the time for “homework”! In this case, the homework isn’t to make you learn how to make music and design sounds exactly, but to help you begin to fill your production toolbox and give you a bit of a start for experimentation. So, here are the ideas:

 

  • You can sidechain to the Auto-Filter module. What can we do here? What happens with the different types of filters? Try the different models, magnitudes, and play around with resonance sweeps.
  • The gate plugin works much like a compressor, but to a much steeper degree. You can also sidechain the gate plugin to other tracks. A technique that is extremely common in Synthwave music is to make a “gated reverb” on your snare sound. How could you accomplish this? What could you sidechain to govern the reverb?
  • Give the Glue Compressor a quick go. This compressor simulates old analog “bus-type” compressors. It’s called a glue compressor because it was commonly used to “glue” together disparate elements in a mix. How does this compressor react to sidechaining? What are its weaknesses?

I hope you enjoyed this article on Sidechain Compression in Ableton Live- and where else we went – and that you find it helpful. I also encourage you to use the ideas I’ve outlined to push your own learning.

There are other tutorials available, but the more you experiment independently, the more you can learn!