Sidechain Compression Will Save Your (B)ass

Ah, I love myself some sidechain compression on every track! Seriously, it’s my go-to technique to make beats breathe (quite literally…). Wait. What’s that? Not sure what sidechaining is? Let’s rewind…

Sidechain compression is a way to engage a compressor on one track, based on the dynamics information of another track.

Uhm, ok dude. So what’s so awesome about that?

Let’s say your kick drum and your bassline are occupying a similar frequency range. Obviously you can EQ the hell out of them, but often the results are meh. Sometimes you even end up EQing the kick drum so much that you loose the original punch it had. No bueno!

Wouldn’t it be nice to have the bass simply get out of the way whenever the kick comes in? No more mud fights for the same frequency range! A crystal clear low end! Hooray!

Sounds good, but how?

Meet your new best friend – the sidechain compressor! Setting it up is actually quite simple. I’ll be using Ableton Live 10 to show you how to set everything up, but the same principles translate to your software of choice, as every DAW has a compressor that’s capable of sidechaining.

  1. Create one track for your kick drum and one for the bass.
  2. Head over to the Audio Effects and drop an instance of the Compressor into your bass track.
  3. Open the device and set a short attack, medium release, 10:1 ratio & a very low threshold.
  4. Now, in the top left there’s a button which says ‘sidechain’. Click on it & select the kick drum track as the input signal.
  5. Done!
Ableton Sidechain Rack
Ableton Sidechain Rack

What, really? That’s it?

Yeah, if you set up everything correclty, you should hear the bass ducking in volume whenever the kick drum hits. Each track is different, so feel free to tweak the above compressor settings. They are just meant as a starting point. Here’s some things I usually adjust until everything gels…

  • Get more aggressive ducking, great for EDM, by increasing the ratio of the compressor.
  • If you’re kick sample isn’t snappy and you want the bass sound to stay quieter for longer, increase the release time.
  • On the other hand if you don’t want the bass to duck instantly, increase the attack time.

And don’t be fooled by everybody talking about bass & kicks when it comes to sidechaining. Producers like Flying Lotus are known to sidechain their synths, pads, samples, percussion and even vocals.

My favourite sidechain compressor…

There’s an almost mythical compressor in the Roland SP-303 that was used heavily by Madlib, Flying Lotus, Dilla and even bands like Radiohead. I used to have the SP-303, but sold it (and regret it…). The successor, which sits right here on my desk now, is the SP-404 and while it still has the vinyl compression setting of the SP-303, it sounds less gritty to my ears. And don’t even start with the SP-404SX – the compressor is nothing like the 303. Anyway, the SP-303 is long out of production (so is the SP-404 and even the SP-404SX I think). So if you don’t happen to have one lying around, you’ll have to hunt one down on ebay or craigslist. Pricepoint $250+.

Or… If you want to avoid outboard gear and stay in the box aka your computer, check out the Vulf Compressor, which was modelled largely off the SP-303. This plugin is not really cheap at $150 but it’s one of the few plugins I use on every single track, when I’m on the road without outboard gear. I can fully recommend investing in the Vulf.

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