ABLETON BASICS: Sidechaining


Whether you’re a veteran producer just switching to Ableton, prostate or exploring making music for the first time, cost trying to use a new piece of software can feel like an uphill battle. This is especially true when you spend countless hours trying to figure how to do the smallest task. For this reason we have decided to produce a series of “Ableton Basics” blog posts, exploring commonly used production concepts for creating dance music. The goal is to eliminate needless confusion, so you can be one step closer to creating your own musical masterpieces!

To start off this series we have picked a topic that is fairly unique to electronic music… sidechaining.

Don’t know what sidechaining is? You’ve definitely heard it. It’s the classic pumping sound of a synth every time the kick hits, making it feel as if the track is almost breathing or moving with the beat.

Hear some great examples below…

Hear how the other elements seem to dip down in volume every time the kick hits? That is the work of sidechaining done well! But why sidehchain at all you may ask.

The purpose of sidechaining is to make room for an element. In dance music, this often refers to making room for the kick drum to cut through other sounds.

In order to achieve such results, you’ll first need to understand the audio effect that is central in creating the the “sidechaining” sound. That would be the compressor. This audio effect is crucial in any musical production, and can often seem complicated. The truth is that this is a very simple device, and can be used to create a huge array of effects if understood properly.

First off, what the heck does a compressor do?

In the simplest of terms a compressor compresses a sound wave. Pretty obvious right?

Go on Soundcloud, and look at the gray audio wave forms. You see all those little peaks and valleys?

A compressor essentially puts two horizontal bars across the whole wave to curb those peaks. It helps to prevent sudden loud blasts, boost up quiet section, and overall evens out the audio. It achieves this by squashing the audio down, similar to how a crusher squashes a car!


But how do you control these parameters in Ableton? Let’s go through it…

CompressorTransferCurve_optNote: When you first place a compressor in, make sure to hit the triangle in the upper left hand corner to reveal the full set of controls. Also, for this how-to, make sure to press the “sliders” view. 
Below are all the controls you’ll need to understand to quickly begin using a compressor

Threshold: Determines at what point the compressor should engage. The more you lower this the more you will squash the signal.

Attack: How long it takes for the compressor to engage. (Note: most of the brightness/attack of an audio signal is at the very beginning. It is best to always leave a little room for the attack)

Release: How long it takes the compressor to disengage. The shorter this is the less “breathing” or “pumping” sound you’ll get. Experiment here!

Ratio: This perhaps the most complex control on the compressor. You can search online what the correct ratios are for various instruments or styles. Just know that the more you bump up this dial, the more intense the compression will be. I would recommend leaving it between 2:1-3:1 for now.

Dry/Wet: The blend of the original signal and the compressed signal. As a general rule, I would always leave a little bit of the dry signal in, as a compressed sound can sometimes sound a bit dull, and the dry signal can provide the high end peaks that might be cut out. Once again though, explore the blend. There are no rules!

Out: The compressor is squashing your audio signal which means it is losing some of its volume. You can manually control the volume coming out the compressor with this slider. However, Ableton offers a cool feature called “Makeup” which automatically sets the “out” to match the volume of the original signal.

Ok! We’ve covered the basics. Let’s get sidechaining!

In order to do this you’ll need two things. A kick drum, and some other audio. In order to keep things simple, let’s use a kick sample, and a built in synth. So grab your favorite kick sample in simpler, midi drum sound, or drum rack, and then draw a simple four on the floor beat.

four on the floor imagine

Next, grab a pad and draw in some chords, a melody, or anything. To hear this effect truly work though, I would suggest longer notes.

chord smidi

Grab a compressor, and place it on the audio you want effected by the kick. In this example it would our pad, or instrument. Open up the compressor with the triangle, and look, a button called sidechain! Press that button so it turns yellow.


Next, click on the drop down under “audio from”. If you’re using a kick sample in “simpler” you should see it appear. If you’re using a drum rack, select the drum rack, and then another drop down list will appear. From there you can scroll down and select just the kick.

audio from img

The compressor is now active! Start adjusting the threshold. The lower you pull the more extreme the effect will be. You can also play with the attack and release. Lastly, switch over to the wave view on your compressor, and you will see the compression in action on the wave form.

wave view

And that’s it! Keep fiddling around with the compressor until you feel comfortable. Happy sidechaining!

TL;DR: Get a kick and a synth. Put a compressor on the synth. Press sidechain and select your kick. Lower the threshold. Noodle around with other controls.

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