Most of you dance music producers are familiar with side chaining at this point, and have found the wonders that it can do when applied to a bass track. But side chaining is, more times than not, a tool rather than an effect. Recently, I have been judging dance producers knowledge of music around the concept of side chaining, and how much they use it. Side chaining is an extremely useful tool for making sure that your kick punches as strongly as possible. Sometimes, after you make a track, and take it into the club...it just doesnt have the punch it had at home. This can be due to many things, but one of the things can be the sounds you happen to have overlapping your kick. By using side-chain compression, you can make sure your kick stands out on its own, and punches its way through the other sounds in the mix. Today, I am going to show some examples of where to use this, specifically with 1/16 note high hats, but it is also important for other fast percussion elements.
When I say "fast percussion", I mean high hats, hand drums, snare rolls, claves, cow bells...ANYTHING rhythmic and fast that happens to have a transient on the kick.
As I mentioned before, when I listen to tracks, I specifically listen to if an artist used these techniques when making their track. When side chaining percussion, its almost as if you "MUST" do it, rather than an artistic choice. Its up there with EQing, and mastering...things you must do to get maximum clarity and pump. If an artist just left his 1/16 note HHs without any compression or volume change on the kick transients, something in my head says "ahhhh, he doesnt know that concept". I actually went back, after learning these techniques, and fixed all my old tracks up before sending them to get mastered. It made a world of difference.
A few things I want to note to beginners. I know, when you start making music, you will first hear the word SIDE-CHAIN. And I know its normal to then think, "oh shit, I have to side-chain my music if I want it to sound good". This is so far from the truth you wouldnt believe it. Side-chaining is no more than another creative tool that should be applied when it is needed. Its basic purpose is to allow room for another sound to shine through or hide in the background...however, that being said, it has become a creative weapon in the arsenal of producers due to its feature exploitation. Amazing little bugger. But, before using a side-chain compressor, think to yourself "Does this need side chained". "Are 2 elements conflicting?" "Should one sound be lowered when the other one is playing?" If nothing is conflicting, then more times than not, side-chaining wont be of much use. (in a tool sense, I do not mean in an artistic sense like side chaining pads or whatnot). So make sure you understand what side-chaining actually does, before you go applying it randomly. A few hours with a few books about compressors, and ableton tutorials, and you should be up to speed a little bit....so do yourself a favor, and do it before applying these ideas.
So lets start with what we are actually doing with the side chain compressor. Its a pretty simple concept. Pretty much, you are letting the kick activate the compressor...so every time the kick hits, the volume of whatever you have the compressor on, goes down when the kick hits. Basically, ALL you are doing is changing the volume (GAIN REDUCTION). The reason we do this, is because, have you ever looked at a kick by iteself on a spectrum. It is a beautiful display of rolling frequencies. Kicks are elegant artistic pieces....amazing displays of frequency carving. They are so beautiful, and so powerful...that we want them to HOG the show, when its their turn to shine. They get to shine "4 to the floor"...and we want to make sure they receive their full, unaltered glory. When leaving a sound like a HH sitting on top of it, it will...more times than not, just weaken your kick in one way or another. We need to try to keep our fast, rhythmic elements noticed, but not causing problems. Also, due to our brains "concept of comparison", we perceive the rhythmic parts in a different way as they cut in and out really fast...especially when the kick stands out in between them giving them quick changing dynamics....ALL in a rhythmic fashion.
So before I go any further, I want to talk about how to make sure your fast percussion is clean WITHOUT using side chaining. This is most easily done when working with midi notes, but can also be done in the clip editor, in the volume envelopes of an audio clip. So lets look at a 1/16 note HH track...just tapped in and quantized for now.
These are just some midi notes launching a quick HH sound. Now, the easiest way to act as your own compressor in a sense, is just to change the velocity of the midi notes where the kicks hit. This is KIND OF what the compressor does...but, you just change the volume of it in its original form. Bring the volume down on the HHs where the kick transients are like this -
Now something you should keep in mind when using the midi approach, is that, you may need to alter the 2nd midi note (one after the kick attack), if your kick has a long tail. If your kick is longer than 1/16 of a bar, you may still be ruining a part of your kick by bringing in the percussion so quickly. You also can use the volume envelope in the midi editor to control it instead of your velocity bars -
If I were doing it with a sample, I would use the envelope editor in the clip editor and draw down the volume where the kick hits. This is a shaker sample loop -
Its nice this way because you can bring the volumes up in different spots to change the whole sound of the loop.
Now, by doing these methods, you will run into less problems in general with your kick and fast percussion. But another way, and a fun, sometimes almost unpredictable way, is to use side chain compression. You can either try using a fast percussion with the volume envelopes changed and fixed, or, just try using a regular loop...where there are definitely conflicting sounds between the kick and same transient hits of the fast percussion.
Of course, you will need a kick track, and a compressor on your fast percussion track.
Now activate the side chain within the compressor (push the little arrow first to open up side chain), and select your kick as the input -
Now, for those of you who dont understand your compressors, I am not going to go into all of it. Study your compressors, they are your friend. But I do want to add a few notes about options at this point.
***Most of you ABLETON USERS who are pretty familiar with your compressor, may have noticed, and heard other people noticing, that FF1 mode "clips" less that FF2 mode. Ive noticed it, and many others on the ableton message boards have said it. BUT...in this situation, where side chaining your fast percussion...it is TOTALLY WORTH IT to try both modes. When I do my HH side chaining, some of the results I get out of FF2 mode are great!!!! Especially when changing between PEAK & RMS mode. Some of the results you get from the high hats, can sometimes become monsters of their own...sounding NOTHING like the original sample. So, I do recommend playing around with FF2 mode, as well as FF1 mode when trying this type of side chaining.***
So anyway, back to where we were. I am going to choose FF2 mode for now, since I like it here, and leave the compressor on PEAK now so the attack stage sounds nice...put my ratio up just a smidge so it brings the volume down a little bit more, drop my threshold, and see what I get. I also need to play around with my attack and release parameters. Again, these parts can really change up the whole sound of the fast percussion -
I actually ended up liking RMS mode better here after putting it in. But like I said, changing between ALL THE PARAMETERS here really can give you some interesting outcomes....more so than any other side chain application I have tried....I am always just dumbfounded at the amazing HH sounds I get out of this...even using parameters that a sound engineer would look at you and be like "NO WAY MAN"...it really gets into an artistic realm here just by chaining the modes of the compressor, and can make totally unpredictable (or predictable) rhythms.
Well anyway, hope that helped. I think this is a really important part in getting your fast percussion to sit nicely without causing problems in your mix. You can even try side chaining it with your snares, or other things that would make sense here. But, dont forget, you ultimately make the decision of what you want to stand out....and that doesnt mean going to your volume fader and moving it up.