Guess what? Sidechaining!

Been a while eh? Here’s another one anyway.

Client: “How was the kick drum level in the mix?”

Kick drum wise, it’s actually a little hard to say. I mean, it’s absolutely fine level-wise from a certain point of view. With what seemed to be very heavy sidechaining holding absolutely everything rigidly in place though, it’s a little different. It’s kind of too loud when it plays, but not when it doesn’t. I appreciate that might sound a bit silly, but bear with me…

FWIW this is something I’ve spent the last few years talking (ok, moaning) about – I’ve come to call it sidechainitis for ease of reference. After a lot of thought/talking to people/writing, it struck me that this kind of sidechaining is practically identical to heavy limiting. If you’re limiting a track hard, the kick plays and pushes everything else out of the way. Kick stops, everything else comes up again. So, for that period where the kick is playing, it’s effectively relatively XdB louder than it was without limiting. The other stuff in the mix goes down by XdB, the kick dominates. This is, to a very large degree, exactly the same as you get with sidechaining.

The differences are 1) you don’t get an absolute peak ceiling as with limiting, and 2) that sidechaining tends to be somewhat cleaner, due in part to the reduction of intermodulation distortion (simply, different signals under the same dynamic processing). So people think it’s all good. It doesn’t distort, right? Great! But from my perspective, it’s not actually all that different to if they’d hammered their track with limiting. Everything is still very much tied together, held in place; the cake is still baked.

I’ve written and thought A TON about this over the years, and this ^ might be the best I’ve ever expressed it.

As far as this track goes, it’s fine. But quite possibly, you’re hearing what I’m talking about (‘it’s loud when it plays but not when it’s not’) and that’s the very reason you’re asking the question. So just be aware that you are walking a very fine line with this practice. You’re painting the mix into a corner. When your kick is too loud in some future track, it is very, very difficult to unpick it when everything is tied together like that.

This is where you tell me you didn’t sidechain anything.

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  1. #1 by Forest Bond on March 15, 2018 - 3:34 pm

    I was working on mixing down a tune in which I had been careful to keep the fundamental bass and kick frequencies far enough apart to not need any side chaining (I think the bass was around 45Hz and the kick around 80Hz). It sounded OK but I still wasn’t totally satisfied with the low end, it didn’t feel as tight as I wanted it. For whatever reason, I had been talking with someone and the topic of sidechaining came up and I thought oh whatever maybe I’ll try it, and kind of like magic the low end suddenly had a lot more clarity to it… It sounded good so I kept it, but I still don’t really feel like I get why that helped. I realize this may not be enough info. 😉 Any thoughts on it though? Did I just get lucky and the sidechaining improved the bass dynamics by chance?

  2. #2 by bobmaccsblog on March 15, 2018 - 9:00 pm

    Perhaps it’s because you ‘had been careful to keep the fundamental bass and kick frequencies far enough apart’ 😉

    I’m not anti-sidechaining; I’m anti-sidechainingbydefault.

    Sound selection first. People choose sounds because they like the sounds individually, whether they naturally fit or not. ‘Don’t worry – we’ll just make them push each other out of the way’. Well, yeah, except if they both have strong content at XHz then XHz is still ‘on’ all the time. That’s not space.

    I quite literally saw this today, yet again.

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