Introduction to sidechain compression for music producers

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Get to know the basics of sidechain compression in music producing with our quick intro.

As you get started producing you’ll soon begin to notice that instruments in your mix that have similar frequencies can interfere with each other, losing definition in sound. One tool available to deal with this is sidechain compression. But what exactly is it?

You can use sidechain compression to bring in sharper rhythm and more separation, making room for instruments in a dense mix. Normal compressors work independently, monitoring the level of a channel and controlling the volume of that same channel. Sidechain compression instead makes sure that a particular instrument is compressed relative to other instruments in a mix.

You can hear sidechain compression applied to the heavy bass frequency at 00:45 of Daft Punk’s “One More Time” as a kick drum enters the chat:

EDM producers refer to that pumping sound as “sidechain”. It’s the same basic idea as standard compression, but sidechaining triggers the compressor when a different signal gets louder – so the compressor affects one sound, but triggered by another.

It’s used when one sound in a mix needs to get quieter whilst another gets louder, much like “ducking” when music on the radio automatically reduces as the DJ begins to talk. In “One More Time” the kick drum dictates when the compressor clamps down, and the bass therefore gets compressed when the kick drum hits.

When a kick and bass play similar patterns, sidechaining makes sure the kick creates the attack, and the bass produces the sustain. It can also be used for example to make more room for a vocal in a dense mix.

Your DAW should come with a stock compressor that has a sidechain, or you can download an additional plugin. It works in two ways – the first part triggers the compressor, and the second lowers the volume. It usually gives you the ability to use high frequency and low frequency filters, so you can key in certain frequencies – and make the sidechain more sensitive to those certain frequencies.

Sidechain compression is most popular in dance and electronic music rather than genres with subtler dynamic nuances like classical or folk music.

It’s a complicated subject and we’ve only covered the basics, but sidechaining is a very useful tool to be aware of. Once you’ve gained an understanding of the purpose of sidechain compression, there are plenty of tutorials around to show you the numerous ways it can be applied.

Which DAW is the best for mixing in music production?

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Let’s explore if there’s an ultimate DAW out there perfect for the mixing stage of music production.

After all your audio tracks are recorded and beats laid down you’re ready to start mixing, to use processes like compression and EQ to fiddle with the levels of your individual tracks and blend them together. Time to let your tracks pop.

But does it matter which DAW you use to mix your tracks? It’s absolutely a question of personal preference. It’s true that every DAW has pros and cons regarding the mixing stage of producing, but generally these differences are based on individual opinions. Of course, everyone recommends the DAW they use themselves as the best.

Every DAW comes with mixing capabilities and you can get a decent result from pretty much any of the commonly used workstations. Some producers view particular DAWs as “mixing-orientated” and others as “production DAWs”. Producers may even record in one DAW and jump over to another for mixing and mastering, finding that hopping across resets the mind to a mixing headspace.

If access to professional mixing functions is a dealbreaker, you might prefer to stick with one of the “mixing-orientated” DAWS:

  • Avid Pro Tools – The industry standard and universally considered to be excellent for mixing. Many professional studios have Pro Tools as their main DAW.
  • Cubase – Helpful features like folders for a neater setup, customisable templates for quick workflow and track presets to save mixing settings.
  • Logic Pro X –  A great all-rounder at an accessible price, but with professional-level mixing capabilities.
  • Reaper – Affordable with a fast workflow with its customisation options, which are tricky to get your head around at first.
  • Studio One – Stock plugins emulate consoles and are very useful for in-depth mixing.

Meanwhile, some DAWs are considered to be more “production-based”:

  • Ableton Live – Designed more for on-the-fly creating rather than post-production mixing. But that’s not to say you can’t use it to mix.
  • FL Studio – Makes it fun and easy to quickly get to grips with the interface and create loops and beats instantly. If you’re looking for high-end mixing, FL Studio probably isn’t the best bet.
  • GarageBand – Great for beginners getting started home recording and producing, but not designed to create studio-quality music.

There’s countless more to choose from. Quite often it will be the first DAW you encounter that you end up preferring – you’ll learn it inside out and get to know all the tips and tricks to unlock your own individual workflow. If you’ve got the time, download trial versions of DAWs to see which you find the most intuitive.

As long as you’ve grasped the technical understanding of what makes a good mix, so much comes down to the producer – you. It’s ultimately your ears that are the best tool for mixing. If you find it more comfortable to mix in one DAW over another, and get a result that sounds great, that’s really all that matters.

5 top tips for using EQ in music production (2021)

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Check out these quick tips for using EQ properly when mixing your tracks.

Equalization (EQ) is the most useful tool a music producer has for mixing. It changes the frequency response of each sound in the track, however you want.

Use equalizers to adjust the various frequencies of your instruments, shaping each sound. The main goal when EQing during mixing is usually to get the instruments in your track to blend together smoothly, so there’s enough room for each of them.

Here are five tips to bear in mind as you start playing around with EQ for a successfully mixed track.


Mix with your ears, not your eyes

EQ plugins on most DAWs show you the frequency response of your track, an analyzer feature so that you can see the changes you’re making to your track as you go. But try not to let what you see affect the way you hear the music – ultimately, its the sound that’s vital.


Certain frequencies have special sound characteristics

The human ear can detect frequencies from around 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz (20 kHz) – the frequency spectrum. Certain frequencies within the spectrum generally have specific sound characteristics:


Be radical

It doesn’t really matter what anyone says – do whatever it takes to make your mix sound good, even if that means cuts or boosts as great as 12dB. You want to make sure that all the tracks blend together as well as possible.

And on the opposite end, push boosts, cuts and filters further to use as sound design tools, to sculpt your sounds in exciting colourful ways.


Try using EQ in two stages when mixing

Split the process up – shaping EQ first, with boosts and cuts, then corrective EQ, which is usually reductions to clear space for other sounds. By putting these moves into two separate EQs, you won’t lose any shape created before corrective EQing.

Take for example if you had EQed a keyboard to sound brighter, only to find that your vocal and keyboard now have a similar sound in the mix. Open up a new EQ to make a pocket for the vocal by clearing some space in the keyboard, and you won’t lose the shape of the keyboard that you perfected in your first EQ.


Don’t get wrapped up in EQing when recording

If you’re recording live instruments to your track, don’t worry too much about perfecting the EQ. Use EQ at this initial stage to get rid of any obvious unwanted frequencies picked up by a mic – but generally as long as there’s a good, clean sound, save EQing for your mixing.


RouteNote can get your perfectly EQed track out onto the major streaming services, so you can start earning money from your music… and it won’t cost you a thing. Create a free account here.

How old is too old to start learning a musical instrument?

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Isn’t it too late to learn a musical instrument once you’re an adult? That sounds like a convenient excuse…

Look, nobody said learning a musical instrument was easy. It demands an annoyingly high amount of focus and works your mind and muscles as hard as learning a TikTok dance routine to prove your youth. But does age make a difference when trying to learn a musical instrument?

Don’t be put off starting to learn a musical instrument as an adult, just because you didn’t as a kid and now feel like you’re too old to start. The biggest challenge for adults starting to learn a musical instrument is self-motivation, because learning any new skill from scratch requires great patience.

As an adult, no one’s going to force you to practise. With busy lives, it’s easy to make excuses and quickly forget the guilty feeling of skipping the daily practise sessions because nobody will notice (except the neighbours).

Adults are so used to pressure to do the best they can, whether that be in work or personal lives, that this can hold them back from throwing themselves fully into the task, scared of failing or embarrassed at the thought of being overheard struggling to improve. Yes, it will probably sound horrible to begin with, but everyone has to start somewhere.

There’s the freedom of being able to approach the instrument in a creative way, not restricted by school-like lessons, learning whichever songs and style of music most appeal. The independence of adulthood also offers the freedom to learn whatever instrument takes your fancy, from the banjo to the sousaphone.

(Can’t afford an instrument? Carve yourself one out of a spud.)

There are numerous advantages to learning music after childhood. Adults tend to take a more pragmatic, organised approach to tackling the new challenge – seeing the wider picture, learning the theory, history of the instrument, watching endless YouTube tutorials and performances.

The biggest factor for success is putting in the practise time and working hard at the instrument. A workout for your brain, although it’s true some instruments are considered easier to learn than others. Structure offered by taking music lessons might help – again, being an independent adult means they can go in any direction desired, there’s no right way to learn.

Doesn’t mastering anything new become impossible past puberty as the brain ages? Apparently not. Studies into starting to learn music at an early age “provide little support for a sensitive period for music” and little evidence that “early training has a specific, causal effect on later performance and achievement.”

Besides, learning music is good for your brain. Monitoring a group of over-60 year-olds taking up music lessons saw gains in memory planning ability, and other cognitive functions, compared with those who had not received lessons.

So the answer is, it’s never too late to start learning to play a musical instrument. You’re only as old as you feel.

Why is panning important in music production?

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Learn how to get the most out of the sounds in your mix with our brief introduction to stereo panning when producing.

At a gig (remember those?), if you really concentrate you can hear the direction each instrument is coming from on the stage. Some seem to come from either side and some are dead centre, some are at the front and others at the back. That mixture is referred to as the stereo field.

When mixing your track, panning refers to where in the stereo field each instrument sits. It determines how far to the left or right each sound can be heard.

When your track is out in the world being played through someone else’s speakers, you want to create an imaginary stage for the listener, so bear that in mind as you’re mixing. Let’s explore why using stereo panning is important in music production.


Create a nice separation of sounds

Panning allows you to make room for each sound in the mix, especially instruments with similar frequency ranges, so that they stand out as desired. Avoid panning instruments to the extreme far left and right, which can create a muddy sound rather than making it “wide”.


It’s all about balance

Stereo panning puts each instrument in its proper place to sound as natural as possible. Panning is all about finding balance between tracks. For each element panned one way, another of a similar frequency should be panned the other.


Left or right?

The centre is often the busiest place in the stereo field. Low frequency sounds like the kick and bass are generally kept in the centre for grounding, snare central to help aid the rhythm, and lead vocals too to keep them the focus.


Let your sounds pop

There’s no absolute right or wrong way to pan instruments – often it comes down to the type of music you’re producing and personal preference. Just make sure your panning choices make sense to the overall effect of the music.


Play around with panning for cool effects

Mess around with the panning to create cool illusions as the sound moves around. You can change where instruments are panned as the track goes on. Autopanning effects sweep the sound from one side to the other over time.


You can even draw a “stage” of your sounds on paper to get a visual representation of where you want everything to sit. Panning is an expressive tool to make your mix sound wider, and make sure all your sounds get the chance to shine just as awesomely as you imagine them to in your head as you produce.


Once you’ve got your track mixed and mastered exactly how you like, RouteNote can help you get it out into the world. Go ahead and create a RouteNote account for free and start selling your music.

An introduction to VST – getting started with plugins (2021)

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Feeling lost in the music producing world of VST and plugins? Check out our guide for beginners.

There are no stupid questions when you’re just starting out producing. It doesn’t matter whether you’re starting from scratch or you play a musical instrument already and you’re looking to get into electronic music and start making your own beats.

It can be hard to know where to begin. With this in mind, let’s delve into the world of VST plugins.

VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology

Introduced by Steinberg Media Technologies, maker of the Cubase DAW software, in 1996, VST was invented as a way of adding software-equivalents of mixing consoles and effects units to come together as a ‘virtual studio’.

It’s a piece of third party software to add your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) that processes the sound. Effects and instruments can be ‘plugged in’ to the virtual studio to add real-time audio effects to audio tracks recorded on the DAW.

VST is the most well-known type of plugin – AUs (Apple’s versions of VST) and RTAs are other examples, but quite often VST is used conversationally to mean plugin like people say ‘Hoover’ to mean vacuum cleaner or ‘Scotch Tape’ for all adhesive tape.

Plugins are extra sounds, samples and effects that you can ‘plug in’ to your computer-based DAW to increase its capabilities. You can buy packs and individual plugins, or get them for free.

What are VST instruments?

VSTi refers to VST instruments. These plugins generate sound, bringing extra sounds into your DAW as synths or samplers. Basically, VST instruments produce accurate representations of real-life instruments. You can have a whole orchestra within your computer, find that perfect ‘80s synthesiser sound, or just a really nice grand piano sound.

When you play your MIDI keyboard, it puts out a MIDI code made up of which note you played, when it was played, how long it was played, and how hard (loud) you played it. In your DAW, the MIDI note sounds as whichever VSTI you’ve ‘plugged in’.

What are VST effects?

A bit like individual guitar effects pedals, VST effects are audio effects that act like hardware effects processors in a studio. They process the audio rather than generating it.

You can make your music sound like you’ve recorded it any environment imaginable with effects like reverb and echo, and use plugins like limiters and mixing plugins to control the sound.

VST3s

You might have come across VST3s. They’re just the latest updated version of VSTs. VST3 only applies processing when there is an audio signal present – so when there’s audio passing through, not just present on the track.

Whilst your studio – or bedroom – is limited by the amount of physical space you’ve got, the only limitation you have with software plugins is how well your computer CPU can cope. VST3s offer improved performance and are lighter on your CPU. 

What plugins should I start with?

As with most things in life, the more expensive the VST the better the quality, but there are often free plugins available that sound great. Especially if you’re just getting started producing or playing around with a new idea, free plugins are fantastic. That’s plugins like Vinyl by Izotope, which gives your production a lo-fi effect. Learn how to add plugins to FL Studio here.

VST software integrates seamlessly and helps you get creative with instruments and sounds cheaply and easily – once you get familiar with how it all works, that is.

5 ways to use reference tracks to improve your music producing

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How do reference tracks help when mixing and arranging a new song?

A useful tool for helping to arrange and mix your tracks as you produce is to use reference tracks, songs by other artists in the same genre that can be used alongside yours to compare. There’s a reason popular songs are produced and structured the way they are. It just makes sense.

The aim of reference tracks isn’t to sound exactly like the other song – there’s nothing fun about copying – but to use them as a benchmark to learn from and take inspiration from. Here are a few tips to consider.

Pick more than one track to reference

Use up to five reference tracks to avoid just copying a single track. Perhaps one for arranging, and two for creative inspiration and mixing reference. Choose tracks that are the same genre and style as your track. What elements and instruments stand out to you?

Get thinking about reference tracks before you start

You’ve got a general melody or loop sketched down, now get inspired by listening to other songs first before you dive into producing yours. Consider what you’re ultimately producing your track for. Where do you imagine people hearing it – the club? The radio? Then listen to popular songs in your genre. Note how they’re arranged in different ways – how many drops, different sections and so on.

Use the reference track’s arrangement as a roadmap

Pull the song into your DAW as its own track. You can use this as a framework to follow the arrangement. Put in markers where big moments happen: Verse, chorus, breakdown, drop, build, outro. Place your own writing parts within the bar counts. That’s a framework to get creative within, not copy.

Compare the mixes

Obviously the fully mastered professional mix of the reference track is going to make your fledgling track sound a bit embarrassing, but don’t be put off. It’ll help you to hear elements that stand out, which parts attack and which parts are smooth, noticing heavy bass or use of synth, length of reverb and delay. It’ll help give you inspiration and a fresh perspective.

Use plugins to help

When it comes to mixing, real-time reference plugins make comparing the tracks much simpler:

No one tip makes sense for every producer. You might be keeping things arty, out to produce something entirely experimental. As a useful tool to make sure your arrangement makes sense and your mix is good, and to get some creative inspiration, you’ve got nothing to lose by giving reference tracks a try.

UNDRGRND Sounds ‘The Bundle 2’ contains 60 electronic sample packs for 95% off the individual pack prices

UNDRGRND Sounds ‘The Bundle 2’ is filled with over 13,000 loops, 4500 one-shots, 2400 MIDI files, 600 presets and more, all royalty-free.

The Bundle 2 combines 60 of UNDRGRND’s best-selling sample packs with a total of over 13,000 WAV loops, 4,500 one-shots, 2,400 MIDI files, 600 presets, as well as drum kits and sampler formats for Ableton Drum Rack, NN-XT, EXS24, Battery 4, Maschine 2, Kong and more. The packs are perfect for underground electronic music producers, who make house, techno, minimal, deep house or tech-house. UNDRGRND’s packs are created by sound designers and praised by leading dance music producers.

Where the individual packs total £1,163.85, UNDRGRND are discounting The Bundle 2 by 95% for just £59.95. That’s around $83. To see more and buy the bundle, click here.

As all of the samples are 100% royalty-free, they can be used in your own productions. Once you’ve crafted your masterpiece, send your tracks to streaming services such as Spotify, YouTube Music and Apple Music for free.

Instantly beef up your sounds with Aden’s new BIGGIFIER effect plugin

One knob, five ways to get a big, fat sound using BIGGIFIER from WA Production and producer Jonas Aden.

No more weedy production with Aden’s BIGGIFIER plugin by WA Production. With a simple one-knob concept, easily take your individual instrument parts up a notch.

Using the plugin you can get a fuller, more professional-sounding mix with ease. Make any type of audio fatter, thicker and wider by utilising its five bespoke signal chains with secret settings. It was designed with a focus on easy operation by producer, artist and songwriter Jonas Aden in collaboration with WA Production.

It’s CPU-friendly and comes with factory presets to get you started, and comes in VST, AAX and AU formats for Windows and Mac. Drag and drop BIGGIFIER and choose between presets for guitars, bass, drums, synths, and vocals. 

Aden and WA Production have been working on the plugin for over a year. Whilst releasing records on labels like Hexagon and Spinnin and gaining over 30 million views on his YouTube channel, Aden has also production credits for ASAP Rocky, collaborated with Mike Williams, and remixed for Rita Ora.

The plugin currently has a 40% discount, on sale for $24 until 21st March.

Features

Designed by Jonas Aden:

  • Artist curated bespoke FX chains.
  • 5 distinct bigGIFIER modes with Length control.
  • Easy operation.
  • Adjustable input and output gain.
  • Responsive, CPU friendly.
  • Factory presets.
  • Full PDF Manual & Tutorial video.

System Requirements:

  • Windows 7 or higher (32 / 64-bit).
  • Mac OS X 10.7 or higher (32 / 64-bit).
  • AAX – ProTools 11 or higher.

For more information and to purchase BIGGIFIER click here.

An introduction to loops for music producers

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Understand the basics of using loops in your producing with our beginner’s guide.

The world of looping can seem intimidating when you’re thinking of getting into music producing – the word ‘loops’ is thrown around all the time by producers without much explanation. Utilising loops is a great gateway into making beats. Here’s a bit of background to get you started.

In the olden days, loops were actual strips of magnetic tape cut out from the recording, with their ends taped together to make a circle. This was run through a machine to play seamlessly forever in an endless repeating cycle. Jamaican dub artists took to looping in the 1960s and soon after hip-hop artists used sampling devices to make breakbeats, a continuous sound which could be rapped over.

It’s the same principle when you’re making digital music in a DAW, working with samples and patterns, just without the rolls of tape. Many DAWs like FL Studio and Ableton fully embrace the loop as the very first easy way to make a tune.

Using loops

Loops can be made up of drumbeats, riffs, synthesiser pads and more. They’re usually either audio files or MIDI loops containing MIDI data. You can record, edit and mix either in the same way.

Loop files can include the pitch, time and tempo data which allow the loop to be dropped into any song to fit its key and tempo. That means that even if the loop is in a different tempo or key, it will adjust to match your song.

Start off by looking at the loop libraries on your DAW. Just drag and drop them in to create an arrangement.

Sections of loops can be edited, cut and copied… Fade sounds in and out, mess with the effects, whatever you’d like.

Use drum or bass loops as a foundation while producing to compose quickly over the top, to get ideas sketched down and practise.

Making loops

A loop can be any recording that repeats – a bassline, drumbeat, guitar riff or synth pad.

There’s an option in all DAWs to create your own loops. You can play them in with a virtual or MIDI keyboard.

Repeated patterns are a core element of music – the human ear loves them! Once you understand what loops are and how best to use them you open up a world of fun. Using loops, you can quickly lay down ideas over the top, mess around with sounds and get creative.