Sidechaining is arguably the most prevalent mixing technique used in modern electronic music. Characterized by its signature “pumping” sound, sidechaining is the perfect tool for track separation in your music
Most modern compression VST's come with a sidechain feature built in, and a lot of the time, it's the only thing you need. But sometimes, if you're going for the perfect sidechain compression, a standalone plug-in can help massively.
While we're on the topic, check out our best compressor plugin guide.
What Is A Sidechain Plugin?
A sidechain VST is different to sidechain compression but creates the same effect. Here's an explanation of what a sidechain plugin is, and does:
A sidechain plugin is an effect that applies volume automation to your audio, based on an envelope. This causes the sound to “pump”. The sidechain effect can be achieved using compression. However, sidechain plugins use volume automation for this effect.
Sidechain plugins are fantastic to use for creative effects, and for mixing purposes. They create the automation in the volume needed to give your mix space or to give you that signature pumping sound.
In this article, we're going to cover a range of different plugins that can be used for sidechain compression, or volume automation.
Make sure to check them all out, because some may be better than others for your music productions.
What Is Sidechain Compression?
Here's an explanation of what sidechain compression is:
Sidechain compression is an effect that’s used to make an audio signal duck out of the way of another, the incoming audio signal (sidechain input). The compression will only act when the incoming audio signal is playing, causing it to give this ducking effect.
For instance, if you wanted a bass to duck out of the way of a kick drum, and provide more space – you would place a compressor on the bass channel, and use the kick drum, as your sidechain input.
Once you had set the threshold and ratio settings, you would have a pumping effect, and it would prevent your kick and bass from clashing.
This is often a great way to get a heavy sub and kick to sit correctly in a mix, without getting rid of the low-energy bass you want to hear.
You could also roll off the low end of one of your instruments with EQ, but this rarely produces a low-energy sub-sound that's good for dance music.
What Should I Sidechain?
Here are some examples of where you can use sidechain compression in a mix:
- Kick & Bass – ducking the bass out of the way of the kick to create low end space
- Pumping effect – for EDM, RnB, Hip Hop & other genres
- Vocals and Instruments – ducking the instrumentation out of the vocals creating more space
- Vocals and Reverb – providing more clarity for the Vocals
- Snare & entire mix – gives a short pocket of space for the Snare to cut through
- Creating space in specific frequency ranges – using multiband/dynamic resonance suppressors to sidechain problem frequencies
- Volume automation – creating the sidechain effect without compression, often using a sidechain VST
Sidechain compression is an extremely useful effect to have for mixing. If you have instruments that are clashing with each other, you can use a sidechain to duck one slightly out of the way, creating space for the other.
You can use sidechain compression for a pumping effect, to duck instruments out of the way, or on dynamic resonance suppression plugins/multiband compressors, to duck certain ranges of the problem the spectrum that is clashing.
What's The Difference Between Sidechain Compression & Sidechain Plugins?
Sidechain plugins use volume automation and envelopes to create a sidechain-like effect. Sidechain compression can be achieved with any compressor that has a sidechain input. It applies compression to the track it's on, and is controlled by an incoming audio signal (sidechain input).
The main differences between the two are that one uses volume automation to control levels, and the other uses compression for gain reduction.
One acts as an automatic fader, and the other squashes your audio signal together.
They both create the same effect, and whether you use a compressor to apply sidechain, or a sidechain VST, doesn't matter. However, sidechain plugins do have some benefits over using compression.
For instance, with sidechain plugins, you can completely control the shape of your volume automation envelope.
This is something that can't be done in a compressor. You can change the attack and release settings, but it's not the same and using envelopes for this is far better in our eyes.
It's extremely useful for creative effects, creating space, and getting the right pumping sound because you have full control over when your audio ducks, and when it comes back to full volume. You can draw curves, and make as many points in your envelope as you like.
The Best Sidechain Compression Plugins 2022
Here is the complete list of the best sidechain VST plugins for music production (updated for 2022):
1. OneKnob Pumper by Waves (Best Sidechain VST)
Waves OneKnob Pumper is a user-friendly dynamics processing plugin with a single knob control designed to add rhythmic pumping effects to tracks, particularly suited for electronic and dance music genres.
- OneKnob Pumper is designed to be incredibly simple and user-friendly, making it accessible for beginners and professionals alike.
- Its single knob control allows for fast and efficient workflow, making it easy to add pumping and breathing dynamics to your tracks without diving into complex settings.
- It's specifically designed to create the "pumping" effect often heard in electronic and dance music, adding rhythmic emphasis to the music.
- You can automate the single knob over time to create dynamic variations in the pumping effect, enhancing the overall musicality of your tracks.
- Waves plugins are generally known for their efficient use of system resources, and OneKnob Pumper is no exception, making it suitable for various setups.
- The simplicity that makes OneKnob Pumper easy to use can also be a limitation for those seeking more in-depth control over their dynamics processing.
- It's focused solely on the pumping effect, so if you're looking for a versatile dynamics processor with a range of effects, this might not be the right plugin for you.
- While the pumping effect can be desirable in certain genres, its strong and rhythmic nature might not always suit every musical style, potentially leading to an artificial-sounding result.
- If you prefer to fine-tune your dynamics processing with various parameters, OneKnob Pumper's single control knob might feel limiting.
- While Waves plugins are known for their quality, they can be relatively expensive compared to other plugins, which might deter users who are on a tight budget.
The OneKnob pumper is an awesome tool to get some dynamics going.
You don’t get a lot of options, just one knob, however, this makes it extremely simple to use. The limitations of the OneKnob Pumper are also its biggest strength.
OneKnob Pumper tends to be the go-to solution for four-on-the-floor rhythms and EDM tracks. This is because it's not sidechaining a compressor, but rather, the track volume. This makes it the perfect tool to get a heavy and defined sidechain pumping.
The plugin also doesn't require an input signal, which means that you don't need to route your kick drum track in, to get the plug-in working
2. Shaperbox 2 by Cableguys (Best Sidechain Plugin for Control)
Cableguys ShaperBox 2 is a versatile effects bundle featuring five modules for creative sound manipulation and modulation, offering a wide range of possibilities for producers and sound designers.
- ShaperBox 2 offers five different effects modules (TimeShaper 2, CrushShaper, VolumeShaper 6, FilterShaper Core 2, and PanShaper 3), providing a wide range of creative sound manipulation possibilities.
- Each module includes advanced modulation capabilities, allowing for intricate automation and movement within your audio.
- ShaperBox 2 is a bundle of multiple effects, making it a cost-effective option compared to purchasing each module individually.
- With its diverse effects and modulation options, ShaperBox 2 empowers producers to experiment and create unique textures, transitions, and sonic elements.
- Despite its powerful capabilities, ShaperBox 2 maintains an intuitive interface that's easy to navigate, enabling users to quickly grasp its features.
- Due to the complexity and variety of effects modules, ShaperBox 2 might have a steeper learning curve for beginners, particularly those new to modular-style plugins.
- Utilizing multiple effects modules simultaneously can be CPU-intensive, potentially impacting performance on less powerful systems.
- While the bundle includes multiple modules, not all of them might be equally useful or necessary for every user's workflow.
- While the bundle offers good value, it might still be relatively expensive for producers on a tight budget or those who only need specific effects.
- While advanced users can appreciate the extensive modulation options, beginners might find the complexity overwhelming when trying to achieve simpler tasks.
- ShaperBox 2 primarily focuses on audio manipulation and modulation, lacking features like comprehensive audio recording and MIDI capabilities found in full-fledged DAWs.
The ShaperBox plugin is definitely one of the more in-depth plug-ins from this list, as it has so many great features. You can draw your own side-chain curve, or you can choose one of the side-chain presets at the bottom.
ShaperBox also has a compressor which can be triggered by an input source, meaning you can side-chain by both volume automation and compression.
What sets this plugin apart, however, is the fact that you can side-chain 3 different frequency bands separately.
This means that if you want to side-chain the lows of a bass, but want to retain the attack of the high end, you can use a steeper curve for the high end and a more gradual curve for the low frequencies.
3. Kickstart by Nicky Romero (One Knob Pumper Alternative)
Kickstart by Nicky Romero is a user-friendly sidechain compression emulation plugin with a single knob control for adding rhythmic pumping effects to tracks, best suited for quick and straightforward integration into electronic music production.
- Kickstart is designed for simplicity, making it accessible for both beginners and experienced producers to quickly add sidechain-style pumping effects to their tracks.
- Its single knob control and intuitive interface allow for fast integration into your production process, helping you achieve rhythmic dynamics without extensive parameter tweaking.
- Kickstart offers a variety of predefined shape curves for the modulation, making it easy to choose the desired pumping effect style without manually adjusting settings.
- You can automate Kickstart's single knob over time, enabling dynamic changes in the sidechain effect throughout your track.
- The plugin is known for its efficient use of system resources, allowing you to use it in multiple instances without straining your computer.
- Kickstart is specialized for creating sidechain-style pumping effects, so if you're looking for a more versatile dynamics processor, you'll need to combine it with other plugins.
- It's focused solely on sidechain compression emulation, meaning it won't cover a wide range of dynamics processing needs like a full-featured compressor would.
- While the predefined shapes are convenient, you might miss the ability to create custom modulation curves for more intricate dynamics manipulation.
- While the sidechain effect is popular in certain genres, overusing it or applying it improperly can lead to an artificial and overly pronounced pumping sound.
- Considering its singular functionality, the price might seem relatively high compared to other plugins with more features.
- Kickstart is an audio effect plugin, meaning it relies on a host DAW for its functionality, so if you switch DAWs, compatibility might be a concern.
Kickstart by Nicky Romero is the best One Knob Pumper alternative, having similar features including one knob to adjust the dry/wet.
However, with Kickstart you have a broad selection of preset curves, tailored for four-to-the-floor productions. Making this a really good, quick and easy, side-chain pump plugin.
Although the first look at the user interface might suggest that Kickstart is a side-chain plugin, that is not exactly correct. Just like the OneKnob Pumper, it is a volume automation utility, rather than an actual side-chaining device.
You don’t have to send any additional signal to the plugin’s input in order to get the desired pumping effect. Kickstart, however, uses different volume ducking curves to achieve the effect that we typically associate with side-chain compression.
4. Trackspacer 2 by WavesFactory (Best Sidechain Plugin for Creating Mix Space)
WavesFactory Trackspacer 2 is a powerful dynamic EQ sidechain plugin designed to intelligently carve out space in one track's frequency spectrum based on the audio content of another, enhancing mix clarity and resolving frequency conflicts.
- Trackspacer 2 specializes in dynamic EQ sidechaining, allowing you to automatically carve out space in one track's frequency spectrum for another, resulting in clearer mixes.
- By intelligently attenuating specific frequencies in one track in response to the audio content of another track, Trackspacer 2 can lead to a more balanced and transparent mix.
- The plugin provides detailed control over the frequency bands you want to target and the degree of attenuation, enabling surgical processing to resolve frequency conflicts.
- You can automate and modulate Trackspacer 2's parameters over time, creating dynamic interactions between tracks during different sections of your song.
- It supports both mono and stereo operation, allowing you to use it effectively on a wide range of audio sources.
- The concept of dynamic EQ sidechaining might be complex for beginners, and understanding how to set up the plugin for optimal results could require some learning.
- Intensive use of Trackspacer 2 across multiple tracks can consume significant CPU resources, potentially affecting your system's performance.
- While Trackspacer 2 is excellent for resolving frequency conflicts, it's a niche tool designed primarily for frequency management and might not be versatile enough for broader dynamics processing needs.
- WavesFactory plugins tend to be in a higher price range, which might be a factor for those on a limited budget.
- Like any plugin, Trackspacer 2 relies on a compatible host DAW for its functionality, so if you switch DAWs, compatibility should be considered.
Trackspacer is a sidechain effect that ducks the incoming signal out of the way of the sidechain signal… What makes it special is that it does this across thirty-two separate frequency ranges.
Making it closer to a dynamic EQ than a compressor, but a dynamic EQ that responds to the specific frequency bands of the sidechain signal. It’s a simple concept that is wonderfully realized in this plugin.
Why duck the whole bassline away from your kicks when you can just duck the frequencies the kick uses and keep the rest of the bass intact?
Being lauded by leading industry professionals as an essential mixing tool, Trackspacer can be used on much more than just kick and bass. Trackspacer is great for melodic elements too.
Say for example you have a melody and a chord channel that are taking up a similar frequency range. Selecting your Melody as the sidechain input, and ducking the chords in time with the melody is a great technique to use, to help separate the tracks.
All you have to do after selecting the input is adjust the threshold (Amount) and your tracks will be ducking faster than the annoying quackers in the pond. Trackspacer is the perfect tool for creating space in the mix for your elements.
It breathes life and creates interesting dynamics and contrast in your mix.
If there's one plugin that you take away from this list, it should be Trackspacer 2 by WavesFactory
5. LFO Tool by Xfer Records (Best Sidechain VST for Sound Design)
LFO Tool by Xfer Records is a versatile modulation plugin allowing precise shaping of modulation curves to control various parameters in audio and MIDI, ideal for adding movement and dynamics to tracks.
- Many different MIDI-controllable features.
- Great flexibility.
- Not outwardly glamorous.
- More moduation processing effects would be nice.
LFO Tool has a wide array of potential use cases. Whether it's to add an LFO modulating a parameter, or in this case, adding a sidechain effect, the Xfer records LFO Tool is a versatile beast.
Assigning the LFO Tool to automate the gain of your channel at a quarter note rat, will create a sidechain like pumping effect. The great thing about this plugin is that you have in-depth control over the curve of the LFO.
For a regular four-on-the-floor sidechain pattern, the LFO Tool feels right at home. It starts to struggle when you need to sidechain an irregular rhythm, however. It’s possible to set a slower rate and draw in the individual volume cuts, but other tools on this list are much better at this than LFO Tool.
TIP: Sidechaining your reverb tails to your kick, can help with track dynamics, as well as track separation.
The Best Free Sidechain Plugins
There are two great sidechain-specific plugins available for free, we've listed them by rank below:
These are volume automation plugins that you can use envelopes to shape your sound. This is similar to the ShaperBox method, where you can draw shapes, and your audio signal will duck according to that shape.
1. Sidechainer 2 (Best Free Sidechain Plugin)
SideChainer 2 is a feature-rich plugin that enables users to sculpt custom modulation curves for precise dynamics control, offering presets and advanced customization while minimizing CPU load.
- The ability to create custom curves and shapes offers advanced users the flexibility to precisely shape the modulation or effect applied to audio sources.
- Having dozens of presets available helps users achieve desired results promptly, making the plugin user-friendly and efficient for various scenarios.
- The customizable point and tension curve editor allows for fine-tuning the modulation curves to achieve specific dynamics and rhythmic effects.
- The inclusion of timing options like Triplets, Dotted, and Straight notes provides rhythmic diversity, catering to different musical contexts.
- The Mix and Smooth parameters likely allow users to control the intensity and smoothness of the applied modulation, offering additional control over the effect.
- Being coded in C++ to minimize CPU load is a significant advantage, ensuring the plugin's operation is optimized and doesn't strain system resources.
- The customization options, while powerful, might also contribute to a steeper learning curve, especially for users who are new to modulation or sidechain effects.
- Without specific information on the plugin's compatibility with different DAWs and operating systems, users might need to ensure it works with their setup.
- Depending on the design of the interface, users might find it challenging to navigate and utilize all the available features effectively.
- While the plugin seems focused on custom curve modulation, it might lack other features found in more comprehensive plugins, limiting its versatility.
- Depending solely on presets might restrict users who have specific or unique sound design needs.
- If the plugin is relatively unknown or not widely used, finding resources, tutorials, or support from other users could be challenging.
Sidechainer 2 is the best free sidechain VST, dedicated to creating ducking effects for your audio. It's, in fact, one of the only free plugins available online that is directly dedicated to Sidechaining. And, we loved it so much we gave it our grailed “drip award”.
It's a simple plugin, with an easy-to-use UI, that can be used to draw custom shapes for your audio to be sidechained to. It works by using volume automation, alongside a beat sync rate that follows the envelope you draw in.
This allows you to create sidechain pumping effects, and use it creatively for sound design purposes, with plugins like Reverb, Delay etc.
It's simple, lightweight, and does exactly what you need it to do, with more control than the other free options and stock plugin options available.
2. Flux Mini
Flux Mini is a transient shaper plugin that allows users to shape the attack and sustain characteristics of audio signals to enhance percussive elements.
- Flux Mini 2 is designed for transient shaping, allowing you to control the attack and sustain characteristics of audio signals, which can be valuable for enhancing percussive elements.
- The interface seems straightforward, making it accessible for both beginners and experienced producers to quickly achieve desired results.
- The real-time waveform visualization provides immediate feedback on the applied processing, aiding in understanding and fine-tuning the effect.
- The inclusion of presets can help users get started quickly and explore different sound possibilities without extensive manual adjustments.
- Offering a free version allows users to try out the plugin's capabilities before committing to a purchase, which is beneficial for exploring its usefulness in their workflow.
- The pricing for the full version is relatively affordable, making it accessible to a wide range of users.
- Flux Mini 2 seems primarily focused on transient shaping, which might limit its usefulness for producers seeking a more comprehensive dynamics processing tool.
- While transient shaping can be a powerful tool, having a single effect might not cover all the dynamics processing needs in various production scenarios.
- The plugin's functionality relies on a compatible host DAW, so switching DAWs or compatibility issues could be a concern.
- Before purchasing, users should compare Flux Mini 2's features with other transient shapers on the market to ensure it offers what they specifically need.
- While the interface seems user-friendly, mastering the nuances of transient shaping and achieving desired results might still require some learning and experimentation.
- The free version might have limitations in terms of available features and control, potentially requiring users to upgrade to the paid version for more advanced options.
Flux Mini is a filtering plugin, that also has the ability to affect the volume of your audio. It's extremely similar to Sidechainer 2 and you can draw your own shapes in for your audio to follow.
On top of the sidechain ability, it includes a low pass and high pass filter that you can use for more creative sidechaining.
Using the resonance with this is extremely fun and you can get some wild sounding results from it that could be resampled, and resampled again through different effects.
You've additionally got a good level of precision when drawing shapes with Flux Mini, due to the grid lock. This allows you to draw shapes that are fully in time with the beat sync you previously set on the plugin.
Flux Mini is a fantastic, easy-to-use free plugin, with an awesome GUI – we'd highly recommend it!
Getting The Sidechain Effect For Free With Stock Plugins
Free sidechain VST plugins are harder to come by than their paid counterparts. While you can sidechain anything using a stock compressor, sometimes it's more useful for your workflow to have a dedicated sidechain plugin that doesn't need routing and setting up. It's also a lot easier to control your sidechain's sound with a dedicated plugin.
Here's the complete list of free sidechain compressor VSTs:
- MCompressor (best free sidechain compressor and free compressor)
- DualComp (great free compressor with sidechain function)
- Side Chain Compressor (discontinued free sidechain VST)
- Sidechain Compressor (free sidechain plugin)
These are not sidechain plugins like listed above, but rather compressors that have a sidechain feature built in. You're probably better off using your stock DAW plugins for this or something like tremolo or autopan to get a similar effect.
1. Sidechaining Using Your Stock Compressor
Here's how to sidechain using your DAW's stock compressor:
- Send the signal you want to use as a sidechain signal to a bus track
- Open your compressor and select the sidechain input as your bus track
- Put the ratio higher than 4:1
- Adjust the threshold
This will give you your sidechain effect with your stock compressor. We recommend playing around with the attack and release times for a more controlled sidechain. You'll want to keep the attack and release quite short in most cases when sidechaining.
2. The Free Autopan Sidechain Trick
You can use any auto pan plugin in a stock DAW to perform this technique. We'll use Ableton to demonstrate what you need to do.
Take your autopan plugin, place it directly on your track, and dial in these settings:
- Amount to 100%
- Phase to 0 degrees or 360 degrees
- Rate to sync with the rhythm you want
This will create a volume automation effect that is similar to a sidechain effect. However, it will not react to an audio source for ducking. This can only be achieved with a sidechain compressor or a dedicated sidechain plugin.
Here is the essential list of the best sidechain compression plugins for music production:
Sidechain compression is an essential technique for any production process.
Whether it's to create some separation between two clashing sounds or to create a heavy pump feel in your dance music banger, you need to use sidechaining.
The amount of sidechaining options and plugins on the market are numerous, but you shouldn't forget the stock compressors that come with your DAW. A lot of the time, a stock compressor has a better and more versatile application than any specific VST.
Hopefully, this article has helped to gather your thoughts on which is the perfect sidechaining device for you! If you liked this list, make sure to check out some of our other spicy articles.
Toms is a music producer & DJ, born and raised in Post Soviet Latvia. Currently based in Brighton, Toms has had over 6 years of experience with all things production and in that time, he's done a tonne of cool stuff! He's played multiple festivals, had experience in the field with mixing & mastering and even become a freelance journalist in the music industry.
Toms currently creates music under the alias Sovereign. Producing music that's intimate and subtle, while full of edge and energy, the young producer combines the artistic sounds of Trip Hop artists like Massive Attack, with the energy and youthfulness of producers like Flume, Jamie XX and Yaeji. You can check his stuff on Soundcloud.