The 5 Best Sidechain Plugins for Music Producers

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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.

sidechain plugin enveloper

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

best sidechain compression plugins

Here is the complete list of the best sidechain VST plugins for music production (updated for 2022):

  1. OneKnob Pumper
  2. Shaperbox 2
  3. Kickstart
  4. Trackspacer 2
  5. LFO Tool

1. OneKnob Pumper by Waves (Best Sidechain VST)

Compatibility: Win, Mac, VST, AAX, AU, 64-bit
Price: $49

waves oneknob best sidechain vst

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)

Compatibility: Win, Mac, VST, AAX, AU, 64-bit
Price: $

shaperbox cableguys sidechain compressor plugin

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)

Compatibility: Win, Mac, VST, AAX, AU, 64-bit
Price: $

nicky romero kickstart sidechain vst

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)

Compatibility: Win, Mac, VST, AAX, AU, 64-bit
Price: $

trackspacers 2 wavesfactory plugin

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)

Compatibility: Win, Mac, VST, AAX, AU, 64-bit
Price: $

LFO tool xfer records sidechain compression plugin

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:

  1. Sidechainer 2
  2. Flux Mini

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)

Compatibility: Windows 8+, macOS 10+, VST, AU
Price: $0, or donate for more free plugins

sidechainer 2 best free sidechain plugin

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

Compatibility: Windows 8+, macOS 10+, iOS, VST, AU, AAX, AUv3
Price: $0

flux mini sidechain plugin

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:

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

ableton free sidechain plugin

With most free DAWs (and paid), you will get a stock compressor that will have the option to sidechain. In some DAWs it's easier to sidechain (like in Ableton), but the process is fairly similar.

Here's how to sidechain using your DAW's stock compressor:

  1. Send the signal you want to use as a sidechain signal to a bus track
  2. Open your compressor and select the sidechain input as your bus track
  3. Put the ratio higher than 4:1
  4. 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.

autopan free sidechain vst trick before
autopan free sidechain plugin trick after

Take your autopan plugin, place it directly on your track, and dial in these settings:

  1. Amount to 100%
  2. Phase to 0 degrees or 360 degrees
  3. 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.

Finishing Up

Here is the essential list of the best sidechain compression plugins for music production:

  1. OneKnob Pumper
  2. Kickstart
  3. Shaperbox 2
  4. Trackspacer 2
  5. LFO Tool

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.

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