How to Use Sidechain Compression to Make Rock Guitars Stay out of the Vocal's Way
Choices, choices. Should you put the guitar upfront, like the egomaniacal guitarist you are, or should you actually put the vocal in the forefront, where it actually belongs. Such difficult decisions in the life of a mixing engineer.
But what if! Oh, you wish upon a star and ask, could I do both? Really?
Well, yes son. You can. And there are several ways to make your thick rock guitar part play nice with the vocalist. Even if they hate each other in the studio, there's no reason to have them fight in the mix as well.
The Simple Way Towards Separation
Before we get to the sneaky stuff, there are actually quite a few simple ways to make both the guitar and vocal fit together.
We're working with this hard rock song, where the thick guitar really gets in the way of the verse vocal:
It's not awful, but you can definitely hear frequencies clashing whenever the two play together. Before you bend over backwards with fancy mixing tricks, it's useful to see if the basics work beforehand.
Can you lower the volume of the guitar track? Will it fit better then? You don't want to lower the volume too much because that guitar still has to pack a punch.
Let's hear it with about 2 dBs down.
Sounds a little better. The frequencies are still clashing a little so maybe we can trim some of the EQ of the guitar to make it sit better
Here's the guitar with a 4 dB cut in the 3 kHz range, right in the range of the vocal. That clears it up even better.
Now those octave chord stabs from the guitar don't interfere as much with the vocal. Smoothing out the higher middle frequencies like that is actually a great go-to trick when you feel like an instrument is interfering with the vocal. That's the frequency range our ears are most sensitive to so giving the vocal a little space by reducing the same area in another instrument, in this case the guitar, will make the vocal mix sit better.
Automation is also a good way to make the guitar get out of the way whenever the vocals are singing. You could automate the volume so that whenever the vocals are on the guitar goes down in volume. However, that takes time and can get frustrating.
A better way to do the same thing is to use side-chain compression to compress the guitar into submission. Whenever the vocals come on, the compressor pushes the guitar down in the mix. This can create some interesting sounds.
Here's how to do it.
Side-Chain Compression for Guitar and Vocals
Get everything mixed like you want. Cut the EQ out of the way of the vocal on the guitar and make everything sounds as good as you can.
Insert a compressor on the guitar. Usually, this would be the second compressor on the guitar. The first one would be the normal compressor you would use on the guitar, to even the levels and make it punchy. This second, side-chained one would only be used for ducking the guitar out of the way.
Sidechain it to the vocals. In Logic you can select any audio track in the side-chain box on your compressor. Other DAWs have similar ways of doing this.
Configure your compressor so that it ducks the guitar out of the way whenever the vocals come in. I'm using the settings in the screenshot below:
- Ratio – The ratio is low since I don't want the guitar to sound overly squashed only whenever the vocals are on. It's also a fairly compressed guitar part due to the distortion so we're really only looking at ways to decrease the volume.
- Threshold/Peak – The compressor is set to PEAK so it takes the peak levels of the guitar into account, not the average level. The threshold is set to compress about 4–6 dB, depending on the loudness of the vocal.
- Attack & Release – The attack and release is where it gets really creative. They control the shape of the volume change of your guitar, so you can make the volume drop be subtle with a longer attack, or the release can be longer so that it audibly swells back into the track. I chose to keep the attack fast so that the guitar drops down as soon as the vocal comes in, and the release swells back into the track, giving the whole thing a cool effect.
Here's the final side-chained example:
I chose the long release because the guitar already has a swooshing flangy effect that swells back and forth. I wanted to add to the effect by also adding a up and down fluid volume automation that plays with the vocals.
This example showed you how to do it with a guitar and vocals, but there's no reason you couldn't use it on any two instruments that are fighting for the same space in your mix. Ducking the bass guitar out of the way of the kick drum is also a popular example of using the same technique.
Making the guitar and vocal fit together can be difficult. Especially if they both play a pivotal role in the feel of the song. By using simple volume and EQ you can carve out a space for both of those instrument easily enough.
But using side-chain compression to make the interaction between them even more fluid can sound much cooler. It allows you to create both natural sounding automation without going through the tedious task of automating each phrase. It also allows you to shape the waveform with the attack and release to create interesting shapes to your side-chained instrument.