Best Sidechain Plugins in 2022 (Free & Paid)

by Alex.   Last Updated On September 21st, 2022.
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Sidechaining is an essential technique in music production and mixing. A sidechain system essentially processes one audio track based on the information of a second track.

Mastering the use of sidechains empowers music producers to control audio in expressive and creative ways. It also saves a huge amount of time as you can use a simple sidechain tool instead of manual volume automation (and a range of other music production tasks).

A compressor is probably the most common type of sidechain plugin, although equalizers and gates also often have sidechain features. This guide reviews the best sidechain plugins and provides you with some expert tips to help you choose.

Fancy checking out some of my other recommended VST plugins? See my review of the Best Pitch Shifter VST Plugins!

Table of Contents
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Comparison of the Best Sidechain Plugins

Best for improving your workflow when mixing.See On Amazon
photo of the Baby Audio Smooth OperatorBaby Audio
Smooth Operator
Best simple but effective sidechain compressor, Stagecraft’s plugin is a great place to start.See On Amazon
photo of the Stagecraft CompressorStagecraft
Compressor
Best for music producers who need a gorgeous-sounding, flexible, professional compressor (if you have the budget). See On Amazon
photo of the SSL Native X-CompSSL
Native X-Comp
Best if you want to fatten up your mix, it doesn’t get more beastly than this Distressor compressor emulation. See On Amazon
photo of the Softube Empirical Labs Mike-E CompSoftube
Empirical Labs Mike-E Comp
Best automatic EQ with sidechain features then the AE600 is a clear winner. See On Amazon
photo of the McDSP AE600 Active EQ v7McDSP
AE600 Active EQ v7
Best for producers who needs a channel strip-type plugin like this. They can save a lot of time compared to using individual plugins.See On Amazon
photo of the McDSP Channel G V7McDSP
Channel G V7
Best for new (or lazy) producers looking for an instant pumping effect. See On Amazon
photo of the Waves OneKnob PumperWaves
OneKnob Pumper

Reviews of the Best Sidechain Plugins

Smooth Operator is an “Intelligent Signal Balancer” plugin, which automatically controls the frequencies of your audio for optimal sound. The sidechaining feature gives this plugin a huge amount of creative power and potential.

See On Amazon

With Smooth Operator, the raw plugin itself is something unique and special. I’ve never found any other plugin that has quite the same performance. It’s essentially a type of auto-EQ or dynamic EQ.

It has an intelligent algorithm that detects problem areas in specific frequency ranges and automatically compensates to achieve the perfect tonal balance.

It gives users a mix of Equalization, Spectral Compression, and Resonance Suppression in a single plugin. The interface and workflow are intuitive, and it works so effectively that it can replace a lot of other plug-ins in a mix. This tool makes your sounds and mixes clean, pure, and detailed with minimal effort.

The sidechain function lets you process a track based on the spectral content of another. Simply pick a second channel to work as a trigger track, activate the sidechain input, and you’re good to use the volume shaper features of this tool.

This sidechain vst plugin isn’t for everyone and doesn’t work in as much detail as others (particular compressors) on this list.

However, if you want a smart tool for cleaning up the frequencies of your mix then Smooth Operator is a great choice.

What We Like

Quick tool for tightening mix.

Provides a range of processors in one.

Fast, intuitive interface.

Know Before Buying

Jack of all trades, master of none?

An unusual processor, may be unfamiliar to most.

See On Amazon

A straightforward, classical compressor from Stagecraft with sidechain features. It’s not the sweetest compressor out there, but it’s also very affordable!

See On Amazon

This Stagecraft plugin is a typical compressor, with a couple of neat extra features. The most notable part of this compressor is the price, which makes it accessible to the majority of producers, even on a tight budget.

It has all the features you would expect from a compressor plugin. The controls include standard threshold, ratio, and attack and release.

The GUI is very nice and makes it easy to see how the compressor is working and helps to demystify the process. It also comes with an extra built-in limiter which has three modes (Soft, Trad, and Tape).

This prevents unwanted distortion and can also give a nice layer of saturation in the low, mid, and high frequencies. This helps to achieve a different sound from most plug-ins on this list.

The Stagecraft Compressor has two types of sidechains. First, it has an internal EQ-based sidechain, which lets you activate the compressor based on the selected frequencies. This helps to get more accurate compression with a cleaner response to signals full of low frequencies.

The second system is the external sidechain input source, which lets you control the compression based on a sidechain input signal from a second audio channel.

It’s also worth noting that this plugin works as an “upward compressor”, better known as an Expander. This gives users greater control over the compression processing.

The preset library is pretty extensive too and has all the basic patches you need to quickly start with the right settings.

The sound of this compressor is fairly transparent if a little uninspiring. But it offers good value for money, and will likely have a better range of functions than your DAW’s stock compressor.

What We Like

Low-cost, high-performance compressor.

Also acts as an expander, giving more control over dynamic range.

Intuitive, simple, and helpful user interface.

Know Before Buying

Some cheap feeling parts.

Uninteresting tone.

See On Amazon

From one of the biggest legends in the audio gear scene, the SSL Native X-Comp is a powerful, professional compressor with a pristine tone and studio-grade features.

See On Amazon

SSL (Solid State Logic) is known to make some of the best external hardware and software tools for music producers in the music industry.

You see SSL gear in most studios worldwide (where they can afford it). They’re known for making uncompromising and extensive tools with superior sound quality and design.

The X-Comp is a flexible and high-powered compressor that outshines most compressors I’ve used in my time (which is a lot!)

It offers mastering-grade audio quality and functionality and is a very sweet and smooth-sounding compressor with an analog touch. You also get a bunch of presets, and you can save presets you make yourself.

It performs exceptionally well across a huge range of performance situations. Whether you’re using it for subtle glue or aggressive brick wall limiting, this thing sounds great and controls well.

This plugin can simulate a range of compression styles, from old-school optical, fet, and vari-mu styles, to more modern digital approaches. This means you can use it well for a range of genres, from old records to modern electronic music.

The sidechain section is very advanced and offers a lot more flexibility and control than most compressors. Sidechaining in X-Comp is easy to set up, and can quickly be configured for pumping, de-essing, and ducking audio signals. It also features an internal EQ-based sidechain for targeting the trigger input signal to specific frequency areas.

This sidechain vst has all the compression controls you expect and more. The interface and visual displays are also very useful and revealing, not even mentioning the beautiful, futuristic graphic design.

This compressor will help you get the perfect dynamics across your mix. While the cost is high, it’s fair, as this plugin is super powerful, and is one of the best-sounding compressor plug-ins.

What We Like

Unbeatable audio quality.

Satisfying, analog tone.

Incredibly flexible and powerful.

Gorgeous UI and visual displays.

Know Before Buying

Expensive.

Has high CPU use.

See On Amazon

Based on the iconic ‘Distressor’ compressor, the Softube E Comp is a stunning emulation, made in partnership with the original hardware designers.

See On Amazon

If you know your compressors, then you will have heard of the Distressor. This is a unique compressor/saturator with its famous ‘NUKE’ ratio mode.

Softube is known for making high-quality emulations of hardware, and this Distressor emulation certainly makes the grade.

After a few minutes of testing, you can see and hear how much effort has been put into the modeling and simulation process.

This plug-in sounds fantastic and is almost identical to the hardware units themselves which are loved for their mixing purposes.

One of the defining features of the Distressor (and this plugin) is the ability to compress and saturate at the same time. The drive of this compressor adds a warm, satisfying analog crunch to sounds which is why the Distressor is so popular.

Besides the sound being authentic, the interface is nearly identical to the original hardware unit, with a few extra controls for digital efficiency. This compressor gives you a huge range of compression sounds and lets you control dynamic range in a powerful level of detail.

Unlike many digital compressors, it has a very analog-style interface, which means you really have to listen rather than rely on a digital GUI displaying how the compressor is working. While this may seem like a downside, I think it forces you to focus deeper on the sound, which ends up achieving better sounding results.

As for sidechaining, it features an external sidechain loop that lets you easily trigger the compression based on a different channel’s audio signal. You can use this for any kind of sidechain compression technique that you can imagine.

Overall, this is a beast of a plug-in. It has a fat, crunchy sound that is ideal for drums, basses, vocals, bus mixes, and more. It’s easy to use, has a sweet tone, and has all the sidechain features you need.

Sure, it’s more expensive than most compressors, but it offers an iconic sound and workflow that no other compressors do.

What We Like

Warm, crunchy, analog saturation.

Incredibly faithful to the original units (both sound and control).

Powerful sidechaining functions.

Know Before Buying

Slightly old-fashioned interface.

Relatively expensive for a compressor with this level of features.

See On Amazon

Made by VST legends McDSP, the AE600 is a powerful active equalizer with unique sidechain functionality. This plug-in controls frequencies with pristine detail.

See On Amazon

Any music producer knows how important equalization is, but not everybody is aware of the downsides most EQs are plagued by.

One of the most common issues is that the problematic frequency areas don’t always stay at the same place in the spectrum (or dynamics). Typically this means you have to spend a lot of time automating EQs to make sure they are constantly making the right correction.

This is where automatic EQs come in.

This type of automatic/active equalization offers users a new level of efficiency and speed when it comes to fixing the frequency balance of their tracks.

This plug-in essentially combines the standard controls found on compressors, with a 6-band parametric EQ. This gives you 6 channels of frequency-based equalization, letting you clean up and control an audio signal with immense detail and precision.

Each EQ band has individual resonance and filter shaping, including parametric, proportional Q (with 5x option), Baxandall, vintage style, X-style shelves, high and low pass, and more. You can also overlap the EQ bands for a unique level of control, and they each have independent volume modulation curves.

Gone are the days of fiddly EQ automation with the AE600. Say hello to the future of EQ and compression. This is a very powerful, albeit advanced plugin that gives engineers and producers a huge amount of freedom (and speed) with their mixing and sound design.

It has decent sidechain features too, where each EQ band can be triggered by an external incoming signal. This plugin is probably too complex for many users, but if you understand how to use it you will get a lot of action out of it.

What We Like

Powerful automatic EQ.

Clean, intuitive interface.

Accurate, detailed audio quality.

Strong sidechain features.

Know Before Buying

Relatively complex.

Slightly expensive.

See On Amazon

Another plugin from McDSP, the Channel G V7 is a unique and speedy channel strip with EQ, dynamic, and filtering controls.

See On Amazon

The McDSP Channel G V7 essentially provides 3 plug-ins in one – the G Equalizer, G Dynamics, and G Console. The interface seamlessly blends these tools together into a single powerful plugin with the capabilities of performing a wide range of tasks.

First, it has a sweet multi-mode filter bank with 5 frequency bands. Each band has a variable resonance control and switchable curve shapes. This filter bank is coupled with additional low and high pass filter controls for taming the tops and bottoms of your frequency spectrum.

Next, we have a dynamics section, which can perform any dynamic-related processing from compression to expansion, limiting, gating, noise reduction, and more.

Despite having such a wide range of functionality, the interface is well laid out and easy to use. Additionally, the lower half of the plugin has a bunch of useful indicators and displays which gives you an effective way to monitor the processing.

It features a standard external sidechain input which lets you compress the channel based on audio from a second track.

The plugin uses minimal CPU, which means it can be run with ultra-low (near 0) latency, and you can have a large quantity of these plugins accross an entire mix project without lagging out.

What We Like

EQ and dynamics in a single channel strip.

Low latency and CPU use.

Easy to use with a helpful interface and visual monitoring.

Know Before Buying

Slightly overpriced.

Sometimes it is better to have separate plugins for each task.

See On Amazon

This simple tool isn’t strictly a sidechain plugin, but it is designed to mimic the pumping sound effect that sidechain compression is widely used for.

See On Amazon

I’ll be honest, Waves Oneknob Pumper isn’t technically a sidechain plugin, although it is cheap, quick, and easy to use.

It achieves the same effect of sidechain “pumping” with minimal effort. This is definitely more aimed at beginners (or just lazy producers) who don’t know how to properly use a compressor in sidechain mode in the mixing process or want to avoid volume automation plugins.

This plugin has one main control knob, with a second control for choosing the speed. This means you can quickly emulate the pumping effect without needing to route any compressors. You can also use it like an LFO tool to create dubstep-type wobble effects or create tremolo-style flutters.

It does a pretty good job, although it has nowhere near the level of detail that I would personally like in my side chain compression.

What We Like

Easy, instant sidechain pumping style effect.

Perfect for beginners.

Affordable.

Know Before Buying

Not a true sidechain.

Limited functionality.

See On Amazon

Bonus Free Sidechain Plugin

Melda MCompressor

There’s no such thing as a free lunch? Well, there is a free compressor, and the MCompressor from Melda is quite a beast, despite costing you nothing.

Melda has released a huge list of free plugins, and their MCompressor is a fantastic sidechain plug-in, particularly since it’s free. It actually has a pretty impressive level of functionality which even outperforms some paid plugins.

You get all the typical compressor controls, but also a detailed visual monitoring section and the ability to draw custom knee preset curves. This lets you pick a more gradual curve for a softer-sounding compression.

The most attractive feature is the oversampling modes, which can create an incredibly clean and accurate sound. Besides this, the external sidechain feature lets you sidechain the compressor like any other.

Benefits :

  • Fully featured compressor.
  • Decent sidechain functionality.
  • Powerful oversampling.
  • Free!

Gates are another key tool in audio production, so have a look at my review of the Best Gate Plugins!

Buyers Guide for the Best Sidechain Plugins

This section highlights important things to think about when choosing a new sidechain plugin. Follow these tips to help you pick the best one for your needs!

Types – Compressor, EQ, Gate, other?

There are several different types of plugins that often feature a sidechain function. Most people think of compressors when they hear the word sidechain, which is probably due to the prevalence of the sidechain compression pumping technique.

Although you can find equalizers, gates, and other tools with built-in sidechaining features. Ultimately the type of plugin to pick depends on what kind of tool you need.

Power Consumption & Operating System

Some plugins can be heavy on CPU usage, whereas others are lighter and would run on a potato.

It really ranges depending on the coding for each plugin. One plugin will be low use, others might be high.

Just make sure you don’t buy a plug-in that is too powerful for your PC.

Also, check the operating system compatibilities. For example, mac users need to make sure they choose mac os compatible plugins.

FAQs

How do you sidechain perfectly?

Finding the perfect sidechain settings takes a little practice, but it becomes easy when you understand what to listen for. The exact sidechain settings needed to create the best sound vary depending on the sounds and intentions.

Start by activating the sidechain and assigning its external input. Then fine-tune the plug-in settings until the sidechain effect is working in the way you need.

What should I sidechain kick to?

Typically the kick drum track is side-chained to the bass, so the bass dips to make room for the kick drum.

This is how producers achieve that pumping effect. It doesn’t have to be the bass though, and often the kick will be used as the sidechain trigger to compress a range of other elements in the mix like pads, hi-hats, keys, other instruments, and even vocals.

Why is sidechain so popular?

Sidechain is popular because it has a range of creative and corrective uses. The most iconic use for sidechain compression is probably the pumping effect, which is synonymous with electronic dance music like house, techno, and hip hop.

There isn’t really any other way to achieve the processing that a sidechain effect can perform, which is another reason why it’s so popular.

Does compression need a sidechain?

Compression doesn’t need a sidechain, and in most situations, they are used without. You only need to use a compressor with a sidechain if you want to compress one audio channel based on the dynamics of another channel.

Final thoughts!

Best for improving your workflow when mixing.
Best simple but effective sidechain compressor, Stagecraft’s plugin is a great place to start.
Best for music producers who need a gorgeous-sounding, flexible, professional compressor (if you have the budget). 

Incorporating sidechain techniques into your production will make you stand out against the competition. Picking a good sidechain plugin will make the whole process much easier. (And of course, save time on fiddly volume automation)

If you’re interested in more VST plugins, check out my review of the best EQ Plugins!