Regardless of the genre or style you’re working on, audio ducking is an excellent way to enhance the clarity of your tracks and make them more engaging. The ducking technique has been around for decades and is often the secret ingredient of those who want to create consistent audio content, whether it's music, podcast, or a radio program.
In this article, we’ll look into how you can use audio ducking to refine your tracks or make your four-on-the-floor more galvanizing. We’ll explore different ducking techniques that’ll work on all DAWs, as well as some tips on how to make the most of this crucial skill in music production.
Audio Ducking: Definition and Examples
Audio ducking is a technique often used in audio post-production to automatically reduce the volume of one audio signal in response to another one. This ensures that the audio we want to prioritize remains clear and prominent even when there are multiple sounds played at the same time.
The process is based on a trigger-response mechanism: the main audio source is the trigger, which lowers the second track's volume. Once the main track ceases or gets lower, the background track gradually returns to its original volume level.
Audio ducking is useful because it helps create a balanced and clear audio mix. It highlights important elements without muting the secondary audio completely and ensures that the listener pays attention to the most crucial audio at the right moments.
Audio ducking is also used in movies, radio, podcasts, and most audio-visual content with multiple audio signals to ensure the important audio, such as vocals in a song or dialogue in a film, remains clear and balanced within a soundscape with background music, enhancing clarity and focus. For instance, it can be used to decrease the music volume whenever someone speaks or reduce ambient sounds when there are other, more important sonic elements.
How To Use Audio Ducking In Your Tracks
Getting the most from the audio ducking technique requires understanding how to use each ducking level setting in the audio ducking dialog box. Music producers can apply audio ducking from their DAWs, and video editors can use their video software.
Each setting defines how the ducking effect interacts with your primary and secondary tracks, and while many DAWs come with an automated audio ducking feature, it's always worth knowing crucial concepts if you want to make adjustments to your mix.
Audio Ducking Dialog Box
Let’s start with the control channel where you’ll make all the adjustments we’ll discuss below, regardless of your DAW or editing software you use for your video project.
The Audio Ducking Dialog Box controls all the parameters of ducking. Depending on the software you're using, you might have more or fewer settings you can use to finetune your ducking effect. However, these are the most common ones and the ones I think you should focus on the most:
Threshold : Sets the level at which the ducking effect begins. Lowering the threshold means the ducking effect will start even with a quiet main audio.
Ratio : Determines the extent of volume reduction. A higher ratio results in a more abrupt ducking of the secondary audio.
Attack and Release Times : These settings control how quickly the ducking effect starts after the primary audio exceeds the threshold (attack) and how quickly it stops after the primary audio falls below the threshold (release).
Knee : This setting adjusts how abruptly or smoothly the ducking effect kicks in and out. A 'hard knee' results in a sudden change, while a 'soft knee' has a more gradual transition.
Now, let’s take a look at the most crucial settings: sensitivity and fade duration.
The sensitivity setting defines how responsive the ducking effect is: higher sensitivity means the ducking effect will activate more quickly, even when the primary audio is relatively quiet. This is useful when your main track (like a vocal track) isn't very loud but still needs to stand out compared to the rest of the mix. Lower sensitivity means the effect will activate when there’s a stronger primary audio signal to trigger ducking.
This parameter controls how quickly the secondary audio is reduced in volume once the primary audio triggers the ducking. A shorter fade duration gives a more abrupt volume reduction, while a longer fade duration creates a smoother, more gradual transition before the track returns to its regular clip volume.
Sidechain compression is a popular technique you should master if you want to create professional ducking. It involves linking the compressor on one audio track, usually the background track, to the audio output of another track, like the vocals or any other primary track. When the primary audio (vocals) is loud, the compressor reduces the volume of the secondary audio (music), creating a dynamic effect that keeps the listener focused on the primary audio.
To set it up, you need to choose your two tracks, add a compressor to the secondary track, and select the main audio track as the sidechain source in the compressor settings. Then, you can adjust the threshold and ratio to control how much the volume is reduced and how quickly it responds, as well as tweak the attack and release to control how fast it lowers and returns to normal.
Tips and Tricks
In my experience, when applying ducking, it all comes down to crafting your own effect, and the only way to do it is to play with the settings and have a deep understanding of what your audience expects based on the product you're creating.
It’s important to use subtle ducking levels that preserve the natural flow in the overall mix and to match the ducking to the music genre: EDM and hip-hop might require more decisive ducking settings, but those won’t work on an ambient or classical composition, for instance.
Create your own ducking effect through automation, using side-chain compression , finetuning with EQ, and experimenting with attack and release settings. Most of all, consider the listener's perspective and test on different sound systems. What sounds great on your studio monitors might not sound as good on earphones or lower-quality speakers.
Finally, presets are a good starting point, but you should make adjustments to ensure the ducking perfectly fits with the mood and atmosphere of your content.
While ducking might seem overwhelming at first, you'll be surprised to see how quickly you can improve your tracks once you have mastered this useful technique. Pay attention to the clarity and balance of your mix, and especially if you produce bass-heavy music, notice how exciting your tunes have become!
More often than not, in audio ducking, less is more: overdoing ducking might sacrifice the natural dynamism of your audio, so I'd recommend you start slow and gradually finetune the effect until your content feels clear, engaging, and authentic.