One of the defining elements of chillwave production is heavy (ab)use of the sidechain: the process of using one signal to modify some element of a second – typically its volume.
The most common method of sidechaining is to use a compressor driven by a kick track to reduce another trackís volume at the point of the kick signalís entry: pads, music loops, basslines, leads ñ even vocals ñ can all benefit from an obvious kick-sidechain pump.
Many chillwave producers go further than this and use sidechain compression across musical busses or sometimes even the master bus, with the compressor altering the dynamics of the whole track, bestowing the unmistakable (and sometimes overdone) pumping effect.
An alternative method of achieving the same effect is to use an LFO-type plug-in to shape a track or busís volume over time. These plug-ins often come with specific sidechain presets.
It should be said that while many chillwave producers use this effect heavily, its use is by no means imperative.
Granulizer plug-ins use so-called granular synthesis technology to split user-loaded Wav samples into many small pieces (or grains), which are then replayed and controlled according to the settings of the respective generator. The length and spacing of the grains can be altered to achieve many different effects.
For the chillwave producer, a granulizer allows for the creation of all kinds of ambient and drone-like sounds.
Even more useful is the granulizer’s ability to stretch a sample without altering its pitch, and vice versa – but with a unique character often unachievable using standard timestretch algorithms.
Using automation to change anything from grain size to stretch percentage, the possibilities for shaping samples are endless.
Although many chillwave tracks are based around manipulated samples, programmed Midi tracks are frequently used to supplement the samples.
When using Midi tracks, instead of leaving them to trigger virtual instruments, try bouncing the Midi down as a new audio file and then re-sample the newly created sound/s through an old-school sampler or tape player (the older the better), a granulizer or other plug-in of choice. Working with the audio file directly will open up a world of new possibilities: you can reverse, time-stretch, re-tune, re-effect it and so on – essentially treating your own previous Midi track as a new independent sample.
Chillwave has a lo-fi, often home-made, ethos at its heart; a rejection of the high value production values inherent in almost all other modern musical productions.
The chillwave producer has a host of approaches open to them for introducing the lo-fi vibe.
If you have access to the kit, then try routing a sample out of your DAW and record it into an old cassette tape player, and then track the audio signal back into the DAW using a microphone of choice (or you can go DI).
Slap on some reverb and power up the sidechain compression: instant chillwave.
An easier and less time consuming approach is to employ a tape-style plug-in to reduce the fidelity of a sample. You might also experiment with reducing the bit-rate (8 and 12-bit rates are not unusual), feed signals to a parallel overdrive plug-in or guitar amp simulator, or simply roll away high frequencies on musical elements to mirror the way a cassette player reacts.
Reverb abounds in chillwave, creating big and often very obvious space around musical and vocal parts. Sometimes its use on vocals is so distinctive that its use becomes a trademark effect of the track.
This said, while it can be tempting to slap reverb on every track, it is often best used on a few signals only. Even in songs that sound particularly reverb-heavy you’ll notice that the elements on which it is employed are carefully chosen: drums, for example, are often mixed (mostly) dry. Remember that even in a genre where the usual production rules are frequently ignored and rewritten, you still want a mix that works; muddying every channel will result in a messy, confusing mix..
If you’re using reverb on vocals, start with a decay of around 3–6ms – then try pushing longer. Roll away the reverb low frequencies at around130hz and then feed the verb return through a kick-triggered sidechain.