The goal of today’s tutorial is mainly focused on helping you control sibilance sounds on a vocal recording without messing up the timbre or character. You'll learn vocal de-essing and how to get rid of sibilance in vocals.
Sibilants are fricative consonants of higher amplitude and pitch, made by directing a stream of air with the tongue towards the teeth.
In English, these are harsh high-frequency sounds that happen on the consonant sounds of S, F, X, T, SH, Z, and soft Cs.
Sibilants are typically found in the frequency range of 4kHz to 8kHz (though they may occur below or above that range).
When they’re not well controlled in a mix, the vocals will sound harsh and piercing.
The goal is not to mute sibilants or remove them completely because that will sound unnatural, you just need to control or reduce the harsh “hissing” sound.
How to Reduce Sibilance When Recording
The most important step is to control sibilants from the source.
Instead of fighting sibilants in the mixing stage and risk making the vocals sound unnatural, it’s better to fix this problem during recording.
When recording vocals, make it a habit to test different microphones, don’t make the mistake of using the same microphone all the time.
Generally speaking, a female vocalist will create higher frequency “ess” or “shh” sounds when compared to a male vocalist.
So, it’s a good idea to start with a microphone that has a darker character for a female singer. Then switch the mic if it’s sounding way too dark, or keep it if it fits the song and not capturing too many sibilants.
However, some males may have too many sibilants sounding consonants on their voice so don’t use a bright microphone in that case.
Also, try different mic techniques such as tilting the mic slightly off-axis or tell the singer to move further back from the mic.
Some singers have a naturally sibilant voice. A professional singer will know when to lean or go further back, but if you’re not working with a professional then coach them. You can even write notes on their lyric sheet to let them know when to lean back.
Point is, do whatever it takes to get the best results from the source to avoid relying too much on de-essing during mixing.
Do Pop Filters Reduce Sibilance?
This is a commonly asked question so I thought I should also include it in this post to avoid any confusion.
The simple answer is no, I mean it’s called a “Pop” filter for a reason. It reduces loud “P” and “B” sounds mostly, so it doesn’t typically help with sibilance.
Vocal De-essing complete guide. Learn the BEST way to get rid of sibilance in vocals...
What is De-essing
De-Essing is the method that’s used to control harsh and loud frequencies that cause spitting or piercing sibilance.
Sibilance is the hissing sound that may occur during recording when a vocalist sings words including the letter S, F, X, T, SH, and soft Cs as mentioned above.
De-essing is often required when mixing music, but it’s not always a straightforward process.
Every song will usually require a different approach to make sure that you don’t impact the character of the vocals in a bad way.
So, whatever method of de-essing you choose, make sure that it’s the best approach for that particular vocal.
Identifying the Sibilance Frequencies
Sibilance will occur in different areas of the spectrum for different vocals. It varies due to many factors such as the shape of the teeth, type of preamp, mic choice, mic placement, etc.
The easiest way to find sibilance on a vocal is to use a de-esser plugin. Most, if not all, de-esser plugins have a sidechain feature that allows you to listen to what is triggering the de-esser.
Sweep around the frequency spectrum (with the sidechain feature turned on) till you find the offending frequencies.
You can also use an Analyzer. Loop a section that is too sibilant then use an analyzer to determine the problem frequencies. These usually occur in the 4kHz to 8kHz, in some cases you might need to go lower or higher than that.
Once you’ve found the offending frequency range then you’ll have to choose the best approach for that particular vocal.
Manual Gain Riding
The approach that will work best for most, if not all, vocals is manual gain riding. Gain riding is the act of constantly adjusting the gain to prevent sounds from getting way too loud or bring them up if they’re too quiet.
In this case, you’ll manually adjust the gain whenever the sibilants get way too loud.
Make sure that you don’t ride the fader, instead write the automation using the clip gain or pre-gain. This way you’ll be able to adjust the fader later for balance.
Yes, this approach can be time-consuming but doing it this way will give you better control over sibilance than relying on a tool to do the job for you.
Since you’ll be in control, you won’t miss certain consonants because an “S” may not happen in the same frequency as the letter “F” or the “SH” consonant.
So, a tool might miss some consonants, that’s why manual gain riding is mostly the best choice in many cases.
Another great approach that will help you get the best results when controlling sibilance is to use split-track de-essing.
To do this, you’ll have to cut out all the sibilance to a separate track. This means you’ll have to manually cut each sibilance sound out of the vocal track one by one and move them on to a separate channel.
Yes, this is also time-consuming but it will give you better control and more flexibility. You’ll be able to process the sibilance differently from the main vocal for the best results.
This is why professional mixing engineers have an assistant to take care of all this time consuming and labor-intensive stuff.
Professional engineers will get someone else to do it because they understand the importance of manual gain riding and split-track de-essing.
When you’re done with splitting the sibilants, always make sure that you use crossfades to avoid clicks.
Where to Place the De-esser in Your Vocal Chain
In some cases, you might be working with a client who is in a hurry.
In those types of situations, you don’t have the time to do some manual gain riding or split-track de-essing so you’ll need to rely on tools to get the job done as fast as possible.
But before we jump straight into using the tools let’s first look at where to place the de-esser in your vocal chain.
Also, keep in mind that this will also depend on the vocal recording, but here are a few suggestions.
When the vocal is too sibilant then use a de-esser as your first insert to control the sibilance before adding any other processing tools.
In some cases, you might have a good recording that’s not too sibilant but then after adding EQ and compression the vocal might start sounding too sibilant. In that case, then adding the de-esser after both EQ and compression is usually the best choice.
Just make sure that the de-esser controls the sibilance without making the vocals sound unnatural.
A good rule to follow is to mostly add the de-esser before any time-based effects because the de-esser will work even harder to try to reduce the layered sibilance (from both the dry and affected signals).
That’s if you’re using time-based effects (reverb, delay, chorus, etc.) as an insert instead of using an Aux or Fx channel.
But don’t be afraid to experiment, so always test different slots for the de-esser till you find a place where it sounds best.
De-ess in Stages
One thing that you don’t want is to overwork one de-esser plugin. If you overwork one de-esser it can sometimes result in tonal artifacts.
To avoid that or making a vocal sound unnatural, you can de-ess in 2 or even 3 different stages.
For instance, the first stage will be a de-esser in the first insert slot of your vocal chain. The second stage will be after the EQ and compressor. Finally, the 3rd stage will be in form of a multiband compressor or dynamic EQ in the vocal bus/group (only if it’s necessary).
This way you'll get transparent de-essing because each de-esser will be doing a minimal amount of gain reduction.
Another benefit of de-essing in different stages is that you can target different frequencies to control consonants that occur in different frequency bands.
So, you can have one de-esser taking care of the frequencies between 2kHz to 5kHz and then the second one controlling the frequencies between 5kHz up to 10kHz. This sounds better than having one de-esser plugin taking care of a wide range of frequencies.
You can have them in serial (one after the other) or have them in different slots in your chain.
The best thing to do is to always test and always explore different tactics.
Even after doing some manual gain riding, you may find that the compressor brings up some of the sibilance. Then you’ll have to use a de-esser to tame down a dB or two to keep the sibilance in control.
Automate Your De-esser Settings
Always keep in mind that a de-esser is a tool so it’s not 100% accurate all the time.
Sibilance will be different throughout the song and the de-esser can miss some sibilance or over-compress them in some situations.
To avoid making the de-esser squash the signal or fail to catch some sibilance you’ll have to automate your de-esser settings, this will help a performance shine.
By automating the de-esser settings you’ll have more control over the de-essing and maximize the potential of the performance for the best possible sound.
When it comes to de-essing, there’s no one-size-fits-all setting. Each mix requires an approach that will get you the best results for that particular song.
It is also a good decision to de-ess a vocal while listening to the entire mix in context without listening to the vocal in solo. This will reduce the chance of over-doing the de-essing.
Remember, always strive to get a great sound during recording, that’s how you’ll get the best final results.
Hope you found tons of value from this post and now understand that de-essing is not just about adding a de-esser plugin, set it and forget it.
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