Using De-Esser To Reduce Vocal Sibilance

Vocal de-essing is the most over-looked process of mixing vocals by both beginner and experienced engineers.

I’ve also heard a lot of music coming out of major record labels with plosive and sibilance sounds. Some even believe the sibilance are a natural thing and there’s no need to remove them.

Sibilance and plosive sounds can be annoying to the listener especially if they’re using headphones or ear-buds to listen to music. The aim is not to remove them completely, just bring them down to a more listenable level.

What Causes Sibilance?

These are commonly known as a hissing sound and they are usually caused by the vocalist when singing words with alphabets such as t, s, k and z. Mostly sounds that have a lot of “sss”, “ch”, “sh” or “ts”.

A microphone that captures a lot of high frequencies will also exaggerate these sibilance sounds. Even close-up mic techniques can also cause sibilance. Heavy compression can also cause sibilance. These are the most common factors that cause sibilance.

How to Use a De-Esser on Vocals Like a Pro

Vocal De-essing - How to Use a De-esser on Vocals

There are 2 ways to reduce sibilance on a vocal performance.

You can either use automation by manually gain riding all the sibilance on your vocals, which will take years to finish. But some engineers just prefer doing things manually instead of relying on tools.

Or you can use a dynamic processor called the De-Esser. A de-esser is a special type of compressor that is designed to remove these sibilance and plosive sounds.

A de-esser is easy to use as it mostly comes with 3 parameters. Which are side chain (or listen), range and a frequency control parameter. The frequency control allows you to set the frequency where you want the de-essing to happen.

Each and every vocalist has a different frequency where the sibilance occur. For instance, a male vocal mostly has a low tone voice so the sibilance are mostly found around 3-6kHz. Female sibilance are mostly found at 5-8kHz.

The range is the amount of attenuation applied to whatever frequency you choose, which is mostly in the top-end of the frequency spectrum. The side chain or listen parameter allows you to listen to the particular high frequencies where the sibilance are happening.

You don’t want to use an equalizer for this because an EQ will reduce the sibilance throughout the entire mix which may sound undesirable or unnatural and it can make the whole vocal mix sound dull.

So, if you’re not doing it manually then use a deesser dynamic processor.

Where in the Vocal Chain Should the De-esser Go?

This really depends on the project that you’re currently working on. In some projects you will want to remove the sibilance before doing any processing to your vocals.

This happens if the sibilance are way too loud and the singer was too close to the microphone.

That way you’ll be able to add some brightness and add presence to the vocals without bringing up the sibilance.

In some cases, you’ll only use the de-esser plug-in after your EQ and compression because those 2 processes tend to bring up the sibilance sounds.

At the end of the day, your ears have to be the judge to determine where the de-esser should go in your chain.

Also play around with it before and after your processing to find out what sounds better for each project that you’re mixing.

Best De-esser for Vocals

There’s no best de-esser for vocals or any other sound. Again, it depends on the situation and your goal. Each one has its strength and its weaknesses.

There’s no de-esser that will work in all situations, it’s not a one size fits all.

However, here’s a small list of my favorite de-essing plugins:

  • FabFilter Pro-DS
  • Precision De-Esser
  • Sonnox Oxford SuperEsser V3
  • Waves Sibilance

Removing Sibilance Example

For this example I’ll be using the Waves Renaissence De-Esser. It doesn’t matter what you use, just as long as it gets the job done. It’s really easy to use a De-Esser, all you do is find the right frequency then adjust the range and threshold to taste.

I did exaggerate the settings on my example so that the effect can be obvious and easy for those who don’t know what a De-Esser does. Removing all the sibilance will make the vocalist sound like they have a lisp, so the main goal is to reduce them not removing them completely.

You can check out my De-Esser settings on the image below and the examples for before and after are right below the image. Hope you find this tutorial useful and leave your comments below, it’s always good to hear what you think.

vocal de-esser.jpg

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