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Sibilance or the hard S sound of a vocal can be overwhelming and especially bad with certain singers when they are recorded with a less than optimal mike choice. This challenge is so prominent in the recording world that a specific type of dynamics processor was developed to tackle it called a de-esser. So what is a de-esser anyways? Essentially, it's a frequency dependent compressor, in other words, the compression or reduction in level is triggered only when a specific frequency breaches the threshold.
In the case of a de-esser, it is generally set up to react only to the high frequencies of a vocals s or shh sounds or other harsh or brittle sounds, like poorly recorded cymbals. Master engineers will even use it on a bad mix sometimes. So how does it work? Well, because only a specified range of frequency is going to trigger the de-esser, in the Digirack De-Esser Dyn 3, we have the frequency definition, which is going to be that center frequency where the worst S sounds occur.
And then we have a range control which controls how much attenuation is going to happen when that frequency breaches the threshold. The way that this actually works is internally the de-esser has a side chain which routes a filtered off section of the signal that's boosting the specific frequency. So whenever it gets excited, it tells the de-esser to turn on. Now the best way to set up this de- esser is to start with one of the presets. You have some for male and female Ss. The listen mode lets you listen to the built or side chain that's triggering the de-esser so you can find right where that S is at its worst.
So what I'm going to do is solo up the track and find a section that has a lot of S sounds. There is one here right in the middle of the pre-chorus. Let's listen to this and I'll bypass. (Male singing: I woke up just in time, with chills...) So he says, I woke up just in time with chills. There is two Ss there. This wasn't recorded with a poor mike choice and Joshua doesn't have a lot of sibilance on his vocals but we are going to put on there just to kind of cut it out a little bit.
It's going to really help on those smaller laptop speakers and ear buds that are really going to pronounce that S effect. So I'm going to listen. (Male singing: I woke up just in time, with chills...) And I might even select just one of those S sounds. (Male singing: ...sss...) And just go through these frequencies. (Male singing: ...sss...) And where do I think it sounds the worst, or where the S is most pronounced in the frequency range? Once I find that, I can turn Listen off.
Then I can go through here and adjust the range to control how much attenuation happens when it excites the de-esser. (Male singing: I woke up just in time, with chills darting down my spine.) Now you want to be careful with the range control because if you use too much, especially when you turn the high frequency only off-- With HF Only on, it only attenuates the high frequencies of the signal. With this control off, it's going to attenuate everything equally and what you can actually do is give someone a lisp if you put the range down.
So let's listen to that. (Male singing: I woke up just in time, with chills darting down my spine.) I definitely don't want to do that unless I'm trying to play a joke on Josh. So what I'm going to do is I'm going to go back that range off a little bit and I'm going to turn the high frequency button on there. This is just going to kind of help bright the Ss very gently. I'm using a very gentle range setting here. Now depending on the vocalist or where you are using it, you might have to be a little bit more aggressive with your de-essing, and I have actually had situations where it's so bad that I have opted to use automation, volume automation, which I'll talk about in another chapter, to reduce the hard S sounds rather than using a de-esser.
So that's sort of more of a manual way using the volume automation. Now again, you can use this on other things besides vocals, so like it works great on really harsh sounding cymbals. You might want to set the frequency range up a little higher and you can even use them on entire mixes. Sometimes it can get a little shrill, especially if you are doing sort of a mastering task and you have got too much high end in a stereo mix, you kind of want to tame out a little bit. I'll also use de-essers in this mix here, if I recall the 100 memory location.
I'm using de-essers occasionally on my reverb returns. Now reverb returns especially plate reverbs and really bright reverbs, can really accent that sibilance in a mean and nasty way. It can kind of really get bright in the tail of that plate reverb. So I put a de-esser before it hits the reverb to kind of attenuate that. And I might do that a little bit more aggressively on the reverb return because I'm not so worried about giving the reverb return a lisp or anything like that.
So again, use de-essers to reduce sibilance but try other ideas too. Try volume automation, if when you are recording you find that the singer has a lot of sibilance coming into the mike, the best thing that you can do is maybe choose another mike, especially if you have access to other mikes because that can make the biggest difference in terms of being able to use a vocal track.
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