Join Brian Lee White for an in-depth discussion in this video Using de-essers to eliminate sibilance, part of Pro Tools Mixing and Mastering.
Sibilance, or the hard S sound of a vocal, can be quite overwhelming. It can be especially bad when certain singers are recorded with a less- than-optimal mic choice. This challenge is so prominent in the recording world that a specific type of dynamics processor was developed to tackle it. It's called a de-esser. A de-esser is what is also referred to as a frequency-dependent compressor. In other words, the compression or gain reduction in level is triggered only when specific frequencies breach the threshold.
In the case of the de-esser, it's generally set up to react to only the high frequencies of a vocals S or shh sounds or other harsh or brittle sounds: for example, poorly recorded cymbals or an overly bright mix come mastering stage. So, how does it work? Basically, a de-esser takes only a specified high-frequency band and feeds it into its compression- detection circuit, or side chain. When this band becomes excited by an overly sibilant word or phrase, it tells the compressor to turn down a signal by a specified amount.
So, let's take a look at the de-esser on the vocal track of the Take Me Down session. And I am actually going to switch to the Edit window and use my memory location to bring up the lead vocal. And let's take a listen here without the de-esser. (music playing) All right, let's take that S there in "sound." (music playing) And that could get a little bit hot, especially because I'm adding all this top end here in my EQ.
So, what I am going to do is I am going to pull up the De-Esser Dynamics 3 here. And let's take a listen at what I've got going on. (music playing) Notice how it only reacts to the S of that phrase. (music playing) And that's because I have set the de-esser up only to look at specific frequencies. So I am telling this de-esser, hey, look around 6k and if you detect something that's fairly loud in that range, turn it down.
Again, it's a frequency-specific compressor. Now the Range control is saying, how much I want to turn it down, in this case up to 70 beats. And I have also engaged the high-frequency only option, so that's only turning down the frequencies around 6K and higher. If I don't use the high-frequency option, it's actually turning everything down at that point. (music playing) Then I find what can happen if I'm not using high-frequency only and I am using a lot of range, is I can actually add a lisp to this singer.
(music playing) So, not it's also getting into the TH sounds and unless I am trying to play a joke on the vocalist, I generally don't want to dig too deep into the range or use too much broadband de-essing. Now, in order to find the sweet spot frequency, for most lead vocalists, it's going to be between 6k and 7k, but what you can do is just select a particularly sibilant portion and check the LISTEN box.
And now you can actually go through and adjust the frequency while listening just to the side change. Check it out. (music playing) And I can find where it gets really bad. (music playing) So, right around that 6k, I don't like that sound, so I will turn that off and I will bring that RANGE down and then engage my indeed my high-frequency only option. Get a little de-essing going on.
Now you're definitely going to want to adjust this in the mix and in context with your EQ, because you might want to add a bit more top end, once you are hearing things in the mix. But I often find that I'm always using a little bit of de-essing on all my vocals, unless for some reason they are not doing any S sounds or there was an ideal mic selection. And if you look around this specific mix, you will see that I'm actually using the de-esser other places, specifically the drums here. So on my overhead tracks I am using a de-esser to kind of tame some of these harsh cymbal sounds.
I didn't exactly like how the cymbals were recorded in the room and if we just kind of listen here. (music playing) Especially in the chorus. (music playing) I'm adding some air at the top end, but to me it just got a little bit harsh. And so I wanted to do is just do bit of high-frequency-only de-essing above 7K. (music playing) And to me, that's just smoothing out the top end a little. Some people might be surprised when you say de-essing can actually allow you to increase the amount of high frequencies in a mix, because it's taming the nastier parts.
So what you'll find is mastering engineers will actually use it quite a bit so they can add a bunch of high- frequency air to an entire mix without it becoming harsh. I will use de-essers anywhere where I think things are going to get a bit harsh in the top end. So even on reverb and effects returns, a lot of times, a plate reverb can really exaggerate sibilance. Now some other ideas, instead of using de-essing, would be try using volume automation to control the sibilance. So instead of using a de-esser that would dig into your TH sounds or P sounds a little bit too much, what you can actually do is draw in volume automation, and we'll talk about that little bit later.
This allows you to total control over when that signal is getting ducked. What I like to do when I am checking my sibilance is always check my mix on small speakers or ear buds, as the high frequencies tend to be even more fatiguing on these systems. De-essers are a great little utility that once you start using them in your mix, you'll never know how you lived without them. Plus most are incredibly hands-off and plug-and-play, so there is no reason to be afraid of integrating them into your mixes.
- What is mixing? Exploring the past, present, and future
- Mixing "in the box"
- Setting up monitors and ensuring proper acoustics in the studio
- Staying organized with labels, memory locations, and window configurations
- Working with the Pro Tools Mixer
- Building healthy and profitable mixing habits when putting together a final mix
- Using volume and pan to balance the mix
- Employing corrective versus creative EQ strategies to create clarity and contrast
- Knowing when and when not to process the audio of a track
- Working with compressors and dynamics processors
- Using saturation effects to capture an analog-type sound
- Adding reverb and delay to create depth in a mix
- Working with limiting and multiband compression during the mastering process
- Dealing with plug-in delay and latency in a mix
- Using the bundled plug-ins in Pro Tools to add clarity, punch, and width to a mix
- Recording and editing automation to add drama and excitement
- Using clip based gain to control headroom and gain staging