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  • Philip Marsden

How to De-Ess Vocals



When I’m mastering, one of the most common issues I come across in the mixes I work on is too much, or too little de-essing and with good reason - it’s really hard to get right, especially when you’re just starting out in the world of mixing! So today, I thought I’d share three methods for taming sibilance and some tips on how I do it.


 

In editing

In my opinion, the absolute best way to de-ess vocals is to edit them by hand. If you’ve got a recording that you suspect has a bit too much sibilance, this should be the first thing you try and 99 out of 100 times, it’s going to work. To do this, you’ll need to zoom in on your vocal waveform and identify each sibilant sound in the recording. As you work your way through the track, simply turn down each one (using clip gain or volume automation) by about 2db-6db, depending on how severe the sibilance is. It can be a good idea to do this with some EQ and compression already on the vocal, so that you have a reference of how it sounds in the context of a mixed track. It takes longer than slapping a plugin on, but it really is worth it. The finished result will be more transparent and you’ll have way more control over the process. Once you’ve done this a few times, it does become much quicker as it gets embedded into your muscle memory, I promise!


 

De-Esser plugins

Only once a vocal has been thoroughly edited, will I reach for a de-esser plugin. The reason for this (aside from manually edited vocals sounding so good) is that I find whenever you have to do some real heavy lifting with a de-esser plugin, it starts to sound very unnatural and quickly tears apart the recording quality. They are still really useful at the end of a vocal chain though! Typically I’ll use one just to knock the sibilance back an extra couple of dbs on vocals that have been heavily treated with compression or that have a lot of airy high-end. My go-to de-esser is the FabFilter Pro-DS, but there are a ton of great options out there like the Waves De-esser, Waves Sibilance, the iZotope RX De-esser and even Soothe by Oeksound. They all work a bit differently, but as long as you’re only doing about 3db of gain reduction, you’ll be good to go!


 

EQ

Sometimes the sibilant sounds don’t need turning down, but they can still sound a bit harsh due to a certain frequency that’s coming through too much in the recording. Most of the time this is due to a certain quality in the singer's voice, or just the way it was recorded. It’s quite rare, but if you’ve edited your vocals by hand and tried a de-esser plugin, but something is still not quite right, this could be the problem. To solve it, I’d reach for a standard EQ plugin and hunt for the suspect frequency by sweeping across the high end with a bell curve on a high Q setting. This will boost very precise frequencies, allowing you to identify where the problem lies. Once you find it, simply pull it back, cutting a few db. If you have a dynamic EQ plugin, that would also work a treat with this task!


Any heavy EQ work here is going to start sounding a bit unnatural and will take some clarity away from the rest of the vocal, so if you’re still having issues or if it’s affecting the overall sound too much, a re-record with a different technique might be the best option. Check out my post on recording amazing vocals at home if you need some help with this!


 


How to tell if you’ve gone too far

With de-essing, it’s really easy to take it too far and not notice. I think this is because once you start critically listening for ‘S’ sounds, it’s hard to un-hear them and draw your attention away from them. The main thing that will be a tell-tale sign that you’ve gone too far is when the ‘S’ sounds become more a “SH” sound. If you’re unsure, take an ear break or even a day away from the song and come back with fresh ears. If you’re still unsure after that, don’t be afraid to reach out to others for feedback! You can always reach me for advice on phil@marsdenmastering.com.


 

Want to get better at producing vocals? Download my free guide - Vocal Production Start to Finish



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