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How to de-ess to perfection (the hard way!)

How to de-ess to perfection (the hard way!)


Whenever did you hear someone speak or sing in everyday life and feel that they sounded overly sibilant? OK, some people do have a little whistle in their speech (David Attenborough anyone?), but rarely would you become aware of someone over-pronouncing their 's' sounds.

Put a singer in front of a microphone and it's a different story. Quite often you will find that the signal from the mic is far too 'essy'. It's down to the singer, or the mic, or just the way they react to each other. So you have to do something about it…

…And reach for the de-esser.

It has to be said that de-essing using a plug-in, or a compressor with a de-ess function (or an ordinary compressor cleverly set up), can work. It can work very well, with a bit of care. But sometimes it is incredibly difficult to find the precise setting where the esses come out natural-sounding, and neither over-pronounced nor over-processed.

There is a solution however. Except in really unusual circumstances it is a full and complete solution. But you have to plan ahead.

Let's start from the point where you have a singer standing in front of you and you're listening in the old fashioned voice-to-ear way, purely acoustically. Old-fashioned, I know 😉

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In a situation such as this, it would be unlikely that you would experience any unpleasant degree of sibilance.

So take our your microphone and have a listen through that. Suddenly things are different, and there may well be a sibilance problem to take care of.

The problem is that microphones that make the vocal sound nice are also the ones that are more likely to accentuate any sibilance. So there is a little bit of nastiness mixed in with the nice.

You might have chosen a more accurate microphone – small-diaphragm capacitor microphones are normally the most accurate – and not had any sibilance at all. But they don't flatter the vocal. And you can't have it both ways.

Well actually, you can…

There is absolutely no reason why you shouldn't record the vocal with two mics simultaneously. One will be your favorite, warm, luscious large-diaphragm tube microphone, maybe even through a tube preamp if you like the tube-on-tube sound. The other will be an accurate small-diaphragm mic, recorded through a transistor preamp.

You will end up with two vocal tracks, one will be warm and lush, but with a sibilance problem. The other will be clinically clean, but with clean esses too.

All it takes is a little editing and you will have the perfect warm vocal track, with no sibilance to be heard!

David Mellor

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David Mellor