De-Essing Vocals – 4 Ways to Remove Sibilance

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In this article we discuss 4 ways to deal with Sibilance in your vocal recordings. From spoken word recordings like podcasts to vocal performances learn how to treat it.

Have you ever been listening to the radio or TV, and the person talking on air always seems to hurt your ears when they say a word with the `s` sound? Or perhaps the Radio or TV distorts when these `s` sounds come through the speakers. Well this is what you call sibilance and it is going to be the topic for today’s article and more specifically, how to deal with it in your productions.

This process of `dealing with` sibilance is often referred to as `De-Essing Vocals` and is a powerful & important technique to master. We will run through how to De-Ess vocals using four different methods. First we will look at De-Essing plugins, how to use them and what the result sounds like. Next we will look at the sidechaining method and how to set this up on a vocal. Finally, we will try two manual way to achieve De-Essing, one with automation and another with multiple tracks.

But first, technically speaking, what is sibilance? Well sibilance occurs most often when consonants like S, T and Z are spoken since the air pressure of the voice leaving the mouth is quickly constricted by your teeth and tongue. This causes a `burst` of air pressure and so you get the harsh sibilance frequencies often around the 5kHz to 7kHz range. It is like a hard and sharp hissing sound which accompanies the consonant of a word.

So now that we know what sibilance is, how do we deal with it in our productions?

note: the following methods do not consider the microphone type and setup, they assume every effort was made to reduce sibilance at the source, as possible.

Here is the original recording of a sentence with sibilance, play this recording before comparing to the processed/De-Essed recordings below.

 

Using a De-Esser plugin


The easiest way to deal with sibilance is with a dedicated De-Esser plugin like the Lisp plugin from Sleepy Time which you can download for free as a Windows VST here. The plugin is super flexible and can be left on auto or set manually to target a specific frequency range. For De-Essing and there is even a listen button that allows you to hear what frequencies are being targeted. So all you need to do with this plugin is to increase the reduction amount and listen in for the sibilance sounds in the recording to get a setting of your liking.

So what happens when we apply the Lisp plugin with the above settings to our audio clip?

When you compare this with the original recording at the top of the article, you can hear a slight reduction in the sibilance sounds and the recording is less offensive to the ears. This method is by far the easiest and least time-consuming however, you may be sacrificing control over the De-Esseing since the plugin takes care of everything for you. OK lets try another method!

 

Sidechain


This method is much more complex than the previous but it can still be considered an automated one. As we get into it, you will be able to see that really all we are doing it replicating what the Lisp plugin above did.

De-Essing - Sidechain Setup

What you will need is two identical tracks with the recording in both. The top track we will consider the `Master` and the lower the `Sidechain Input`. We place a multi band EQ on the Sidechain Input track and apply a band pass filter to the recording from 4kHz to 8kHz. From here what you will get is just the frequencies between these two points coming through. What you want to do is fine tune these so that all you can hear is the sibilance you want to get rid of. Now on the Master track we will apply a compressor and route the Sidechain Input tracks signal into the compressor, so that it reacts to that signal. Now with the Sidechain Input track muted listen to the Master track and apply compression to it. Since the compressor is only reacting to the Sidechain Input track, compression will occur when the sibilance signal you dialed in earlier comes through.

Check out the results of the Sidechain method and compare to the original at the top of this article.

 

Manual Automation


The following methods are quite easy to set up compared with the above sidechain method but, can be quite tedious to implement since you have to go through and draw in the automation (De-Essing levels) yourself manually. This can end up taking a lot of time to do and could result in some missed areas. But if you put in the time you can end up with a better result since you have ultimate control over what is going on.

Gain

The gain method is straightforward where all you need to do is automate the reduction in gain around the sibilance areas. Take care not to apply too much gain reduction as this can result in a choppy sounding recording because, the gain is `bouncing` up and down too much and/or too quickly. Here is an example of gain reduction automation and I have purposefully applied a little too much gain reduction for my liking.


EQ

The EQ method is very similar to the above Gain method where you will need to manually draw in the automation lines where you want reduction to occur. There is however one difference here, rather than reducing the gain across all frequencies, you are able to pick the frequencies you want to reduce. With patients this method can prove to be one of the best methods for removing harsh sibilance in a recording.

To do so, all you need to do is set up a track with a multi band EQ, dial in the frequencies you want to remove, then draw in the gain reduction automation lines for these frequencies. This is great because say if you have two people talking in the same recording with different sibilance sounds, you can set up two EQs with their own automation for each person. Keep in mind that this will take longer since you are having to manually configure two EQ plugins with automation. Remember that sibilance often occurs around the same frequencies so the pay off for doing it this way may not be worth it if you are in a rush.

Check out the EQ method below and compare with the original.

 

Multi Track


Our final method for removing sibilance is to use multiple tracks to split out the sibilance sound from the rest of the track, and apply effects accordingly. To set this up first have your `Master` track setup, then listening to the recording in your DAW, cut out the areas of sibilance and move them to the second track. Once you have done this Apply gain or a combination of gain and EQ reduction to the second track. The result when they play together will be a De-Essed track with softer sibilance sounds when compared to the original.

Check out how this method sounds by comparing it to the original at the top of this article.

 

The Wrap up


So today we have discussed 4 different method for De-Essing and head examples of how they work compared to the original and now we can compare them to each other. Which one to you, sounds the best? I admit that with these example recordings I have over emphasized the De-Essing to help illustrate the example we were discussing.

At the end of the day, the method that works best for you, is the one that sounds the best to you. I personally prefer the sound of a combination of the EQ and Gain methods combined. However, if you were a podcaster who needs to get a hours worth of discussion posted within a very short turn around, then perhaps a De-Esser plugin or the compression method would be best for you.

Like any other art form, it takes practice and lots of it! The best way to get better at something is to do it, so go ahead and grab yourself some vocals, and try out these methods for yourself!

 

Let me know if you like this article by clicking the like button below, and let me know if there is anything else you would like me to cover, in the comments section.

Thanks for reading!

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12 thoughts on “De-Essing Vocals – 4 Ways to Remove Sibilance”

  1. I didn’t notice the S hurting my ears until you’ve said it! and now its all I notice when listening to the radio. How strange! This content has really opened my eyes, well ears, to this subject. I understand that mastering this will take lots of practice, like anything else, I better get started. 

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  2. Hey there! I’m glad that I came across this guide. I record a lot of video tutorials and the ‘s’ sound just as you described it drives me crazy. I never knew what it was called so it was hard to find or figure out a solution. Now that I know how to fix it and what I should be using I will be able to create much better sounding voice overs. 

    Thanks so much! I really appreciate it, 

    Marlinda 

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  3. Wow Tim!  You know your stuff!  Quite interesting reading although I didn’t really understand it all.  I was however, curious to know if in fact, you have any suggestions regarding how the person speaking could modulate their vocal movements to reduce sssss in speaking.  I know that this is a major issue in production and so appreciate there are guys out there that know how to handle the issue!

    Thanks for a well-written article.

    SharonRPh

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    1. Hi @SharonRPh!

      Thanks for your comment. 

      To answer your question it depends on who you are working with.

      Singer: 

      In the case of a singer I would never suggest making any changes especially if they are working with me in a studio. The last thing you want to do is change how a singer sounds it is absolutely key to who they are as an artist. Also it is my job to deal with it. If it is really bad and you have a good repore with them then you could discuss it and suggest a vocal coach.

      New Reader/Podcaster/Youtuber: 

      Again you don’t want to make them sound like someone else but. From working in radio, one tip is to get the presenter to read the paper aloud and concentrate on keeping their tongue away from the front teeth and trying not to let the front teeth touch. It is quite a crude method but it can help some.

      Cheers

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  4. Like an ice pick to my ear drum! I hear harsh sibilance all the time in radio commercials.  I can’t stand it.  When I was younger I used to play guitars with my buddies, and on open mike nights my one friend would sing.  His hissing “S” sounds would pierce my brain. 

    Recording wise, this would be a great app to have, especially to anyone trying to break out on YouTube.

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    1. Hi @James.

      Completely agree, if you want your audience to enjoy your content and come back for more then it is attention to this kind of detail that can make all the difference!

      Cheers

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  5. reading this post was very interesting, I didn’t appreciate the technology involved in controlling frequencies. 

    Your right in what you say that an art skill takes practice to perfect. With frequencies you will require a good ear to recognise the difference in the sounsmds I would of thought? 

    How long dies it take to developer the required skills? 

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    1. Hi @Darren!

      Quite right you do need to take care of your hearing in this industry, it is after all your most important tool.

      The length of time it takes really depends on how often you practise and how varied your practises are. The best bet is to work with as many different vocalists as possible. There is also a huge amount of vocal resources online that you can use to practise with.

      I think as with any art for you never really feel like you have learnt everything.

      Cheers

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  6. Very useful article. I was working on the radio as an editor, but to be honest with you we never paid attention to these kind of details. To me personally, it was not too bad untill I heard it from the ear of the listener. I started gathering information and somehow finished on your website. 

    I was a little bit confused with the snake image but than I got it, De- Essing. Famous snake sound. Do you think this pluging is good for radio use? 

    Thank you in advice.

    It was really amazing and good read.

    Regards,

    Strahinja

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    1. Hi @Strahinja!

      Really interesting to hear about your experience in radio! I have done work with radio before too and found the same thing. Form headphones I wore and from a recording played back later (through a good system) everything sounded `good enough`. But when I listened to the show through the radio the Sibilance really came through and them same when listening in my car.

      Yes, if you are a windows/vst user the Lisp plugin will work just fine for live radio! Since it is free I highly recommend downloading it and trying it out for yourself.

      Cheers

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