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In The Studio: Tips For Controlling Vocal Sibilance
Keeping the problem from becoming a musical distraction
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De-esser Signal Flow

Audio dynamics processors like compressors and expanders contain two signal paths:

1) The audio path, which is subject to conditional gain reduction and;

2) The sidechain or ‘key’ path, which the gain reduction is conditioned on.

In short, gain reduction happens (or not) in the audio path based on the interaction between the sidechain signal and the detector settings (i.e. threshold and time constants). By placing an EQ in the sidechain path, we can further condition gain reduction on user definable frequency conditions.

The de-esser technique typically uses a narrow peak EQ in the sidechain path to boost the most offensive sibilant frequencies. This EQ exaggerates the dynamic difference between the sibilant band and the rest of the vocal waveform, making it much easier to achieve gain reduction during those consonants (and only then).

A pre-configured de-esser may provide an interface as simple as a compressor threshold and the peak EQ center frequency. These often work just fine. For more detailed control, one could patch an EQ into the sidechain of a relatively fast compressor, or use any number of compressor plug-ins that provide detailed EQ in the sidechain path.

There are lots of great techniques based on this signal flow, so spend some time with it. Frankly, de-essing is the least of what you can do by adding frequency conditions to your gain reduction.

Other Precautions

When you’re recording a vocal performance that may have a sibilance problem, resist the urge to compress the signal in the channel path. Over-compression can exaggerate sibilance. Instead, try using a fader to level the vocal performance, or just record with an adequate amount of headroom.

The same applies to the mixing process. Once you’ve done your best to control vocal sibilance, try using a fader and automation to maintain a consistent vocal volume in the mix. If you simply must instantiate a compressor on every vocal track, keep the attack time slow (> 30ms), and the ratio low.

Finally, don’t listen too loudly when you mix. That’s good general advice, but quality control issues like sibilance highlight its importance. Try a control room volume of 78-83 dB(C) SPL. You might be surprised how much detail you’re suddenly able to hear.

Rob Schlette is chief mastering engineer and owner of Anthem Mastering (anthemmastering.com) in St. Louis, MO, which provides trusted specialized mastering services to music clients across North America.

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