Sibilance is the worst. Nothing screams “unseated vocal” like a bunch of “s”s and “t”s that hop right out of the mix.
The issue with taming sibilance is that it lives right in the presence and “shiny” range of the vocals — that nice top end down to about 2-3 . This article will be about taming sibilance, and the pros and cons and trickery of each mechanism for doing so.
At The Source
Sibilance comes from an exaggeration of sound that projects from the roof of the mouth. Certain tongue shapes, space in the front teeth, shape of the palette, or just a learned way of speaking can produce overly sibilant delivery. Knowing this, there are a number of ways we can try to deal with problem before it hits the tape… err … computer (2013 right?).
1. Choose the right mic. This almost goes without saying, but if the vocalist is overly bright, you might want a darker microphone. A ribbon mic, a softer dynamic mic (like an RE20), or a vintage sounding condenser (U67), might be a good grab. Something that has a rolled off, smooth top end, that will take well to EQ. There is no con to this approach.
2. Choose the correct mic position. You may want to tip the mic a bit off axis, aiming it slightly left or right of the mouth, or perhaps somewhat down. Angling the mic will mostly change the way the treble range is picked up, as lower frequencies are somewhat less directional. The con is that the evenness of the frequency response will be somewhat disrupted by grabbing an off-axis response.
3. The bubble gum trick?If sound projecting from the upper palette is the problem…. eliminate the upper palette. Have the vocalist chew up some gum and stick it to the roof of his/her mouth. This will cut down the sibilance significantly. The big con here is that this can be awkward for a performer — if it throws off the performance or sense of pitch, it’s not worth it. But it’s an option.
In The Mix
The issue with sibilance is too fold. First, because of the way we hear, we are more sensitive to higher tones even at lower volumes. So even if the “s”s and “t”s are below the other vocal sounds, we’re still gonna hear them clear as day. Second, sibilant sounds are very fast. So here’s a few ways we can deal with sibilance effectively:
1. Manually ride the fader. Hear an “s,” turn it down. This is a transparent approach. The con is that it’s time consuming.
2. Wideband de-essing. Another basic approach, this is compression that is reacting only to the frequency range. This is much faster than fader riding, however, it tends to leave the leading edge of the “s” unaltered. It makes your sibilant sound less intrusive but spikey, and may be just as annoying. The other con is that you’ll tend to catch some of the treble of non-sibilant words and pull down the overall “spark” of the vocal.
3. Frequency selective de-essing. This is the same as wideband, except instead of turning the whole signal down, you’re just turning down the treble range, as opposed to the whole of the signal when it triggers. This is good for evening out the tone, but has all the drawbacks of wideband, plus it induces EQ artifacts (although they are fairly minimal).