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SSSSS Sibilance

So, your song is done, but man, it sounds too bright or sizzly? And that vocal part is cutting through, but makes your eyes water because it just sounds harsh!

Well, read on, this blog is all about sibilance; and yes, sibilance isn’t just brightness from the vocal part.

Simply, sibilance is caused by sudden bursts of high frequency and is particularly noticeable on the ‘ss’ and ‘t’ ‘z’, ‘ch’, and ‘j’ sounds. Using a nice bright condenser microphone to capture that perfect vocal take is typically a great choice, but; you may have noticed that condenser microphones tend to capture sibilance a little too successfully! Especially if you are up close and personal with microphone, your ‘intimate’ sound can be plagued by excessive sibilance that sounds harsh.

You’ll also find that a lot of the commercial music in the digital technology era is nice and bright. A lot of mix engineers like a nice bump up in the 2–10 kHz range. Crispy.

When you do this, what may have been acceptable in the mix is now problematic at the mastering stage.

If you are mastering for vinyl, you really need to manage that brightness and sibilance. There are many technical limitations to take into account when mastering to vinyl, for instance, extreme high and low frequencies are not vinyl friendly. You also need to pay careful attention to any phase inconsistencies on the L/R. Today, we have a lot of great tools available (filters, EQ and width controls are just a few examples) to ensure that the vinyl cutting engineer is able to resolve most of these issues. But, even so, sibilance and overbrightness can prove problematic.

So, the best idea is to address and manage sibilance at the mix stage.

So, how do we manage this problem?

There is a fabulous tool called the de-esser. Probably the most common use of the De-esser plugins, is that they are used in mixing to control sibilance, so that loud and bright vocals can be upfront in the mix without being harsh.

Simply, a De-Esser is a frequency specific compressor with an adjustable frequency filtered sidechain. You should be able to find one in your plugin menu in your DAW under the ‘Dynamics’ sub menu. You are able to adjust the frequency to find where the problem area is, then adjust the threshold to manage those sibilance issues. A lot of De-essers offer extra options such as the option to compress either the whole signal or just the side chain band; and on some, a really useful feature is to be able to adjust the bandwidth of the sidechain.

If you have a really difficult session with a lot of sibilance, or an overly bright mix, it is a good idea to spend time manually finding problem areas. So, listen to the mix and as it is playing turn down the offending frequencies when they occur. The really cool thing about today’s technology is that this can be automated as well! Although doing things manually (with a bit of automation) is worth the effort, this method could be a time-consuming process, and if you are on tight turnaround deadlines, yeah we all know those situations!

It makes sense to use the best of both a De-esser as well as manual and automated gain control. You will then be able to really manage the over bright and sibilance issues well.

Here are a few tips to help you use a De-esser on a vocal part:

  • Insert your De-esser plugin after any compression, EQ or saturation you’ve used on your vocal track. These specific plugins typically add some form of harmonic changes to the signal, so De-essing after will ensure you manage any artifacts introduced by the other plugins in the chain.

  • Move the threshold to a bit of an extreme setting at first. Just so you know that the de-esser is WORKING.

  • Play the part, and adjust the frequency range so the de-esser is definitely triggering on the sibilant sounds

  • Then, slowly change the threshold until you start to hear the effect of the gain reduction, and keep adjusting so that it makes sense in the rest of the mix as well.

  • If you have other parameters on the De-esser, twiddle and tweak them to dial in control of the amount of De-essing you need.

But. Don’t just think vocal, when you think sibilance. The De-esser is also a great tool to manage excessive brightness on cymbals, and guitar strings or other instruments.

Your DAW might have it’s own stock de-esser plugin, but having different options available and a bit of experimentation can really do wonders.

Check out this company, they have incredible products, and they happen to have a very cool de-esser freebie!


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