3 Ways To Control Sibilance

What is Sibilance? The true definition of Sibilance is a complicated statement about the way air flows over your teeth and tongue etc. For the purpose of this article, we are only going to be concerned with the way the letter ‘S’ sounds within vocal tracks in our songs/ mixes, as well as WHY sibilance occurs and HOW to deal with it.

When recording vocals, the common result is an ‘S’ that is louder than other syllables and letters within a word. This can obviously be irritating and annoying to the listener. It can also cause the mix engineer to reduce the overall level of the vocals to a lower volume to compensate, resulting in the rest of the vocals not being heard clearly.

 

At the Source!

The most common approach to dealing with sibilance is to reach for a plugin, but I want to take it back a step first. One of the best ways to control sibilance (that most engineers don’t normally think of first), is to prevent or reduce the sibilance at the source. What I mean by this, is by paying close attention to microphone placement during the recording phase of the project.

The best way to approach this is to record the vocalist singing a phrase that contains an ‘S’, and do this several times with the microphone in various locations. I am not talking about massive changes in the microphone placement, but small adjustments where the microphone will still be in front of the vocalist, but with slight variances.

First I would record a take with the microphone directly in front of the vocalists mouth at a comfortable distance. Next I would try moving the microphone slightly above the vocalist’s mouth, and then slightly below the mouth (Physically above or below, but still aimed pointing at the mouth). If this does not help to reduce the sibilance, I would try having the microphone slightly to the side, but still angled at the vocalist’s mouth. With each of these you need to make sure the vocalist doesn’t move to compensate for this change and that they don’t just end up singing directly into the microphone again. What we are trying to achieve is to have the air and the direct hit of the ‘S’ to pass around the microphone and not directly into it.

Next you could get the vocalist to move back from the microphone a little and then move them closer to the microphone. If possible try different types of microphones to see if one suits the vocalist better than another. With all of these always use a pop-filter/windscreen. Listen to the recordings and make a decision on the placement, balancing sibilance control with quality. Don’t sacrifice quality for sibilance control.

Some placements may reduce sibilance but may also result in a vocal sound that isn’t great, one that may possibly be too thin. You will never remove all of the sibilance, but if you can reduce it a little then it will make the mixing stage a lot easier.

 

Plugins

Now we get to the mixing stage. The most common approach to controlling sibilance at this stage is to place a de-esser plugin on each vocal track. A de-esser plugin is basically a compressor that works within a specific frequency range where the sibilance occurs. There are lots of de-esser plugins on the market and some DAW software even include one for free.

Some plugins do give better performance than others but most will be good and will generally give you the results you need. The best thing is to try a few out before purchasing and see which one feels right to you.

I personally have a favorite at the moment, which is the Fabfilter Pro-DS. The reason I like that one is because it has a lot of customization, which allows you to really targeting only the ‘S’ and not affect any of the other vocals. It also has a visual waveform that shows you when a ‘S’ is in the passage and shows how it is affecting it.

screenshot_pro-ds_full

If you don’t have a de-esser plugin you can also use a Multi-band Compressor or a Dynamic EQ to do the same function. A Multi-band compressor is a compressor that is broken up into several frequency ranges. Each range has it’s own set of controls and can be adjusted to suit.

To control sibilance you would set all the bands to a ratio and threshold setting that does nothing to the signal at all, except for the range where the sibilance occurs around the 4-8 kHz range. In this range you would set your ratio and threshold to compress the signal every time a ‘S’ is heard but the remainder of the time it does nothing. If you set the compressor too aggressive you might find that all of your vocal is impacted and it will leave you with a dull sounding vocal.

Screenshot (6)

Manual

The last way to control sibilance is the cheapest, technically easiest but the most time consuming and mind numbingly boring approach. It involves manually going through the entire song from start to finish and using something like clip gain to reduce the volume of every ‘S’.

To do this you need to zoom right into the wave form and then search for every ‘S’. Once you find an ‘S’ then highlight that section and adjust the clip gain in Pro Tools or an equivalent method in other DAW software. After some practice you will quickly start to spot the letter ‘S’ very easily without having to listen, as it looks a bit like a football.

Screenshot (7)

If you are after more recording, mixing and mastering tips or are looking for songs to practice on then head on over to the MixCoach Member website. http://mixcoachmember.com/

By Kevin de Wit

Kevin de Wit is a Mixing and Mastering engineer for artists all over the world. Please feel free to check out his work at http://www.kdwmixingmastering.com/

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