Sibilance, the sharp and often intrusive 's' or 'sh' sounds in vocal recordings, can be a real challenge for sound engineers and music producers. This pesky problem can detract from the clarity and quality of your audio, making your recordings sound less professional. But fear not! The solution lies in the use of de-esser plugins, a must-have tool in any audio editing arsenal.
In this post, we're diving deep into the world of de-essing. We've carefully selected and reviewed the top 5 de-esser plugins currently on the market, each offering unique features and capabilities. Whether you're a seasoned audio professional or just starting out, these plugins will help you achieve crisp, clear vocals without the harshness of sibilance. Let's dig in!
Included in this guide:
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FG-DS 902’s interface is a dead giveaway that it’s modeled after a popular piece of hardware: the DBX 902. The general layout is more or less the same, with the gain reduction indication lights and a bright yellow frequency knob. Slate even mimicked the “Norm” labeling on the range knob.
Two features that the FG-DS has and the DBX doesn’t are the “Listen Mode” and “TouchListen.” The first is a monitor switch that allows you to hear the removed sibilance in isolation. The “TouchListen” button automatically activates “Listen Mode” whenever you move (or tap and hold) the frequency knob. Of course, there’s no point using the frequency knob if you’re on the full range mode, which is the default setting, by the way.
The FG-DS also has a mix knob, which isn’t something we see on a lot of de-esser plugins!
We use this de-esser plugin in all our mixes.
At the heart of Sibilance is Wave’s proprietary Organic ReSynthesis engine, which breaks down the signal to its core characteristics to identify sibilant sounds. Without digging too much into the technical aspects, the engine delivers transparent de-essing while leaving the signal crisp-clear.
While Organic ReSynthesis is working behind the scenes, you get to control things on the surface level using the detection width knob. It’s set to 50 by default, but if you want to focus on “shh” sounds rather than “ess” ones, go for a wider frequency span. You can visualize the detected sounds as you go on the waveform—they’ll be marked in yellow.
To control which sounds will actually get processed, use the threshold control. This will also be displayed on the graph. But this time, it’s represented by two green lines.
Rather than letting you set an absolute threshold level, SSL opted for a relative threshold on their DeEss. This can reduce the risk of over-processing loud sections when de-essing quiet sibilants and vice versa. But that also means you don’t get to see threshold values as lines on the graph.
What you will be able to see is the relative compression. Any signal marked with bright yellow has been de-essed heavily. Think 6 dB or more. The dim yellow parts? Those have been touched up slightly. The “Amount” knob can help you tweak the intensity.
Aside from the main controls, the plugin is chock-full of features. For one, you get a brightening control to tackle any dullness that heavy de-essing might leave behind. There’s also lookahead, oversampling, and mid-side controls.
Sonible’s de-esser is aptly named. There are, in fact, “smart” components at work. Instead of simply compressing signals according to a selected threshold, this plugin uses AI to analyze tracks, “learn” voiceprints, identify unwanted phonemes, and suggest custom spectral processing.
That said, the plugin can be overwhelming at first since you have a ton of elements to explore (spectrogram, shaping panels, mix, speed, etc.). The manual breaks everything down nicely, but a good tip to help you navigate the interface is to look at the colors. Any green parameter or signal is sibilant-related, while blue is strictly for plosives.
There aren’t a lot of controls on the Waves DeEsser’s vintage interface. You just dial in the frequency and drag the threshold slider down until the “ess” sounds are reduced to your liking. This simple design can be a blessing or a drawback, depending on how you look at it and how much tweaking your vocals need.
Related Article: How To Mix Vocals: 8 Tips & Techniques For Radio Quality Tracks
In split mode, you’re only compressing the high-frequency range. It’s a matter of preference, but the wide band can sound more natural, especially if you’re working with vocals only. However, the split mode is handy for accurate attenuation on mixed tracks.
The harshest peaks in vocal recordings are often between 4–10 kHz. However, the frequency changes based on the vocalist’s pitch and the sound. For instance, if the “ess” in “sweet” is at 6 kHz, the “shh” in “sugar” would be lower. Say, at 4 kHz.
It depends on how much sibilance you have to start with. In most cases, 3–10 dB of gain reduction would do the trick. Remember that your goal isn’t to remove sibilance completely—it’ll only make the sound unnatural.
Now that you know what the best de-esser plugins out there are, the question is which one are you going to get? We love the Slate Digital FG-DS 902 for it's familiar interface and subtle de-essing. The Waves Sibilance is a close second with a wide feature range and an affordable price point.. Lastly, if you are on a budget, then you can't go wrong with the Waves DeEsser.
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