While many engineers first choice is to reach for a de-esser plugin to control sibilance, the simple truth is, controlling it manually can really help you achieve a non-artificial vocal sound. And it is so easy to achieve because the sibilance on a vocal can easily be identified and fixed quickly.
De-essers are very useful tools that works very well in most cases but not in all cases. They are designed to help you select specific frequency regions where the sibilance is excessive, and then you are able to control how much of the sibilance you want to tame. That method is great and it works, but when it is done manually you are able to control the entire frequency spectrum of the sibilance by simply reducing it's gain, which will in turn give you a smooth and natural sounding vocal take.
In order to manually de-ess your vocal track, you must first be able to identify what the sibilance looks like. The sibilance waveform looks completely different from the rest, and that in itself makes it very easy to identify.
Identify the Sibilance:
As shown in the image below, the sibilance is a fuzzy shaped waveform that stands out from the rest of the waveform as you can see in the image below. Those sibilance are mostly composed of consonants letters like "S, C or sometimes F's and T's".
Too much of it on a vocal track can make it unbearable to listen to, and the absence of it can also make a singer sound lipsy.
So now that you know what the sibilance looks like, let's move on to how you can easily control it.
Reduce The Gain of The Sibilance
Once you've identified the sibilance, the next move to make is to simply highlight the sibilance region and manually reduce the gain as shown in the image below.
After you've that, it is important to playback your vocal track and listen to how it sounds. This is solely to ensure that you've not gone too far, and if you have, simply increase the gain to where it sounds good and natural.
For Protools Users: In protools there is a clip gain line feature that is present on every audio track. (you must choose to show this feature). This clip gain line helps you to easily pull up or pull down any region of the waveform you've selected.
This feature i believe is present in all Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), so find it, enable it and use it for this exercise.
The good thing about manual vocal de-essing using clip gain is that it is pre insert/fader and not post fader. Which means you are controlling the sibilance of the vocal track before it goes through any plugin processing within your DAW.
Advantages of Manual De-essing
Gives you a natural sound
Saves you from using a de-esser plugin
Accuracy is guaranteed.
Disadvantage of Manual De-essing
It can be time consuming
A very important tip you should know is that getting a great vocal sound should be a decision you make during the music production stage. You can read more about how to improve your music production skills.
Try your possible best to craft your vocal sound properly by choosing the right microphone that suits the singer's voice, and if you only have one microphone like many of us do, make sure you are not recording without a good pop filter.
Remember that the vocal sound is always the most significant part of a song, and it must be treated with utmost care.
In this article, I have only shared one way to de-ess a vocal manually. It's important to remember that there is no "one" way to de-ess a vocal. This particular method can be best used when the sibilance on the vocal is excessive, and it will take more than one plugin to fix it.
So, now that you have this quick and easy info about manual vocal de-essing, go out and try it on your mix to get a natural vocal sound.
Talk to you next time.