One of the first stock plugins that engineers get their hands on in just about every DAW is the de-esser: a plugin designed to do exactly as the name implies.
De-essers are used to reduce and remove excessive “s” sounds, usually from a vocalist’s performance. They work by attenuating the resonant frequency of the consonants that jump out in front of the rest of the vocal. As a result, you can help your singer sound less like they’re hissing without needing something as drastic as EQ or compression to treat the problem.
The applications for de-essers go far beyond this standard use case though. Dialog editors use them in film post-production for similar results, as do podcast producers and audiobook editors. They’re a relatively straightforward tool for any situation where “s” sounds are just far too present in a track.
But there are plenty of applications beyond spoken work too…
Silkier Overheads with De-Essing
Drum mixers know that sibilance isn’t just a problem for vocals. Cymbals can suffer from just as many problems with hissy overtones as vocals do. The treatment for the problem is usually a darker-sounding microphone during tracking or a bit of transient shaping while mixing, but harshness in cymbals can also be tamed with a standard de-esser.
De-essers function in the same manner for overheads as they do for vocals. They attenuate the harshest upper frequencies that peak well above the rest of the frequency spectrum, bringing them back in line with the surrounding frequencies or reducing them even further depending on how aggressively you push the plugin.
Of course, this approach is not without its limitations. De-essers don’t tend to offer the same level of detailed control that you’d get with a transient shaper or EQ. If the harshness of your cymbals requires adjusting multiple frequency ranges, the effectiveness of the de-esser can be diminished. In these situations, another option may be best.
Even still, it’s worth a shot for a quick fix – throwing a de-esser on harsh cymbals has saved hundreds of drum mixes and given mixers more time to focus on big picture items in their sessions.
Bigger, Booming Kicks
Kick drums are on the completely opposite end of the spectrum (both literally and figuratively) when it comes to de-esser use cases. Kicks are supposed to be these massive, powerful low-end tracks that fill out the bottom of your mix, so what could they possibly be dealing with that a de-esser could treat?
As it turns out, de-essers are an excellent fix for boxiness in kick drums too. While kick drums don’t occupy the same frequency ranges as cymbals and vocals, they do have some mid-range frequencies (200 Hz – 500 Hz) that can make them sound less than ideal.
Using a de-esser, you can attenuate these boxy frequencies from your kick track just like you’d remove the “s” sounds from your vocals or cymbals. It’s a very quick and transparent solution that requires little more than identifying the problem frequency and setting the de-esser to act on that range.
Suppressing String Noise with a De-Esser
Going beyond the drum mix, there are plenty of other opportunities for your de-esser to work within your sessions. String noise from guitars and bass are the perfect example – while they’re not quite the same “hiss” as cymbals and vocals, they’re equally as annoying if they’re noticeable in your mix.
Treating them is the same process as with the kick drum – just find the offending frequency and attenuate it.
The most noticeable results for guitar and bass are going to be on clean tracks and acoustic instruments where there aren’t any effects to mask the string noise as the musician moves their fingers around the fretboard. A noise suppressor or gate can often work if string noise is only present in the parts between notes, but often a de-esser is going to be far more transparent when the issue is present throughout the song.
Softening Harsh Guitars
If string noise is the biggest offender of clean guitar performances, then the harsh, fizzy distortion that comes with many guitar amps is the equivalent in heavier performances. Guitarists often complain about this issue from amps of all price points, and it can be a difficult problem to treat. Often, they’re having to build their guitar tone around this limitation.
With de-essers, we have the opportunity to clean up a lot of that fizz and harshness right in the box. Just like your cymbals, the problem likely isn’t with the entire frequency spectrum and your overall tone might be great if you could only remove that harshness. With a de-esser – that’s extremely easy to do. Just load up the plugin, bring down the threshold, then sweep around until you hear the fizz start to go away.
Many engineers like using this trick with a ton of attenuation by aggressively setting their threshold, but if you find it’s too much, simply back off the threshold a bit and let a bit of that frequency back in.
Finding the Right Sound While Recording
De-essers are an incredibly handy tool in the studio, but they’re very much designed to fix things in the mix that weren’t captured the right way during tracking. If sibilance and harsh frequencies were addressed with mic selection or placement in the first place, they likely wouldn’t need your de-esser at all.
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