Mastering De-essing: Key to Polished Vocals and Instruments

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Last updatedLast updated: April 20, 2024
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Audio production is a sophisticated art that employs a myriad of techniques to achieve aural perfection. Among these, de-essing holds a pivotal role in shaping the sound, especially in dealing with vocals and certain instruments. This extensive guide will delve into the essence of de-essing and its importance and provide a detailed, step-by-step tutorial on using a de-esser effectively in your audio production workflow.

Decoding De-essing: A Prelude

To set the foundation, let’s first understand what de-essing is. A de-esser is a type of audio compressor designed to mitigate the sibilance and other high-frequency issues in a vocal track or an instrument sound.

Sibilance refers to the high-frequency sounds produced by the human voice when articulating consonants such as “s,” “f,” “sh,” and “ch.” They typically manifest between 4 and 10 kHz, depending on the individual’s voice or the instrument. However, these harsh high frequencies can also be found in various instruments, like crash cymbals and electric guitars, making de-essing a widely applicable tool in audio production.

Harnessing Level Automation: The First Step

Before inserting a de-esser into your signal chain, consider manually attenuating sibilance using level automation. This can lessen the workload of your de-esser and potentially yield a more natural sound.

The Process of Manual De-Essing

  1. Identify the Sibilance: Look for the distinctive “ess” in the waveform. These will be the areas you need to treat.
  2. Separate the “Esses”: Once you have identified the sibilance, separate these sections into their own clip.
  3. Adjust the Gain: Lower the gain of the separated clip to attenuate the harshness.

Manual de-essing might seem labor-intensive, but its outcome often sounds more natural because you treat each sibilant sound individually.

Using a De-Esser Plugin: An Efficient Approach

While manual de-essing allows for precision, it can be time-consuming. An efficient alternative is using a dedicated de-esser plugin. These plugins automatically reduce the level of harsh frequencies whenever they exceed a set threshold.

Incorporating the De-Esser into Your Signal Chain

Inserting a de-esser in your vocal chain requires strategic consideration. Here are some key steps:

  1. Add the De-Esser After EQ and Compression: Adding a de-esser post-EQ and compression is crucial to control the unintentional amplification of sibilance. Compression and additive EQ can often intensify sibilance. A de-esser after these effects will help tame it.
  2. Adjust the De-Esser: Tune the de-esser according to the source’s requirements. A couple of popular options to consider are Nectar’s De-ess module and RX. Let’s explore them both.

Exploring De-Esser Options

Nectar 3 De-Esser Module: Begin with a sung vocal recording. Pay attention to the problematic frequencies in the vocalist’s pronunciation of “s”, particularly evident at specific time markers. Apply Nectar 3‘s De-esser and observe how the harsh “esses” turn softer yet remain perceptible, thus preserving the integrity of the recording.

RX De-Esser: Next, use RX’s De-ess module on a spoken dialogue recording. Notice the sharpness of the “esses” penetrating the rest of the recording’s sonic content. Process this with RX’s De-ess module in Spectral mode. You’ll see the objective is not to eradicate the “esses” but to tone them down enough to prevent discomfort for the listeners. As a leading audio repair software, RX effectively mitigates the harshness while preserving its natural audibility.

Focusing on the Right Frequencies: The Second Step

Once you’ve incorporated a de-esser into your vocal signal chain, targeting the correct frequencies is crucial.

  1. Adjust the Cut-off Filter: Nectar’s De-esser module includes a detection cut-off filter. This feature allows you to adjust the detection and reduction of sibilant frequency content. Any frequency content above the cut-off will be used for de-esser detection.
  2. Identify the Sibilant Frequencies: Sibilant sounds typically occur between 4 and 10 kHz, depending on the vocal. Aim to focus the de-esser’s frequency within this range. More specifically, female voices often exhibit sibilance between 5-8 kHz, while male voices display it between 3-6 kHz.

Setting the Threshold: The Third Step

After focusing on the correct frequencies, adjust the de-esser’s threshold until it begins to reduce the harsh frequencies caused by sibilance. However, be mindful not to completely remove the “esses” as they are a natural component of speech. Instead, apply just enough gain reduction so the sibilance no longer sounds harsh to the listener.

Implementing Multiple De-Essers: A Pro Tip

Sometimes, utilizing more than one de-esser in your signal chain is beneficial. This is akin to serial compression, where it’s often better to make subtle changes across multiple steps rather than using a single tool in a heavy-handed manner. This approach is especially valid when de-essing. A combination of a little manual de-essing followed by some further de-essing with other processes interspersed is more likely to yield a natural result without overcompressing the vocal and damaging its natural presence.

Experimenting with De-Essing on Effects and Other Instruments: Going Beyond

De-Essing Reverb and Distortion Effects

If you’re considering applying reverb or distortion effects to your vocal, experiment with de-essing it before introducing these effects. A bright vocal might overwhelm the reverb, distort the onset of ambiance, or emphasize the harshness of distortion. Implementing a de-esser before these processes can help prevent some of these undesirable side effects.

De-Essing Other Instruments

De-essers aren’t exclusively for vocals. Owing to the innate harshness of many instruments and the smooth response of some de-essers, they can also serve as excellent remedies for guitars and drums, particularly overheads.

For guitars, especially electric ones that utilize amplifier simulators, de-essers can effectively mask the harshness in the high-midrange that often reveals the artificiality of the emulations. Applying a de-esser around 4 kHz might lend more authenticity to an artificial amplifier.

Likewise, if your overheads have too much cymbal splash to the point of discomfort, try using a de-esser. Unlike a static equalizer, it might soften the blow without eliminating all the life.

Extending the Applications: More than Just Vocals

While vocals are the most common application for de-essing, it’s not the only area where this versatile tool can work wonders. Here are a few more use cases that can benefit significantly from effective de-essing:


The high frequencies produced by cymbals, especially crash cymbals, can sometimes overwhelm a mix, making it feel harsh or grating. De-essing these frequencies can help tame the sound, reducing the harshness while preserving the sparkle that cymbals bring to the drum mix.

Electric Guitars

Electric guitars can often have a harsh edge, especially when you’re dealing with distorted or overdriven tones. This harshness often manifests in the higher frequencies, which is where a de-esser can help. By focusing on the problematic frequency range, you can reduce the bite and help the guitar blend more effectively into the mix.


The broad frequency range of synthesizers can sometimes lead to issues with harshness or sibilance, especially with brighter patches or when using a lot of resonance. De-essing can help control this, allowing the synth to shine without becoming overwhelming.

Podcasts and Spoken Word Recordings

Spoken word recordings, such as podcasts or voice-overs, can often benefit from de-essing. Human speech naturally contains a lot of sibilances, and while some of this is necessary for clarity, too much can be uncomfortable for the listener. A de-esser can help balance the sibilance, ensuring clear and comfortable speech.

Understanding Your Tools: Exploring Different De-esser Models

Numerous de-essing tools are available, each with unique features and characteristics. Some popular models include:

Nectar’s De-esser Module

This de-esser is user-friendly and particularly effective on vocals. It offers various controls to customize the de-essing process, such as adjusting the detection cut-off filter. This feature allows for flexibility in determining which frequencies will trigger the de-esser.

RX’s De-esser

The RX de-esser excels in audio repair and is ideal for spoken word applications. It provides excellent results in mitigating harsh sibilance while preserving natural audibility. Its Spectral mode offers further control over the de-essing process, enabling the user to visually identify and reduce problematic sibilant frequencies.

Towards Better Sound: Honing Your De-essing Skills

Mastering the art of de-essing requires both knowledge and experience. Here are a few tips to help hone your skills:

Practice Active Listening

De-essing is all about subtlety. Active listening is key to picking up on the nuances of sibilance and understanding when and where to apply de-essing. Listen to different types of vocals and instruments, both raw and processed, to familiarize yourself with how sibilance manifests in different contexts.

Don’t Overdo It

While it can be tempting to crank up the de-esser and completely eliminate sibilance, it’s essential to remember that some sibilance is necessary for a natural sound. Over-de-essing can result in a dull and lifeless vocal, so aim for balance rather than total elimination.


Every vocal and every mix is different. What works for one might not work for another. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different settings, tools, and techniques to see what works best in each situation. De-essing is as much an art as it is a science, and there’s always something new to learn.

In conclusion, de-essing is an essential skill for any audio engineer. Whether you’re working on music, podcasts, or any other audio project, understanding how to use a de-esser effectively can dramatically improve your results. So don’t shy away from it—embrace the de-esser, and let it be your guide towards cleaner, clearer, and more professional audio.

Drawing Conclusions: Practice Discernment and Patience

As audio engineers, we must resist the temptation to overuse or misuse de-essing just to demonstrate our mastery over the tool. De-essing must be applied judiciously, and not all vocals necessitate it. It’s essential to consider the context of what you’re de-essing and rest your ears before mixing the vocal. If your vocal sounds are balanced against a reference without the de-esser, you might not need it. Ultimately, context and discretion are paramount in achieving your best results with de-essing.

In conclusion, the complex craft of de-essing demands discernment, attention to detail, and patience. While reaching for a de-esser plugin at the first sign of sibilance can be easy, a more nuanced approach often results in a more satisfying outcome. Whether you’re taming sibilance in vocals, mitigating harshness in electric guitars, or reducing overpowering cymbals in a drum overhead, the judicious use of de-essing can elevate your mixes to new levels of sonic excellence.

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