How To Use A De-Esser To Make Your Vocals Sound Pro

You spent all day recording the vocals for your latest song. Hours nailing the performance, carefully selecting the perfect takes…

But when you press play, something doesn’t sound right.

Whenever you sing a word with an “s” or “t” in it, the sound takes the enamel off your teeth. The sibilance in your vocal track is WAY too loud.

Yikes…

How do you fix this problem?

That’s what a de-esser is for. Used correctly, it can quickly and easily tame the unruly sibilance in your vocal tracks. And the result? Vocals that sound smoother and more professional.

In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about de-essing, including…

  • A simple, 3-step process you can easily apply to de-ess any vocal like a pro
  • How to avoid the biggest de-essing mistakes, which will help you approach the process with more clarity and confidence in your next mix
  • How to tweak the advanced controls on your de-esser, so you can quickly add polish and sheen to your vocals

But before we dive in, de-essing is only one step to achieving a radio-ready, professional vocal sound. To help you master the entire vocal mixing process, I put together a free cheatsheet packed with tips and tricks that will make your vocals sound more professional today. You can download it below:

Download my FREE Vocal Mixing Cheatsheet

In the next section, you’ll discover a simple, 3-step process you can apply to de-ess any vocal quickly and easily. Or if you prefer, you can watch a video of the process below. Let’s dive in…

Step #1: Insert The De-Esser On Your Vocal Track

In order to use a de-esser, you have to add it to the track you want to de-ess first. (Duh.)

The biggest question people ask here is: where should I put the de-esser in my plugin chain? Should I add it before the compressor and EQ, or after?

I recommend adding the de-esser as the final plugin in your chain. The only exception is if you’re also applying reverb or delay plugins directly onto the vocal track. In this case, I’d put the de-esser BEFORE the reverb or delay plugins, but AFTER plugins like EQ and compression. But heads up — you probably shouldn’t be adding reverb or delay plugins directly onto your tracks anyways.

Here’s why putting the de-esser at the end of the chain works best…

Putting the de-esser plugin last in the chain

Let’s say you set up your de-esser and then decide later on to boost the top end on your vocal EQ. When you add top end, the sibilance in the vocal gets louder too. Since your de-esser is placed after the EQ, it will “hear” this increased sibilance and respond automatically by turning it down. Which means you won’t have to go back and tweak the de-esser manually to fix the problem.

If the de-esser is before the EQ, it won’t be able to compensate for this increased sibilance. Which means the sibilance will suddenly sound too loud again, and you’ll have to go back and tweak the de-esser to fix the problem.

By placing the de-esser at the end of the plugin chain, you’re making your job easier by minimizing unnecessary back-and-forth tweaking.

How To De-Ess A Group Of Vocal Tracks

When you’re de-essing a group of vocal tracks (like a stack of background vocals or a lead vocal with several doubles), it’s best not to apply one de-esser across the group of tracks. Instead, apply a separate de-esser plugin to each individual track in the group.

Apply a separate de-esser plugin to each individual track in the vocal group

Why?

Because the sibilance usually appears in slightly different spots on each vocal track. If the de-esser is applied across the group, it can only turn down the group as a single unit. Whenever the de-esser hears an “ess” on one of the vocal tracks, ALL the vocal tracks will get turned down. This will create a bunch of unnecessary dips in volume across the vocal group, which sounds messy and unnatural.

By applying a separate de-esser to each vocal track in the group, the plugins can respond independently and turn down the sibilance on the individual tracks whenever it appears. While this can take a bit more time to set up, the results will often sound more natural.

Step #2: Set Up The De-Esser’s Sidechain Filter

Since a de-esser is only concerned about sibilance, it doesn’t “listen” to all the frequencies in your vocals. Instead, it filters down the sound and only listens to the spot where the sibilance is most likely to appear. This filtering happens inside a part of the de-esser called the “sidechain filter.”

However, most de-essers aren’t great at figuring out which part of the vocal they need to pay attention to, since sibilance often appears in different spots on different vocalists.

That’s why it’s essential to tune the de-esser’s sidechain filter. This will help point the de-esser in the right direction by telling it where the sibilance is likely to appear. Skip this step, and your de-esser may act erratically, turning down seemingly random parts of the vocal you don’t want it to touch. Set the sidechain filter properly, however, and the de-esser will react in a way that’s natural and musical.

To start, solo the de-esser’s sidechain filter. The process for doing this varies depending on the de-esser you’re using. Look for a button called “listen” or “audition.” When you press it, the vocal should sound thin and tinny.

Soloing the de-esser’s sidechain filter

Once you do this, adjust the frequency control on the de-esser until you hear the sibilance loud and clear, but as little as possible of the “good” stuff you don’t want to de-esser to touch.

The audio examples below will help you “hear” what a properly tuned sidechain filter should sound like:

Raw, unprocessed vocal (from the song “Heroes of Hope” by Clean Green Music Machine)
Sidechain filter set too wide (notice how we can hear a lot of the “good” parts of the vocal)
Sidechain filter set perfectly (we hear lots of sibilance, but not a lot of the other stuff)

There are no rules regarding where to set the frequency. The numbers you choose will vary depending on the vocal you’re de-essing. As a general guideline, sibilance on female vocals will typically occur higher up in the frequency spectrum than on male vocals.

It’s worth noting here that the “esses” aren’t the only part of the vocal you may want to control. Sounds like “ch” and “ssh” may also need to be tamed. These sounds typically appear lower in the frequency spectrum (around 2 – 4 kHz).

Sometimes two de-essers are better than one

If you’re trying to use one de-esser to control both the “esses” and the “ssh” sounds, you’ll often have to set the sidechain filter too wide to function effectively. A better approach is to use two de-essers in series — one set to address the “esses” higher up in the frequency spectrum, and the other set to address the “ssh” sounds lower down in the frequency spectrum. This will often lead to better results than trying to control both areas with one de-esser.

Step #3: Adjust The Threshold And Range Until It Sounds Good

Now that you’ve set the sidechain filter properly, unsolo it and listen to the full vocal track again. Give your ears a few seconds rest before moving forward.

While listening to the vocal in context with the rest of your mix, adjust the de-esser’s threshold and range controls until the sibilance sounds balanced with the rest of the vocal.

If you’re having trouble figuring out what balanced should sound like, just imagine the vocalist is singing live in the room with you. Try to make their voice sound natural, as if you were hearing it come out of their mouth without any amplification.

I find it’s best to adjust the threshold and range controls in tandem, as they tend to impact each other. (Note that some de-essers only have a threshold control, whereas others give you a range control too. If your de-esser doesn’t have a range control, just skip the section below where I refer to it.)

How To Set The Threshold Control

The threshold determines how loud the sibilance needs to be for the de-esser to kick in. Set this low enough so the de-esser reacts to the sibilance. If the threshold is too low, the de-esser will start pulling down sections of the vocal where sibilance doesn’t occur. If the threshold is too high, the de-esser won’t react to the sibilance enough, or at all. The key is to find the sweet spot.

How To Set The Range Control

Range determines how aggressively the de-esser will turn down the sibilance. Turn this control up until the sibilance sounds balanced with the rest of the vocal.

If the range is set too high, the vocalist will start to sound like they’re lisping. Too low and the sibilance won’t be tamed enough. Again, it’s all about finding the sweet spot.

Context Is Key

The appropriate amount of de-essing will vary, depending on how the vocal sounds with the rest of the tracks in your mix. If you’re working on a mix that has a lot of high frequency energy in it — cymbals, acoustic guitars, etc. — you’ll often want to leave in a bit more sibilance on the vocals. But if the instrumentation is dark and dull, you may want to dip out the sibilance a bit more.

This is why it’s essential that you listen to the vocal in context with the rest of the tracks in your mix when you’re tweaking the de-esser. This is the easiest and best way to nail the perfect settings for your vocal track.

Follow the three steps above, and the sibilance in your vocals should now sound balanced and under control.

In the next section, we’ll talk about some of the more advanced settings you’ll find on a de-esser, and how to use them to take your vocal tracks to the next level.

Diving Deeper: The Advanced Settings On Your De-Esser

The three-step process outlined above should be more than enough for most vocal tracks. But if you’re a nerd like me and want to tweak your de-esser to ultimate perfection, you probably should be aware of the advanced settings below.

Split-Band Vs. Wide-Band

Selecting split-band vs. wide-band mode on Waves’ DeEsser plugin

Some de-essers will give you a choice between split-band and wide-band modes. Here’s what this means…

Wide-band means that when the de-esser turns down the vocal, it turns down ALL of the frequencies equally — the low end, midrange, and high end.

Split-band means the de-esser will only turn down a narrow band of frequencies — usually the area where the sibilance appears.

In practice, wide-band mode tends to work best for de-essing vocals. Split-band mode can make the vocal sound dull and unnatural, as the top end of the sibilance gets turned down but the bottom end remains there.

Split-band mode is often useful for tasks beyond de-essing vocals. (Yes, you can use a de-esser on other things too.) For example, I might add a de-esser to an electric guitar track that sounds a bit too “fizzy.” In this case, I just want the de-esser to tame the high end, not turn down the whole track. Split-band de-essing is a perfect solution here.

Sidechain Filter Types

Some de-essers will allow you to change the type of filter used in the sidechain. For example, in the Waves de-esser below, we can choose between a high-pass filter and band-pass filter.

Switching between a high-pass filter (selected) and band-pass filter

The band-pass filter often works best when trying to target the “ssh” and “ch” sounds, since they’re lower down in the frequency spectrum. The high-pass filter usually works best for “ess” and “t” sounds.

If your de-esser gives you options to choose from here, play around with them while you’re tuning the sidechain filter. Remember — your goal is to set the sidechain filter so you hear as much of the sibilance as possible, while as little of the “good” stuff you don’t want the de-esser to touch. You may find that changing the filter type will help you to accomplish this goal. If so, go for it.

Lookahead

Lookahead tells the de-esser to “look ahead” a few milliseconds in time and search for sibilance before it actually occurs. This helps the de-esser react more quickly and turn down the sibilance the moment it shows up, rather than taking a few milliseconds to kick in.

You may find lookahead useful when de-essing a vocal where the words are going by very quickly. If you’re hearing that the front end of the sibilance isn’t getting turned down quick enough, dialing in a bit of lookahead can solve this problem.

In full transparency, I don’t find this control to be all that useful.

Other Things To Consider When De-essing Vocals

Here are a few other points worth mentioning…

Plugin Choice Matters

I rarely tell people to go out and buy third-party plugins. The stock plugins included with your DAW are more than enough to make great mixes.

But I have found that the stock de-essers included in some DAWs are seriously lacking. In Pro Tools, the stock de-essers (there are two of them) are terrible.

If you’re following the steps above but you’re not getting the results you’re looking for, the problem may be the plugin you’re using. Demo a third-party de-esser and see if things sound better.

My go-to choice here is FabFilter’s Pro-DS. If you’re curious, I definitely recommend giving this plugin a shot. (PS — I’m not sponsored by them, but I genuinely love their stuff.)

FabFilter’s Pro-DS plugin (my go-to plugin for de-essing vocals)

Sometimes Two De-Essers Work Better Than One

As I mentioned in step #2 above, there are two areas of a vocal you’ll want to pay attention to when de-essing:

  • The “ch” and “ssh” sounds — usually around 2 to 4 kHz
  • The “ess” and “t” sounds — usually around 5 to 10 kHz
Sometimes two de-essers are better than one

Trying to tackle both areas with one de-esser can cause problems. A better approach is often to split the job by using two de-essers in series — one to handle the lower-down “ssh” and “ch” sounds, and one for the upper-end “ess” sounds. In my experience, this produces the most transparent, natural-sounding results.

Be Careful With EQ

Many mixers make sibilance worse by EQing their vocals too aggressively. If you go overboard with EQ, sibilance will often become a big problem.

An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. When you’re boosting, if the sibilance starts to sound too aggressive, try pulling things back a bit or moving the boost higher up the frequency spectrum. For example, if you’re using a high-frequency shelf on a vocal, bump it up to 10 kHz instead of 5 kHz. This way, you won’t boost as much of the sibilance.

EQ your vocals with care, and you won’t have as much sibilance to deal with down the line. This will make de-essing much easier.

Be careful when boosting top end on vocals — this can often make sibilance worse

Wrapping Things Up

I hope you now feel more comfortable and confident when de-essing vocals. But keep in mind that de-essing is just one step to achieving a killer vocal sound. To help you take your vocals further, I put together a free Vocal Mixing Cheatsheet that’s packed with additional tips and tricks that will help you master the entire vocal mixing process — including compression, EQ, and effects. You can download this cheatsheet for free below:

Download my FREE Vocal Mixing Cheatsheet

Before you go, leave a comment below and let me know…

What’s your go-to plugin when de-essing vocals?

Take care, and happy mixing!

About Jason Moss

Jason is an LA-based mixer and the founder of Behind The Speakers. He's a graduate of New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. His how-to articles have been featured in leading industry publications by Berklee, TuneCore, SonicScoop, The Pro Audio Files, and Disc Makers.