Don't just de-ess your entire vocal track. Automate and use it only when its needed. The utility of a DeEsser is normally rather specific, as it is a pinpoint way to compress a particular frequency range. So, as its name implies, its good at removing the harshness associated with the sound of the letter S, among other things. The thought being that you apply the DeEsser to a track with problem S's, find the frequency, then dial in how much of that problem frequency you wish to reduce to an appropriate level.
I've found that it can sometimes be hard to know when you actually need to use a DeEsser. First, your monitoring situation might not be ideal. Good monitors expose these kinds of issues, and bad monitors hide this and much much more. Also, this is particularly hard when you are entrenched in a long session and your ears are already fully adjusted to the sound of your track. Your ears might simply be used to what its hearing. So I tend to act on the need to de-ess when I'm approaching a track for the first time during a session.
The problem with a DeEsser is that it affects the whole sound when applied in a blanket sort of way. So, say you find the frequency to adjust, and simply apply the plug-in to the entire vocal track. When there are NO S's to knock down, it's still affecting the sound of the rest of the vocals. It dulls the sound, likely, and removes some of the clarity. As a result, I usually apply DeEssing in a manual way as opposed to simply dropping in the plug-in and moving on. And yes, this takes a while, but in my mind its worth the effort. So let's take a look at the process, step by step. In this example, I'm using the Waves Renaissance DeEsser, but any will do if you follow the general idea:
- Place RDeEsser on vocal Comp track
- Enable automation for the Range control
- Load Male DeEss Narrow preset as a starting point
- Turn on Side Chain and solo the vocals you are treating (this allows you to ONLY hear the audio that will likely be affected by the DeEssing)
- Sweep to find the harshest frequency in your most problem S area
- Once found, switch back to the Audio setting
- Adjust the Threshold so the offending S's move the reduction line in the graph. (We will be automating this anyways, so don't worry if it moves when none-S's are audible too)
- As a quick experiment, pull Range all the way down to hear the extreme. S's turn into lisps when you do this, likely. Sometimes when dealing with effects like this, it's good to test what the extreme setting gives you. Then you have a basis to compare against when trying to set it properly.
- Now, reset range to 0 and pull it down slowly only until the harshness goes away. You shouldn't need to go very far, hopefully.
Now, THIS is where the range needs to be in order to tame those S's. WRITE THIS NUMBER DOWN.
We aren't done yet. The last thing you want to do at this point is just leave the plugin on with these settings. The quality of the rest of your vocals (i.e. the parts that aren't S's i.e. EVERYTHING else) will be affected by this. You can preview the rest of your vocal track and toggle the Bypass on the plugin to see what I mean.
Here's where we automate the range:
- Set range back to 0 to start off with.
- Play your vocal track until the very first offending S, and park your cursor slightly before that point.
- Turn your track view to show the automation track for the RDeEsser Range function. (It should show that its currently set to 0 across the entire track)
- Draw in the automation AROUND that SS as shown in the screenshot, making sure that at its most dramatic point, the automation hits the Range you wrote down above.
- Now you've automated the DeEsser to only knock the S down in the range that you specified and at the time that you specified. Afterward, it resets to a range of 0 effectively bypassing the processing.
Now, we get the payoff for all of that setup:
- Highlight that automation you drew around that one S and copy it.
- And now, play through your track, and anytime you encounter a bad S, paste that automation in slightly before the offending S. If it's not perfect, adjust as needed. The point being that you've created the automation block to treat your S's, so pasting that automation block wherever you encounter a bad S should get you most of the way there to treating them pretty efficiently.
- And as always, different S's might require different levels of range (or even different frequencies!) So how detail oriented you want to be with this process is up to you and your patience.
What you've done here is utilize all of the benefits of De-essing without blurring the crap out of your entire vocal line in the process. You are automating the effect INTO the track ONLY as needed.
Now for some examples from The Last Thing I Ever Do, one of the tracks off my upcoming album. Here are the various steps I got to as I walked through the process listed above:
Hope that all makes sense!