Many years ago, I watched a tutorial by an A-class mixing engineer about how he dealt with sibilance on vocal recordings. He said he always fixed it manually, meaning he spent hours at a time editing vocal tracks word by word to control sibilance on every single track.
I couldn't believe it, "why would you spend hours toiling over every annoying syllable when you can just slap on a plugin and have it done in five minutes?!" I thought. I couldn't be bothered doing that, so I decided against it.
Now, you might be wondering - what is manual sibilant editing? It's basically finding those annoying S, T, C, etc. sounds in waveforms of vocal recordings and decreasing the gain of those sounds so that it doesn't clip or sound unpleasant. As you can imagine this gets old very quickly if you have to go through a vocal recording and spend a few minutes fixing every little sound. Lots of plugins do this for you, however sometimes as you'll learn later on, they struggle to get the outcome you want, especially on less-than-professional recordings, and that's when you often have no other choice but to manually fix them.
This happened a few years later.
I was doing a project with some terrible, home recorded vocals. I spent hours trying to make the de-esser plugin fix the sibilance, but the recording was so bad, it just wouldn't work! I tried every de-esser plugin that I had - I even downloaded trial versions of ones I didn't.
But nothing worked.
At that moment, I remembered that tutorial I had watched all those years ago, and decided (begrudgingly) to try fixing the sibilance manually. I spent an hour combing through the track, editing the sounds word by word.
The outcome was shocking.
It worked. Well. Not just well - incredibly well! I'd figured it out, this was the key! I was editing the gain on every single word, before I even started mixing! It was awesome! Doing this also let me use less compression when I came to that later down the track.
My vocal tracks were sounding better than ever.
I did this for a while, but all too soon I got bored of spending two hours meticulously editing vocals on every single project that I had. It was easy to edit and tune if you only had few vocal tracks, but it was just too time-consuming if there were fifteen.
So I gave up.
I started using my de-esser plugin again which worked for a time with good quality, studio recorded vocals. But then Covid-19 struck and the World locked down. Since then I've had to make do with home recorded vocals.
All of a sudden, I was back where I was. Stuck spending hours using a plugin that just wasn't up to the task - I couldn't do it. I deleted all the plugins on my vocal channels and started again from scratch.
Side note: do you know how to truly tell if the track you're mixing sounds better with the plugin that you use? I have a little trick for you that will eliminate any bias:
Put your cursor on the bypass button
Close your eyes (seriously)
Click the bypass multiple times until you can't tell if it's bypassed or not
Listen as you toggle the bypass on and off
This will allow you to be unbiased and decide which is truly better.
I spent a whole hour editing my vocal tracks and voilà! I had exactly what I wanted. I decided to go back to manually editing the sibilance before every mixing project - sometimes, if you're going to do it perfectly, you just have to put in the time (or you can find a professional to do the hard work for you, like me ;).
So, there is my story.
If you want to learn how to manually edit sibilance, it will depend on your DAW. If you use Logic Pro, you have a gain feature in the inspector menu. If you are a Pro Tools user, you can use the clip gain feature for example.
If you don't want to spend hours editing but want to have better sibilants I recommend two de-esser plugins:
Keep in mind while editing that you will add compression to the track. On average, I decrease five to six decibels of gain per sibilant, but after I've added two compressors, the sibilant becomes a problem again. Here is where I put on a good quality de-esser plugin after the compressors, which decreases it another two to three decibels of gain.
That's how I do it, and you will find your own style after a while - but I have struggled so you don't have to, and I can assure you, that with this method you will get the most natural, tamed sibilance - especially for home recordings.
If you want to learn more about mixing or want me to mix your song, get in touch now!