Catching Darts With Your Eyes

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced mixing in the church world is sibilance.  At my current gig this has literally been a nightmare to deal with at times.  Scovill had a good description of what we have faced on a nearly weekly basis: “It was like catching darts with your eyes.”  We’ve tried EQs.  We’ve tried multi-band compressors.  Dedicated de-essers.  Dynamic EQ’s.  New mics.  Etc. etc. etc.  Someone please cut the rigging on the loudspeakers.  I’ve done just about everything short of rubber-banding a pencil in front of the vocal mic [Google “pencil de-esser” if you’ve never heard of that one].  And the reality is with words like “Jesus” and “Savior” oft repeated throughout the morning, this problem isn’t going anywhere and only seems to be more obvious as the morning goes by.

As I’ve worked at dealing with this, the thing that drives me nuts is there is such a very fine line between taming the esses and just completely killing the top end on your vocals which can lead to cutting your low-mids only to bring out those esses once again.  I’ve dug myself into holes plenty of times.  It has just been a never ending cycle going in circles EQ’ing the channelstrip and then using a multi-band comp.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to start mixing a vocal from scratch because it just got out of control.  Virtual soundcheck has helped with this a lot on the Venue, but in our other room where we’re in analog-land, it has been even more of a struggle because you only get a couple shots during rehearsal.  Fortunately, I’ve found a solution for both Venue and analog world that I’ve been pretty happy with; yes, that’s right, please hang with me if you’re not mixing on the Venue or are in analog world because this could ALL be relative to your world, too.

Now believe it or not, I hate to bang a drum about a particular piece of gear unless it is just rocking my world such as the Venue.  I’m a much bigger fan of approaches that use a type of gear because sometimes you end up with unfamiliar makes and models that do relatively the same thing.  However, in this case it really is coming down to a specific piece of gear.  About a month ago we started using a plugin that I think is really sort of a one of a kind thing that’s rocking my world:  the Rane Dynamics plugin by Serato.  On the surface it might look like a typical compressor, but the thing that really sets this plugin apart is its dynamic EQ function.  Now I could be wrong, and if I am I hope a reader corrects me, but it seems to work in a unique way.

A dynamic EQ allows you to essentially compress a specific frequenc bands.  A good example is the BSS 901 which is very similar to a multiband compressor.  The only difference I really notice is that multiband compressors that I’ve used utilize crossover points while a dynamic EQ like the 901 uses what seem like typical filters you would find on a parametric EQ giving you four bands of dynamic EQ.  From an operational standpoint, these devices operate like a typical compressor, although instead of looking at the broadband signal, the compressor only focuses on the band you select and only applies compression/expansion to that specific band.  You set your threshold, ratio, and sometimes attack and release and “EQ” away.  De-essing is one use for these because it allows you to hone in on a specific frequency band and compress it without affecting the rest of your signal.  But there is a potential limitation to using these.  What happens if you have a very dynamic signal?  Since the threshold is based on the signal level, if you set it for someone singing/talking loudly, you may potentially lose your de-essing when they sing/speak quietly.  On the other hand, if you set the threshold for the quiet parts you might de-ess too much when your singer/talker ramps it up which can start sounding unnatural and kill your vocal.  I had been using the McDSP MC2000 to de-ess, and it saved me many many times.  But I think I’ve got something better now with the Rane Dynamics plugin.

The thing that sets the Rane plugin apart is how the dynamic EQ works.  The cool thing is that it uses a relative threshold.  What this means is that instead of looking for your selected frequency to reach a certain signal level, it compares the level of your selected frequency relative to the broadband frequency spectrum of your signal.  This is kind of hard for some folks to wrap their heads around so hang with me if you’re getting confused.  Essentially what this does is allow you to de-ess a signal the same amount no matter how loud or soft your signal gets.  My experience using this is you can get a really smooth response, and I think that’s largely in part to the consistency you get at all signal levels.  And there are extra benefits to this when you’re using it to de-ess.  Since it’s looking at things relatively, when your singer backs off the mic for an instrumental section, if your drummer is bashing away at the cymbals the plugin detects that higher frequency content since there is basically not much of anything else and it “de-esses” your cymbals which can be a big help with bleed.  I don’t do much with choirs anymore, but I would love to hear how this could work with a choir on a loud stage.

But this thing doesn’t just do cool stuff with esses.  It can also help fix proximity effect on microphones.  You set it down around 200 Hz to cleanup the mud when your singer gets right on the mic, and then when they back off the mic that 200 Hz  is no longer reduced so your vocal doesn’t thin out.  Cool stuff.  My only downside to the plugin is you only get a single band of dynamic EQ per plugin instance, and there have been times I’ve used a couple on a single input.

Now hopefully all you guys who aren’t able to play in Venue land are still with me because the beautiful thing about this plugin is there’s a hardware version.  The Rane C4 is a quad compressor that works the same way.  It’s actually a digital piece of gear with analog controls and the digital side is the same as the plugin.  I installed one just in time for rehearsal this week, and I’m pleased to say that our esses are finally being tamed in both our rooms.  You can find it on the street for under a grand, and if you’re dealing with a sibilance problem, I think it is well worth the investment.

I will offer one final tip for de-essing that has helped me keep things natural sounding because no matter what gear you use it can be easy to go overboard.  This has helped me with the Rane plugin along with everything else we’ve tried using in the past.  When you are dialing things in, do yourself a favor and don’t look at the meters.  Seriously.  Don’t look at the meters.  At all.  Don’t do it.  Cover them up with black gaff if you have to.  Maybe you’re not cursed the same way I am, but when I see the meters I hear what the gear is doing in an exaggerated fashion.  Covering the meters helps me hear what’s really going on.  It’s silly and sad in a way, but that’s what works for me; I don’t look at reduction meters until it’s all dialed in because I’ll second guess myself if I do.  This is actually probably worth trying with just about any gear, but if you’re struggling with de-essing things I recommend giving it a try if you haven’t been already.

David Stagl

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Catching Darts With Your Eyes