Easy Fixes To Avoid Sibilance When Recording Vocals
Sibilance is natural for almost every vocalist and is needed to understand speech.
Also, these vocal sounds contain a large proportion of high frequencies (thousands of Hertz). They originate in the mouth and by air passing around the teeth.
The relative proportions of these frequencies within a vocal recording are determined by many factors including the vocal style, the loudness of the performance, the frequency response of the microphone, the relative position of the microphone, and what type and amount of compression you’re dealing with.
Over the years I learned how to avoid excessive sibilance while recording vocals and even then sometimes is impossible to bypass this issue. Some vocalists have more sibilance than others and if you know them, you know how to respond the right way to his/her sibilance.
Here are some of my tools of the trade on how to avoid sibilance when recording vocals.
VOCAL COMPRESSION OVERDUE
Besides poor technique and a bright microphone, probably the biggest cause of sibilance may be compression.
Compression typically brings up the low-level signals (technically it lowers the high-level signals), and that includes sibilance (and breaths too).
Unless someone is not able to control their own sibilance, it’s unlikely a bright microphone on its own would increase sibilance enough to be a concern. I’ve used bright microphones on many singers that could control their sibilance with no problems, at least until I added compression!
We need a certain brightness in a vocal to cut through a modern mix, which is why I say brightness alone does not typically cause a problem with sibilance (assuming again a singer who can control sibilance). But it is a contributor, and there are always exceptions to any rules, so take it with a grain of salt.
The right compressor might compensate and even control vocal dynamics without adding or accentuating vocal sibilance. I often use two types of compressors. An 1176 and LA-2A.
OH, THOSE COMPRESSORS! YOU CAN’T GO WRONG WITH THESE TWO!
Born in 1966, Universal Audio founder Bill Putnam redesigned his successful 175/176 limiting amplifier design using FETs instead of valves. In doing so he created the first incarnation of the 1176 Peak Limiter, a box that would go on to find a home in almost every serious pro studio in the world.
With its ultra-fast attack time – a startling 20 µs. It offers no threshold control – just input and output dials, with the amount of compression decided by the input level.
Sound-wise, the 1176 Peak Limiter can be many things, but it is probably best known for the energy and high-class grit it bestows, a musically-pleasing pushing of the tone in the lower mids. Think big. But also think intimate. That’s the 1176’s dichotomic charm. Grabbing vocals and placing them at the front of the mix it’s near impassable. But it’ll also work on just about anything else, from kicks, snares, and claps through to synths and even full drum sub-mixes.
In addition to the four standard ratios selected via push buttons on the front panel, engineers soon discovered a secret (and unintended) trick up the 1176’s sleeve. By pushing in all four buttons simultaneously, the unit can be forced to behave in a completely different manner to the way in which Putnam intended, with seriously assertive results. The high ratio, often distorted results of this ‘all buttons in’ (or ‘Brit’) mode can be explosive on drums and aggressive on bass.
One of the most iconic compressor/limiters of all time is the Teletronix LA-2A. The unique warmth of its compression, especially on the human voice, has made it one of the most popular designs ever made.
The model name LA-2A stands for Leveling Amplifier, version 2, first revision. The original amplifier of this type was designated the LA-1, invented by Jim Lawrence, an electrical engineer and founder of the Teletronix Engineering Company in Pasadena, California in 1958.
Universal Audio was resurrected by Bill and James Putnam in 1999 and the reissue of the LA-2A was the second product released.
A studio staple for the best part of five decades, it has found a new generation of retro-loving fans in any number of plugin reproductions, from Waves’ CLA-2a and Analog Obsession’s LALA to Native Instruments’ VC 2a and Universal Audio’s own official LA-2A. The plugin versions prove just how relevant the LA-2A remains to this day. It’ll happily work its magic on synth bass, 909 kick drums, claps, and snare samples.
Top producers revere the LA-2A for its subtle warming characteristic – it can be as transparent as you want on vocals – but it can also be hit hard to yield a sizzlingly overdriven signal. It’s also frequently used as part of a vocal compression chain, working in series with another compressor such as 1176 to yield silky-smooth vocals. The LA-2A can be hit hard to smooth off the biggest peaks before running the signal into the 1176 to tidy up what’s left, or vice versa.
MICROPHONES AND EXACTLY, TO WHERE IT’S POINT AT!
Putting it simply, some microphones, especially cheaper ones (not the norm), have a high-frequency response in the sibilant areas between 7kHz to 12kHz, so you have to know your gear.
Since microphones for vocal recording are the absolute first piece of contact in the recording chain, it’s a smart move to choose the one that will define the vocalist sound
Also, if you point the microphone (which usually is a condenser microphone with a cardioid or super-cardioid polar pattern) straight to the vocalist’s teeth the chance you going to have sibilance problems increase. Try to slightly point the microphone up or down from the vocalist’s mouth or just turn it a little to its left or right to avoid the most straight and direct sound from the performer’s mouth.
Even then, to help you choose the right microphone for your vocal recording, let me present to you the 3 different types of microphones and my top 5 chosen ones.
THE 3 DIFFERENT TYPES OF MICROPHONES
Before I get into the list of my favorite microphones for vocal recording, I wanted to start by covering the three main types of microphones:
Dynamic microphones input sound waves that cause a movable wire or coil to vibrate in a magnetic field and thus induce a current.
Technical jargon aside, this just means that these microphones are tough and durable. They are extremely versatile and can be used with almost anything.
Just remember, because of this toughness, they usually won’t sound as pretty as a condenser microphone (next I will talk about), which is totally ok because you can usually make up something of that coloration via additive EQ & saturation.
Condenser microphones are much more fragile than dynamic mics. They produce a more “colored” sound than other microphones because they are more sensitive to both lower and higher frequencies.
In short, if you ever want to pick up room noise or general ambiance, a condenser microphone will be the best bet for the job.
These guys were popular in the 50s and 60s and are the most fragile of the three types of microphones for vocal recording.
They are also super expensive, so most beginners and even intermediate producers will stay clear of these Ribbons.
MY TOP 5 MICROPHONES TO RECORD YOUR VOCALS
I have to say I don’t have a top 5 but a top 100 microphones to record vocals, but that would be an extensive list to include and help you to choose the best one to use while recording vocals at home or even in a professional studio like Sound Pressure Studios.
I also have to say, I have some of my top faves so I just have to mention a couple and then through 3 more to ease your task on choosing the best one for you: