Follow the Rumble in your Gut or Live with the Hiss

You know when you have a gut feeling that urges you to act but, instead, you defer to someone’s better judgment?  That’s what happened to me in November when wrapping up an album of my acoustic music.  There were several occasions when sibilance marred otherwise great vocal tracks.  I reckoned – no, I knew – I should have isolated those tracks, tweaked them then remixed the project.  My partner, however, assured me he could dispose of the “sssss” in the mastering stage.

You guessed it!  The mastering was done and the “sssss” is still there! Okay, a wee bit was gone, rather like being left with a net full of locusts instead of an invading swarm.  And to add insult to injury, the bits of sibilance that had vanished were replaced by odd low-end gurgling, pumping, hase aberrations, and weird artifacts.  None of these may have been problematic when heard through my partner’s NS-10s but they hissed like a rattler when monitored through my Dynaudio Air-20s or the Tannoy Golds.

I was forced to do now what my gut told me in November needed to be done.  In five days, my CD was due at the manufacturing plant.

In a subsequent issue you’re going to hear from a mastering expert what he can do for you provided you’ve held up your end of the bargain.  This issue you’re going to hear the echo of the loud curses that preceded me resetting my studio and remixing in a tight time frame.  In future, I will listen to my gut.  It’s not all hot air down there.

I should emphasize the mix was otherwise good, speaking of time, tuning, instrumental tracks, and balance.  All I had to do was hit the vocals.  The first step was to manually “de-ess” the lead vocal using software volume envelopes, which duck the volume at the beginning of the sibilant sections.  I have never fancied de-essing vocal tracks, but, if all else fails, the tools can do a credible job.  You have to be careful not to overdo it or the offending “s” and “t” sounds begin to resemble “th”.  You can hear examples on current television commercials for hair care or fashion items, in which voice-overs were originally “de-essed”, remembering that a “de-esser” is simply a chain consisting of an EQ and a limiter.  The EQ allow only sibilant frequencies to hit the limiter, which will nip them in the bud.  The problem arises when broadcasters further compress and limit all material they air.  Too much of a good thing, in this instance compressing/limiting, cause once smooth consonants to lisp.

Fortunately in this digital world we enjoy a recall function that enables us to go back directly to the final mix.  We then could route the tracks through the analog console at unity gain across the board and plow that through the mix bus to a burner.  Perform a simple “de-essing” on the offending vocal portions and we’re done.

When mixing be patient and stick to your integrity.  If something jerks you off track – grabs your attention – it’s your gut telling you something’s wrong.  Pay heed to that micro-second of sibilance, two bar passage, or odd feeling bridge.  Fix it.  The listener should be able to sit comfortably and hear your articistic creation from beginning to end without being distracted.  Sibilance is just one of the glitches you can address.  There are many others you can repair, ideally before mixing and mastering.

When it comes to mixing, beware of gain staging.  That is, don’t compress everything that moves.  Instead spend time seeking out musical niceties – little trills or harmonics – that have been “washed over” by competing frequencies.  Bring these little gems forward individually with your fader.  Don’t invoke blanket compression.  When you over-compress you risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Pay attention to detail.  After all, you’ve written the material and you’ve recorded it.  If you allow some hiss or pop to get through to the album, it will haunt you forever.

So let’s strap on our best ears and above all have fun.

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