Today’s list talks about the 6 Best Hardware De-Essers Available in 2023. A very specific problem faced in many a recording studio is the issue of sibilance. You may have all your levels set in perfect harmony with each other only to realize that some shrill-sounding words uttered by an otherwise talented vocalist need to be looked at.
Sibilance is when words starting with or involving certain letters give out a sharp hiss or high-frequency sounds. The culprits, in this case, include the letters S, F, T, C, X, and SH. There are many ways that this problem can be reduced or controlled. Adding some distance to the mic or tilting it slightly often helps. You can also use a dark mic programmed to understate higher frequencies and shrill sounds. Covering the lips with a finger or a pencil can also reduce sibilance to some extent.
While these are all good ideas to overcome this issue, more often than not, you will need to incorporate the use of de-essers into your strategy to battle the unwanted frequencies. De-Essers say what they do. They remove the annoyance caused by sibilant letters.
These de-essers come in different shapes and sizes. Some of them only offer sibilance reduction while some come with other useful features besides de-essing. Our list today includes devices from top brands like SPL, Empirical Labs, dbx, and Behringer.
6 Best Hardware De-Essers 2023 to Effectively Remove Sibilance
1. SPL DeS
The SPL DeS offers standard de-essing features without taking up too much space.
The unit comes in a single-slot chassis that can be easily integrated with other modules offered by SPL’s 500 series, including the TDx, HPm, and BiG modules, to name a few. In addition, the SPL DeS offers dual-band sibilance correction through a simple interface that is easy to comprehend.
The De-Esser has a smart approach and does what it claims while adapting to different variables in a recording or live environment. It can handle S sounds in a vocal track and other sharp/shrill frequencies with a narrow bandwidth, so that neighboring sound waves are not altered.
There is a master toggle switch labeled “On/Bypass,” which switches on the unit. The neighboring LED will light up to indicate the presence of a signal and process it according to the current settings of the SPL Des. When the switch is on Bypass, the signal will ignore the SPL Des and bypass it without any sibilance reduction.
As the SPL DeS is a dual-band De-Esser, it has separate controls for each band. The Hi-S section is responsible for controlling the harsh S sounds in the higher frequency range. In this section, you can find a toggle switch that turns on Hi Band De-Essing and a knob ranging from 0 to 10 that can be rotated to achieve the desired level of de-essing. 11.2 kHz is the center frequency to detect sibilance in this band, and the bandwidth is 3 kHz.
The Low-S section is designed quite similarly. A toggle switch can be used to turn the Low Band De-Essing on and off, and a knob ranging from 0 to 10 can be rotated to achieve the desired level of de-essing in the lower frequency range. Compared to the Hi-S section, the bandwidth for processing is as low as 1.44 kHz.
- Voice: Male/Female
The SPL DeS is very smart and can pinpoint with decent accuracy the sibilance reduction needs of the female or male voice. Whatever the case may be, the voice toggle switch can be set according to the vocals being recorded. The mid-frequency for detecting sibilance in the male voice is 6.4 kHz, while it is set at 7.6 kHz for the female voice.
- Phase Cancellation
How the SPL DeS works is simple yet effective. The innovative people at SPL have engineered the DeS so that it scans through the overall frequencies available in the vocals and zooms in on only the sharp sounding S sounds. Once the identification is made, the DeS inverts the phase of all the S sound frequencies and then merges them back with the original audio. This only affects unwanted frequencies while the rest of the vocal audio remains untouched and unprocessed.
Another great feature of the SPL DeS is its Auto-Threshold ability. Many traditional De-Essers are incapable of handling the removal of unwanted S frequencies from a weaker input signal that may occur due to an increased distance from the microphone. The SPL DeS’s Auto-Threshold identifies this problem and continues de-essing at the same intensity regardless of the varying distance from the mic in a vocal recording or live singing situation.
The principal of phase inversion that the SPL DeS works on settles down hyper-active frequencies in the sibilance range without any alteration in the overall vocal track. Also, other high-sounding frequencies in the mix, like cymbals, are not affected. The Auto Threshold feature maintains de-essing intensity regardless of a vocalist’s varying distance from the mic.
The SPL DeS is somewhat limited in its controls compared to some of the other de-essers in the single slot range. The unit also does not have a separate knob to control the auto threshold features which would be a handy tool to dial in the threshold level as per user preference.
The SPL DeS doesn’t beat around the bush. Feel free to judge this book by its cover. The unit does exactly what it claims…. “De-essing.” While you will find other alternatives on the list which offer many other features apart from de-essing, if you’re looking for a stable unit in the single slot range that is extremely easy to use and gives effective results, go for the SPL DeS.
2. Empirical Labs EL-DS Derresser
The EL-DS Derresser is designed as a single-slot API 500 series-sized module.
Compared to the SPL DeS, the EL-DS Derresser is a bit more advance in terms of its functionality. With more controls and mode buttons, the user can pint-point the troublesome frequencies and then dial down the parameters to effectively attenuate sibilance and shrill instrument-based sounds.
Its features can be broadly categorized into four different modes, which perform different functions. With more modes, the EL-DS offers effective de-essing and allows the user to control other harsh frequencies during a live performance or in a mix.
- General Specification & Layout
The Derresser’s layout is slightly more complex compared to the SPL DeS but still simple enough to get used to in an instant. On the top is a threshold knob followed by 4 push buttons to turn the unit on and toggle its different modes. There is another knob at the bottom that can be used to tell the unit the frequency level on which attenuation should take place. Empirical Lab’s EL-DS Derresser has a frequency response of 3 Hz to 120 kHz.
- De-Essing Mode
Some vocalists may have more sibilance issues than others, depending on how they sing. Sibilance could also become more prominent if you’re making vocals sound clear and crisp to cut through the mix. The de-essing mode is used purely to remove the harsh S sounds that may occur in a vocal track due to any of these reasons. The good thing about the EL-DS Derresser is that it can distinguish and compare high and low frequencies regardless of the signal strength that is available. The frequency knob is rotated to set the crossover level, and the threshold knob is then used to turn down the frequencies above this level. The De-Essing mode can be toggled by pressing the “In/Bypass” button.
- High-Frequency Limiter
Pressing the “In/Bypass” button, followed by the “HF Limiter” button, will activate the limiter mode. Once the mode is selected, the frequency knob can be used to set the crossover frequency. This mode is sensitive to signal strength and generally compresses all frequencies higher than the value selected through the frequency knob. This mode can be used to soothe the “S” sounds but is normally used to tame high frequencies in general. For example, you could use this mode to settle down sharp percussive frequencies or unnecessary shrill sounds of an acoustic guitar.
- High-pass Filter
The mode can be activated by first pressing the “In/Bypass” button followed by the “Listen” button. Once you enter this mode, you will be able to hear all the high frequencies that the Derresser is controlling. You can fine-tune the level of these frequencies by rotating the frequency knob at the bottom of the unit. When in the High-pass mode, the vertical LED column on the side of the unit will light up at different frequency levels.
- Low-pass Filter
This mode can be activated by selecting the “In/Bypass” button, followed by the “Listen” and HP/LP buttons. Once in the Low-pass mode, you can now hear all the low frequencies that are being controlled by the unit. Further manipulation of levels can be done by using the frequency knob. In this mode, you will also see the LED column lighting up according to different frequency levels.
The EL-DS Derresser gives the user more control over unwanted frequencies that may appear in a mix. The different modes are easy to apply, and setting the frequency level for attenuation is a cinch. The threshold feature is powerful and can help dial down the gain to a more acceptable level. In addition, the de-essing mode is insensitive to signal strength.
As a single slot unit that provides de-esses vocal track and curbs instrument frequencies, the EL-DS Derresser is considerably more expensive than other single slot models. Perhaps some other handy features like compression or dual channel options could be offered in this range.
The EL-DS Derresser is equipped with 4 different modes and provides substantial de-essing without being too heavy on your wallet or taking too much space. The device can be a suitable choice for reducing annoying sibilant sounds and other unwanted high frequencies caused by instruments like acoustic guitars and drum cymbals.
3. dbx 520 500 Series De-Esser
Contrary to its diminutive presence, the dbx 520 has some impressive features.
The De-Esser is equipped with the same advanced level circuitry present in the state-of-the-art dbx 902, which is known to be one of the best de-essers around. As a result, the dbx 520 promises not only to provide effective sibilance reduction but can take care of unwanted high frequencies in general.
The unit’s interface is user-friendly and has dedicated buttons to activate and deactivate the major modes the dbx 520 offers. While some de-essers may not be able to cope with a varying vocal signal, the dbx 520 is designed to reduce sibilance regardless of the inconsistency in the signal.
- Enable Button
As the name implies, the enable button decides whether the signal will go past the unit untouched or get processed according to the DBX 520’s current settings. When the unit is disabled, the signal will bypass it completely. The de-esser has a hard-wired bypass which ensures that the signal maintains its original identity and goes forth unprocessed and uncolored.
- Mode Button
The mode can be used to toggle between the entire bandwidth and high-frequency settings. When the mode button is pressed, the neighboring high-frequency LED lights up. This means that the dbx 520 will focus its de-essing powers on only the high frequencies in an audio track. However, if the button is disabled, the overall audio bandwidth will be considered for de-essing. This button has different applications in different situations. For example, for vocal de-essing, the button should be left unpressed, while for taming higher frequencies related to instruments like noise caused by string, frets on acoustics, and basses, the HF mode should be activated.
- Frequency Knob
The dbx 520 has a frequency knob that ranges from 800 Hz to 8 kHz. The unit’s circuitry is designed to split the signal and separate the high and low-level frequencies. Once these frequencies are split apart, the high frequencies can be isolated so they can be compared to the overall bandwidth of the signal. The dbx will start to de-ess if it notices that the higher frequencies are too high compared to the overall signal bandwidth. For sibilance reduction, the recommended setting is the 12 o’clock position or 2.5 kHz. For the reduction of shrill instrument-related frequencies, the knob may be moved till the desired result is achieved.
- Range Knob
The dbx 520 also has a range control knob with labeled values ranging from 0 dB to 20 dB. The purpose of this knob is to set the intensity of sibilance reduction. The range knob has a “NORM” region which is the recommended setting for vocal de-essing as going beyond this range may cause unnatural-sounding vocals. The attenuation effect gets further enhanced when the knob is moved towards the right. Going beyond 10 dB proves useful for higher frequencies related to instruments and special effects.
- Gain Reduction
A column of red lights can be seen on the front panel of the dbx 520. These lights are labeled from 1 to 20 and increase in increments beyond the 6 dB level. Any gain reduction done through the different parameters on the unit’s user interface can be depicted by these LEDs, which will light up accordingly.
The dbx 520 works using the superior circuitry of the 902 model and effectively does what it claims. The de-esser has recommended settings for vocal de-essing, which are aptly labeled on the unit for ease of use. The unit not only offers suitable vocal adjustment but attenuates unwanted instrument frequencies as well.
Some units give out clipping and switching noises when the threshold level is crossed. The dbx 520 tends to add distortion and brightness to the signal in some circumstances. Unfortunately, the unit lacks proper technical support, and it’s most likely that your problems may remain unresolved.
Choose if you’re looking for a de-esser that does a little extra while remaining in the confines of a single-slot chassis. Similar to the Empirical Labs EL-DS Derresser in its approach, the dbx 520 too offers the best of both worlds, i.e., a high level of de-essing and curbing shrill high-level frequencies coming from instruments as well.
4. SPL De-Esser
OR Check SPL DeEsser MK II
Compared to the SPL Des, the SPL De-Esser takes things a step further.
The SPL De-Esser is much bigger and measures 18.97” x 1.7” x 9.3” mm. The additional feature in this SPL model is that it can provide a reduction of sibilance on 2 channels simultaneously. The same can be seen on the back panel, as the De-Esser has a pair of inputs and outputs.
How the unit works is quite interesting. First, the De-Esser searches for sibilant frequencies in the overall bandwidth of the signal and reduces sibilance by using a narrow filter so that the nearby frequencies are not disturbed. The phase of sibilant frequencies is then inverted and fed back into the signal.
- Front Panel
The interface is divided into two parts labeled “1” and “2” showing common controls for each channel. The De-Esser has a main power toggle switch at the far right. Both channels also have dedicated power buttons, so if you only want to run De-Essing on a single channel, you can do so by turning off the other section. Other common controls include a De-Essing knob, a threshold button, and a “Male/Female” button. An LED decibel display is also seen in both sections of the unit.
Once the channel is active, the “S-Reduction” knob can be used to set the level of de-essing. The knob is labeled from 0 to 20. As the knob is moved to the right, the severity of de-essing increases. The LED display lights up accordingly to show the gain reduction taking place on sibilant frequencies. One may be tempted to crank the S-Reduction all the way up, but that may cause vocals to sound nasal and unnatural, so the right balance needs to be kept. Usually, keeping the S-Reduction within the 3 to 7 range provides more suitable results.
- Male/Female Button
Using the “Male/Female” feature will let the De-Esser know which vocal characteristics to focus on during de-essing. By default, the unit is set to reduce sibilance in male vocals when the feature is inactive. Once pressed, the unit goes into female voice mode. Combing these two options with the “S-Reduction” knob will give the most beneficial results. The mid-frequency that the De-Esser focuses on in the case of a male voice is 6 kHz, while for females, it is around the 7 kHz mark.
- Auto Threshold
There may be instances in a song where a vocalist might switch from singing to a whispering tone or when the distance from the mic is purposely increased in the louder parts of a vocal track to avoid distortion. Some de-essers handle this by increasing the intensity of sibilance reduction, which diminish the quality of the vocals and add lisping or a nasal tonality. When the “Auto Threshold” feature of the SPL De-Esser is activated, the unit adjusts to the varying signal strength and manages de-essing more effectively without changing the nature of the vocals.
- Input/Output Options
The SPL De-Esser has the option of an XLR and a TSR port in the input section of both channels. The output ports provide a similar combination of a Neutrik XLR and connectivity through TSR. The XLR outputs have gold-plated prongs. The transmission of the signal balances at 6db electronically.
The De-Esser puts all its focus on sibilant frequencies and narrows the selection for phase inversion so that neighboring frequencies remain uncolored. In addition, the unit provides an option to de-ess two channels simultaneously. The usage is simple and efficient thanks to the “Male/Female” button.
As far as strip channel de-essers go, the SPL De-Esser is quite expensive. Comparatively, the next de-esser on the list offers many more features, including compressions effects, delimiters, gate adjustments, and much more in a dual channel variant for a fraction of the cost.
If you’re looking purely for a de-esser that offers dual channels and dedicated controls, the SPL De-Esser is a decent choice. The de-essing on the SPL devices isn’t bothered by dips in the signal strength, and the male/female selection will give you suitable results in both categories.
5. Behringer Composer Pro-XL MDX2600 Compressor with De-esser
The Composer Pro-XL MDX2600 from Behring is an all-in-one unit.
The MDX2600 is not purely a de-esser but does the job well while offering several other useful functions to manipulate the audio signals in a studio or live setting. In addition, Behringer has been making some top-of-the-line effect processors, so you know you’ll be getting good value for money with all the bells and whistles.
It doesn’t matter if there is an exceptionally weak signal or if you’re trying to combat some piercingly harsh frequencies; you can count on the multitasking Pro-XL. The expanders, limiters, and compressor features on this compact unit are nicely classified under different sections and can be easily found thanks to the user-friendly layout.
- Input/Output Options
Pro-XL MDX2600 has lots of connectivity options on the back. The arrangement of the ports is common among both channels. Firstly, there is a pair of audio outputs, which includes a TSR port and an XLR connector. These are balanced, and the wiring is done parallel to each other. A neighboring level switch can be used to toggle between the home or studio recording level for the appropriate output. A similar pair of TSR and XLR connectors can also be found in the input section. A “Sidechain Send” port routes the signal out for additional processing, while the “Sidechain Return” port receives the signal after external processing.
- De-Esser Section
The De-Esser has a simple layout with a leveling knob and a couple of buttons. The “In/Out” button can activate or bypass the de-esser section. The main knob is used to set the intensity of the de-essing effect. A button labeled “Male” can tell the de-esser whether the signal is coming from a male or female voice. When pressed, the De-Esser will look for sibilant frequencies typically found in the male voice.
- Expander/Gate Section
This section of the MDX 2600 has a trigger knob ranging from off to +10 dB. You also find the “Gate” and “Release” buttons here. This knob lets the unit reduce the gain of frequencies that fall under the threshold level. The release button will decide how long it takes for the compression effect to ease away when the signal falls below the threshold. Pressing the “release” button will activate a longer release time. The “Gate” button can quiet down any signal falling below the threshold level.
- Compressor/Delimiter Section
This section starts with a “Threshold” knob that can be used to adjust the compression threshold. The knob has a range of -20 dB to +40 dB. Next, the “SC EXT” button causes an interruption between the compressor and the signal coming in, while the “SC Mon” button mutes the input signal and links the sidechain input with the output audio. Next, a “Ratio” knob ranging from 1:1 to ∞ determines the ratio of output and input signals compared to signals going past the threshold. Finally, the “Attack,” “Release,” and “Output” knobs further fine tunes the behavior of the compression applied.
- Peak Limiter & Couple Button
A separate “Peak Limiter” ranging from 0 to off keeps the peak of the signal in check and helps control the movement of signal peaks beyond the threshold level by reducing the gain. Next to the limiter knob is the “Couple” button, which can link the two channels together. Once the channels are coupled, the parameters can be controlled by the controls and knobs in channel 1, while the processing power of both channels is now available to provide proper stereo processing.
The Behringer Composer Pro-XL MDX2600 offers two separate channels with dedicated controls. The channels can also be combined and controlled as one while providing stereo processing power. Having both male and female sibilance settings, the de-esser is simple but effective.
If you’re looking for a simple de-essing unit and already have a setup that takes care of signal compression and frequency limitation, you may choose something like the SPL DeS. Although Behringer Composer Pro-XL MDX2600 is feature-rich, it may exceed the requirement of some studio rigs.
The Behringer Composer Pro-XL MDX2600 can be chosen if you’re looking for a multi-functional unit with several capabilities. The MDX2600 can add compression while keeping the integrity of the overall signal, expand and enhance the intensity of audio signals and provide a reasonably professional level of de-essing.
6. dbx 286s Channel Strip with De-esser
Apart from de-essing, the dbx Channel Strip can perform several other functions.
Being a channel strip de-esser, the dbx 286 measures 19” x 5.75’ x 1.75” and weighs around 2 kg. The dbx 286 has an organized layout with dedicated controls for each section that carries out a specific task. A unique feature of the unit is that it has an XLR mic input on the back panel, which can accommodate home studio and professional mics regardless of the impedance level.
An “Insert” jack allows connectivity with any external device for further effects processing like equalizing or adding delay effects. You also get a couple of quarter-inch input/output ports on the back, which can handle unbalanced and balanced signals.
The de-esser section has a frequency knob ranging from 800 Hz to 10 kHz. The frequency knob can be used to set the high pass frequency according to which attenuation of sibilant frequencies will occur. For vocals, setting the frequency around the 4 – 8 kHz mark is recommended by dbx. The threshold knob is used to increase or decrease the sensitivity of de-essing so that sibilance reduction is not affected by varying signal strength. Contrary to the threshold toggle button, the knob offers deeper control over attenuation. The LEDs depict how much attenuation is taking place through de-essing.
- Mic Preamp & Process Bypass
The dbx 286s Channel Strip has its own Mic Preamp section. A knob ranging from -15 dB to 45 dB can be used to regulate the gain on the signal. The unit has its own 48 V phantom power button to effectively power high-end microphones. A separate button in this section can be used to toggle the 80 Hz high pass filter, which will eliminate unwanted low-level frequencies like hum or wind. Some useful LEDs light up to indicate signal level and clipping. The neighboring “Process Bypass” button can bypass the compressor, de-esser, enhancer, expander/gate, and output gain controls.
The compressor section has a “Drive” knob ranging from off – 10 dB. Turning the knob to the right will increase the amount of gain reduction. Turning the knob to the far left will turn the gain reduction completely off, which will make the signal bypass this control. A “Density” knob labeled 0 – 10 dB controls the release time for the compression effect. Moving the knob to the right will cause a faster release, while the release time will decrease as the knob is moved to the left. A LED strip shows the amount of gain reduction applied.
The enhancer section has two knobs that control the detail you get from low and high frequencies. The low-frequency knob ranging from off – 10 will give a boost to the bass frequencies as the knob is turned clockwise. The knob provides a boost of 80 Hz and a cut of around 250 Hz. The high-frequency detail knob can ensure that the treble range sounds comfortable and unshrill.
This section includes the threshold knob, which ranges from Off – 15 dBu. Turning the knob in a clockwise direction will decide the value below which the signal will be attenuated. Turning the knob to the extreme left will open the threshold gate completely, and all frequencies will pass through uncolored. The neighboring expansion ratio knob can be used to set the intensity of the sibilance reduction. Both these controls used in combination will give the required results.
- Output Gain
The “Gain” knob in the output gain section acts as a master gain control for the output signal. The gain can be set anywhere between -30 dB and +10 dB. In case the gain is too high and the signal is clipping, the only LED in the section will light up. The gain knob is especially useful to compensate for any loss of gain while making adjustments to different parameters in the previous sections for various purposes.
The dbx 286s Channel Strip with De-esser is the only device on the list that offers a mic preamp with phantom power. Rather than investing in several devices, the 286 can be the one unit to cover all your compression, de-essing, signal enhancement, and gate adjustment needs. The sections can be easily bypassed, and the output gain knob can instantly take care of any processing-based gain loss.
While the list purely talks about de-essers, much like with Behringer’s channel strip unit, you may need to evaluate and see if you really need the additional features that come packed in the unit. Also, considering the size of the device, make sure you have enough space for it on your rig.
This dbx 286 Channel Strip is similar in its features to the Behringer Composer Pro-XL MDX2600 but has the added feature of a mic preamp built in. Choose this versatile device if you want a combination of in-depth frequency limiting, effective compression, and decent gate control with the added advantage of mic connectivity equipped with phantom power.
Taking control of de-essing and eliminating sibilance while maintaining the original quality of a vocal track sets professional music producers apart from amateur ones. You are now familiar with the interfaces of some of the top de-essers out there. You know how they work and understand what features they bring to the table.
The SPL DeS, Empirical Labs EL-DS, and dbx 520 are all single-strip de-essers that won’t take up too much space on your rig and will provide a high level of de-essing on your studio and live tracks. You can also be sure that they possess the ability to de-ess effectively even if a variable signal is being fed through.
Having said that, if you’re looking for something that provides multiple channels for sibilance reduction and stays true to its purpose without the clutter of additional features and controls, go for the SPL D-Esser. While on the subject of more than one channel, the Behringer Composer Pro-XL MDX2600 will fulfill your de-essing needs and bring a barrage of other useful features in a surprisingly low-priced package.
Finally, if you want the ultimate de-essing unit with compression effects, delimiters, signal enhancing capabilities, and a mic preamp on top of that, you can’t go wrong with the dbx 286s Channel Strip. See what fits your setup the most in terms of features and overall value for money, and then go for it!
Sultan Zafar is a guitar player from Islamabad, Pakistan. He has been playing music with various mainstream musicians for over 20 years. He is a song writer and music producer. These days he spends his time exploring different music genres and collaborating with fellow musicians on various projects. Read more..