You have probably met the dreaded hissing or sometimes spitting (ew) sound we commonly call sibilance. Or is it all that dreaded? Well, it depends on many things, including the taste and tolerance of the listener, the quality of his/her sound system, and it also depends on whether this phenomenon was used by the mixing (and sometimes the mastering) engineer on purpose, or it just happened by mistake. It’s basically an excess of high frequencies present on (usually) the vocal tracks, somewhere in the 5 – 15kHz range, so you get those well audible “s”, “sh” or “ch” vowels, as well as some pronounced breathing sounds, if they weren’t edited out previously.
You either create it during recording with your microphone choice and position and so it occurs as a combination of the singer’s voice and technique and your recording gear and skills. Or you add it in with an EQ or compressor or exciter or something less obvious later on, in the mixing phase.
Sibilant vocals – bad technique or happy accident?
So, does this mean that sibilance is a powerful tool, after all? Not really. But sometimes it still turns out in an aesthetically pleasant way so we just don’t mind it. It takes a pro who really knows what he’s doing to be able to use and “ride” this effect to his advantage. Other times though, it’s downright annoying.
Let’s take this very nicely sung and well performed version of “Wayfaring Stranger”, by the late Eva Cassidy. Her vocals make this blues flow so easy, almost too easy… except that ear piercing sibilance. I can’t decide if it’s there to elevate and highlight an otherwise safe performance, or it’s just how their ears, mics and monitors dictated their moves. You be the judge.
Eva Cassidy – “Wayfaring Stranger”:
When it just happens
Another “classic” sibilant track, this time by Katie Melua. The song, her voice and her phrasing would certainly be interesting enough without the “help” of those hissy vowels, but hey. The arrangement is not too original, but that’s still not a good excuse for trying to use sibilance as an effect.
Katie Melua – “Piece By Piece”:
Analogue warmth your ass
Now if you think sibilance only happened to female singers, and is somewhat of a byproduct of the digital age, check out this James Taylor tune, from 1970. All that tape warmth and analogue gear fatness, right? Well, that phat kick drum is fukken amazing, but anyway, eat this, my dear analogue tape snob friend:
James Taylor – “Blossom”:
And finally a track that’s ended up being among the reference tracks for many mixing engineers (Dave Pensado is admittedly one of them), as far as sibilance goes. You know, it’s one of those “ok, that’s our limit and we are not allowed to create anymore hiss than this” situations. And still, for some reason, on this song, with this arrangement and these sounds, and last but not least, with the help of her exciting, unedited breaths (um), it works!
Natalie Imbruglia – “Torn”: