This week, before we move on to our focus months, I wanted to discuss some things that are becoming more and more apparent during my recording and mixing sessions - to a point that the effect is increasingly noticeable when they are absent! De-essers and gates are well known to all engineers but recently, it dawned on me how much I neglected them in my early days and on top of that, how long it took me to start relying on them before any other processing.
So, let’s dive in!
DeEssers are a staple in most studios for one reason above all else: Vocals. They can be incredibly useful when working with valve mics, or brighter mics such as the BB29 (although the transformer coupled output tapers a lot of the annoying top end off!). Vocals, by nature, are rather harsh within the upper midrange for a specific biological reason - a babies cry will typically resonate around the 3.5Khz to 4.5Khz region, but it’s a characteristic that stays with us despite our voices becoming lower as we age and which has led to the need for and invention of the DeEsser to help tame this annoying area. You can watch my walkthrough on how I go about using both de-essers and gates here:
One of the best DeEssers I've ever used is the Dbx 902 900 series module, simply because of its smoothing transient effect, without becoming too noticeable. Until recently, I’d been making do with the FabFilter Pro DeEsser, but Plugin Alliance recently released a version of the 902 DeEsser modelled by Lindell Audio, who, as you will know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, I love for their countless faithful recreations of many favourite hardware units.
Since the 902 De-esser came out from Plugin Alliance, I've not stopped using it - it's not just great on vocals, but on acoustic guitar, it can really help to tame the pick attack too
DeEssing doesn’t just occur on vocals though. It’s easy to think that this would be the only viable place for it to appear, but when you think about it, there are other sources that benefit from harsh upper midrange taming. Overheads on a drum kit are a great example, especially if the cymbals aren’t great, or if you’re limited to a smaller budget setup for your mics or preamps. The 902 could work here, but often I find the the Fabfilter DeEsser has been a staple in situations like this for me and I’d highly recommend using it first before you try EQ’ing out those tricky frequencies - you may find that a little dynamic EQ or multiband compression is better suited, so try to keep your DeEssing as the first thing in the chain.
Gating is also important, arguably even more than DeEssing, thanks to its use on basically any instrument you like. I personally appreciate it most on drums and guitar, simply to curb the tail of the sustain of whichever instrument you like. Let’s take drums for example first.
Drums are very resonant instruments by nature. The wood, the way they’re made and the heads used, all play a major part in the sustain and attack of the kit. Gates are great for limiting this. As with everything, having sustain within reason is desirable for drums… but that’s what room microphones are typically for. Often, the close mics will have a lot of the other instruments in, specifically overheads, which is the last thing you’d like in another microphone where you may want to boost the attack or the detail in the top end to create a little more snap - in most cases, you’ll be trying to tame the top end of your cymbals! So, gates allow you to just hear what you want to hear and cut the decay of the shell before it becomes just decay - the longer you leave the gate open, the more you’ll hear from the rest of the kit is what I always learnt, but try to use this rule sparingly; the last thing you want to do is make a very natural sounding instrument start to sound unnatural. A good rule of thumb is that your kick and snare can be gated much quicker than your toms, and more often than not, going through the tom mics and cutting them down manually, then gating, results in much more pleasing results.
The 50 Series Channel Strip from Plugin Alliance has one of my favourite gates to use within it
Another great example of using gates is on guitars. Usually, you’ll see these at the start of the signal chain, just after the tuning pedal, or before a compressor pedal. But I really like them close to the end of the signal chain as well, mainly to tame the dynamics of the amp, cabinet, and the way it’s been played, along with the gate at the start of the chain.
You’ll always want to gate before delay or reverb so you don’t get that 80’s gating sound (unless that’s what you’re after), so if your using them after the microphone and in the box or while recording the microphone output in front of cabinet, I’d suggest using a plugin to achieve the reverb or delay sound you want - however, if you’re not using time based effects, gating before the signal hits the amp and after, will give a very pleasing result so as to eliminate any hum, room resonance, or unwanted string noises after a take. This can also speed up your workflow when you get good with using gates as it leaves you with more time for much more mix elements as opposed to manually going through and cutting the guitar signal!
All in all, these two elements are integral to a polished, and professional mix. You’ll find gating useful on almost any source (within reason - room mics I wouldn’t recommend unless you’re after something specific), and De-Essing can be a saviour when all else fails and you’re unsure how to tame that harsh top end without completely redoing a session and taking more time.
How do you use these elements in your mixes? I’d love it if you reach out and show me some work, share stories or similar, and as always you can reply to the email in the subscriber email blast that goes out every week - or even better, talk to me within our JZ Mics Members Area on facebook; a private and exclusive group for JZ Microphones owners and clients to discuss all the above and more!