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Using Distressor EL-8X To Control Sibilance

Brandon Drury —  December 31, 2009

I was born with male body parts. [Ron Burgundy Voice] In addition to all that world-conquering testosterone, inability to cry, violent intellect, sheer force of muscle-fiber power, and the desire to crush things[/Ron Burgundy Voice], I also can’t seem to wrap my head around this whole “user manual” thing.

Granted, I put on my panties (OUT OF NECESSITY!) when it was time to learn Cubase SX3 and read the entire Getting Started manual. (Some things in life are so powerful that you do actually have to sit down and read the instructions to harness the beast. [lie]I had to do the same thing when I learned how to fly an Apache helicopter.[/lie]. It’s odd how I’m all about reading (I try to read a book a week…on a good week.) but if it’s in the form of instructions I just zone out and think about horsepower, breasts, or pizza. I don’t get it.

Well, it turns out that I’ve found a new item to add to my list of powerhouses that require reading. In addition to Cubase and Apache Helicopters, I now formally induct the Distressor EL-8X compressor to the Read The Damn Instructions Club.

I’ve had the stupid thing for about a year and a half. I did the usual. I bought it. I tossed the manual in the box (to protect it from harm, of course). I hooked it up. I started pushing buttons and twisting knobs. It occurred to me in a recent session that I really had no idea what all various modes do, how they are supposed to sound, etc. I found that many of my weekend warrior bands who someday dream of having laces on their shoes aren’t overly willing to pay me to play with my compressor as much as I’d like.

It’s not that I haven’t experimented with the thing. I’ve used it day in and day out for 500 days. The problem is the Distressor has about a billion possible combinations. As you’ll see later on, different ratios cause the attack and release functions to vary and those cause the detector circuits to vary. This doesn’t even factor in the harmonic content this bad boy is so famous for. So it’s not like I’m a retard and let the thing collect dust in my closet. I’ve used the crap out of it. I just lost respect for how insanely versatile the Distressor is.

So, I called myself Brandy for a few minutes and fired up the manual for the Distressor EL-8X.
I considered putting on lip stick, too, but I couldn’t a color that matched my dress.

Epiphany Time
I was tracking vocals last night for the Toontrack Mixing Wars: Country contest. I had a situation to play with my new found knowledge. I was DEVESTATED by all the power in this unit I’ve been missing. Simply put, all that sibilant crap I’ve been fighting on mixes lately could have been avoided entirely if I would have just opened up the manual.

The function I’m talking about is the Detector circuit. Basically, the Detector works much like a sidechain. Inside the Distressor the signal is split. One side is the audio side. The other is the detector side. We can manipulate the detector side to control how the audio side gets hammered with compression. (If you need help with this one, just post on the audio recording forum and we’ll explain it in greater detail)

There are two included detector modes in the Distressor. One is the low cut. This knocks down the low end being fed to our detector and therefor means the low end stuff won’t have much effect on how the signal as a whole is squashed. An 808 kick drum bass drum thing isn’t as likely to cause the entire mix to clamp down and pump.

To quote the Distressor Manual:

Low cut keeps the low “sum & difference” frequencies from pumping the upper frequencies of source material.

In English, that means that low end won’t screw up your mid and top end. The Distressor is not listening to the low end to decide how it is going to compress the audio signal.

The function that I DRAMATICALLY underestimated was the other detector mode. It boosts the crap out of the upper midrange on the detector. This means the Distressor is going to be more aggressive towards fighting upper midrange frequencies.

In Use
I normally like to start with relatively conservative settings (much like recommended in the manual) with attack and release on 5. I’ve been having fun with the 6:1 ratio lately and trying to set the Distressor so it’s hitting 1dB of reduction most of the time and taming the super loud peaks. This is a good overall setting for compression if there aren’t any other pressing issues. It’s just a nice little “evener”.

However, when ol’ Slasher Sibilance arrives, we’ve got a new problem. We have “essess” leaping out and we have to do something about it. My self study in audio engineering (the thing I’m paying attention to in recordings this month) is the lack of ANY sibilance in 99.9% of all big boy recordings. So the goal for this one was to need no de-essing on the lead vocal.

I must admit that I’ve played with the upper mid boost detector button before. In fact, I ruined a recording of a vocal about a year ago because I had the detector button on but squashed the living hell out of rest of the track. (I saw Michael Wagener commonly use 18dB of reduction with his Distressor on vocals at his work shop and was curious. I clearly wasn’t doing it right!) So I’ve been careful with that mid boost detector. Overall, I’ve considered it to be a fairly subtle effect….until last night.

Our sibilance wasn’t world ending, but it was not the zero sibilance sound I’m looking for with the Distressor in “normal” setting. Pressing the mid boost detector button didn’t do much at first because my attack was a little slow. I have no idea how fast “5” is on a Distressor but it will definitely let sibilance through. However, by pushing the attack down to 1 or .5 something magical happened. The Distressor said “Goodbye sibilance!”. The vocal wasn’t remotely dull. It didn’t get that fake sounding lisp thing you often get with de-essers. It just sounded like the damn thing is supposed to. Impressive! I came extremely close to the zero-sibilance sound I was after. I’ll take it!

The secret was the detector, the fast attack, fairly aggressive ratio (6:1), and only hitting the signal hard enough to catch these sibilant peaks. If I would have hit the vocal with 18dB of compression, I’m positive that I would have killed much of the good stuff in the upper range of the vocal. (Which is what I did in the ruined vocal tale above.) If I would have slowed the attack down the sibilance would have snuck right through. Who knows what would have happened with a different ratio!…or British mode!….or the Distortion modes!

As you can see there are a billion settings that are interdependent on the Distressor.

Conclusion
This wasn’t meant to be a full blown review of the Distressor EL-8x. I just wanted to highlight what an awesome tool the Distressor is for knocking sibilance off vocals. I’ll be using it for this feature from here on out. Impressive! Maybe when I have about 10 or 15 of these mega tricks figured out I can actually do a full blown review of it.

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of RecordingReview.com and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.
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