The more sophisticated your mics and inputs, the more nuances your microphones will pick up. Which is why pricier gear can be like a double-edged sword.
This is where audio sweetening comes in. But novice sound engineers don’t know where to start, and even intermediate producers don’t always have a firm grasp of all that’s involved.
A de-esser is an essential tool – not just for taming harsh consonants in the vocals (the “s” sounds or sibilants), but also for unruly hi-hats, cymbals, and more. You might even utilize a de-esser at the mastering phase.
So, in this guide, we’ll look at the best free de-esser VST plugins to sweeten your audio, achieve more clarity in your mixes and masters, and compress your vocals to perfection.
DeEss By Airwindows
Kicking off this list is Airwindows’ DeEss, which some consider one of the best free options available, but for some reason is a bit of a hidden gem. Creator Chris (last name unknown) himself calls this VST a high-performance “secret weapon.”
The VST is simply designed. Honestly, it just looks like a box with some sliders (which is kind of what it is). Your main controls are intensity, max de-ess, and frequency.
Its claim to fame is basically that it will tame the “s” sounds in your vocal tracks while preserving an authentic, clear sound.
If you ride the effect too hard, you almost completely cut out “s” sounds, which can be extreme. It can even make the vocalist sound as though they have a lisp. To be fair, that functionality could come in handy in certain situations.
So, if there’s any question as to whether it works, check out the video. You will see exactly what I mean. You can step on the “s” sounds to your heart’s content.
But one word of caution – which should go for all de-esser plugins – if your original recording has issues, such as peaking, distortion, noise, and other unwanted artifacts, consider re-recording. The only situation in which you wouldn’t re-record is if the performance itself is impeccable.
If you’d like to give this versatile VST a try for yourself, it’s available as a Mac, Windows, and Linux AU and VST.
The Tonmann DeEsser looks more like your average VST plugin, with a semi-realistic, nicely designed one-color accented graphical user interface.
This is a high frequency dynamic processer plugin designed to tame your tracks of sibilants, which can be even more noticeable after applying compression or a high boost.
It features true independent stereo operation (though it can also run in mono mode), wideband and lowpass reduction modes, fully adjustable center frequency and bandwidth of the detection range, adjustable detection threshold, look ahead feature for sibilants, adjustable release time, wide-ranging adjustable attenuation, and two-level readouts for optical supervision.
Tonmann DeEsser also offers a listen mode in which you can hear “what you remove,” which is not a feature you can find in a lot of free plugins. That said, it does come included with several free de-essers.
This plugin certainly can soften sibilants, although it does have the tendency to “kill” them somewhat. Of course, you can play with the settings until you’re happy, and what matters most is that your tracks sound good within the context of your mixes, right?
The Tonmann DeEsser is obviously a little old school, because it’s only available as a 32-bit VST2.4. That said, it should work in any compatible DAW.
SPITFISH By Sascha Eversmeier
SPITFISHwas developed and created alongside the amusingly but aptly named “fish fillets.” The bundle includes the BLOCKFISH compressor, the FLOORFISH expander/gate, and of course, the SPITFISH de-esser. That said, you can find the SPITFISH plugin as a standalone download if you don’t want all the extras.
What catches your attention right away about “the fish fillet” lineup is their simple but meticulous design, and SPITFISH is no exception.
SPITIFISH includes knobs for sense, tune, and depth, and additional controls for listen, soft, bypass, and stereo. Simple.
The developer even says the VST is dead-easy to use and has been created with mono and stereo vocal tracks in mind. SPITFISH will filter out harsher sibilants that typically “spit” in your mix.
The depth knob compresses sibilants (turn it up for more compression), and the tune knob acts like a high-frequency EQ.
We find SPITFISH to be a high-quality plugin, despite what some have said about free de-essers (haters will be haters). It offers a smooth sound and will remove unnecessary hisses from your tracks.
Maybe it will be up your alley, maybe not. But we think it’s worth a go. You can see more details about it here: https://midination.com/vst/free-vst-plugins/best-free-vst-plugins/
Modern De-Esser By Antress
The Modern De-Esser by Antress features a rackmount style design. It comes with an on/off button, gain reduction, threshold, ratio, width, and release controls.
The frequency control allows you to adjust between 3,000 and 9,999 Hz, and the output level lets you dial from -15 to +15 dB.
We’re a big fan of Modern De-Esser’s design. It’s always nice to see a graphical user interface that mimics hardware gear, especially when it looks this convincing.
Hip-hop producers and rappers found this de-esser to be fire, and even asked why you would need to buy a de-esser when you have something this good at your fingertips.
True to form, the plugin does remove hiss from your vocals and helps you calm those annoying sibilants.
Antress’ Modern De-Esser is available as a 32-bit Windows VST.
Download: PLUGINS 4 FREE
Lisp By Sleepy-Time DSP
Sleepy-Time DSP’s Lisp is a level-independent sibilance processor. It comes with a host of controls, including reduction, attack, release, stereo mode, sensitivity, sibilant range, processing mode, and more.
Lisp doesn’t feature the most modern of interfaces. That said, we don’t think it looks or feels bad. It more than does the trick, really.
Lisp has an automatic sibilance detection algorithm built in, which can take a lot of the tedium out of trying to clean up your vocal tracks. In addition to “ss” sounds, this plugin has been designed to help reduce “teh” and “ch” sounds by tracking amplitude and pitch of the input in real time.
All you need to do to get started is set the reduction amount.
Most de-essers use threshold/frequency-based techniques. Meanwhile, Lisp uses a modified version of the Sleepy-Time Records transient detection algorithm along with fast frequency detection and phase-cancellation. This, the developer says, helps retain a natural sound while lessening unwanted noise.
I think what I like best is that Lisp is a subtle, natural sounding effect. But if you need something stronger, you might need to look elsewhere. Always worth experimenting with, though.
Lisp is available as a 32- and 64-bit Windows VST on PLUGINS 4 FREE.
Download: PLUGINS 4 FREE
Free Effects By Dead Duck Software
Dead Duck Software’s Free Effects obviously isn’t just a de-esser. It comes with an entire suite of effects (26 in total), including AutoFilter, AutoPan, BitCrusher, Channel, Channel2, Chorus, Compressor, Delay, DJEQ, DualFilter, Equaliser, Expander, Filter, Flanger, Gate, Limiter, MonoDelay, Overdrive, Phaser, Reverb, RingMod, SigGen, TiltEQ, Tremolo, Utility, and of course DeEsser.
Basically, it contains everything you would need to get started as a music producer or sound engineer, which is quite generous.
Most users are sanguine about Dead Duck Software’s offering, noting that the effects are quite usable, and some even say these VSTs are their “go-to.”
But let’s get into that DeEsser. You’ll note that it features a simple but attractive interface. There are controls for input, threshold, amount, attack, listen, low freq, high freq, and release. All this is relatively self-explanatory if you know your way around de-essers.
All that makes this VST incredibly easy to use. And it even allows you to go from subtle to extreme, depending on your preference. That’s probably what we like most about the Dead Duck Software DeEsser. You can even use it as a tone shaping tool!
The Free Effects bundle is available at KVR Audio Software and is a 64-bit Windows VST pack.
Download: KVR Audio Software
VeeDeeS By Viper ITB
VeeDeeS is a sibilant consonant reducing de-esser. This VST will help you reduce those pesky “s,” “z,” and “sh” sounds.
Although it’s quite normal to EQ your vocals bright to stick out in the mix, when you do this, it can result in unwanted hiss. VeeDeeS is a special type of compressor that only reacts to high frequencies. So, you can decrease unwanted sibilance while preserving the body of the vocal performance.
This VST has been calibrated to attenuate frequencies above 3 kHz.
Looking at the interface, you can see that there isn’t a whole lot to it. You get an attack, release, and sens controls along with an on/off switch. That’s about it. But this does make it quite easy to use. Just in case, the download comes with an operation manual.
VeeDeeS is available as a 32-bit VST for Windows.
Download: PLUGINS 4 FREE
How Is A De-Esser Used?
Typically, a de-esser would be used on vocal tracks.
Although different de-essers work differently, most are compressor style effects with high frequency control.
It’s common practice to compress and brighten vocals while producing music (to make sure they “pop”), but that can also end up emphasizing unwanted sibilance. Although you can use a variety of effects (like EQ and filters) to remove the hiss, a much easier way to accomplish the same end is with a de-esser.
Depending on the de-esser, you can almost “kill” harsh sibilance, which can result in a “lisping” kind of sound. You wouldn’t normally do this, and if you need to effect the vocals that heavily, you’d probably be better off re-tracking them.
That said, reducing the overall harshness of “s” sounds can help create a much better listening experience overall.
De-essers can also come in incredibly handy for speech, be it audiobooks, podcasts, or otherwise. Using a de-esser can vastly improve listener experience however subtle the effect may seem at first.
It would be common practice, though, to use a variety of other effects alongside de-esser for speech – things like EQ, compression, limiting, gate, and so on.
Personally, I like taking advantage of “all-in-one” technologies like the no longer supported CN Levelator (it still works), and the online audio sweetening tool Auphonic for these types of purposes. Because they basically do everything for you without all the hassle.
Although de-essers are typically used on vocals, they can have other uses too.
Some use a de-esser on their drums (especially hi-hat and cymbals) to remove some of the hiss and harshness. Naturally, you want your cymbals to sparkle, but not so much that they leave your listener’s ear bleeding.
As hinted at earlier, de-essers are sometimes used in mastering as well. Since the mastering process often includes using effects like EQ, compression, limiting, and so on (sounds awfully familiar), it would make sense that a “compression” and “EQ” oriented plugin like a de-esser might be used.
Again, it would mostly be used to eliminate some of the harshness or hiss of the mix, not to cut vocals to a mere lisp.
Now, If you’ve watched some of the above videos, you might be thinking we’re making a big stink about nothing. But the truth is, the pros use de-essers to tighten up their mixes too.
Small changes can make a big difference to your mixes, so if you want to make better quality tracks, start doing as the pros do.
Do De-Essers Work For All Types Of Vocals?
Yes. Regardless of whether you’re a signer or a rapper, regardless of whether you’re including whispering or chanting in your mixes, de-essers can work on all types of voices and vocals.
It’s always good to have your vocals isolated from other tracks, of course (i.e., some bleed is okay, but you shouldn’t record your vocals and guitars on the same mic simultaneously, for instance). That way, you can more directly effect the vocals and hear the difference.
Being that it’s a relatively universal tool, you should have at least one, solid de-esser in your plugin library, if not two or three that sound and work a little differently from each other.
Do I Need To Pay For A De-Esser For It To Work & Sound Good in My Mixes?
Obviously, some of the best sounding and performing plugins come with a premium price tag.
That said, you don’t necessarily need to pay an arm and a leg for a de-esser. The truth is, it’s a simple plugin.
Chances are, even your current DAW comes with a de-esser of some sort. If you don’t like it, or it doesn’t work for you, then it’s perfectly understandable that you might want to download and try out a free VST though.
Should I Use De-Essers In Every Mix I Produce?
The pros say they use de-essers in four out of five mixes. So, if you’ve ever come across a situation where you’re thinking, “I don’t think this track needs a de-esser,” your ears might not be fooling you after all.
But if you’ve brightened the vocals to any extent, chances are, you will be using a de-esser. After all, boosting certain frequencies can result in unwanted hiss and harshness in a mix.
Use your ears, experience, and best guesses to figure when and where to apply a de-esser. Try looping a section of the track where there are lot of strong “s” sounds and listen to it repeatedly while adjusting with a de-esser and turning the effect on and off to hear the difference.
Top Free De-Esser VST Plugins, Final Thoughts
Vocals tend to be the most important part of any track. Listeners want to be able to hear the melody as well as the lyrics. They just don’t want to hear it with a lot of extra high-end harshness.
Use de-essers to clean up and enhance your mixes. You won’t regret it! And if you're looking for other vocal related VST plugins, check out these harmonizers.