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How to DeBreath Vocals Without Manual Editing

Nov 08, 2023

Humans breathe. That’s good news when it comes to staying alive, but it can be bad news for audio engineers and producers recording vocalists and voiceover artists. Learn how to quickly get rid of unwanted breath sounds in vocal recordings, without any fussy manual editing.

How to DeBreath Vocals Without Manual Editing

Anyone who has worked with recordings of the human voice will be aware of the problems that unwanted breaths can cause. Often, sharp inhalations of breath between lines in a vocal performance can be very loud and unpleasant to the ears.

Once you’ve focused in on the breaths in a particularly breathy performance, it’s hard to unhear them.

And yet, humans need to regularly breathe when performing – and so the regularity of breaths in a vocal take can become very distracting.

One tactic is to leave in the breaths, which can be a recipe for a natural-sounding recording. Another solution is for the performer to move back from the microphone in between breaths – a technique made famous even to the masses by the meme-song “Chocolate Rain.” One more strategy for dealing with vocal breaths is for the engineer to “debreath” the recording.

The Simplest (and Quickest) way to Remove Breath Sounds from a Recording: You can download Waves DeBreath today and try it for free by downloading Waves Central. For full instructions on how to install and demo Waves DeBreath – or any of our 230+ plugins – follow these instructions on our website.

For more information on vocal production techniques such as debreathing, be sure to check out our blog where you will find hundreds of articles on all aspects of music production, mixing, and mastering.

What Is Debreathing, and Why Do We Do It?

DeBreathing is the act of removing breaths – or reducing their volume level – from vocal recordings. It lies in the same category as de-essing and removing plosives from vocals. It’s not exactly audio repair – we’re not removing distortion or unwanted reverb – but we are improving audio by removing unwanted sounds that naturally occur when recording the human voice.

But why do we want to do this? Why are breaths unwanted in vocal recordings?

Well, let’s be clear, breaths in vocal recordings are not inherently bad and they do not necessarily have to be removed. Some producers may think that removing breaths creates unnatural vocal takes. Breaths are, after all, a natural part of the human voice. Totally removing all breaths from a vocal recording in itself can be unnatural; but on the other hand, breaths in vocal recordings can be annoying and distracting. It’s all about balance.

The degree to which breaths in a vocal recording are a problem depends a lot on the singer and how they deliver their performance.

For example, Matt Bellamy of Muse breathes in a particularly loud and dramatic way. You can hear his sharp and loud inhalation of breath in this performance of “Supermassive Black Hole” at Wembley:

You will notice when listening to the studio version of “Supermassive Black Hole” that these breaths are not audible. It is likely that the producer or mix engineer debreathed Bellamy’s vocal takes after recording.

Another factor that influences how much debreathing is required is the processing applied in the vocal chain. If a vocal take has had a lot of compression and saturation applied to it, breaths can become even more prominent, causing the issue to multiply. Given our psychological tendency to ignore breaths as irrelevant, this creeping up in volume can go unnoticed by an engineer as the vocal is brought to life.

In cases like this, producers may perform debreathing both at the beginning and the end of the vocal chain to really take control of the recording.

Breaths in vocal recordings are comparable to sibilance. They tend to contain a lot of energy in the upper mid-range frequencies and so can jump out of recordings. That’s another reason why, even if you don’t want to completely remove breaths from your vocal recordings, it’s often a good idea to debreath them to reduce the volume of these breaths.

But how do you debreath audio? There are two primary ways to perform debreathing to vocal takes: the old-school manual way; or the simple way, with a tool such as Waves DeBreath.

How to Manually Debreath Audio

Manual debreathing can be a slow and laborious process. To manually debreath audio, a producer or mix engineer must go through a vocal recording and manually cut out each breath in the take.

Once all of the breaths have been identified and separated for the vocal recording the producer can either delete the breaths or reduce them in volume. Let’s have a look at that process in action.

Here we have a vocal recording that contains unwanted breaths:

How to Manually Debreath Audio

In order to isolate the breaths in this recording, we must listen through to the vocal take, stopping each time we hear a breath and manually chopping out the breath.

We’ve found a breath here:

How to Manually Debreath Audio

Now let’s go through and find the rest of the breaths in this vocal take. In the below image, we have colored each breath pink.

How to Manually Debreath Audio

With the breaths isolated, we can now either turn down the gain of each clip or delete them entirely. Here, we’ve opted to delete them:

How to Manually Debreath Audio

This is a relatively short vocal recording of only one minute. However, when working with full tracks with multiple layers of vocal harmonies this entire process can be time-consuming and fiddly.

The Limitations of Manual Debreathing

This method of manually removing or reducing the volume of breaths in a vocal recording has a few flaws.

The first, and probably most obvious, is that it is a very time-consuming process. In order to manually debreath vocal recordings, one has to listen through to the entire vocal recording, stopping every time a breath occurs and then manually slicing the breath from the audio file.

The Limitations of Manual Debreathing

Depending on the length of your vocal recording, and also how many layers of vocal recordings you have in a track, this process can take a long time.

Not only is it slow, but it is boring and repetitive.

Manually debreathing audio is also not a very flexible method of debreathing. Once the breaths are all sliced from the original vocal take, it can be difficult to adjust the volume level of each breath with one action. Instead, it is much more likely that your DAW will require you to manually adjust the volume level of each breath one by one.

These limitations of manual debreathing are why many producers use automatic, specialized debreathing tools such as Waves DeBreath. Plugins like this save time on both identifying and isolating breaths and adjusting the volume levels of breaths.

Let’s see exactly how Waves DeBreath removes and reduces the volume of breaths in vocal recordings with a real world example.

How to Debreath with Waves DeBreath

Waves DeBreath makes removing or reducing the volume of breaths in vocal recordings very quick and easy. DeBreath is able to automatically detect breaths in vocal recordings and isolate them. You can then monitor either the breaths or the vocal to make sure the separation is correct.

To make the debreathing process sound even more natural, Waves DeBreath can add room noise where the breaths are removed. This helps retain a natural sound which is often lost when debreathing audio.

To see and hear it in action, check out this video that goes into a little more detail.

We’ll work with the same vocal recording as we did when manually debreathing so that we can directly compare the results. We’ve loaded Waves DeBreath onto the audio channel.

The Limitations of Manual Debreathing

When we play the audio file back, DeBreath automatically detects breaths in the recording. These are visible in the two readouts in the center of the UI, they’re highlighted by white shading.

The Limitations of Manual Debreathing

We can adjust the sensitivity of the debreathing to make it sound as natural as possible. For extra accuracy, we can solo the breaths to make sure they are being isolated properly.

In addition, we can apply fade-ins and fade-outs to each breath and apply room noise so that the debreathing does not sound sudden or artificial.

All of these adjustments uniformly change the debreathing of every breath in the audio file – much more efficient than doing it manually.

We can also alter how much debreathing is being applied, either fully muting each breath or just reducing the volume by a few decibels.

The Limitations of Manual Debreathing

Automatic debreathers such as Waves DeBreath are a real workflow boon for producers and mix engineers who are regularly working with vocal takes in their tracks. But the uses of DeBreath are not just limited to musical contexts.

Audio and mix engineers working on podcasts and audiobooks can also benefit greatly from Waves DeBreath. When working with long form spoken content – particularly audiobooks which can reach 40+ hours in length – manually debreathing becomes a mammoth task. Waves DeBreath can save you literally days in the post-production process.

Remember, you can demo DeBreath by downloading Waves Central. Follow these instructions to do so.