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Whenever I record vocals in my home studio, I always use a pop filter placed a few inches in front of the microphone. Is this use of a pop filter strictly necessary; could I get away with recording my vocals without using one?
A pop filter is necessary when recording a voice directly in front of a microphone. It stops plosives (rushes of air due to ‘p’ and ‘b’ sounds) from reaching the mic. Pop filters are not necessary for live music use, or if the voice is to the side of the mic or a significant distance away from it.
While a pop filter is an almost essential tool in some voice recording situations, it is not always necessary to use one. This article lays out when you really should be using a pop filter, and when it is ok not to.
If you are interested in checking out the best recording gear such as audio interfaces, studio monitor speakers, microphones, etc., you can find them at Amazon by clicking here.
What is a pop filter for?
A pop filter is for preventing “plosives” in a human voice from reaching a microphone and being recorded. Plosives are sudden rushes of air due to ‘B’ and ‘P’ sounds (and ‘T’ sounds to an extent). They result in an almost popping-like sound, which is not pleasant to listen to.
Try this example:
- Put the palm of your hand about an inch away from your mouth
- Try saying the phrase “I like to play ball with Bob in the park”
- You will feel a quick rush of air on the ‘p’ sounds of “play” and “park”, on on the ‘b’ sounds of “ball” and “Bob”
It is these sudden rushes of air that we are trying to prevent from reaching the microphone.
Microphones actually exaggerate plosives due to the proximity effect. This is where lower frequencies are emphasized when close to a microphone. As plosives are mainly comprised of these lower frequencies, the effect when recorded using a microphone is much worse than when we are listening to human voices in everyday conversation.
In extreme examples, it can actually cause clipping and unpleasant distortion.
Now a pop filter is not strictly necessary. Microphones will still record human voices fine without using one. But there are certain recording situations where you will almost certainly want to use one if you want to get a good quality recording.
While the main purpose of a pop filter is to reduce plosives, they also give us a couple of additional benefits…
- They enforce vocalist’s distance from the mic, preventing them from getting too close
- They prevent spit and saliva from getting into the microphone
Recording vocals in general can be tricky, and there is much more than just plosives to worry about when trying to capture a great vocal sound. That’s why I wrote this article on preventing distortion in vocal recordings. I highly recommend reading it to help you capture a great quality vocal, especially if you are just starting out.
When a pop filter is necessary
You need a pop filter when recording the human voice in a quiet, indoor, recording studio type environment, and the voice is pointed directly into the microphone. This applies to both spoken word and singing.
A pop filter is beneficial if you are a few inches away from the microphone. This is generally the optimal distance to be to obtain the best balance between volume, tone and sound quality. At this distance, a pop filter will make a massive reduction in the amount of plosives making it onto your recording.
The type of microphone doesn’t matter; if you are singing directly into any mic then you need a pop filter. If you’re interested, check out my article comparing the two most common microphone types used in home studios to record vocals. I especially recommend reading it if you’re in the market for a new mic for your home studio setup.
Pop filters are vital if you are recording singing. Plosive sounds can be very distracting, especially in a quiet, expressive, sensitive vocal. For a pro-level vocal recording, you absolutely need to get rid of those plosives.
For spoken word recordings, eliminating the plosives is not quite as important. Podcasts are the most common spoken-word recording done today. I would argue that if you want to compete with other podcasts, you should aim to get the quality as high as possible, especially as it is not that hard to do.
Plosives can be distracting, and you may as well spend a few dollars to get rid of them. It’s an easy win.
Pop filters are inexpensive items that can make a big difference to your recordings. For this reason, I would advise having at least one in your home studio; it is a great bang-for-buck purchase. Here are a couple from Amazon (affiliate links) that I recommend…
- Aokeo Pro Mic Pop Filter (soft fabric mesh)
- Arisen Pro Metallic Mic Pop Filter (hard metal mesh)
When you don’t need a pop filter
In a live music environment, an external pop filter is not usually required. It is such a noisy environment with high volume and background noise, that plosives will barely be noticeable. Contrast this with a quiet recording studio, where they will stick out like a sore thumb.
In addition, microphones used in live situations often have internal pop filters built into them. The famous Shure SM58 is an example. I highly recommend an SM58 if you’re looking for a budget, high-quality microphone for home vocal recording, even though it is more often thought of as a live mic. Check out this article on why the SM58 is a great recording mic for a home studio to learn more.
You only need a pop filter if you are speaking or singing directly into the microphone. The sharp rush of air from the plosive sounds is very directional. If you take steps to direct the voice away from the microphone, this hugely reduces those plosives. These steps could be…
- Position yourself off to the side of the microphone
- Stand/sit a distance away from the microphone e.g. a couple of feet or more
- Use a boom mic, where it is traditionally placed over the heads of the voices being recorded
- Use a lavalier mic (one that clips onto your shirt or tie), and take care to not address it directly.
All of these will make a big difference to the plosive sounds. But you will alter the sound by taking these steps. You will reduce some volume, and have to compensate with the gain on your audio interface. You will also alter the tonal quality of the voice you are recording.
For example, a singer could sing off to the side of the mic to reduce plosives, but you will lose some top-end from the recorded voice. You would probably have to compensate for this somehow, probably by using an EQ plugin in your DAW.
I am not a fan of this technique for singing, but I think it can be great for spoken word recordings.
As a side note, most of us do not have the luxury of a pro-level recording studio setup; we are recording in any old room in our homes! My article on recording vocals in a small room shows you how to get the best out of even a tiny room, and get a great sound captured despite the limited space.
What is a pop filter and how does it work?
A pop filter is a roughly palm-sized mesh of material, enclosed in a plastic surround. The mesh material can be soft fabric such as nylon, or it can be a more rigid metal construction. It can be positioned and attached to a microphone stand, typically using a gooseneck terminated with a clamp.
The pop filter is placed a few inches in front of the microphone. A distance of somewhere between 2 and 6 inches away from the mic usually works well. The singer or speaker then sings/speaks into the pop filter, from a distance of at least a few inches away. The exact distance will depend on singing/speaking style, volume, room acoustics, etc.
The mesh of the pop filter “catches” the sudden rushes of air from the plosives. It absorbs and disperses them before they have a chance to reach the microphone as sudden spikes. The main body of the sound is still let through by the mesh, remaining largely unaffected.
The mesh of a pop filter is either a soft material such as nylon, or harder much more rigid metal. With a soft mesh, you can push your hand against the mesh and it will flex and move with your hand. It is much more difficult to make the mesh move with a metal pop filter.
Some people will say that the metal pop filters actually retain more of the tone of the voice being recorded, whereas the soft pop filters cut out more of the top-end. In all honestly, I have tried both and the difference has been so small as to be negligible.
There is also the homemade option where you can stretch some pantyhose over a wire coat hanger to achieve a soft mesh pop filter. They actually work surprisingly well, and are a great option if you are on an extremely tight budget.
Do I need both windscreen and pop filter?
You do not need both windscreen and pop filter. The two items serve different but related purposes. A windscreen is mainly for outdoor recording, intended to reduce the sound of wind noise in the microphone. A pop filter reduces plosives, and is mainly for indoor close mic’ing use.
If your microphone has a foam covering over the grill or element, that is a windscreen. Windscreens are not an alternative to pop filters. There are for an entirely different purpose, and are almost exclusively for use outdoors.
You have probably watched a few YouTube videos that have been recorded outside when it is windy. In these situations, it can be almost impossible to hear the voice clearly over the noise of the wind. It is this noise that a windscreen is trying to reduce.
It is not advisable to use a windscreen on a microphone when recording singing, as they can reduce some of the top-end brightness in vocals resulting in a slightly dull sound. Take your windshield off your mic if you are recording singing.
What does a pop filter device filter out?
A pop filter filters out sounds called “plosives” from a human voice. These are “p” and “b” sounds that cause sudden rushes of air into a microphone when recording. These sounds can be very annoying and distracting, as the microphone and recording process tends to magnify their effect.
Can you record without a pop filter?
It is possible to record a human voice without a pop filter, as long as certain precautions are taken to reduce the effect of plosives. Speaking/singing off to the side of the mic, moving further away from it, or placing it above the subject are all techniques that can help to reduce plosives.
Do you really need a pop filter?
You only need a pop filter if you are recording a human voice, pointed directly into a microphone, at a fairly close distance. If you are recording outdoors, a windshield is a better choice. If you are a good distance from the mic or not speaking/singing directly into it, a pop filter is not necessary.
If you have read this article, then you are obviously interested in recording vocals. Check out these related articles on the subject of vocal recordings…
- Should you record vocals in one take?
- Nervous recording vocals? 9 tips to reduce red-light fever
- Recording vocals sitting or standing – which is better?
- Why is autotune considered bad? Is it really ok to use?
Here is some of my favorite home studio gear…
Thanks for reading this article. I hope you found it helpful in your home music-making activities. Here are a few of the tools that I personally use in my home studio. These are affiliate links, so if you decide to use any of them I’ll earn a small commission.
Audio interface: My personal choice for audio interfaces are the Focusrite Scarlett series. I have been using these for years, and they have always given me great-sounding recordings. For a very reasonable price from Amazon you can buy the excellent Focusrite Scarlett 4i4, or if you don’t need MIDI capability the Focusrite Solo is a great choice.
Amp sim: Guitar amplifier simulator software has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, such that I record all my electric guitar parts using amp sims these days. One of the very best is the incredible Amplitube from IK Multimedia, which I have used on many of my songs.
Headphones for recording: My favorite headphones for recording are the Sony MDR-7506s, which I use for monitoring during all my recording sessions. They can also be found in many pro recording studios. Get the Sony MDR-7506 headphones from Amazon here.
General-purpose microphone: You can’t go wrong with a good ol’ Shure SM-57, one of the most versatile and ubiquitous microphones around. I’ve been using one in my home studio for as long as I can remember. Amazon offers the Shure SM-57 for a very competitive price.
To see all of my most up-to-date recommendations, check out this resource I made for you!