Microphones, Pop Filters, and the Praises of the Heil PR-40

Kole here.

My birthday was this past week, and my gift to myself was a new pop filter for my primary recording microphone.

Take a look at my old one: It's a standard silk filter made by Nady (the Nady MPF-6), which I've owned for about four years now.

It's really torn up from frequent use and travel. Some would say it's pooched. It has also absorbed about four years of my recording breath, which means it's filled with coffee, beer, and whiskey. Worst of all, it's pretty big (about 6.5 inches in diameter total). Big enough that if I set the microphone boom to the level where it hits me when I'm sitting comfortably upright, it blocks my view of the screen. This means that for 3 years, I've set my microphone really low and leaned down to speak into it. This is not ergonomically ideal.

I bought this bad pop filter because it was cheap. Probably about $15 at the time. It's cheap because it's made to work for any microphone (it screws onto the mic stand). I needed something cheap because I was unemployed when I bought it. Circumstances have changed.

In case you were unaware, a Pop Filter is a piece of screening material -- often silk or nylon, but sometimes metal mesh -- that you place between a microphone and a vocalist's mouth in order to reduce "plosives" or "stop consonants". Certain sounds are created by using your tongue or lips to entirely stop the flow of air out of your mouth. In English, most words with "D", "K", "G", "B" or especially "P" have nasty plosives in them.

On an unfiltered microphone, they sound incredibly loud or disruptive. A huge burst of air hits the microphone element and has the same effect as hitting a snare drum really loudly in the middle of a sentence.

A pop filter hinders this burst of air, cutting its volume without affecting the sound quality of other, more well-behaved vowels and consonants. It's an invisible shield that just makes everything sound better. Pop filters are especially important if you're using a condenser microphone. I'll explain why later.

LIFE HACK: If you're recording something and you don't have a pop filter, you can use a pencil or your finger to reduce plosives. Any time you're about to say a word with a "hard P", just hold the pencil or your finger in front of your lips. The plosive will be buffeted and your recording will be saved. This is inconvenient, though.

My new pop filter is a BSW RePop, which is made specifically for the kind of low-profile broadcast microphone I use. Take a look at my setup now.

It's called the "RePop" because it's primarily marketed towards owners of the Electro Voice RE-20, which is the most widely used broadcast microphone in existence. You may recognize it as the mic of choice for Rush Limbaugh (of course, his is gold because he's an ostentatious asshole). Close behind that is the Shure SM7-B, which is a little less costly, a little warmer in sound, and a great deal more awkward to use because of the way it mounts. The SM7-B is also a popular vocalist's microphone for anyone who sings loudly (John Roderick is an outspoken proponent of the SM7-B).

This metal pop screen, ostensibly designed for the RE-20, has an off-label use: it can be affixed to the Heil PR-40. You affix it directly to the microphone via very snug foam-lined ring, and the diameter of the PR-40 is the same as the diameter of the RE-20.

Early reports are in: this pop filter is fucking amazing. I barely notice it's there, and I can finally do the following three things at the same time:

  1. Sit upright, comfortably, with proper posture.
  2. See my computer monitor.
  3. Sound good.

All of this thinking about microphones and sound quality shook something loose, and I want to talk about the Heil PR-40.

When you're looking to buy podcasting gear, you could do worse than to read Dan Benjamin's podcast equipment guides. Dan Benjamin runs 5by5.tv, and the shows on that network are a huge inspiration for my own. His guides have been around in some form or fashion since 2009. They've evolved and changed over the years, primarily in one recommendation: you have to buy a good microphone. He used to have whole sections about how to spend less than $100 on a podcast mic, but those sections have fallen off in favor of saying "go big or go home".

Gary uses a Rode Podcaster. He has that microphone because a very generous fan wrote us in early 2013 saying "Hey, I would like to buy you guys a piece of gear". I leapt to get Gary a Podcaster, because it's absolutely the best microphone for someone who doesn't own an XLR recording interface and needs to plug directly into a USB port.

I say it's the best because most USB microphones you can get in the $100 to $300 range are condenser microphones. This means that they record by sensing the sound that bounces off of a very wide metal diaphragm. Condenser microphones sound very warm, and are used for most vocals in music. Problem is, they're also very sensitive. If you're not recording in a sound proof padded booth, they will pick up echoes, room noise, and even the sound of cars passing on nearby streets. Worst of all, they are magnets for plosives. You can't avoid them without aggressive filtering. Condenser microphones are inexpensive and can sound good as long as you have the money to design a whole room around them.

Contrast those with dynamic microphones, which record sounds by sensing air disturbances around a magnetic coil. Since they have no moving parts, they're incredibly durable. The ur-example of dynamic microphones is the Shure SM58, which can be danced with, screamed into, and dropped without really hurting the quality of the audio. Dynamic microphones are also less sensitive and their pickup patterns are smaller. They only pick up sounds made within a certain radius of the microphone head.

The Rode Podcaster is a dynamic microphone, which means you can use it in a living space. It won't pick up your refrigerator motor in the other room. That FedEx truck passing by won't show up in your voiceover. It can't do much about a cat that's right on top of you, but that's fine because we love Rors.

For my own purposes, because I've chosen to use XLR microphones in order to have more control over the signal, I absolutely adhere to the Heil PR-40, for a couple of reasons.

When you jump from condenser to dynamic, there's a fear that you will lose some "warmness". I feel like an asshole audiophile saying that word, because it's the go-to word for people who defend tube amps and vinyl. It's also difficult to define. My understanding and usage of "warmness" is thus: What frequency of voice will it pick up, and does it sound like you're recording from a room?

If the frequency response is limited (i.e. it only picks up a certain part of the normal human speech range), you will sound artificial. If no room tone is picked up, it will sound like you're recording from a void. It's a tough balance. Condensers give you a warm and organic sound at the expense of having too much noise in your recording. Dynamic mics cut that noise but also lose any personality in your voice.

I've used the Electro Voice RE-20 before. We had those at my college radio station. They sound flat and dead to me. I've used the Shure SM7B before. It sounds amazing, but it's inconvenient to use because of the way it mounts.

The Heil PR-40 is the perfect compromise. It won't hear the sound of the main thoroughfare right outside my office window, but it will pick up enough room ambience to make me not sound like a robot. Its frequency response pattern perfectly matches my voice (read: radiogenic, deep, male). It's compact, and even in its shock mount (which absorbs low frequency rumbles from my desk) it maneuvers very easily on its boom. With this microphone, I can get by with only a small amount of soundproofing in my office, and it plugs directly into my dbx286s pre-amp.

If you're looking to start podcasting, I can't stand here and make a case for jumping right to the setup that I use. Taking a quick inventory, it would cost you about $625 for just the microphone, pop filter, shock mount, and boom arm. I don't say that total just to be all "look at me, I'm a big shot". I'm really not. I say that to underline that good equipment is an investment. You can take half-measures, but make sure you really research what you're getting into. A good microphone will have a bigger impact on your sound quality than anything else, and a bad microphone is hard and expensive to replace.

If you're recording a podcast over Skype, I absolutely recommend the Rode Podcaster. It limits you to USB, but it's the best way to get into professional-sounding recording. If you're doing anything else that requires more control over the signal chain, the PR-40 is the way to go. And make sure you get that pop filter. Like I said, it's fucking fantastic.