Pulling Plosives (or How to stoP PoPPing P’s)
One very common problem when recording a newscast or the narration for a story (even for veteran announcers) is popping ‘P’ or ‘B’ sounds. It’s a very annoying sound to listeners, and reminds them that they’re listening to someone speaking into a microphone rather than a friend sitting next to them. The pop of a ‘plosive’ (the linguistic word for sounds with that ‘explosion’ of breath built up behind sealed lips) is unique to sound recorded through a microphone, because in normal in-person speech, the listener’s ear is never close enough to the speaker’s mouth for the overpressure of air to create the ‘boom’ of a popped plosive.
Which brings me to the first of several suggestions here for reducing or eliminating popped P’s.
- Back off the mic. For most stick and studio microphones, the ideal recording distance is about 3-to-5 inches from the speaker’s mouth. Much further, and the speaker starts to sound ‘off-mic,’ that is, too much room noise and room echo gets mixed in with the voice. Closer than that, and the mic starts to pick up too much breath and mouth noise, including popped P’s. (Note: some more-expensive hand mics — the kind used by rock stars — are specifically designed to suppress popped P’s even at very close, even point-blank range from the mouth. But I would not recommend these mics for newsgathering or announcing use, because they have other pickup characteristics that make them undesirable in these applications.)
- Talk across the microphone. Most people talk directly into any microphone placed in front of them. This is not the best approach. Instead, try putting the mic at an angle, pointing at the speaker’s mouth, about 45 degrees below and to the side. This minimizes air from the mouth hitting the mic pickup, while barely reducing sound waves at close range.
- Buy a mic filter. You’ve probably seen these in movies and music videos; they’re cheap and very effective at eliminating, or at least lessening pops. For studio mics, pop filters are widely available. You can even make your own for about six bucks. But for field recording, a hoop-type pop screen is too awkward. For stick microphones used in the field, the best portable solution is a foam rubber windscreen, also widely and cheaply available. (Radio Shack has ’em). Not only will a windscreen cut back on popped plosives, but, as the name suggests, it will also reduce wind noise. In the OutQ Newsroom, I have a studio mic with a double set of pop filters, which is very helpful, but still not enough.
- Pull your plosives. This is a mic technique that is highly effective at eliminating popped P’s and B’s, but somewhat difficult to explain, learn and practice, because it requires you to learn how to speak in an unnatural way. Essentially, you alter your breath control, so that you ‘check’ (i.e. reduce) the volume of air you build up in your mouth when speaking plosive consonants. One way to force yourself to do this is to tighten up your lips more than normal, so that you can’t build up too much air in your mouth. This is an awkward way to speak at first, but with practice you learn the breath control without having your lips frozen like the mouth of a puppet.
You’ll find that with the mic placed just inches from your mouth, you can essentially speak without uttering normally audible P’s and B’s (which would sound quite odd to someone sitting across the room from you), and it still sounds normal to the mic — better in fact, because there are no pops.
One way to check your Progress Pulling your Plosives is to Practice ‘Peter Piper’ with your fingertips upraised about an inch from your mouth. Speaking normally, you’ll feel a slight burst of air on your fingers with each plosive. But if you’re correctly pulling your plosives, you should hardly feel anything at all.
Please feel free to leave a comment here if you have any questions — or for that matter, any success — with this technique. I’d love to hear about it.