Ask the question “What is a pop filter”, and it’s usually a sign that you’re pretty new to all things music & recording vocals. Perhaps you’re a wannabe singer, rapper or voiceover artist, who’s curious as to why your producer is giving you evils every time you try and push the pop filter aside. Anyone’d think that talking directly into the mic is a sin – right?
Well actually, to think so you wouldn’t be far off, as even though most types of pop filters do at first glance look like an aftermarket piece of kit. Almost as if someone has finished designing a microphone stand and then thought “Oh sh*t – we forgot to add a pop filter!” However, don’t let that fool you, as there’s good reason why this compact mic accessory is so widely used across the music industry. It’s far more than just a gimmick!
And then of course, pop shields aren’t all the same either. In fact, there’s various types of pop filters that you can buy, as well as different scenarios in which you’d use them, so being clued up on why they’re necessary should be common knowledge. Read on and we’ll fill you in on just that, plus dissect some common pop filter myths, so by the time you leave this blog you’re clued up on “what is a pop filter” + much more.
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What is a pop filter?
In a nutshell, a pop filter (or pop shield) is much like it sounds – a shield that sits in-between the microphone and the vocalist to reduce the airflow going into the mic, as well as filter out any harsh high frequencies or plosive sounds. So that’s your B, D, G, K, P and T sounds, which typically are pronounced with a slight popping of the lips, hence the name ‘pop’ filter.
You’ll have likely seen these shields knocking about in recording studios or being positioned in-front of the mic as part of a live or freestyle session. However it’s important to note that pop filters are only used for vocals and not needed when recording live instruments. Neither are they necessary when performing to a large crowd. Reason why has to do with the type of microphone that’s used with a pop filter, but we’ll get onto that a bit later.
Now depending on what type of pop filter you go for, their appearance and setup may vary, however in most cases pop shields are circular and can be clamped onto virtually any mic stand. We’ve even seen them clamped onto boom arms too! In fact, the only instance where pop filters may not come with a clamp is when they’re included as part of a microphone starter kit. In this case, there’s a good chance that the pop filter will be integrated into the shock mount – the Rode PSM1 shock mount, for instance.
And don’t get us wrong that’s great design – hats off to you Rode – however it can make it slightly harder for it to be positioned and does give you less control over how far it sits from the mic. So really, even if you get a pop filter as part of your kit, upgrading to something more flexible may be a good idea. Speaking of which, the majority also come with a gooseneck design, that allows you to easily adjust their position without any tightening screws or flimsy plastic adjusters.
As you can imagine, that’s our preference.
How do pop filters work?
How pop filters work really all comes down to physics.
With a pop filter essentially being an air block, it works to restrict the amount of airflow going into the mic, all in aim of reducing the level of interference – most notably heavy plosive sounds. All sounds that when it comes to recording clean vocals, you need to numb, otherwise the recording can very often be labelled unusable – i.e. a first class waste of time.
And this is because while these plosive sounds may not seem all that harsh to us, to a highly sensitive microphone that’s just inches away from our lips, they’re like thunder and lightening! All of which requires a good amount of skill (and effort) to edit out in post production. Depending on the artist though, without a pop filter the plosives may be so bad that it’s not even something production wizardry can salvage.
* Accents can very often be the culprit of these harsh plosives. Take the harsh K sound used by Scouse singers or the aggressive D sound used by a London Drill rapper. Utter these into a mic without a pop shield and you’ll see a huge spike in the frequencies, which will indicate one thing – that recording is burnt.
The 2 types of pop filters
While pop filters are manufactured by a whole host of different companies (Rode, Blue, sE etc.), as well as come in various designs, when it boils down to it there are actually only two types of pop filter that you can buy. But that’s not to say they work in the same way – oh no!
In fact, the way they go about reducing the plosive sounds is completely different. Not that you need to worry though – just read on – as we’ve spelled out all the differences between the two types of pop filters below. Here’s a quick overview…
Fabric/ nylon pop shields
By far the most common type of pop filter that you’ll come across is that made of nylon. These are pop filters that do much as you’d expect. In order to reduce the amount of plosives, they resist the airflow and reduce the volume of air that reaches the mic, all without heavily muting your sound or altering its tone. Very clever!
What’s great about nylon pop shields?
What’s not so great about these pop filters?
Is a nylon pop filter all you need? Get an idea of how much they cost below…
Metal (mesh) pop shields
The other, slightly more niche type of pop shield, is one that’s made of metal. And that’s because for the most part, metal pop filters do not come included with mics and are in terms of music hierarchy, are above that of a conventional nylon pop filter. But that’s not to say they’re just better built – the way they deal with plosives is completely different.
So while their nylon rivals try their best to block incoming plosives, metal pop filters don’t even put up a fight. Instead, they direct the airflow away from the microphone (usually underneath), which in most cases makes your sound slightly clearer and more crisp. Clever engineering that!
What’s great about metal pop shields?
What’s not so great about these pop filters?
Metal pop shields sound more like your thing? Check out what you can expect top pay…
How much are pop filters?
Being very much an accessory, pop filters won’t usually set you back all that much. In fact, for the most part they’re actually pretty cheap. You’ll rarely see a pop filter for more than £40, apart from a few overly extragant options, which if we’re honest, could be considered overkill.
However, as you’d expect, the general trends with pop filters is that metal pop filters tend to be the most expensive of the two; a decent quality nylon pop filter can usually picked up for just a couple of quid. But that’s not to say they’re the way to go.
In fact, the price of a pop filter really isn’t centred around how well it diffuses plosives, but more its build quality and usability. So if you scrimp when buying a pop filter, you’re going to notice! Cheap goosenecks offer very little in the way of flexibility, and (from our experience) can be more of a hindrance than a help.
Try and bend a cheap gooseneck into certain shapes and it point blank refuses. All of which can lead to a good 10 minute battle positioning the shield into place, and even then there’s a chance it’ll slowly begin to straighten out or stoop downwards. And it’s pretty much the same story with the clamps. Expensive pop filters come with sturdy clamps that hold the filter firmly in position. Whereas your bargain-basement pickups, usually end up coming loose or sliding down the boom of your mic stand, especially if it’s a glossy finish!
So really when it comes to price, the difference between metal and nylon pop filters really is like it is with virtually every piece of studio kit. While brand, materials and innovative design all do their best to set pop filters apart, the long and short is that you get what you pay for.
What mics need a pop filter?
To make things even more confusing, not all microphones need a pop filter.
You see, pop filters are only necessary when you’re using a condenser microphone, hence why you’ll only see them in a studio setting. Reason being that condensers are among the most sensitive mics that you can get. Therefore even the slightest plosive can turn into a sizeable audio blip.
See an artist performing on stage however and they’ll be no pop shield in sight. This is because the mic in this instance will be a dynamic microphone (virtually the opposite of a condenser in terms of sensitivity), which is why it’s not uncommon to see rappers practically getting all up on that microphone gauze.
In the market for a condenser mic, or just want to learn more about how they work? Check out our rundown of the Best Vocal Mics For Under £500 – it may be of help!
A quick summary of the differences between mesh and nylon pop filters…
- Nylon pop filters are cheaper – When it comes down to price, nylon pop filters are by far the cheapest out there. Although despite that, we’d say that metal pop filters tend to be the better value. Reason being that not only are they the most rugged, hygienic and well built, but they do their job really well. You get so much out of a metal pop filter! So while the £20-£40 price tag may not be the most attractive, we’d rather pay it and get a solid product, rather than waste a fiver on a pop filter that doesn’t do it’s job.
- Metal (mesh) pop filters have better goosenecks – Because metal pop filters aren’t what you’d call mass produced or used as free incentives with microphones, you’ll often find that the goosenecks are substantially better. For the most part, we found metal pop filters to be a lot more cooperative than those made of nylon. A key characteristic of any good pop filter.
- The clamps on metal pop filters are outstanding – Yet again, it’s much the same situation as you get with goosenecks when you compare the quality of clamps. Because of their loftier price tag, you can expect more heavy duty clamps on metal pop filters, opposed to those made of nylon.
- Both types of pop filter deal with plosives differently – As explained above, pop filters made of nylon deal with plosives and airflow by acting very much like a wall. They aim to block the plosives and let the rest of the sound flow through. Yet your metal pop filters work to direct airflow elsewhere, which means you tend to get slightly clearer vocals.
- There’s a difference in aesthetic – If you’re looking to record a live session or freestyle then how these two pop filters compare visually may also be something worth considering. With nylon pop filters being more dense, you’ll be lucky to even see your lips. Hardly ideal if you’re trying to connect with your audience or show off your lyrical swag. Equally though, this does make them a great platform on which to put branding – ideal for any YouTuber. Whereas with a metal pop filter, the aesthetic is a lot less solid, which if you ask us makes it the best choice for a live sesh.
Can you record without a pop filter? Are they really necessary?
You can record your songs however you want, be that with a nylon pop filter, one made of metal or none at all. However saying that, we would advise you don’t cheap out because the difference a pop filter makes is quite substantial. Something that’s incredibly valuable, especially nowadays when bad audio quality can be an instant turn-off.
Plus, if you were to record without a pop filter, the whole editing process would take substantially longer and likely cost you more money in production fees and studio time. Equally with YouTube, you very quickly stand to loose a good portion of your audience if your audio isn’t up to scratch. Not exactly what you’d call the way to beat the algorithm.
So while you can record without a pop filter, we would 100% say that they’re necessary. And it’s not like it’s just us that are saying that. If manufacturers are including them with microphones and even radio DJs are using them for all their freestyles and live sessions, it certainly says something. Mainly that pop filters aren’t just advisory – they’re an essential.
Enjoy discovering the answer to the question “what is a pop filter” and eager for more? Don’t miss out on all our advice on Recording & Vocals, as well as Music Production. Recently we’ve also done a full in-depth guide to the Best Microphone Stands + another on Good Quality Mic Boom Arms, which may be worth checking out, especially if you’re looking to reduce interference during your recordings!
Or if you’ve still got a burning question about pop filters, keep reading to discover even more about why you need a pop shield in 2023…