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Beatboxing is a wonderfully unique corner of music production. To beatbox is to imitate percussive drum sounds, using only one’s mouth. The human voice is an incredibly powerful and versatile tool. In fact, I have often wondered if all music is, in its origin, a way to imitate and distort the human voice- the original instrument.
The greatest music is produced by balancing the tension of instruments that “sing” and instruments that “groove.” Percussion, the ancient art of hitting things rhythmically. Drums evolved across ancient societies, but the drumming of West Africa became integrated with European music traditions. Now, African drumming styles have become the heartbeat for the world’s modern music.
And beatboxing, at its best, is an elegant marriage of percussion and voice. One human can imitate an impossibly complex tapestry of sound. For what it’s worth, beatboxing championships are a worthy rabbithole to get lost in.
Beatboxing, today, is often associated with a few worlds. Hiphop has always been about accessibility to music creation, and early beatboxers imitated expensive drum machines such as the legendary Roland TR-808. A Capella groups, which seek to imitate song productions using only vocal harmonies, often feature beatboxers to play the role of drummer, or even drummer and bassist. And beatboxing has even taken on its own life for solo performers.
Beatboxing is also a fascinating topic from a music production standpoint. Microphones are as important to beatboxers as shoes are to dancers. Beatboxing involves mic technique- the mic is not simply to capture the performance, it is used as a performance tool. The beatboxer interacts with the mic in special ways. Different kinds of mics can vary in the way they operate, so it’s crucial to make the right choice for a beatboxing mic.
First, I’ll explain how some different mic types work, and how the proximity effect plays a part. Then, I’ll go over some of your best choices for different contexts, including performing and recording.
Dynamic vs Condenser Microphones
The two most common microphone types are dynamic and condenser mics. These mics capture sound in very different ways. Without getting too technical, dynamic mics are hardier, cheaper, and more durable, whereas condensers are more delicate and expensive. Dynamics are used more for live performances, to mic vocals, amps, and speakers. They are often used to mic vocals and amps in the studio as well. Condensers are more often used for acoustic instruments in the studio, and also as studio vocal mics. Sonically speaking, dynamic mics capture the more powerful aspects of a performance, whereas condensers capture the details and variations.
This is all important to understand, because choosing a mic for recording beatboxing in the studio is very different from choosing an excellent studio vocal mic. The Neumann U87, for example, is a legendary recording vocal mic, yet it would make quite a poor choice to record beatboxing.
Condenser mics are known to be very sensitive, and singers use a pop filter when recording vocals; otherwise, plosives create distortion. Beatboxing involves intentionally directing plosives at the mic, which makes dynamic mics the far more popular choice.
Sound is complicated. Every sound you hear is made of a combination of low, mid, and high frequencies, just like how every color you see is a combination of different colors of light. These low, mid, and high frequencies travel differently once they are in the world. Low frequencies tend to lose power more quickly in the air, while high frequencies travel further. Have you ever approached a live band from a distance? You may notice that from a distance, you mostly hear high frequencies like drums and cymbal sounds, and more frequencies get filled in as you get closer.
Low frequencies can travel further through solids and liquids. If you have ever heard loud music through a wall, you might notice you mostly hear the bass and low drum sounds. This also explains why whales and ship horns generate such loud, low tones, to travel miles through the ocean.
Since low frequencies lose power more quickly, the “proximity effect” means that when you are close to a mic, the low frequencies in your voice or instrument are boosted. Beatboxers use this in their performances. They usually hold the mic very close to their lips, so the low frequencies in their “plosives” (syllable sounds) are amplified, and sound more percussive. They can also quickly vary their distance from the mic to vary the proximity effect. I have seen beatboxers recording with condenser mics, and as I mentioned before they are forced to use a pop filter. This means they are much further from the mic than they would be if they were using dynamic mics. As a result, they use less of the proximity effect, and their beatboxing sounds overall more detailed but less powerful.
Classic Live Beatboxing Mics: SM58 and D5
Two of the most popular mics for beatboxing, are also two of the most popular live vocal mics in general. They are the ubiquitous Shure SM58, and the popular AKG D5. Both of these mics have several properties that make them excellent choices for beatboxing. They are inexpensive. They are extremely durable as music gear goes. In face, a classic music production story is that Shure SM58s are used to hammer together stages in a pinch. Since they are both so popular, you are likely to run into them a lot. This could be a selling point. If you’re ever caught without your mic, there’s a good chance you could find one that feels familiar.
Choosing Between the Two
The two mics are very similar, so if you are trying to choose one, what’s your best choice? Honestly, I recommend trying both out if you are able to, because it often comes down to what you personally feel compliments your voice best. Every mic has its own character, and every voice has its own character. The characters of the mic and voice could complement or clash with each other.
The Shure SM58 is so iconic that its character is baked into our collective cultural consciousness. Recordings made with an SM58 will sound “right” because we have heard it so much. That said, the mic is far from flawless. Critiques include a “wooly” quality to the sound, somewhat “muted” especially in the high frequency details. But again, this could be an attribute if it complements your style. On the other hand, the AKG D5 is slightly “truer” with a more natural and open sound than the SM58. It also has slightly more powerful bass, and I have seen it used to mic bass amps and bass drums as a result.
At the end of the day though, they are both excellent choices for beatboxers, and they are very popular for a reason. You would not go wrong with either.
Studio Recording Beatboxing
The Shure SM58 and AKG D5 are excellent live beatboxing mics, but what about recording in the studio? Usually studios employ more expensive and sensitive mics for recording vocals. Not many artists are known to use live vocal mics for recording vocals. Like I mentioned before, though, condenser mics are not a great choice for recording beatboxing, as they would be for recording studio vocals. The artist simply can’t interact with them in an ideal way to beatbox.
There are some interesting solutions to this issue. One is to use a combination of a live vocal mic, such as the AKG D5 or Shure SM58, in conjunction with a condenser mic at a further distance from the performer. The condenser mic will play the role of “room mic” and capture some of the details and “air” from the performance, to fill it out and make it sound more high-definition.
Good condenser mics are much more expensive than good dynamic mics. For a lower budget, I recommend a Rode NT1-a or a Lauten Audio LA-220. For a medium budget, the Avantone CV-12 has a famously luxurious sound for its price point. Taylor Swift used it to record all the vocals on her first couple of albums. If you have a higher budget, you can never go wrong with the pristine, delicate sound of the Neumann TLM-103 to capture every breathy detail of the room.
Studio Dynamic Mics: SM7b and RE20
Another solution is to use a higher-budget dynamic mic for recording in the studio. There are two mics that are often spoken in the same breath: The Shure SM7b and the Electro-Voice RE20. The two cost about the same amount, and are highly respected as studio mics for vocal recording, and for podcasts and radio hosts.
The Shure SM7b is most famous as the vocal mic that Michael Jackson used to record Thriller. The Electro-Voice RE20 was actually designed as a broadcast mic, for radio hosts and the like. Stevie Wonder liked to use it to record vocals, and it gradually developed a secondary reputation as a unique and powerful vocal recording mic.
These two mics are not ideal for live performances. They are simply too expensive, bulky, and relatively delicate compared to the robust mics mentioned earlier. However, their sounds are very luxurious comparatively speaking. I watched a video comparison of different mics, in which a beatboxer performed basically the same beat on each of them. Compared to the SM58, the Shure SM7b sounded incredibly crisp and airy. Yet, since the SM7b and RE20 are both dynamic mics, beatboxers can use their favorite mic techniques, including plosives and proximity.
On that note, both these mics actually have “bass roll-off” switches. This can cancel out the proximity effect if the performer so chooses, though as I mentioned, beatboxers tend to use the proximity effect intentionally. The SM7b also features a “presence” switch which boosts the mid frequencies for a more “in-your-face” and aggressive tone.
Choosing Between SM7b and RE20
If you’re interested in these two mics, how do you choose? This is a contentious issue, and many people have strong and arbitrary opinions. I would say that vocalists with slightly harsher tones might be happier with the RE20, which tends to smooth out vocals a bit more. The SM7b, on the other hand, has a more flat and even response, so it captures sound in a truer way. Either way, these are amazing mics that will do great justice to beatboxing when recording!
Handheld Stereo Recorder
If you are interested in an alternate route, you might be interested in the Zoom H5. This is a handheld recording device that features two condenser mics, to capture a stereo recording. I have seen videos of beatboxing recorded with this device, and the result is very interesting. The H5 is a handheld recording device, so it’s not ideal for live performances, as it is not designed to output to a speaker in real time. But if you have never recorded at home before, it can be a complicated process to learn.
The Zoom H5 is relatively simpler- the recording interface is built in, so you can easily record and share high-quality audio files. It does employ condenser mics- as I mentioned before, this means your performance will sound more detailed, but not as powerful, and you will need to use windscreens or pop filters. But the stereo recording is an arresting effect. In a way, the stereo recording sounds more immersive, and envelopes the listener in sound. If you are looking for a unique approach that also simplifies the home recording process, this could be a great option!
Best Live and Recording Mics for Beatboxing Conclusion
And there you have it, a guide to choosing microphones suited to beatboxing. Whether you are interested in live performance, recording, or both, this guide should help you get started. If you are not sure how to process your tracks to make them sound slick and “professional” you may want to reach out to a professional mixing and mastering service. They can be cheaper than you would expect, and the difference between raw and processed recordings is mindblowing. Have fun, and feel the joy of the music!
Robert is a freelance audio engineer and the lead writer for Range of Sounds. Robert has had a lifelong obsession with dissecting and understanding music and is a self-taught composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and recording engineer.