Boots and Cats: An Alternative Approach to Beat Box Miking
Updated: Nov 5, 2018
If there's one thing I've learned in my years working in production sound it's always leave an extra boot for your cat. Despite, possibly being good advice, that is actually not what this is about. Sorry, cat enthusiasts! Actually, I recently worked on a TV commercial that had an interesting concept / request from me (no, no cats yet). This commercial was going to air all over Europe in many countries that speak different languages, so they didn't want spoken word in the commercial in order to keep it universal and without subtitles. So, fast forward through some creative process and they landed on the idea of doing a commercial with 8 beat boxers with on-screen microphones. So, they came to me to strategize the best gear and techniques to achieve this.
Normally, beat boxers perform into an affordable dynamic microphone you'd commonly see on stage such as a Shure SM58; it's not the most clear broadcast sound out there, especially compared to a standard professional boom microphone or a studio microphone but the way it handles plosives is pleasing for many beat boxers. You get the plosives but it reproduces it in a very low frequency that doesn't quite sound like a plosive, rather, just flat bass. These microphones can also handle the abusive way beat boxers hold them and project into them. There are also other microphones specifically designed for types of beat boxing that wraps around the neck and throat, called a "throat microphone".
However, since the microphone would be on-screen, the creative team didn't like the look of either, a throat mic or handheld mic, rather, they wanted 8 beautiful brand new looking Neumann U87s on stands with no pop filters... plus 4 backups. I stand there wide-eyed. Not only was this almost impossible to find, but this extremely nice, beautiful and expensive microphone is not right for this kind of use. Despite loving this microphone very much for studio work, VOs, ADR, and music recording, it does not handle plosives well AT ALL; it is very clear and natural sounding, so wind and pops sound like wind and pops. I considered looking for U87 shells and placing an SM58 or similar inside, but the shells alone were much more difficult to find than actual working microphones.
We ended up getting the microphones, and plenty of backups. I hardwired these into my SD 664 and tested them out on the day. Once talent arrived, I, the Director, AD and the two beat boxing coaches discussed techniques with the talent. In the creative, the beat boxers are not meant to appear as professional beat boxers, nor were they in real life, which may have made them more coachable or flexible on what we were trying to achieve aurally. We kept the talent's mouths above and a certain distance from the microphone elements in order to not get unpleasant plosives; this also helped the visual because this way it was easier to see their faces. I still had some concerns until testing this out. They sounded surprisingly good in terms of response to the beat boxing the performers were performing that day. The beat boxing was not particularly aggressive; rather much humming and singing without lyrics. We had some more traditional beat boxing, but nothing too crazy for the U87s. I did ride the low cut filters liberally, however, and having 8 microphones / "instruments" made mixing easier in case some sounds were, in fact, too much for the U87.
It was interesting working on something like this and to understand that the voices I am recording are not standard voices, rather they're an instrument and should / can be miked very differently from vocals, especially speech. You just need to get out of the mindset that this is not talking and it's its own instrument, along with being flexible and communicative with the creative side on what can we do or at least experiment with. The final product came out great both visually and aurally.