Although I have mentioned the so-called “presidential” A81WS in several microphone reviews, I have never dedicated any article to it before now. On the other hand, so far, I have covered the A7WS in one microphone review so far. Beyond being just windscreens and pop filters, both filters from Shure are also somewhat unique since they also do a dramatically much better job than any other competitive filter to reduce excessive breathing sounds too. Most other windscreens I have ever tested (with the notable exception of the RØDE WS2) have been ineffective at reducing plosives (p and b explosive sounds), let alone excessive breath sounds. My ears are very sensitive to both of these two issues: plosives and excessive breath sounds, which (in my humble opinion) make audio and/or audiovisual productions sound both irritating and unprofessional. That’s why I am reviewing the Shure A81WS (US$30) & A7WS (≈US$20) windscreen/pop/excessive breathing filters, while avoiding the thinner and much less effective RK345, which I do not recommend. Although Shure undoubtedly intends them to be used for Shure microphones, the A81WS and A7WS are helpful for many non-Shure microphones too.
Generally speaking, microphones give us their best quality when placed as close to the person speaking as possible, i.e. about 8-10 centimeters (3-4 inches) for dynamic mics and about 10-15 centimeters (4-6 inches) for condenser microphones. In human speech, there are certain consonants (especially b and p) which cause a directional microphone to “pop” when we are at that ideal distance. There is sophisticated and expensive software to eliminate pops in post, but —whenever possible— it’s best to eliminate this issue acoustically. That means less work later, and a signal more appropriate for live broadcast too. I must also clarify that if some individual actually creates a pop that is so severe (i.e. as some comedians do), then that will not be correctable by any of the filters we are reviewing, since they become part of the original sound.
Another solution to plosives is to resolve it with mic technique. However, I have discovered three things about that:
- With some microphones, even if you speak at a 45-degree (or even 90-degree) angle, it still pops.
- In many cases, the mic doesn’t sound so good that way, as opposed to addressing it directly with a proper filter.
- Even though professional voice talent can often conquer pops via mic technique, they have the luxury of reading and also of doing several takes. That’s a luxury that radio & TV hosts, interviewers, interviewees or others who speak extemporaneously often don’t have, especially when they are concentrating on deciding what words to say, not reading something that has already been written and proofread.
About excessive breathing sounds
It is well known that some audio/video editors attempt to eliminate all breaths while editing, even to the extent of eliminating the time it takes to breathe. In some cases, it is good to reduce long pauses to set a better pace, but in other cases, this can be taken to an extreme where the original human speech no longer sounds natural. In fact, nowadays even computer-generated speech adds fake breathing to make it sound more natural with text-to-speech software. The excessive breath reduction benefit in the Shure A81WS and A7WS filters does not reduce breathing completely, but it does reduce excessive breathing to a point that it is much less necessary to attenuate most breaths in post. This is very welcome.
The following is courtesy of the first part of Shure’s FAQ #4172, a primer on reducing wind noise (including plosives) in microphones, since it is a great introduction to appreciate the A81WS and the A7WS.
A microphone responds to the movement of air and it does not care what caused the air to move. This means that a mic cannot distinguish between air movement originating from a talker, and air movement originating from local weather. Wind noise is a persistent problem with microphones but there are multiple ways to minimize unwanted noise.
Method 1: Attenuation of low frequencies using electronics
Wind noise has a large amount of low frequency (bass) content, often described as “rumble.” Cutting out the extreme bass from a microphone signal is an effective method to reduce audible wind noise. For example, the Shure SM81 has a three position low frequency cut (roll-off) switch. One setting is a steep roll-off, the second is a gentle roll-off, and the third is no roll-off. This switch effectively reduces low frequency wind noise. Or the Shure A15HP accessory can be added to a microphone output to roll-off low frequencies.
Method 2: Layers of Metal, Cloth, or Plastic Mesh
Troublesome wind noise has a higher air speed than speech. A screen of very fine mesh or gauze will dissipate the energy of the wind air movement, and have minimal effect on speech. Essentially, the mesh takes a large gust of wind, and divides into numerous smaller gusts of wind, thus reducing the power of the gust. It is imperative that the mesh does not vibrate or rattle as this will cause unwanted mechanical noise. Layers of mesh, with different porosity, will increase effectiveness. The Shure SM57 has a fine metal mesh in the center of its rotating black grill. This mesh helps to minimize wind noise, including talker “P”-popping which is a type of wind noise. The Shure PS-6 “Popper Stopper” has nylon-like cloth mesh suspended in the middle of a rigid circle of plastic. Placed in front of a studio vocal mic such as the Shure KSM44A, the PS-6 slows down a blast of air from the singer’s mouth before the blast reaches the microphone.
Method 3: Open Cell Foam
A specific type of “foam rubber” provides a function similar to the aforementioned mesh. Open-cell foam is required for a microphone windscreen. Open-cell means there is a meandering path for the air to move from the outer surface of the foam to the inner surface. Close-cell foam, such as used for product packaging, cannot be used as air cannot pass through it. The inside of the SM58 metal ball grill has a layer of open-cell foam. Open-cell foam is also used for an external windscreen like the Shure A58WS. The external windscreen shape must be aerodynamic (no sharp corners) to eliminate turbulence noise as wind moves over the windscreen. The Shure A81WS is a very effective windscreen as it has three different layers of open-cell foam, each with a different porosity. Each layer works to slow down the wind noise and dissipate the energy. The effectiveness of an open-cell foam windscreen is a direct function of its diameter: bigger is better. However, too many layers of foam will roll-off the higher frequencies, so a balance must be found between audio quality and wind noise attenuation.
Physical differences between the A81WS and the A7WS
The A81WS (which I have covered in many mic reviews) is designed for microphones with very narrow diameters. That’s why —in order to install it on a Samson Q2U— it requires both removing the microphone head and also doing some intense stretching. Some stretching is even necessary to install the A81WS on the Shure SM57 (where it is officially supported and blessed) and on the palindromic Shure 545, which I reviewed in 2016 (illustrated above).
On the other hand, the A7WS is made for microphones with a much larger diameter. In fact, the A7WS is the larger of the two windscreens for the famous Shure SM7B microphones. I have even observed a recent positive tendency among SM7B users who have recently switched from the inferior and thinner RK345 in favor of the much more effective A7WS. So far, I have used the A7WS in my recent review of the Samson Q9U (illustrated below).
Ironic price differences between the A81WS and the A7WS
The A81WS is officially offered by Shure for microphones that are lower in price, but has a higher price tag of US$30. On the other hand, the A7WS is officially offered by Shure for a US$399 microphone (the SM7B), even though the A7WS costs only ≈US$20.
High frequency loss?
Some people are extremely concerned about potential high frequency loss with windscreens. I am concerned about plosives and excessive breath sounds. With every microphone from any brand where I have ever installed an A81WS or the A7WS, I have actually found that they make the resulting sound smoother than without it or with any other windscreen.
Mic reviews where I have used the A81WS or A7WS
- Click here to read (and listen to) mic reviews where I have used the A81WS.
- Click here to read (and listen to) mic reviews here I have used the A7WS.
To date, the A81WS and the A7WS from Shure are the most effective screens I have ever tried and they do their great acoustic process to reduce wind, plosives and even excessive breathing. Fortunately, the A81WS and the A7WS both also work with other brands of microphones too. I highly recommend one or the other depending upon the microphone used.
NOTE: Even though —for many years, I have received sample microphones from many manufacturers for review —including AKG, Audio Téchnica, Bietrun, Hooke Audio, IK Multimedia, Maono, Plugable, Samson, Sennheiser, RØDE, Zoom and other manufacturers, to date I have never received a single one from Shure. I voluntarily purchased the Shure 545 palindromic microphone I reviewed in 2016, as I did with the A81WS and A7WS. There must be some unusual email communication block between me and Shure. If anyone from Shure wants to attempt to break through the email barrier, here is the link.
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