University of Southern California

Real-time MRI Study of Human Beatboxing

The video and audio on this page were acquired from an articulatory study of `human beatboxing:' the use of vocal organs to imitate percussion instruments. These data offer insights into ways that articulators normally used to produce speech are recruited and coordinated in this style of musical performance. Some of the findings are reported in a 2013 article in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

Modern beatboxing was pioneered by New York artists including Doug E. Fresh and Darren Robinson, imitating the sounds of the synthetic drum machines used in hip hop production at the time, such as the TR-808 Rhythm Composer (Roland Corporation, 1980) and the LM-1 Drum Computer (Linn Electronics, 1982). Artists such as Biz Markie, Rahzel and Felix Zenger have advanced the art form by extending the repertoire of percussion sounds that are emulated, the complexity of the performance, and the ability to create impressions of polyphony through the integrated production of percussion with a bass line or sung lyrics.

Real-time Magnetic Resonance Imaging (rtMRI) was used to examine mechanisms of sound production by an American male beatbox artist. This method allows us to visualize (with synchronous audio) movement in all parts of the performer's vocal tract, from the upper trachea to the lips, including the pharynx, velum and nasal cavity. Because the scan plane passes through the middle of larynx, openning and closing of the vocal folds can also be observed.

Here is a sample of the artist's sound production, an excerpt from SPAN's original "Diva and Emcee" clip (see also an rtMRI artistic production by a soprano singer):

Beatbox USC Movie

The subject's repertoire included percussion elements generated using a wide range of articulatory and airstream mechanisms. Many of the same mechanisms observed in human speech production were exploited for musical effect, including patterns of articulation that do not occur in the phonologies of the artist's native languages: ejectives, clicks and implosives.

Bass/Kick Drum Effects

Kick drum effects were all produced as bilabial ejectives.

'Punchy' kick   [pf'ːʌ̥]

'Punchy' kick

Video (21 f.p.s)

'Punchy' kick

Excerpt (7 f.p.s)


Initial posture


Larynx lowers


Glottis closes


Ejection


Final posture

 

'Thud' kick   [p'ɪ̥]

'Thud' kick

Video (21 f.p.s)

'Thud' kick

Excerpt (7 f.p.s)


Initial posture


Larynx lowers


Glottis closes


Ejection


Final posture

 

'808' kick   [p'ʊ̥]

'808' kick

Video (21 f.p.s)

'808' kick

Excerpt (7 f.p.s)


Initial posture


Larynx lowers


Glottis closes


Ejection


Final posture


 

Snare Drum Effects

Three different snare drum effects were demonstrated by the subject, each produced with different articulatory and airstream mechanisms: a click, an ejective affricate, and a pulmonic egressive dorsal stop-fricative sequence.

'Clap' snare   [ŋǀ]

'Clap' snare

Video (21 f.p.s)

'Clap' snare

Excerpt (7 f.p.s)


Lingual seal


Palatal rarefaction


Anterior release


Velic seal


Velum lowered

 

'No mesh' snare   [pf'ːʉ̥]

'No mesh' snare

Video (21 f.p.s)

'No mesh' snare

Excerpt (7 f.p.s)


Initial posture


Larynx lowers


Glottis closes


Ejection


Final posture

 

'Meshed' snare   [kçː]

'Meshed' snare

Video (21 f.p.s)

'Meshed' snare

Excerpt (7 f.p.s)


Initial posture


Dorsal constriction


Velar stop


Lingual fronting


Palatal fricative

 

Rim Shot Effects

Four different snare drum 'rim shots' were demonstrated by the subject. Two effects were realized as dorsal stops, differentiated by their airstream mechanisms. Two other rim shot sounds were produced as lingual ingressive consonants, or clicks.

'Rim Shot' effect   [k']

'Rim Shot'

Video (21 f.p.s)

'Rim Shot'

Excerpt (7 f.p.s)


Dorsal constriction


Laryngeal lowering


Velic closure


Ejection


Release

 

'Rim Shot k' effect   [kʰhː]

'Rim Shot k'

Video (21 f.p.s)

'Rim Shot k'

Excerpt (7 f.p.s)


Initial posture


Dorsal constriction


Velar stop


Dorsal lenition


Extended fricative

 

Rim shot 'sucking in'   [ŋ!]

Rim shot 'sucking in'

Video (21 f.p.s)

Rim shot 'sucking in'

Excerpt (7 f.p.s)


Initial posture


Lingual seal


Palatal rarefaction


Influx


Release

 

Rim shot 'side K'   [ɴǀǀ]

Rim shot 'side K'

Video (21 f.p.s)

Rim shot 'side K'

Excerpt (7 f.p.s)


Initial posture


Lingual seal


Palatal rarefaction


Influx


Release

 

Hi-hat Effects

Five hi-hat effects were demonstrated by the subject, all produced as affricates of rapid stop-fricative sequences. One effect made use of glottalic ingressive (implosive) airstream mechanism.

'Open K' hi-hat   [ksː]

'Open K' hi-hat

Video (21 f.p.s)

'Open K' hi-hat

Excerpt (7 f.p.s)


Initial posture


Dorsal constriction


Velar stop


Coronal constriction


Alveolar fricative

 

'Open T' hi-hat   [tsː]

'Open T' hi-hat

Video (21 f.p.s)

'Open T' hi-hat

Excerpt (7 f.p.s)


Initial posture


Coronal constriction


Alveolar stop


Coronal lenition


Alveolar fricative

 

'Closed T' hi-hat   [t̪s]

'Closed T' hi-hat

Video (21 f.p.s)

'Closed T' hi-hat

Excerpt (7 f.p.s)


Initial posture


Coronal constriction


Alveolar stop


Affrication


Final posture

 

'Closed kiss' hi-hat   [ɗ̪ʲʃː]

'Closed kiss' hi-hat

Video (21 f.p.s)

'Closed kiss' hi-hat

Excerpt (7 f.p.s)


Initial posture


Palatal constriction


Dental stop


Laryngeal lowering


Final posture

 

'Breathy' hi-hat   [xː]

'Breathy' hi-hat

Video (21 f.p.s)

'Breathy' hi-hat

Excerpt (7 f.p.s)


Initial posture


Velic closure


Dorsal constriction


Velar fricative


Final posture

 

Cymbal Effects

Two cymbal effects were demonstrated by the subject, both produced as rapid stop-fricative sequences.

Cymbal 'with a T'   [tɕː]

Cymbal 'with a T'

Video (21 f.p.s)

Cymbal 'with a T'

Excerpt (7 f.p.s)


Initial posture


Coronal constriction


Alveolar stop


Lingual retraction


Palatal fricative

 

Cymbal 'with a K'   [kçː]

Cymbal 'with a K'

Video (21 f.p.s)

Cymbal 'with a K'

Excerpt (7 f.p.s)


Initial posture


Dorsal constriction


Velar stop


Lingual fronting


Palatal fricative