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Review of the Shure SM57 Dynamic Microphone
The legendary, yet inexpensive Studio Mic of all time.
If you ask nearly anyone who runs a professional recording studio, "Do you have a Shure SM57?" they might look at you and ask, "are you are serious?" Of course they do. Every studio needs at least one, and possibly a half dozen. The reason is they not only sound good, but they can record practically anything. The SM57 is one of the most universal mics in the world. It will record vocals, drums (particularly!), guitar cabs, bass cabs, acoustic guitars, brass, and stuff that is really loud. While no one will claim it is the "best" mic for vocals or for delicate acoustic instruments, it will work, and with great predictability as to the sonic outcome. For people starting their home studios that don't have a lot of cash, this is one mic to get.
The SM57 is a dynamic microphone with a cardioid, directional pattern. Dynamic mics sound different than condenser mics, which are better for capturing hi and low frequencies. A dynamic mic like the SM57 does not need phantom power, which makes it more adaptable to mixers and recorders that don't have this feature. It records what it points to and rejects stuff from the side and from behind it. That makes it great for drums and good for the stage. It can also take very loud sounds without breaking up. Many drummers use it on the kick and snare drum because the sm57 can handle it, without a pad, where a condenser mic's sound would break up with distortion. Because of the tight directional pattern, it rejects bleed from other drums better than other mics.
You can scream into the sm57 and the mic will not shatter (unless you are practically jamming it down your throat). If you have a screamer in the studio and hear that awful distortion coming from your premium condenser, its time to pack it up and break out the good 'ol 57. For vocals the SM57 has a rich proximity effect. If you get within a few inches you'll get a bass boost, which is quite predictable, so it is often used as an effect by spoken word, comedians and in rap. Shure claims the SM57 has been used by thirty US Presidents as their mic of choice for speeches. It's easy to see why. The Mic has the classic presence boost in the vocal range which provides for intelligibility, yet it resists feedback.
The SM57 was introduced way back in 1965. That it is still a popular mic says a lot right there. It is impervious to going out of style despite it's funky, vintage appearance. Go look at the big pic at the top. The longer you look at it the more alien the mic looks. Its a workhorse--tough, durable, made to last a long time, with care a lifetime. It's heavy and feels cool and good in the hand, unlike cheap plastic mics. You might wonder that the "LC" stands for when you read about the SM57LC. It simply means "less cable". They used to sell them with an XLR cabled bundled (SM57CN), which is now discontinued. That is the difference.
Difference between the SM57 and 58
People sometimes wonder about the difference between the SM57 and the SM58. Internally, they are identical mics, yet the SM58 has the "round ball" on top and an internal windscreen. Because the ball forces one to be a greater distance from the mic's diaphragm, the proximity effect is lessened and the windscreen can also dampen the hi frequency response as it cuts wind noise. The SM57, with its shorter grille design, allows you to get closer to the source and therefore has a greater proximity effect and will be more susceptible to wind noise. Hence vocalists on stage tend to prefer the sm58 while those in the studio might prefer an sm57 with a pop filter in front of it. The SM series is getting a little more popularity among hip hop artists these days. Both the '57 and '58 take well to spoken word. Shure recommends that the SM58 is their ideal mic for hip hop (much to my disbelief, I thought the SM7B was better).
The SM57 is great for guitar amp cabinets. You stick it right up to the speaker cone, about an inch or two away, and should experiment with moving towards the edge of the cone. You can also angle it away slightly to bring in more of the room ambience. Many people like this sound better than the current run of amp modelers. Sometimes we want the real thing. I use it that way with great results.
The Bad and the Good
There are some drawbacks to consider about the SM57. While it does not need phantom power, it does need a lot of gain at the preamp when recording softer sounds. That can bring in more noise from the preamp (the Mic itself is generally quiet). The SM57, as mentioned before, does not capture the very low or very high frequencies as well as condensers. You can use EQ to bring up these frequencies if you need to and for vocals and guitar I recommend that if its the only mic you own. If you use it outdoors on gigs make sure to bring along a windscreen.
A big positive about the SM57 is that it will continue to be useful even after you upgrade to high end preamps. The amazing thing about the SM57 is that it sounds different through a high end preamp. When I first plugged the SM57 into a Great River ME1-NV I could not believe it was my SM57. The sound was open, clean, and had much more transparency. No wonder professionals like it. The under $100 SM57 hold up just as well as any professional mic, including those that cost ten times as much. Its just a matter of finding the mic that is most appropriate to the sound being recorded, and if there are snares, kicks, brass and amps around, chances are good the SM57 will be deployed.
The Bottom Line for 1st timers
Should you get an SM57 or an inexpensive condenser mic? This is a tough question as there are condenser mics at attractive prices now. And of course it depends what you are recording. If you are doing strictly vocals and acoustic guitar for example, and can only get one mic, I would suggest a large condenser, assuming you have phantom power, like the Rode NT1a which will cost twice as much.
Also, if you are using a gain-compromised preamp as is found on the budget audio interfaces, it makes sense to get a condenser. Why? The condenser does not need as much gain. However, it will pick up more of the room and is not good with amps and bad if you get too close to snares. So remember the advantages of dynamic mics are that they only pick up stuff at close range and you can subject them to a lot of loudness. There are some condensers in the same $100 price range as the SM57 like an AKG Perception 120 or a Studio Projects B1.
If you are tempted to go for a $50 mic I recommend holding off and getting the sm57. Eventually you will tire of the $50 mic and replace it with a better one, but you will always keep your SM57 and you'll always have a use for it. And there is something to be said for having a truly legendary mic in your studio. If this mic cost $250 Shure could still sell them and studios would still buy them. That you can buy these for under $100 makes it a no-brainer.
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