Experienced home producers will certainly look sidelong at a review of an SM57 because it is an absolute winner. Why are we reviewing it?
Calling the SM57 “industry standard” has now become industry standard language. Nobody looks or thinks twice about these microphones. You don’t have to. They’re rock solid and continue to perform, despite user abuse.
Before we get into the details, let’s look at a little history.
A Little Mic Records Some Big Noises
The humble 57 first hit the audio world in 1965 as the Model 545, one of the first microphones to feature an end address capsule (which means you talk into the end of it). Prior to that, side address microphones where the norm. Most microphones of the day had a tendency to induce feedback at higher spls. Additionally, it would have been very uncommon to mic things as close as we tend to do in modern recording. But the design of the Model 545 let it handle very spls with grace.
One can’t overlook the importance of the cardioid pickup pattern of the SM57. It allowed very thorough rejection of nearby sound sources, which meant that greater isolation was popular in tracking. Superior rejection also made the 545 well suited to the world of television.
But the rigors of the television studio increased the strain and stress on the microphones. In response, Shure purposefully went about redesigning the microphone so that it would withstand a barrage of stresses. The eventual result is the what is now called the SM57, the most common and indestructible microphone on the planet.
What Makes It So Good?
As we’ve mentioned, SM57s are bulletproof. Almost literally. Here’s a firing range test:
As you can see, there are limits to durability.
A durable mic does not a good mic make. But the 57 has more going for it than staying power. Take a quick look at the frequency response chart:
There are some interesting points to note about this graph. The first is the dip between 300 and 600 Hz, the legendary honk frequency. Since many instruments have some information in this range, it’s very easy to get frequency buildup in the mids. A slight dip from the 57 isn’t going to solve all your problems, but it’s a good a start.
There is also a generous boost in high frequencies above the fundamental tones of most instruments, around 4-9 kHz. But notice, it falls off pretty fast after that.
The SM57, like many dynamic microphones, is not best suited for picking up extreme highs. Don’t expect the sparkle you find in condenser mics. Some might bemoan the lack of airy highs, but again, you don’t always need high end. Guitars recorded with a 57 are going to leave plenty of room for the crisp highs of a vocal recorded with a condenser, for example. Plus, with EQ and mic placement, you can get a lot of that high end back.
Another fun thing to consider about the 57 is the proximity effect of dynamic mics. You’ll get a sweet bass boost after you get closer than 3 or 4 inches from the microphone. It’s just another way this mic can help you capture beefy guitars, aggressive drums, and in your face vocals.
Capable of handling extremely high sound levels, the 57 is an ideal microphone for LOUD sound sources. Screaming singers, guitar cabinets, snare drums….
But it’s not so good at capturing delicate, quiet sounds. Not on it’s own, that is.
To record soft signals, a microphone like this needs a lot of make-up gain from a preamp, and it’s almost certainly more than your interface offers on it’s own. One solution is an external mic preamp, which could set you back a hundred bucks or you could end up with a new mortgage. Preamps can do great things for signals, but a beginner shouldn’t dive into those waters right away.
A low cost solution is a barrel booster, or inline mic preamp. Slap these things between mic and interface and use a little phantom power to amplify your signal. It’s not quite the super clean high gain of a standalone preamp, but it gets the job done.
What Are You Waiting For?
The SM57 is such a workhorse, classic mic that it would almost be a crime to not get one. Getting comfortable with these mics is close to gospel for anyone who works in audio. It’s the kind of mic that you don’t have to think about, because it does exactly what you want it to, every time.
And that is what the beginning home studio owner needs. It will let you focus on technique without giving a second thought about the performance of your gear. And you’ll never outgrow one of them.
Buying a 57 is a lifetime studio investment. Buying 10 is even better.