There’s one microphone that every engineer, pro or otherwise, has in their mic locker, and that’s the legendary Shure SM57 — it’s the most popular dynamic microphone on the planet. So why is this unassuming little mic on so many professional engineers’ desert island mic lists? Why is it found on first-class concert stages worldwide? What makes it such a great mic? Here are a few reasons:
It Sounds Good on Everything
The SM57 is one of those rare mics that always sounds good and never sounds bad. If you’re miking a guitar amp, snare drum, or brass instrument and aren’t sure which mic to use, throw up an SM57. It may not deliver mind-blowing results, but it will always sound good. That said, sometimes it is the best-sounding mic for the job. When I was a neophyte audio engineer, I was tasked with setting up the mic for a metal singer with a powerful 4-plus-octave voice. And I do mean powerful — it was hard to stand next to the guy when he was belting out a high note at top volume. I proudly grabbed a selection of the studio’s finest vocal mics and had him sing into them, but none of them did his voice justice. I finally relented and had him sing into an SM57 — and it sounded amazing! This track was supposed to be a scratch vocal, but it sounded so good that we used it as the final vocal track. The singer thought I was a genius.
During World War II, Shure became a contractor for the United States military. As a result, all their products were built to mil-spec quality standards — they needed to be battle ready. So is the SM57 battle ready? Well, anyone who’s used one can attest: this mic can take serious punishment. If you look on the Internet, you can find videos of people subjecting it to absurd forms of abuse, such as using it as a hammer, running it over with a truck, dropping it from a building, submerging it in water, and burying it in the dirt for long periods of time. In fact, the fine folks at Shure even blasted it with a shotgun — and it kept working! So what does this mean for you? No matter how you use (or abuse) it, the SM57 can take whatever you dish out. The SM57 can survive extreme abuse and typical studio scenarios, like getting hit with a drumstick or enduring a spitty singer.
It Handles Ridiculous SPLs
If you’re recording a loud source, the SM57 should be one of the first mics you grab — its SPL handling is ridiculous. That’s why engineers use it on raging amp stacks and deafening percussive instruments. But just how ridiculous is it? According to Shure, the answer is frequency dependent. The first frequency range to distort is centered around 100Hz, and this happens at around 150dB SPL — that’s louder than a jet engine. But what about higher frequencies? Well, that’s where things get really crazy! At 1kHz, the SM57 can handle around 160dB SPL — that’s almost as loud as a stun grenade. At 10kHz, it can theoretically handle around 180dB SPL; however, there is no way for Shure to re-create such an enormous and dangerous SPL (for reference, NASA reports that a space shuttle launch measures around 180dB SPL at 10 meters). At 20kHz, things really get absurd — the SM57 can theoretically handle around 190dB SPL, which is where the sound pressure varies from twice the normal atmospheric pressure (at the wave peak) to a total vacuum (at the wave trough). Beyond that, the sound source must be moving at the speed of sound just to generate a wave of this magnitude. In short, nothing is too loud for the SM57 — no matter how loud your sound source is, the SM57 will capture it with minimal distortion.
It Has Excellent Off-axis Rejection
Thanks to its tight cardioid polar pattern, the SM57 is ideal for all kinds of common situations. For example, it’s my first choice for miking a snare drum in the studio. If you position it right, it offers really good rejection of the hi-hat sound — even with a hard-hitting drummer. This well-defined directionality also makes it highly resistant to feedback in live situations.
It’s the Official Microphone of the President
You know a microphone is a top-shelf piece of gear when it’s endorsed by the leader of the free world. In 1965, the year of its introduction, the SM57 became the official lectern microphone of the White House Communications Agency. Hence, every United States president since Lyndon B. Johnson has delivered their speeches through one or more SM57s.
The SM57 is amazingly affordable. That’s all I’ve got to say about that.
One Mic to Rule Them All
The SM57 is one of the most useful mics in my microphone locker. Even if it’s not my first choice in a given situation, I can use it on a guitar cab, drums, vocals — about anything really — and it sounds great. It’s reliable and durable, and it delivers the goods, day after day, night after night.