Are You Shure You Need a Better Microphone?

“Audio human” (sound guy) Danny Maland has posted several articles about microphones for live music.

In one, he compared a bunch of underrated microphones to see how their “specs” lined up. http://smallvenuesurvivalist.com/mic-shootout/micshootout.html

In another, he has a checklist for things to look for in a stage mic: http://smallvenuesurvivalist.com/buying-a-vocal-mic/

In another (can’t find the link), he describes how to pick out the best microphone for your live performance.

All of Danny’s articles are worth reading, but some of them made me think about a “hole” in many newbies’ experience, and that is experience with an SM-58.

Now that’s not Danny’s favorite stage microphone. There are many stage mics with better specs and even more that sound better on certain people’s voices than the SM58.

But the Shure SM58 set the standard for stage microphones for decades, an it’s still worth getting familiar with today.

I’ve owned SM58s since the early 1970s. I was playing rock and solo gigs and had tried several inexpensive microphones that were supposedly “just as good” as the SM58. Then I finally “scored” one used for $50 (about $300 in today’s dollars) and it made all the difference in the world for me. It has just enough proximity effect that when I find its “sweet spot,” my voice sounds deeper and richer than it really is. It’s directional enough that feedback is seldom a problem and I can use it in situations where things to either side of me are louder than I would like. And it has a bump in the high midrange frequencies called a “presence rise” that makes my voice sound just a little “crisper” and brighter in the right frequencies.

As I was getting used to it, I kept paying attention to what the pros were using, and it seemed like 99% of the pros in the working bands were using them (we’re talking 1970s and 1980s, to be sure). I also discovered that when I would loan my SM58 to other singers, they sounded better. One alto singer who had been using an expensive mic with relatively flat response (and good high end) sounded so much better that folks around me were saying how much her voice had improved since the last they heard her (a month or so ago).

One big criticism of the SM58 today is that it is weak in higher frequencies. The Shure Beta58 addresses that issue, and many folks prefer that one today, but back in the 1970s, most PA system power amps used the same technology as contemporary guitar amps, which also did not go any higher than 10K as a rule. The SM58’s “presence rise,” a boost in the upper midrange, was a way of compensating for that, allowing things to sound “fresh” and bright in spite of the attenuated upper frequencies.

Fast forward almost fifty years. I’ve used better mics in the studio or performing in other people’s ensembles, or whatever, but I still often breathe a sigh of relief when I show up to a one-or-two song performance and they have an SM58 on the stand. It’s a known quantity, and when you’re a gigging solo artist, known quantities are a good thing.

Depending on what I know about the gig’s sound setup, I often bring an SM58 along just in case.

Often beginning musicians who are looking for their first vocal stage mic are counseled to buy something else, and sometimes for good reasons. But I personally think every person who sings, whether your voice is fantastic or terrible, should learn their way around an SM58. For several reasons.

Many of today’s “better” vocal mics started out with the SM58 as a baseline. Did they improve on it? In some cases, yes. But in many cases, they’re “variations on a theme,” and you aren’t even in the best position to judge which one is best for you until you have experienced the theme.

Many venues use them as the default vocal microphone, so knowing how to “work” one, even if it’s not your favorite microphone, will put you in a better position at things like open mics and singing competitions.

All sound persons who have mixed more than two acts know the SM58’s strengths and weaknesses. If you show up with one, they know exactly how to handle it, which might not be true of something more exotic.

Finally, if you’re considering a high-end microphone and you’ve never had one before, the SM58 is a good starting point. I’ll probably be chastised for this, but I don’t think you even really know what you’re shopping for until you’ve had at least one professional mic. Even if it’s one that many people think is passe or boring. ANY pro mic will sound good if you only have experience with cheap mics. Getting solid experience with one pro microphone will help you be a better judge of what to shop for when you’re looking at the next one.

Here’s a comparison that may or may not make sense. I also play and write about saxophones. The Selmer C* (pronounced “See Star”) mouthpiece is THE entry-level professional mouthpiece. Not because it’s the ultimate, or perfect for every player, but because most student sax players who want to upgrade are playing on mouthpieces that should be banned by the FTC or the FDA or somebody! So the average student going into a music store to try better mouthpieces will either be blown away or significantly disappointed by the first professional mouthpiece they try, because they have NO IDEA how to blow a professional mouthpiece. Now C* mouthpieces are very common – it’s usually easy to get one on eBay for $40-$60. But the students who upgrade to one A: can’t believe how much better they sound and how much better their horn plays, and B: are soon in a better position to evaluate OTHER professional mouthpieces.

Okay, that example may not make sense to everybody, but the point is, any person who wants to sing into a microphone needs to learn how to use the world’s most popular vocal microphone.

So get your hands on one, plug it into a PA system and learn to use it. (Make sure it’s a real one – some fakes were produced a few years back.)

Learn to use it handheld first, how to sense (with your eyes closed) that you have it pointed straight at your mouth. How to use the proximity effect if you want to or avoid it if you don’t. (Proximity effect has to do with your mouth being so perfectly in line with the microphone diaphragm that the air between the two becomes a sort of channel that causes the diaphragm to vibrate exactly with your vocal chords, the same way a $5 set of earphones “pumps” the air in your ear canal, so that low frequencies they couldn’t possibly reproduce in open air are nevertheless transmitted to your eardrum.) Learn how to avoid sibilance (S sounds overdriving the mic) by holding the microphone above your mouth pointed down at it – and you thought some singers did that just to look cool. Learn how to avoid popping your “P’s.” That may require adjusting the way you sing them as well as how and where to hold the mic.

If possible, use it onstage with a live band; learn how close you can get to the monitors before feedback; learn how to walk into the audience without feedback (hint: keep the mic pointed AWAY from the speakers). Learn how to get the best sound out of the PA system in diverse live situations.

By the way, never “cup” the mic (wrapping your palm around the windscreen), as it can make feedback worse, and brands you as an amateur.

Once you’ve learned how to get the best out of the mic handheld, put it in a stand and apply everything you learned with the mic staying still and YOU moving around. If you ordinarily play guitar or banjo when you sing, learning how the thing works best for you handheld will help you “work” the mic far better when it’s stationary.

Once you know all that, you’re in position to start shopping for a better microphone. If you still want one, that is. You might start by trying out the Beta-58, which is basically an upgrade to the SM58, so it has many of the same features you’ve gotten used to. But even if you never own another Shure microphone, you’ll be in far better position to use and choose microphones than you were before.

Best of luck!

Paul

Paul

About Paul

Paul Race has been writing and playing all kinds of music since the 1960s, though he tends to favor acoustic and traditional songs. He has created resources like CreekDontRise.com, ClassicTrainSongs.com, and SchoolOfTheRock.com to help other musicians get a good start on their own journeys.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *