If there’s one (two) mic(s) you can count on seeing in every situation music is played, it is (they are) the Shure SM57 and SM58. At the heart of both is Shure’s Unidyne III microphone cartridge. The fundamental difference is the grille on each mic. The SM57 is designed primarily for instrument applications, while the SM58 is optimized for vocal use. With that said, the mics are sonically different only with close miked applications. Back off a foot or so and you’ll be hard pressed to distinguish between them. Up close, however, they sound quite different. As we will discuss, this comes mostly from differing proportions of proximity effect.
These mics are capital-R Rugged. Time-tested on the road and in the studio, I don’t think I’ve heard of an SM57 or 58 requiring repair beyond grille replacements. These mics can be dropped, whacked by drumsticks, kicked, dropped again and then dropped five more times and then they’re about warmed up. Okay, I exaggerate, but not by much. If you encounter a vintage 58, please know that the grille ball was indeed round once. Those flat spots are from mishandling, not a cool design feature.
OKAY SO I CAN’T KILL IT, SHOULD I BUY IT? DEPARTMENT: If you are buying one mic to record vocals in a home studio, these are not horrible choices, but probably not the best choice. If you’re doing that AND subjecting the mic to the rigors of gigging, these are excellent choices.
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Setup and Usability
It doesn’t get much simpler. Plug it in and it works. Standard XLR mic cable, no phantom power required, no switches or pads. You can buy versions of the 58 with on/off switches, and THOSE versions may require switch repairs. I suggest you avoid them. In audio engineer snobbery, on/off switches are regarded as the sign of a crappy little mic, with a few exceptions. One of those is the Shure Model 55, which is the granddaddy of the Unidyne capsule models. It can be forgiven its switch.
Both the 57 and 58 are cardioid polar pattern, end-address mics. The 58’s grille is designed for singers and so it has an integrated pop filter to reduce plosives. The 57’s smaller grille allows tight placement around drum kits, guitar amps and sax bells. A rare version of the 57 has the capsule on a 90-degree angle for even tighter placement, but this is not a small, unobtrusive mic, as many specialty drum kit mics are now. No discretion here, just great sound.
And about that sound. You have heard hit songs that use 57s on snare drums and guitar amps. You’ve seen 58s in concerts, on television. The 58 shape is generally regarded as what a vocal mic looks like. Almost any company that offers a handheld vocal mic has a model that looks similar to an SM58. There’s a reason. It works. Some things you don’t mess with.
When the sound source is right there, right outside the mic’s grille, then these mics sound different. Back off a bit and not so much. What kind of voodoo is that? Partially, it’s in the different construction of the mic grilles. The 57 is a little brighter because there’s not as much stuff between sound and mic capsule.
The biggest difference, however, comes from the distance that the surface of the grille compared to the mic capsule. For this, I regret that I must turn to physics. Please, don’t hate me.
We know that the closer you get to the capsule of a mic that has a directional polar pattern, the stronger the low frequencies become. Bass proximity effect. When you have a singer who eats mics, has them right up against her lips, it should be the same for both the 57 and 58, right? Well maybe a little less in the 58, since there is all that foam.
Well, no. The foam does block some higher frequencies, but get to the midrange and low sounds and it is essentially transparent to those. What’s at play here is the inverse square law, and it’s a good concept to understand if you’re going to get good with sound.
“a law stating that the intensity of an effect such as illumination or gravitational force changes in inverse proportion to the square of the distance from the source”
Append sound after that “such as.” It works the same way with any radiated energy. Essentially, it comes down to this: if you double the distance between a microphone and a sound source, only ¼ of the sound energy reaches the mic. It feels intuitive to think the energy would be half, if you double the distance, but it’s not the case because sound radiates in a sphere, not a straight line. It’s not only travelling the straight-line distance from source to mic, it’s also expanding like the skin of a balloon being inflated.
The tip of a 57 is much closer to the mic capsule than the tip of a 58. When you consider the inverse square law at close distances, you can see it has a substantial effect. Double 1/8-inch to 1/4-inch and you cut the sound energy by a factor of four. That is why the two mics sound different.
Class is dismissed for 10 minutes so those with headaches can recover.
There’s not much more to say after “indestructible”. There is, however, one oddity of the SM57 grille that should be pointed out, particularly if you’re going to use the 57 for vocals. Though it’s intended for other things, it’s fine as a vocal mic too. Remember, same guts as the 58. However, it’s more susceptible to popping and breath, so it’s common to put a foam ball filter over the end of it for vocals. That in itself isn’t an issue as long as you pay attention to one detail.
The grille head of the 57 floats a bit. There’s a plastic protective crown around the mesh and at the base, where the head meets the body, there’s a gap. Inside this is a black metal screen. This space is absolutely critical to the directionality of the mic. If you take a wrap of tape to hold the foam ball in place and cover this gap, all bets are off, the mic will not work as billed. The foam is okay, because it’s mostly transparent acoustically. That tape is not. Similarly, if the singer covers the gap with a hand, feedback and other weird stuff is likely. Like a Tube station in London, England: Mind the gap!
Most of the negative user reviews have to do with people receiving counterfeit mics. Check your source closely. These mics are a value at street price through reputable outlets, so be careful if you’re trying to save a few bucks.
One extensive negative review does its best to convince the world that the 57 and 58 are no good and that everyone uses them just because everyone uses them. This reviewer essentially hasn’t a clue. When experienced engineers working in well-equipped studios choose the SM57 for a particular application, it’s because it’s the right mic to get the right result. When a front-of-house engineer loads up front line vocal mic stands with SM58s, it’s the same deal. It’s not wimping out or compromising or doing what is always done. That doesn’t happen. These mics are there because they work and they work reliably. If the user is getting such poor sounds then they either have counterfeit mics or they are doing something very, very wrong.
Here is a video from Shure explaining the differences between several of their microphones:
Due to the physics lesson we didn’t talk as much about sound as usual, but that’s some critical information. Get your head around the concept and you’ll find that a lot of things about mics, their usage and placement makes a lot more sense.
As mentioned in the intro, the 58 is not the mic to get if you’re looking for one all-purpose, never out of the studio mic. I have used a 58 to record lead vocals in the studio. The singer was a bar musician and he preferred the bar sound. The 58 was fine on his baritone country voice, and the context fit the honky-tonk feel of the songs. It didn’t have that Big Condenser mic polish, but that’s okay. However, chances are that Big Condenser sound will help you.
If you need a mic that can do it all, though, studio and on the stage, then either the 57 or the 58 is a viable option. If you’re picking up some utility mics for multi-purpose use in either stage or studio settings, then these two are no-brainers. These are no-glamor, no-nonsense blue collar mics that, at the end of the day, get the job done. Shure should probably sell them in 6-packs.
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