Does having the right microphone really make a difference?
A recent comment on an article in Audio Masterclass went something like this (paraphrased slightly)...
“You could give a U87 to a monkey and an SM58 to Rick Ruben. It’s possible to make expensive equipment sound cheap, and vice versa. It’s all to do with skill and experience, nothing more.”
The references are to the Neumann U87 – an acknowledged world-leading microphone, and the Shure SM58, which is something roadies use to hammer nails into damaged flight cases.
No, that’s not fair on the Shure SM58 – it is an inexpensive but excellent mic that is very widely used for live sound. It isn’t a U87 though.
There are certain key differences between the Shure SM58 and the Neumann U87...
Firstly, the SM58 is a dynamic mic, whereas the U87 is a capacitor mic. The SM58 has a tiny electrical generator that creates the signal directly from the sound wave. The U87, in contrast, is supplied with electricity from a phantom power supply. It modifies the flow of electricity rather than creates it.
The great advantage of the capacitor microphone is that the diaphragm (which is like the ear drum of the ear) is light, unencumbered and free to move.
In contrast, the diaphragm of the dynamic mic has a coil of wire attached to it, which it must move within the field of a magnet in order to generate electricity.
The resulting sound qualities of the two mics are very different. If you plug in the SM58 and listen to that first, it will sound OK. If you then listen to the U87 it will be crystal clear in comparison, as though a veil of cotton wool has been lifted.
You won’t be in any doubt. On even the briefest of tests, on practically any sound source, you will know straight away which is the best mic.
This raises a question though – if the U87 is so obviously better than the SM58, why would anyone ever use an SM58?
Well one answer is that the cost of a U87 is more than TWENTY TIMES the price of an SM58. Or to put it another way, you could have twenty SM58s for the cost of one U87.
But that’s not the full answer. To pro users, the cost of a U87 is significant. But if they wanted twenty, then they would buy twenty. Or hire them.
But they don’t use U87s and equivalent mics exclusively – they still have SM58s and SM57s in their mic kit. (The SM57 is very similar to the SM58. The SM58 is more commonly seen on stage, the SM57 is also widely used in the studio.)
The reason for this is simple. Although the SM58 is certainly not the better or more accurate mic, sometimes it is the more APPROPRIATE mic.
It depends on the sound source... Sometimes, the SM57 or 58 sounds better for a certain instrument (or voice) in a certain musical context.
Common examples are these...
The drums of a drum set (not the cymbals) Electric guitar and bass guitar loudspeaker cabinets Rock vocals Rap vocals
I would recommend against automatically diving for the SM57 or SM58 for any of the above. It is always best to learn the characteristics of microphones for yourself, and develop your own technique and style.
Here’s another question however...
Would a world-class engineer equipped only with SM58s get a better recording than an amateur using U87s for the first time?
The answer is absolutely, totally, definitively YES!
Although the U87 is the better mic, the SM58 is competent and professional. The experienced engineer would find exactly the right places to position the mics and blend them to perfection.
The amateur might be able to capture a crisper sound, but crispness is of no advantage if the mics are in the wrong place. (Which they will be – it takes years of experience to develop world-class microphone technique.)
My advice therefore is to take every opportunity you can to try out different microphones. When you have time available, always test two mics on the same source, and see which one, in that particular context, sounds the best.
If you can only afford SM57s and SM58s, and fear that mics of the quality of the U87 will forever be out of reach...
There is nothing intrinsic in the SM57 or SM58 that is preventing you from getting a professional recording. It depends on the quality of your sources, the acoustics of the room, how you position the mics and how you blend them. Having better mics would only be a thin layer of icing on the cake.
You can buy the Shure SM57, SM58 or U87 in the USA from zZounds. Click the link below and enter your choice in the search box at the top left of the page. (If you buy from this link, Audio Masterclass will receive a commission. If you would prefer us not to receive this commission, clear cookies from your browser and refresh the page before you buy.)
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I can't answer questions individually - I get so many e-mails already that I could be answering them all day. I can however answer frequently-asked questions in this space.
David Mellor is Course Director of Audio Masterclass, where you can learn sound engineering online and qualify to work in the pro sound industry.