Sometimes All You Need Is an SM58
It's a regular comment from well-known recording engineers - "we just recorded using a 58." It's also a conclusion that takes you by surprise, as the SM58 is synonymous with live performance. But should this really be so shocking? In this blog, we look at the SM58/57 as an unconventional studio mic.
What's the Best Microphone?
So what's the perfect microphone? – the SM58 of course… (just kidding). This post is not intended to hold the SM58 up on a pedestal. Nor is it intended to suggest that you should throw away all your expensive condenser mics (of which we also make lots of nice examples). The reality is, engineers and studios will stock a wide variety of microphones; consisting of all varieties, from condenser to dynamic, and from old to new. There is no perfect microphone, and each one will suit a variety of applications. Surprisingly – or perhaps not so surprisingly – spending thousands of pounds on a microphone will not make it the best selection for every application or voice. In fact, sometimes the humble Sm58 is all you need.
The SM58 & SM57 as a Studio Microphone
So how can this be the case? Studio condenser microphones are designed for studio use, and handheld microphones – such as the 58 – are design for live performance, right? Well, it's not as black and white as that, and here's why:
Studio condensers have a much wider frequency response than dynamic microphones. Although this means they capture more detail and a higher fidelity sound, this extra detail might not be required within the context of the entire mix, and in many cases it will be removed by EQ anyway. The reason for this is to make sure each instrument has space.
A well-balanced mix will allow for each instrument to have its own place within the frequency spectrum. For example: more often than not, within a busy mix, you don't want low frequencies from an acoustic guitar or vocal competing with the bass guitar or kick drum. To avoid this from happening, the low frequencies are often reduced or rolled off at a certain point. Subsequently, when this track is soloed, it may sound thin on its own, but when combined with the entire track – it sounds perfect.
Equally, you can apply the same principle to very high frequencies, where stylistically you might not want the vocal to have so much 'presence' or 'air'. This, of course, is where the SM58 fits in perfectly. The humble SM58 will often sit in a busy mix more naturally, without requiring so much EQ. Here is a real life example from Sound On Sound's recent interview with electronic duo, Goldfrapp:
When recording their latest album "Tales of Us", much of the acoustic guitar and many of the vocals were recorded using an SM58. They found that an SM58, pointed somewhere near the 12th fret gave a balanced sound without too much low-end waffle. Producer Will Gregory also went on to say the following:
"It's the same with the piano – these are instruments that are designed to sound self-sufficient, and so if you are trying to put them in a track, they are going to eat into the frequencies that you want other instruments to inhabit".
The same theory can be applied to the SM57, which is essentially the same capsule as the SM58 (click here for more on the differences between the SM58 and SM57). We hear countless stories of the SM57 being used in the studio for vocals, favored over the 58 for allowing you to make greater use of the proximity effect. Here are some famous examples and a video interview with Fleetwood Mac engineer, Ken Caillat, who used the SM57 on most of their album 'Tusk'.
Famous Examples of the SM58/SM57 Used in the Studio:
- John Lennon - recorded most of his studio vocals on an SM57
- Andy Johns, record producer for the Rolling Stones, and Rod Stewart often chooses an SM58 over pricer condenser mics in the studio
- Billy Idol's engineer, Mike Frondelli used the SM58 on much of his vocals
Mixing for the Bigger Picture
In conclusion, you have to make a decision about what the instrument should sound like within the context of the bigger picture. It really is a stylistic choice, and the best answer is to use your ears and think about the final result - not the instrument in isolation or how expensive your microphone is. Next time you're recording, try capturing the source with multiple microphones, including an SM58/57, and see which microphone works the best in the complete mix. You might be surprised by the results.
Do you have any examples of unconventional or surprising results from your 58/57 in the studio? Let us know in the comments box below.