The Swiss Army Knife of Microphones: The SM57
From snare drums to guitar cabs and everything in between, the legendary SM57 is the Swiss Army Knife of microphones. But is it really good for absolutely anything? Just ask Questlove, Bon Iver or the President of the United States of America.
Before he became the king of indie-R&B crossover collaborations, Justin Vernon holed up in a backwoods Wisconsin cabin to record his breakthrough Bon Iver album with just a single microphone: his trusty SM57. The rest is, as they say, history.
Why did Vernon choose specifically that one? Many mics are specialist tools – made for stage or studio, vocals or drums. Not the SM57. It is the proverbial Swiss Army Knife of microphones.
Because this is a mic that really can do everything. It’s perfect on guitars. It’s pro for drums. As Bon Iver’s haunted, layered vocals show, it’s pure class on voice. And, if you really need to knock in some nails, guess what – it can do that too.
Before we get into how impressive the SM57 remains today, let’s take a little trip down memory lane. Because this mic has some really cool history behind it.
“It all starts back in 1959 with the Unidyne III,” explains Shure historian Michael Pettersen. “That’s the cartridge that goes inside, and it was originally used in a mic called the Model 545.
“James Brown and Mick Jagger were some of the first people to use it on stage at the T.A.M.I. Show in 1964 – there’s some great clips of that on YouTube.”
Proving what it could do, that same Unidyne element went into the brand new SM57 that was originally released in 1965. Audio engineers quickly found out it could be used to record almost everything – extremely well.
“It’s great on snare drums, and I’ve seen it used that way a lot,” says Pettersen. “It’s great on guitar amps, especially when they’re loud because you can’t overload it. And then percussion, tom-toms…it just works anywhere.”
But what about the differences between the SM57 and its slightly more famous sibling, the SM58?
“Those microphones are essentially identical, except the SM58 has a ball grille on the end and the SM57 doesn’t,” notes Pettersen. “Because you can put your sound source a bit closer to the SM57 mic diaphragm, it can sound different.”
The SM57’s impeccable pedigree and amazing flexibility mean pretty much anyone who is anyone has used one.
Besides Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, fellow indie songsmith Sufjan Stevens recorded his own breakout album with two SM57s. Producer extraordinaire Rick Rubin used it on both the kick and vocals when he recorded funk-punk rockers Red Hot Chili Peppers. And living legend Niles Rodgers tracked all his guitar parts on the Pharrell-Daft Punk global smash hit “Get Lucky” with, you guessed it, an SM57.
“It’s just a cool part of the ongoing history of music,” says Pettersen. “For example, I was watching Questlove’s documentary Summer of Soul recently, and I saw all the musicians were singing into SM57s. That was very cool.
“But then if you watch The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon you can see Questlove has an SM57 on part of his kit. So, it’s a never-ending story, and everyone that uses one is part of that.”
And then, of course, there’s the president.
“It was first used for the President of the United States in 1965 with Lyndon Johnson,” explains Pettersen. “Before that, presidents used all kinds of mics. But then someone at the White House realized they should have control over how the president actually sounds. So, it’s been used by everyone since…and in that entire time, not a single one has failed.”
Part of the reason for this renowned reliability is that the SM57 keeps things simple.
“There’s not a lot that can go wrong,” says Shure head of wired microphones John Born. “It only has about 40 parts, none of which are that complicated. And it’s a dynamic mic, which means it works without a power supply.”
But while it’s simple, it’s definitely not basic.
“Making a working dynamic mic is easy, but making a good one is really hard,” asserts Born. “You're balancing the frequency response, which is the kind of sound it will pick up. But you’re also balancing the polar pattern, which is the direction it picks up sound from.”
So what is the venerable mic’s secret sauce?
“It’s almost impossible to get one right without compromising the other,” says Born. “But, somehow, they managed it with the SM57.”
And did we mention it’s pretty much indestructible?
“We’ve had them run over, dropped off buildings and pulled out of flood waters and they still work,” adds Pettersen. “They’re built to last. I’ve even seen YouTube videos where people use them as a hammer, and afterwards they’re just fine.”
Not only that, but you also can’t break them sonically – even with insane sound pressure levels.
“You would basically have to have a rocket lifting off next to it before it broke,” points out Pettersen. “Even if you sing as loud as you can, or play your amp as loud as it goes, an SM57 can handle it.”
Put that famous durability together with the unmistakable tone and it’s easy to grasp why these days you’re as likely to see an SM57 starring in a slick Apple promotional video as you are miking a drum kit at a local DIY punk show.
“It gets rediscovered by each new generation,” confirms Pettersen. “It’s a great starter mic, because it can record anything, and it will last forever. And then it works for the pros too. Whenever they ask producers, ‘What’s your desert island mic?’ they almost always say the SM57.”