SM57 on Steroids: The Shure SM7(B) Story
Shure's SM7 vocal mic for recording applications, introduced in 1973, is a mic (available today as SM7B) with an amazing history that's generated a tremendous amount of buzz in the last several years.
We wondered why. So to find out, we talked to John Born, Product Manager at Shure who answered the question, but advised us that any even lighthearted discussion of the SM7B had to include the SM5 and SM57 microphones. These two mics were, at different times, the standard by which the SM7 was measured.
It All Started With The SM5
The SM7's story really begins with the SM5 broadcast microphone – a moving coil dynamic boom microphone that found a home in radio and film studios following its introduction in 1966.
While accepted in the broadcast and motion picture industries, Shure set out to develop a new microphone offering a smaller footprint (the SM5 was huge – measuring about 10" long) and some of the same sonic characteristics of its newly introduced SM57 in a mic designed to reach beyond the broadcast industry.
According to John, the development of the SM7 went something like this: "A group of Shure acoustical engineers were given the SM57 cartridge element (Unidyne III) and asked, without restrictions on size or cost, to make it better. And they went nuts." This may be one reason why John likes to refer to the SM7B as "an SM57 on steroids".
Variations of the Shure Unidyne III cartridge are used in many of Shure's dynamic microphones. The SM57, SM58 and SM7B all share a similar acoustic network based on the Unidyne III element, but there are a few differences between the SM7B cartridge and the SM57/SM58 cartridge design:
- The SM7B diaphragm is slightly different and optimized for increased low end response
- The larger housing of the SM7B allows for a larger rear volume behind the cartridge which extends its low end response
- The internal shock mount of the SM7B is optimized to reduce mic stand vibrations, while the shock mount in the SM57/SM58 is optimized to reduce noise in handheld applications
More from John: "The SM7 was designed as an extended, full range microphone and intended to be universal in its applications. It has a flatter and wider response than its SM57 and SM58 siblings but its frequency shaping switches in the back (selectable low cut and presence peak filtering) allow it to more than adequately fulfill (and enhance) applications where the SM57 or SM58 excel."
The SM7 debuted in 1973 and eventually replaced the SM5B, which was discontinued in 1988.
The Thriller Effect
Over the course of past 30 years, the SM7 found its way into the recording studio. Case in Point: Michael Jackson's groundbreaking album Thriller. Quincy Jones and recording engineer Bruce Swedien used an SM7 for most of Michael's vocals and, according to legend, all of Vincent Price's.
It was a brave choice. First of all, Michael Jackson's previous album, Off The Wall, had already become the first solo record to produce four Top 10 singles and a GRAMMY Award for the single "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough". That set the bar pretty high. But Jackson was determined to do even better and the same production team was put in place to make it happen. The resulting 1982 Thriller album (remember – this is vinyl) went on to become the best–selling album of all time at an unheard-of 110 million copies sold.
With all the ultra-high-end recording microphones available to the producers, why the unassuming SM7, then a standard for radio and voiceover applications? Here's what Bruce had to say about it in his track-by-track memoir, In the Studio with Michael Jackson: "One of my absolute favorite microphones is the Shure SM7. I recorded most of the big hit records of Michael's career with him in front of one of my SM7s. I've been pretty vocal about how much I love that microphone, it's a great mic."
"I was allowed the freedom to make microphone choices, and nobody ever said a word. I just did it. For example, I used a Shure SM7 on most of Michael's lead vocals — 'Billie Jean', 'The Way You Make Me Feel' — and boy, did that raise some eyebrows! But I love that mic, and I have six of them. The first one that I bought was in 1977… one of the first SM7s to be used on a major music project. It's dynamic of course and it worked just flawlessly with Michael - if you notice you can hear all the lyrics very clearly."
Evolution of the SM7 Microphone
- The original SM7 was introduced in 1973.
- The SM7A revision improved the humbucking coil and the design of the yoke mount. This revision was introduced in 1999.
- The SM7B incorporated an additional larger windscreen. It was introduced in 2001.
Acoustically, the microphone versions performed identically.
Fast Forward: Most Hyped Mic?
While there are legions of true believers still hoping for Shure to bring back the SM5B, the SM7B has achieved a level of popularity and buzz that give it (audio) urban legend status. Used as an instrument mic and a vocal mic in live sound, broadcast and recording, in the minds of many, it is the do-everything microphone that outperforms the industry workhorse SM57.
You can hardly visit a mic review site without reading pages of animated and sometimes heated commentary on the SM7B. There's even a Shure SM7 joke thread on gearslutz.com with posts like these:
"You know that voice in your head that tells you right from wrong? Well, it was recorded with an SM7B."
"My SM7B automatically doubled and then quadrupled my vocal takes, translating them into Spanish and Mandarin versions, enabling me to deliver international releases."
"They say with careful positioning, you can use an SM7B to record the future."
And that's not all. Since the SM7B requires a mic preamp with at least 60dB of gain, there's almost as much chatter about which preamp or audio interface to use for recording. Recording Hacks' Jason Miller covered this extensively in a recent post. His recommendations, including audio tracks using 8 different interfaces, are available here.
We asked John to explain why, 36 years after its introduction; this mic is creating so much noise. Here's what he said:
"A combination of things have probably accounted for this consistent spike in popularity. Maybe it just takes this long for a mic to gain acceptance. Some of it has to do with emergence of podcasting – there's an appetite for a high quality voiceover mic. And some of it has to do with Michael's Jackson's death – everyone was talking about his recordings and how they were made. Then there's the fact that this is a $350 microphone that has beaten studio microphones costing ten times as much in microphone shoot-outs. It's finally getting the recognition it deserves."
Shure Artist Relations Associate Ryan Smith agrees: "It continues to be used on major recordings, both as the lead vocal mic and on other applications — guitar amp, bass amp, kick drum, hi-hat, snare drum, horns and many more." Death Cab for Cutie, John Mayer, Chevelle, James Hetfield of Metallica, Keith Urban, Jeff Tweedy, My Chemical Romance, Meshuggah, Don Was, Billy Idol and even the Boss have reportedly used the SM7B in either live sound or recording applications. Rumor has it that Bob Dylan is a fan, too.
Clearly, the SM7B has more than lived up to the goals set by the engineers who designed it back in the 70s. And while it does a good job of masking a poor recording environment, handling a screaming vocal and performing double-duty as a drum or guitar amp mic, only you can decide where it belongs in your rig or mic locker.
You can listen and compare the SM7B to other Shure microphones in the Mic Listening Lab. Better still, borrow one from a friend and put it to the test. Remember that good sound is subjective – it's what sounds good to you.