Top FOH engineers tell us which stage vocal mics they recommend — and why!
It isn’t often that one product dominates a market for a single decade, let alone five, but Shure’s SM58 dynamic microphone has done just that. Launched in 1966, the moving-coil cardioid design may have been superseded by the Beta version introduced in 1989, and later the Beta 58A in 1996, but it’s telling that the original SM58 is still considered the workhorse of live music — ironic, really, as the ‘SM’ originally stood for ‘Studio Microphone’.
For many, the SM58 in its various incarnations still represents the starting point for a professional vocal microphone — and, for quite a few, the end point too. It may be utilising positively ancient technology for an industry that thrives on change, but the fact is that Shure judged the SM58 perfectly for its market. Its shockmount design made it relatively impervious to handling and stand-transmitted noise, its directional capabilities made it ideal for use on loud stages, its ruggedness was demonstrated every time the Who’s Roger Daltrey swung one around his head like a lasso, and if the frequency response was theoretically limited, it was very well judged for rock singers, with a response that seemed to suit more or less everyone.
Of course, there’s a ‘but’. Off the record, even Shure’s own people would candidly admit that the SM58 had been so successful that it didn’t just inhibit its competitors in the marketplace, it inhibited Shure as well, and fixed people’s perceptions in an unhelpful way. There was a price the customer paid for the industry standard vocal mic, and that was it. Introducing a better mic at a higher price became difficult when the market was quite satisfied with what it already had, thank you very much. If the SM58 saw off competitors from other microphone manufacturers, it also hindered Shure from improving the breed.
Slowly, over the past 20 years or so, this has begun to change. Other manufacturers have managed to grab market share with new products, Shure themselves have come up with more sophisticated offerings and, perhaps above all, technologies other than the dear old moving-coil dynamic have started to creep out of the studio, now able to withstand life on the road far better than their ancestors. Capacitor mics and then even ribbon mics began to be seen on stage, being used by sound engineers and artists looking for a performance edge.
That leaves the vocalist or sound engineer today facing a wider choice than he or she has faced before, and as it is often the engineer who coaxes a performer to leave the comfort zone and try a different microphone, we have asked some leading sound engineers what they are currently using, why, and what they are looking for in this changed environment. But don’t assume that means the SM58 is dead — far from it, as we are about to find out!
Mark Portlock is an FOH engineer with wide experience. He’s one of only a few long-standing in-house engineers at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London and has been on the road for 25 years, working on a succession of global live tours and the festival circuit. In that time he has handled monitors for the likes of Feeder, Tricky, Jamiroquai and, more recently, Canadian rapper Tory Lanez. As FOH engineer he looks after a number of US clients including ska-pop act Misterwives, Internet sensations Timeflies, and the new London-based GIRLI.
“It’s funny, we normally always start with the...
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