Tuesday, August 07, 2007

A Not-So Secret Weapon...The Shure SM7

During the years that I was associated with Shangri La Studio, the studio owner very wisely invested in vintage microphones. Working with engineers like Jim Nipar, Chuck Ainlay, Ethan Johns, John Porter and John Hanlon, among others, was my education in the subtle nuances intrinsic to the various makes and models of vintage microphones available at the studio.

Every engineer has preferences as to how best to mic a guitar amp, which is the best vocal mic or which array will best capture the colors of a drum set. The single factor common to every great engineer, however, comes down to one word...EARS. Every engineer seemed to have a formula for quickly getting a sound up on the mixing desk. And although every engineer has a "secret weapon" or signature approach to mic strategy, engineers are always ready to try new approaches and different gear in their quest for the ultimate acoustic guitar tone or magic snare drum.

I remember setting up drum mics for a noted engineer and while we plugged in a pair of Sony C37a mics as overheads, I mentioned that "So and so" had just done a session and had preferred a pair of C-12s. After hearing about how "So and so" didn't know shit about how to mic up a drumset, we put up a pair of C12s and made comparisons. Engineers can be stubborn, defensive and secretive of their methods, But they are also open-minded enough to listen and appropriate more effective methods.

One of my favorite engineer/producers has a much more open approach. Sammy (not his real name) has been making great records for over thirty years, and he reminds me of the magician you may have read about in a previous blog. Sammy had no secrets. He would tell you every trick in the book, how it worked, and how really simple it all was. And Sammy hipped me to a piece of kit that should be in every recording environment, from major studio right down to the most humble home writing rig...the venerable and extremely affordable Shure SM7 microphone.

Sammy came to Shangri La to produce a record that would ultimately be nominated for a Grammy so I was eager to learn from him. When I asked him about mic preferences he answered that the fine collection at the studio would suit his needs adequately and that he would be bringing his Shure SM7 "just in case." We had C12s, M49s,M50s, U47s, U67s, 251s...anything an engineer could want, anything but a Shure SM7.

In talking to Sammy in the off moments, I would ask an occasional question...like "What would you use on an acoustic guitar?" or "What do you like for a vocal mic?" and in almost every case, he would answer with two or three options but would always end with "But an SM7 would work just fine." During the course of the sessions I set up the SM7 on guitar amps, bass amps, Leslie rotating speakers, drums, acoustic guitars, pianos and to my surprise, the SM7 had the inside track when it came to recording the lead vocals.

I've recently set up a small writing/recording environment in my home. I record on an iMac using Cubase4 and the mic locker at Shangri La is a distant memory. When deciding on which microphone would best suit my needs, I researched all the usual suspects from the new affordable condensers to the USB models that would eliminate the need for expensive mic preamps. By chance, I had Sammy on the phone one day and asked his advice. "What's wrong with you...get an SM7 and leave me alone!" were his words of encouragement.

This microphone is the best $250.00 I have spent on gear...ever. There are just no issues with it. I can't remember cutting a track that didn't work. It does exactly what it is meant to do and does it without offering an opinion or whining. The perfect partner in crime. I have used it through a really good mic-pre and have also plugged it directly into a Pre-sonus firewire interface with equally impressive results. And without getting into the technical minutia, I can say that the most important question..."How does it sound?" has been answered in a positive way every time.

It seems that everyone has a studio at home now. The industry catalogues are rammed full of the latest in technical breakthroughs that will allow the home-recordist an opportunity to realize the creation of a masterpiece. You can buy lots of shiny crap for $250.00, or you can invest in the real thing.

As so many producers and engineers have said, a recording can only be as good as what goes into the mic. So go practice, get really good...and put it through an SM7.


Marc said...

Thanks for this great review, it makes me want to buy the famous SM7!!!


Anonymous said...

working for shure?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, I think this gives me the oomph I need to finally get this mic. I've been searching around to see what the best vocal(and general workhorse) mic is for the money. I went through wanting EV, Rode, AKG...and it looks like this is the one. I'll get it as soon as possible.

Anonymous said...

They don't have the top-end sparkle of the favoured large condensers, and they are not that good for "distant" recording: they need tons of gain.

They are a great all rounder for home setups - IMHO for two main reasons. The switchable filters, and room sound rejection.
Overdub recording means you can eq a lot without affecting any bleed.
But there are others in the class, the SM7 is the flavour of the month at the moment, but Beyerdynamic and Sennheiser have some goodies too.
Don't forget, the mic is 50% of the equasion. Get a decent preamp (Ie. not "pro-sumer" m-audio usb or the like) or you won't hear the real benefit of the mic.

Matt said...

Eric Valentine has endorsed the SM7 as one of his favorite vocal mics..used it a lot with Taking Back Sunday.