Whether you're a vocalist, a venue owner, or an audio technician, having an arsenal of vocal microphones for live performance will help immensely in your success. Of all the live vocal mics, one microphone rules them all.
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Top Live Vocal Microphone Recommendation:
When at a live musical performance, chances are the vocalists will be singing into one or more of the extremely popular Shure SM58. There are a plethora of reasons for this and I'm definitely not alone in my recommendation of this legendary vocal microphone. The Shure SM58 is, bar none, the best microphone for live vocal performances.
Let's discuss why the Shure SM58 is so popular and why it's my recommended live vocal performance microphone!
“Best” is a dangerous word. There is really no such thing as a “best microphone” for any situation. The microphone(s) listed in my Recommended Microphones And Accessories” page are simply my recommendations. These recommendations are based on my own experience and are mindful of budget. It would be easy to suggest an ELA M 251 or U47 for most scenarios. However, these tube mics are very expensive, putting them out of a hobbyist's price range and making it difficult for professionals to make their money back on the gear.
Another important note is that the microphone or equipment you choose is not the most important part of recording audio. In fact, there are many factors that are arguably more important than the choice of microphone. These include:
- Performer (whether a musician, speaker, or otherwise)
- Microphone technique/placement
- Number of microphones used
- Natural sound of the room
- Content (whether that's the song, discussion, or otherwise)
- Signal chain (including mic cable, preamplifier, console, and/or interface/computer)
With that being said, some microphones and gear suit some instruments better than others, prompting this series of articles under “Recommended Microphones And Accessories.”
What To Look For In A Live Vocal Microphone
When looking for a vocal microphone tailored for live performance, there are a few things to consider:
- Durability: Choose a microphone that can withstand some physical abuse. Chances are, at some point, your live vocal mic will get hit, dropped, or worse.
- Price: Pick a microphone you can afford multiples of. This is important for vocalists and crucial for venue owners and audio technicians.
- Cardioid Directional Polar Pattern: Select a cardioid directional microphone to work well with fold-back monitors.
- Presence Boost: A boost in sensitivity between 3-6 kHz helps improve speech intelligibility.
- High-Frequency Roll-Off: A roll-off of high frequencies keeps the brilliance of the cymbals and other high-pitched sound out of the microphone signal.
- Low-Frequency Roll-Off: A roll-off of low frequencies reduces handling noise, vocal plosives, and low-end rumble in the microphone signal.
- Size: The size of a microphone affects how it's used as live vocal mic.
- Grille/Pop Filter: A grille/pop filter is critical is protecting the microphone diaphragm from foreign objects and from vocal plosives.
- Easy To Clean: Hygiene cannot be overstated when it comes to vocal microphones.
- No Tubes: Tubes (valve amplifiers) are fragile and expensive. Physical trauma and temperature will cause irreversible damage to a tube microphone. Not great for live use.
- Wireless: Although not essential, it's nice to have freedom from cables.
How Does The Shure SM58 Compare To The Above Criteria?
Let's dive into the details of the legendary SM58 and discuss why it's such an excellent choice for a live vocal microphone.
The Shure SM58 is featured in My New Microphone's 50 Best Microphones Of All Time (With Alternate Versions & Clones).
Durability Of The Shure SM58
While at school for audio engineering, a mentor of mine told me “if an atomic bomb was to drop on the studio, only cockroaches and the SM58s would survive.” That stuck with me.
Yet another teacher made a comment along the lines of “you could build a studio using the SM58 as a hammer and then record with it.”
Obviously these are exaggerations, but they are still testaments to the durability of this microphone.
The durability of any microphone is important, but for live vocal microphones, it is critical. These microphones are not only at higher risk of being dropped or hit, but also for getting soaked by water, beer, and saliva. It's crucial that we choose a durable microphone for live vocal performances.
There are official Shure videos of the SM58 getting:
- Dropped from a helicopter
- Set on fire
- Submerged in beer
- Run over by a tour bus
- Shot by a 12-gauge shotgun
In each of the above scenarios, the SM58 came out functioning (though a bit beat up). I think it's safe to say if the 58 can withstand that much abuse, it should be fine in any practical live performance!
Price Of The Shure SM58
SM58s are typically under $100 USD. You will not find a cheaper microphone with the same durability and quality as the 58!
Budgeting is important in any aspect of life. Building your microphone locker is no exception. Many professionals require several vocal microphones to do their jobs. The SM58 is an effective solution.
Vocalists benefit from having their own SM58 for rehearsals, hygiene, and self reliance (in case a venue doesn't supply vocal mics). Vocalists will benefit from having at least one back up microphone in case their primary goes missing.
Venue owners and audio technicians should also carry around multiple SM58s. We just never know when they'll come in handy or how many vocal mics we'll need in a given scenario.
Directionality Of The Shure SM58
The directionality of a live vocal microphone greatly influences the risk of microphone feedback in the live sound system.
When performing live, it's paramount that the musicians be able to hear themselves clearly. In-ear monitors are an option, but fold-back monitors are most commonly used.
Fold-back monitors are basically loudspeakers placed in front of a performer. The fold-back monitors project an audio mix toward the performer. The mix often has the performer's microphone louder than everything else.
This is a recipe for audible feedback if precautions are not taken!
The SM58 has a cardioid polar pattern. The cardioid directional polar pattern is the easiest directional pattern to use when dealing with live sound.
Basically, the cardioid directional polar pattern in most sensitive in the direction where the microphone points (the front end) and rejects sound from the opposite end (back end) of the microphone.
The Shure SM58 is a top-address microphone, so the front end of the microphone is the grille and the back end of the microphone is the XLR connector.
Simply point the grille away from the performer's fold-back monitor (or point the XLR connector toward the fold-back monitor) and you'll get much more gain before feedback.
Pro Tip: Do not point an SM58 at a loudspeaker when both are connected and turned on. This will cause feedback!
Frequency Response Of The Shure SM58
The frequency response of the Shure SM58 is given as 50 Hz – 15,000 Hz. The SM58 frequency response graph is as follows:
The ~5 dB boost between 3.5 kHz – 6 kHz in the SM58 tailors it for vocals. The sibilance and intelligibility of human speech resides in this range of the audible frequency spectrum.
The high-frequency roll-off starting around 10 kHz effectively filters out the high-pitched brilliance of cymbals and other instruments while still allowing the human voice to shine through. As you can imagine, this makes a vocalist's SM58 favourable when placed near a drum kit.
The low-frequency roll off of the 58 starts just above 100 Hz. This roll-off helps reduce the amount of low-end and mechanically transmitted noise the microphone will pick up. Microphone handling noise, vocal plosives, and low-end stage noise are common culprits of this unwanted noise.
- Handling noise happens when the microphone (or mic stand) is touched or bumped.
- Vocal plosives are the “pops” that happen from a vocalist's mouth during the sounds P, B, T, D, K, and G. Plosives often cause large low-frequency spikes in a microphone signal.
- Low-end rumble comes from the stage and is often caused by bass amps, kick drums, and even power mains.
The SM58 is a perfect size for a live vocal microphone.
It fits nicely in anyone's hand as a handheld vocal mic.
It also attaches nicely on microphone stands with many generic microphone clips. Its light weight allows it to remain in the same position on a stand.
Grille And Cleaning Of The Shure SM58
As mentioned earlier, the grille acts as a sort of pop filter, helping to reduce the amount of plosives in the microphone capsule.
The grille also provides some support in the higher-end of the SM58's frequency response. The inner cavity of the grille has a resonant frequency which helps the SM58 respond superbly to vocals.
The grille is designed to crumple in on itself if subjected to great physical force (ie: getting dropped from a helicopter). This malleability of the grille helps the microphone absorb shock that would otherwise be transferred directly to the capsule, further improving microphone durability.
The grille of the SM58 is removable, which plays an essential in maintaining microphone hygiene. A live vocal microphone will be subjected voices and many other things that come out of our mouth. The grille of a typical bar venue SM58 will get bombarded with saliva, sweat, beer, and even food.
Cleaning the grille of this nastiness is essential for keeping good microphone hygiene. The SM58 is simple to clean.
- Remove the grille assembly from the microphone.
- Submerge a toothbrush's bristles in mouthwash (or mild detergent) mixed with water.
- Gently scrub the microphone grille from the outside with the toothbrush
- Repeat steps 2 and 3 until the entire grille has been washed
- Allow the grille assembly to dry overnight before reassembly.
You may remove the acoustic foam to check for degradation. If the foam appears worn out or damaged, it's worth considering replacing the grille.
Cleaning your vocal microphone is an often overlooked step in maintaining hygiene, but can also affect the frequency response of the microphone. All that gunk that gets stuck in the grille can affect the way sound travels to the microphone diaphragm. Fortunately the SM58 makes cleaning easy!
Does The Shure SM58 Have Tubes?
The Shure SM58 does not have tubes.
Although tube microphones are often considered “premium” mics, they are not always practical in live performance.
The fragility of tube microphones make them great for careful placement inside a studio, but a hazard when used live. Tubes are also very expensive and are not worth the risk, in my opinion, for live vocal performances.
The Shure SM58 utilizes a durable transformer at its output.
Is The Shure SM58 Wireless?
The Shure SM58 we've been discussing is not wireless. However, there are options available if you'd prefer a wireless SM58.
The first general option is to combine an SM58 capsule with a wireless transmitter. This method would require purchasing a separate SM58 capsule or modifying a “wired” SM58.
A common SM58 capsule wireless system combo is the Shure FP25/SM58 (link to check the price on Amazon).
An alternative is to have a plug-in wireless system. The transmitters in these systems have XLR connectors that you can plug your “wired” SM58 directly into.
Good wireless systems are a bit pricey and there are so many more options that I've suggested above.
Recap On The Shure SM58
So the Shure SM58 sounds great with vocals and is extraordinarily tough. It has great rear rejection to reduce the risk of feedback and is very easy to clean.
All of this for such an inexpensive price makes the Shure SM58 the best microphone for live vocal performance!
For all the My New Microphone mic/gear recommendations, please check out my page Recommended Microphones And Accessories.