Imagine the year is 1982 and you are Michael Jackson. You are 23 years old. The commercial and critical success of Off The Wall is nearly three years behind you. But you’re disappointed. Disappointed because Off The Wall didn’t win Record of The Year at the Grammys, and you feel undervalued by the music industry.
So you get back together with Quincy Jones to make an album with nothing but hits. Pop music’s version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. With a $750,000 production budget, you have almost unlimited options in fancy microphones and high-end production equipment. But you, Quincy, and your sound production team decide to go with the Shure SM7B – a modest dynamic cardioid microphone used primarily in radio broadcasting and spoken word – to record most of your vocal tracks, and all of Vincent Price’s (in two takes, no less!).
Having Thriller on your resume isn’t such a bad thing. The Shure SM7B has been a staple of recording since, and has continued to be at the pinnacle of the industry.
The result? Thriller. 65 million copies sold. Certified multi-platinum 30 times. 8 Grammy Awards. An album that, in 2016, remains the best selling album of all time. Now, one could argue Michael Jackson could’ve sung Thriller into an empty coffee tin and still make audio gold. But the fact remains that Shure’s SM7 line of microphones has captured some excellent sound and can boast some legendary chops.
In addition to Thriller, the SM7 (now the SM7B) is a weapon of choice inside broadcast booths around the world and has fans in a number of recording artists, including Sheryl Crow, who favoured it on her The Globe Sessions record. According to Bob Dylan’s engineer Chris Shaw (as quoted in Bob Dylan: All the Songs by Phillipe Margotin), the legend of folk’s tone was perfect for this large-diaphragm dynamic.
So what’s made this dynamic cardioid microphone – originally introduced in 1973 – a studio icon that’s withstood the test of time? The short answer is that the SM7B can do it all.
But before we get there, the version you can buy today, the SM7B, has had a couple improvements since its disco-era upbringing. After more than two decades without an upgrade to the SM7, Shure released the SM7A in 1999. That model offered an improved humbucking coil (a transducer that helps cancel out interference) and yoke mount (the sling-shot shaped mounting attachment). Two years after that, the SM7B hit the market with a bigger windscreen.
According to Shure’s Davida Rochman, the SM7 story really begins with the SM5 broadcast microphone, “A dynamic boom microphone that found a home in many radio and film studios following its introduction in 1966.”
The SM5 was beloved, but huge (measuring about 25cm long). John Born, Product Manager at Shure, said in Rochman’s 2012 interview that a group of Shure acoustical engineers were given the Unidyne III cartridge element from within the Shure SM57 (cousin to the SM5) sometime in the 1970s. The engineers were told, “without restrictions on size or cost, to make it better. And they went nuts.”
The result is that the SM7B is optimized for low end response (the deep, big bass sound heard in many of today’s recordings). The shock mount is optimized to reduce stand vibrations. Rochman says the SM7B “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.” It makes for an excellent instrument mic and vocal mic in live sound broadcasting and recording.
Over time, the SM7B has become the industry workhorse, partly because it’s a $350 microphone that compares – and occasionally bests – other studio microphones that can cost hundreds of dollars more. The recent rise in podcasting has helped the SM7B too, as demand has increased for high-quality voice-over mics at an affordable price.
As Harvey Gerst says “[The SM7] is one of the finest mics that Shure has ever made.” And of course, having Thriller on your resume doesn’t hurt either.
Okay and for the spec readers out there the features of the SM7B include but are not limited to:
• Flat, wide-range frequency response for exceptionally clean and natural reproduction of both music and speech
• Bass rolloff and mid-range emphasis (presence boost) controls with graphic display of response setting
• Improved rejection of electromagnetic hum, optimized for shielding against broadband interference emitted by computer monitors
• Internal “air suspension” shock isolation virtually eliminates mechanical noise transmission
• Highly effective pop filter eliminates need for any add-on protection against explosive breath sounds, even for close-up vocals or narration
• Now shipping with the A7WS detachable windscreen, designed to reduce plosive sounds and gives a warmer tone for close-talk vocals
• Yoke mounting with captive stand nut for easy mounting and dismounting provides precise control of microphone position
• Classic cardioid polar pattern, uniform with frequency and symmetrical about axis, to provide maximum rejection and minimum coloration of off-axis sound
• Rugged construction and excellent cartridge protection for outstanding reliability
You can listen to audio samples of the SM7B at Shure’s Mic Listening Lab. For more information on the history of the SM7B, see Davida Rochman’s excellent 2012 post SM57 on Steroids: The Shure SM7(B) Story and Silent Sky’s 2013 post The Shure SM7B – Magic Mic, or All Hype?