Here’s One Thing Mick Jagger and Paul Ryan Have in Common
Bands come and go, but the SM58 is forever.
Or so it seems. The microphone, used by countless artists, from Buddy Guy to Sheryl Crow to Mick Jagger, just turned 50 and is still going strong, according to the company. Born in Chicago and priced at $100, Shure Inc.’s mic has become a rugged fixture at live events around the world. The SM58 is used on the International Space Station for astronaut media appearances. Speaking of outer space, Shure mics are on stage at the presidential debates. House Speaker Paul Ryan wielded a wireless 58 at a rally on Saturday in Wisconsin as controversy swirled around Donald Trump (who complained of a faulty sound system at the first debate; Shure said it wasn't the mic, since the broadcast feed was fine).
Shure introduced the SM58 in September 1966 to bolster its studio offerings—hence the acronym for “studio microphone” in its name. The market never materialized. But for live performance, the Who were early adopters, and Roger Daltrey’s penchant for swinging his SM58 around the stage became a staple of the group’s shows. The band, which still uses the 58, has been featured in Shure advertising.
“It’s by far the most widely visible microphone in rock music,” said Mark Brunner, a Shure vice president.
The SM58 came to the live-music arena in an era when musicians were becoming far more mobile—and exuberant—in their performances. Relatively stationary performers such as Elvis Presley and the Beatles had given way to the stage athletics of such rock dervishes as the Kinks, the Who, and the Rolling Stones, who preferred lighter, hardier microphones.
The 58 is virtually indestructible. You can drop it, toss it, and swing it about like Daltrey’s weaponized lasso, all activities various musicians have demonstrated during frenzied performances. It might dent, but it rarely breaks. Shure has amassed a series of abuse tests on video, including a 200-foot mic drop from a helicopter.
The 58’s sibling, the SM57, is a year older—and identical, save for its grill and the 58’s greater protection against wind and the awful “popping P,” the explosion of the consonant that is a torture test for mic and audience alike. The 58 is used mostly for live vocals and speaking, while the 57 is generally deployed as an instrument mic, for which pop guarding isn’t needed. This rule is slightly subverted at the White House, where the commander-in-chief lectern has two 57s, a gig Shure has held for 51 years. The White House has roughly 400 SM57s in its microphone inventory, Shure says.
Despite selling millions of copies, according to Shure, and remaining the company’s top seller, the SM58 had a rough go in its early days, doing battle with several well-established, similar Shure microphones. By 1970, the company was thinking of discontinuing the 57/58 models.
Then a sales manager suggested that Shure audition the 58 in Las Vegas at casinos such as the Sands, the Sahara, and Caesar’s Palace to see if sound engineers might like it for the live-performance venues, said Michael Pettersen, Shure’s corporate historian. 1 Shure plans a webcast on Oct. 17 with Pettersen to discuss the SM58's past. For hardcore audiophiles. They did, and touring artists started to notice the SM58’s attributes.
“We have lots of products that were designed for one thing, and the market said something else,” Pettersen said.
Privately held Shure, now based in suburban Niles, Ill., sells more than 100 kinds of microphones for studio and live uses, many of them far more expensive, but the SM58 has become its flagship product for live performances. The company won’t say exactly how many SM58s it has sold.
“I actually use it in the studio, and engineers freak out,” musician and actor Henry Rollins said in a 2007 Shure podcast. “I say, ‘Trust me, it’s the only thing I’m going to be able to get my thing going with.’” After decades with an SM58, Rollins said, “it’s how I hear myself. That microphone is my reality.”
The mic offers a modest boost to the frequency range of the average human voice, a spectrum that ranges from 3kHz to 10 kHz, helping to distinguish the voice and to better fit the singer into an amplified live performance, Shure says.
In the 1970s, as the SM58 slowly gained traction, Shure introduced the SM59, which was flat across its frequency spectrum, without the voice boost of the 57 and 58 models. Frank Sinatra, a Rat Pack casino fixture for decades, was one of the first high-profile artists to try the 59, said Pettersen, who was sent to Las Vegas in 1977 as a new employee to have Sinatra’s sound guy audition the firm’s new live-performance microphone.
Sinatra “goes onstage for rehearsals and—I’ll clean up his language a bit—says ‘What the Frank is this?’ ” said Pettersen, who was sitting in the sound booth during the audition. The great singer uses the microphone briefly, Pettersen recalled, and then “throws the thing as hard as he can against the floor,” demanding, “Give me my SM58.”
The SM59 was not long for this world.
(Updates with White House microphone collection.)