Posts Tagged ‘SM57’

Don’t Be Shay

Wednesday, August 26th, 2009

Most of my clients come to me by word of mouth, which is great. Even better, I often get sidemen on sessions who have their own side projects and, having worked with me, often approach me about recording their stuff as well.

I was working on a project featuring fairy tales and silly songs, aptly titled, “Fairy Tales and Silly Songs.” The author of the stories and songs collaborated with a musician named Shay Salhov. He wrote the music for the tunes and did some incidental music for the stories.

Shay came in a few days before the main session to lay down piano for the tunes. He was OK on piano but nothing special. In all fairness, I’ve worked with some extraordinary pianists and, let’s just say, I wouldn’t necessarily put him in their league.

Everything went well during the piano tracking session and at some point Shay said, “Hey, I have a trio and I’d love to have you record us. I live in the neighborhood and I feel comfortable working with you. Would you be interested?” I said, “Sure, that would be great.”

So I thought nothing more of it because I get inquiries like that all the time from musicians and, until they “book the hall,” it’s all talk. But a few months later I got a call from Shay wanting to book a session.

“OK, a trio session. So, piano, bass, drums? Piano, bass, guitar?” I asked. Shay quickly interrupted me, “No no no—my main instrument is saxophone. I just played piano for that children’s project out of necessity but I’m a sax player.” I told him that I really enjoy sax trios and that I was looking forward to the session.

The setup for the session was really straightforward: a pair of upgraded Cascade Fat Heads  in a Blumlein configuration as drum overheads, an AKG D 112  on the kick drum and a Shure SM57 on snare. For the acoustic bass, I chose a Heil Sound PR-40 and for the sax, a Mojave Audio Ma200. I set up some acoustic screens to isolate each musician a little bit while maintaining line-of-sight between the players.

The guys arrived and started warming up and, wow, they sounded way better than I expected. The drummer, Ronen Itzik, was great, the bass player, Gary Wang, was great and shay was an amazing sax player. Here I was, practically writing him off as a mediocre pianist and the guy was a phenomenal sax player and fantastic musician.

Anyway, I quickly adjusted the mics on the drums and sax while the guys were rehearsing. When I squatted down in front of Gary, the bass player, he said, “Uh, are you sure that mic is positioned right? Isn’t it supposed to be facing up?” Apparently, he wasn’t familiar with the Heil PR-40. It’s a moving coil mic that looks an awful lot like a condenser and one might assume it’s a side-address mic but it’s not. The mic even ships with a paper around it saying, “Note: This is an end-address microphone.” Anyway, I said, “No, it’s an end-address dynamic mic and it’s supposed to face this way,” and he says, “A dynamic mic? Hmm, interesting.” I’m thinking to myself, “What does he mean by that?” I inquire and he says, “I’ve always seen guys use a U 87.” Now, one can use almost anything on an acoustic bass, of course, but the most popular choice has traditionally been an Electro-Voice RE-20, a Sennheiser MD421—moving coils, for sure. I happen to like the PR-40 on bass because it’s a little brighter and helps pick up a little more attack. Anyway, I assured him that a moving coil dynamic was a very standard choice for acoustic bass, especially in a jazz combo setting.

As I adjusted the mic to face the f-hole at about 10 inches away, Gary says, “Is that where you’re going to leave the mic?” Now I’m thinking he feels it’s going to be in his way or something. I asked him, “Are you in the position you’ll be playing in?” He says, “Yeah.” And I say, “Well then, it’s right where it needs to be.” And he says something like, “Hmm, interesting, alright, whatever.” So now I’m really wondering what’s he thinking? I ask why and he says, “Well, I’ve seen most guys put the mic directly in front of the bass, pointing at the bridge. I explained that in a classical session or in a live room where space is absolutely no consideration, the mic would, indeed, be in front of the instrument but that this was a jazz session and to try and minimize bleed from other instruments, it’s very common to put the mic in front of the f-hole. There are no rules, of course. The world-renowned, multiple grammy–award-winning engineer, Al Schmitt, once recounted about wrapping foam rubber around the body of a Neumann U 67 (his favorite mic) and sticking it underneath the fingerboard of an acoustic  bass to record it. Whatever works.

Anyway, I was really beginning to feel like this guy just simply didn’t trust me. I don’t often feel like I have to prove myself and, I have to say, it’s kind of an unpleasant feeling and it’s probably the feeling some new clients get when they come into a new studio, a strange place, new people to deal with. I should probably be more cognizant of that fact. and sensitive to it as well.

I have to admit, I kind of played a little game with him and said, “OK, we’ll do it your way,” and positioned the mic right in front of the bridge. I think he might’ve felt like he sort of won that little power struggle or whatever you want to call it. “Sure, we’ll do it your way and see how it sounds,” I said.

So, we did a little test run and the guys came in to listen. They really liked the overall sound but the drummer asked for an extra mic to put on the hi-hat because some details in his playing were sometimes getting a little lost. While I ran out into the live room to throw an AKG C 391 small diaphragm condenser on the hat, I left the take playing in the control room. When I came back and stopped the transport, Gary hinted that maybe we should try moving the mic back where it was to begin with. I suspect he was second guessing himself and by now had started to trust me a little more. I said, “Sure, we can compromise and split the difference,” and he said, “Whatever you think is best. Put it wherever you want.” I thought to myself, “Finally, he’s comfortable.” That’s what it’s all about for some people. Sometimes they have to flex a little muscle, drop a few names, tell a few stories, warm up—whatever. It’s all good. It was just a little unusual for me to feel uncomfortable. that usually doesn’t happen with me. Well, at least now we seemed to be getting to normal.

I made a quick adjustment on the bass and we started recording. These guys were such a pleasure to record once things were underway. I have to say, I absolutely love jazz and particularly like sax trios so it was a real blast. Except for the last tune, everything was original material written by Shay and, for the most part, it was all two takes or so of each tune but they just blew through it one after the next.

Within a few hours, the guys had recorded essentially an album’s worth of material. I made a couple of reference CDs and they took off. I decided to Google Shay and wasn’t surprised to learn that he graduated from Berklee School of Music and has a master’s degree in classical music from Boston University and has played with a whole slew of great musicians.

I was so looking forward to mixing this project but, what’s more, I was excited at the prospect of working with Shay on future projects. I imagined myself like Rob Hunter with Branford Marsalis, developing a long-term working relationship, maybe doing some live sound for Shay—and he was right here in the neighborhood.

So I get a phone call from Shay a few weeks later and he says, “Hey, listen, my wife and I are moving to California.” It was a very last minute kind of thing and they were leaving in just a few days. I was stunned and so disappointed. We discussed doing the mix remotely and I suppose I could do that for his future projects as well. that’s all fine and good, mixing is alright but tracking a jazz combo like that is just simply one of my favorite things in the world. Unfortunately, it appears that I won’t be doing that for Shay unless, of course, his budget will allow for me to fly out to Santa Cruz but I’m not getting my hopes up…yet.

So, that’s the way it is with clients sometimes—easy come, easy go. It’s great when they come and it sucks when they go. The thing about the saying, “easy come, easy go,” is that it ends on a negative thought. Thing is, it’s cyclical and there’s always a new “easy come” after an “easy go” and, fortunately, my experience has been, much more often than not, after an “easy come,” they tend to stay.

As for Shay, yeah, well, he’s gone for now but I’m sure some lucky engineer in Santa cruz or L.A. will get a phone call and will get to work with Shay. Of course, it’s just as likely that some fabulously talented musician somewhere in the world is packing their bags, making the big move to New York City and, who knows, maybe I’ll be lucky enough to get a phone call because, well, you know what they say, “Easy go, easy come.”

For more information on Shay salhov and his music, visit

Also, check out the Skeptic Zone podcast for Kylie Sturges’s interview with me about myths in the audio world.

If you’re in Atlanta for Dragon*Con, I’ll be on a couple of panels in the podcasting track Saturday morning and Monday morning. Otherwise, just walk up to me and say the secret word ;)

The Fetish Stiletto

Saturday, July 18th, 2009

I recently posted something on Twitter that seemed to strike a chord, judging from how many retweets it seemed to generate. I said, “Sorry for the generalization but, microphones are to audio engineers what shoes are to women.” It’s an analogy that seems to work on several levels. Well, you can say I have a mic fetish but, I say, “What good engineer doesn’t?” I think I should start my own brand of esoteric, boutique mics called Fetish and the flagship model can be The Stiletto. (Shhh — don’t tell anyone. It’ll be our exclusive little mic.)

There are some mics you don’t necessarily reach for all the time and there are the work horses. You’ve got your Manolos of the mic world like the Neumann U 47 and then you have your 9 Wests like the SM57, MD421 and fat Heads.

So, in my search for the “black pump” of tube condensers, I happen to call Dae Bennett (Tony Bennett’s son), owner of bennett Studios ( in Englewood, New Jersey. I had heard some good things about the Audio-technica AT 4047 and, specifically, that it was used on all of the vocals on Tony’s “Duets” album. Now, I know it’s not a tube mic, but I was considering buying it but simply had to confirm that this mic was used on all of the vocals on that album. I had my doubts because I know that some of the vocalists on that recording like Sting and Stevie Wonder happen to use the Sony C800G a lot of the time. Dae confirmed that the AT 4047 was, in fact, used on all of the vocals except one. Turns out, what I heard was true — Bono always seems to use a Shure SM58 Beta in the studio.

Anyway, during our conversation, Dae mentioned the Apex 460 ( I hadn’t heard much about the mic so, when I learned that someone had modified a pair for him, I was intrigued and began researching the mic. I was amazed at the differences of opinion this mic caused.

I wish I had known about ( at that point. It probably would have saved me a lot of surfing time. Matthew McGlynn does an amazing job with his Microphone Database ( It has tremendously useful links to the manufacturers’ web sites, spec sheets, owner’s manuals, etc.

At a certain point, I found Dan Richard’s side-by-side comparison ( of the R-F-T Telefunken M16 and the Apex 460 on ( Turns out that, apart from three resistors, the mics are identical. Of course, the $1,400 price tag for the M16 seemed a little steep as compared with the $229 cost of the 460. Telefunken re-released the mic as the M16 Mark II with the same price tag but allegedly upgraded components.

So, further research revealed that the Apex 460 was just a rebranded Alctron HST-11A ( which is a Chinese-made multi-pattern tube condenser that seemed to appear under many names including Nady and Carvin, among others. There seemed to be a number of modifications that some folks were doing like transformer swaps, changing the capsules, capacitors and tubes. There were some guys like Dave Thomas, whose company, Advanced Audio (, offered highly modified versions of the HST-11A and branded them with their own names like the CM12 ( In some cases, third party “mic moders” were using the Peluso CEK-12( as an upgrade from the stock capsule. Further, I discovered that Peluso themselves offered a similar mic known as the P12 (

All of these mics were essentially based on the legendary AKG C 12. Not being in a position to justify the cost of a vintage C 12, I found the Apex 460 at Full Compass Systems ( for only $181 at the time and ordered several. I compared the stock 460 to a pair of 460s I had modified by one of Dae Bennett’s friends. The moded mics were ever so slightly darker but, apart from that, all of the mics, even the stock models, sounded quite nice.

I always wanted to compare the moded 460s to an AKG C 12 so I called Chris Dunn at DreamHire ( and he personally dropped one off at the studio –  not because I’m such an important client but, rather, most likely because I’m literally down the street from them since they’ve moved to Astoria (woohoo!).

These shootouts almost always reinforce what I’ve come to realize: the great Neumann and AKG mics of yesteryear were absolute marvels and achieved an enormously high standard even 50 years ago — a standard that is still strived for today. At the same time, there are plenty of new mics today that technically out-perform the vintage offerings. Thing is, almost none of those mics sound like they did the day they were made and many of them have been so heavily modified and repaired that, for all intents, they’re practically new mics.

I don’t know if I would ever buy a vintage U 47 or C 12. i mean, it would be great to own a piece of history, yeah, but in almost every shootout, I’m reminded that the vintage models, as nice as they are, aren’t necessarily the winners and are sometimes, quite frankly, the losers. I think I’d rather invest a little less money in a contemporary mic like the Peluso 2247LE ( 47 LE.html) and be content owning an extraordinary, modern microphone. People will always covet the historic Neumann, AKG and Telefunken mics and they’ll always be collectors items for some. I’ll always respect and revere them but I think I’ll stick to, umm… the black pumps.

background music for this episode is by Sarina Bridget Bach from her debut album, “All Except One.” Recorded by Slau at BeSharp, June 6, 1999.
Sarina Bridget Bach – piano, Patience Higgins – tenor sax, Jesse Andrus – tenor/soprano sax, Hugh Fraser – trombone, Steve Roane – bass, Richie DeRosa – drums

Additional excerpts from: Joel Weiskopf, Marty Mabin, Libby Richman and Carlo Barile, Vinny pedulla and Slau.

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