Although intended as an instrument mic, Shure’s SM57 makes for an excellent low cost dynamic podcasting microphone. In some circles, it’s even regarded as a viable Shure SM7B alternative.
Dynamic microphones such as this though do require more gain than a typical condenser mic but with gain can come noise and with noise comes more clean-up work in post, so it’s important to select a good preamp with a decent amount of clean gain.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the best preamps for the Shure SM57. As well as the more popular models, we’ll also reveal some lesser known alternatives so stick around if you like looking beyond the obvious…
The best preamps for the Shure SM57 include the Cloudlifter CL-1, the Triton Audio Fethead and the Golden Age Project Pre-73 MKIII Microphone Preamp. Older broadcast quality outboard preamps such as the Alice Mic-Pak also work great with the SM57.
Each one has a different application so it’s important to understand which would be the best fit for your particular needs. By the end of this article you’ll have a good idea about which direction you need to take.
Let’s look first though at what a preamp is and how they work.
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What Does a Mic Preamp Do?
Whether you’re projecting sound through a speaker or into a recording device, you need a signal which is strong enough to output at the correct level. Many audio devices such as mixing consoles, amps and recorders operate at line level. Professional line level (the one you’ll generally find with professional audio equipment) is the highest level of signal and is rated at about +4dBu.
Mic level on the other hand is generally a much weaker signal and as most microphones output at mic level, amplification is required. As mentioned earlier, dynamic microphones like the Shure SM57 tend to require more of a boost than condenser mics. This is because the diaphragm of a dynamic mic needs more sound volume to move and because it’s that movement which produces the electrical signal, the small amount of movement that you get with a dynamic mic means that a weaker signal is generated.
A preamp is what provides amplification. Mic preamps can come in different forms though and it’s worth covering those first as each one has it’s pros and cons.
Types of Microphone Preamps
You could be forgiven for thinking that a preamp is a preamp and as long as it gives you the required gain boost, any will do the job. However, different types of preamps exist so there’s more to consider. If you want to get the best sound from your SM57, it’s worth learning about each one and choosing the right type for what you’ll use it for.
What is a mic activator?
Mic activators have become really popular in recent years because of their convenience and relatively low cost (in comparison to outboard mic preamps which we’ll cover next).
Activators are essentially small inline preamps which takes the 48v phantom power from an audio interface (as dynamic mics don’t need phantom power) and uses it to produce a gain boost for those dynamic mics which need it.
It’s worth noting here that the 48v phantom power will come from an existing preamp. This can be confusing – if you already have a preamp which is able to provide the phantom power for an activator to work, why would you need an activator in the first place. Keep reading, all will be revealed!
What is an outboard microphone preamp?
As previously stated, mic activators have become popular in recent years but before they hit the scene, outboard mic preamps were widely used.
Outboard preamps are simply standalone preamps. Unlike a mic activator, they’re not inline and don’t make use of phantom power from an existing preamp.
Some may say that an outboard mic preamp is a bit overkill for a typical podcasting application but some of these older broadcast quality preamps provide a lovely sound and can be picked up at a reasonable cost. I personally have a British built Alice Mic-Pak (shown above) which provides a LOT of low noise gain. I bought it from eBay for a price I was very happy with.
Very high quality outboard preamps can cost thousands of dollars so for the average podcaster, models at this price range don’t make too much sense unless money is no object.
My audio interface or mixer has a preamp built-in, why do I need another one?
Good question! If you’re using an interface which is fairly standard in podcasting circles, a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 for example, it has preamps for each of the mic inputs built-in. These will be fine for a condenser mic which outputs a hot signal but to get to the level you need when using a dynamic mic, you’ll need to crank up the gain.
With an inteface like the 2i2, you may need to almost max it out. When you do this, you risk introducing noise. Some preamps are noisier than other so it’s up to you what’s acceptable with your particular setup.
When you add a mic activator or outboard preamp into the mix though, you can get a lot more clean gain meaning that the preamp on your interface can be turned down to a really low level, getting rid of a lot of the noise as a result.
Do you Need a Preamp for the Shure SM57?
As we’ve already covered, all microphones need a amplification from a preamp to bring them up to the correct level. We’ve also established that some mics output a stronger signal and that dynamic mics generally need more amplification than condenser mics.
The SM57 is one of those dynamic mics that needs a good amount of amplification so an external inline or outboard preamp is recommended, especially if the preamps in your audio interface, mixer or field recorder aren’t the strongest.
Best Inline Preamps for the Shure SM57
When it comes to inline mic activator type preamps, in my opinion there are two standout models.
The Cloudlifter has a solid fan base and has become one of the go-to gain boosting devices for pairing with a low sensitivity dynamic mic.
Offering +25db of clean gain, the Cloudlifter is not only portable but ruggedly built to cope with the demands of regular use in the studio or on location.
The Cloudlifter comes with a lifetime warranty, see more info and check the latest price on Amazon here.
Triton Audio Fethead
Offering even more gain than the CL-1 (+27db), the Fethead is another great option.
The Fethead’s appearance is different to the CL-1 in that it’s very streamlined and not much thicker than an XLR connector. You also plug the Fethead directly into your mic whereas the CL-1 requires a cable in and a cable out.
The Fethead tends to retail at a lower price than the Cloudlifter too so definitely worth a look. Both are great options for use with the SM57.
For a more in-depth look at both the Cloudlifter and FetHead, see our article on Cloudlifter alternatives.
Best Outboard Preamps for the SM57
For a low cost option, it’s probably no surprise that I’d recommend trying to find a used Alice Mic-Pak. It will provide even more gain than an inline version and is likely to cost you less. You lose the portability and convenience but do end up with a piece of equipment which was once widely used in the professional broadcasting industry.
If you wanted to spend a bit more and get something new, I’d recommend the Golden Age Project Pre-73 MKIII Microphone Preamp. With +80db of gain, it’s enough to power even the least sensitive of microphones and the warm sound it produces will give you great sounding audio.
If you want your Shure SM57 to perform to the best of its ability, you need to give it some gain. For most, an inline preamp like the Cloudlifter or Fethead will be a great choice – they’re portable, convenient and low cost.
Those who enjoy the equipment side of podcasting though may be more drawn to the GAP Pre-73 Mkiii for the lovely warm sound it produces. Whichever you choose, all of these options will do a great job of giving your SM57 the additional is gain it requires.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does a Shure SM57 need phantom power?
Being a dynamic mic, the SM57 does not need phantom power. Although it shouldn’t damage it, it’s advisable to have phantom power switched off when using this mic.
What’s the Difference Between a Shure SM57 and an SM58?
Very little actually! They both share the same cartridge design and therefore sound very similar. The mics do look a little different though and that’s because as mentioned at the start of this article, the SM57 was originally designed as an instrument mic whereas the SM58 was designed as a vocal mic so features a ball grille with a built-in pop filter.