Whether familiar with microphones or not, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Shure’s SM58 out and about. Since production began in the late sixties, the SM58 has become an exalted piece of tech among industry professionals. This mic’s versatility has seen it applied to live performance, studio recording, Foley capture, and field recording. The set-up we’ll be going through today is essentially a mini studio rig, combining the SM58 with budget-friendly gear to provide professional quality to your home podcasts.
Before we dive in, it’s worth noting exactly how the SM58 is suited to the podcasting process.
The SM58 is understood as a cardioid, dynamic microphone. Cardioid, similar to the medical term for processes involving the heart, is describing the shape of the SM58’s polarity pattern. Polarity patterns indicate how sensitive a microphone is to sounds coming from different angles. Our cardioid mic here, for example, is more attuned to sounds coming from the front while rejecting sounds at the sides and rear. Perfect for a podcasting session!
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Getting the Most Out of Your Mic
There are several methods to get the most out of your SM58 set up, with many different factors to consider when preparing to record. Elements such as surrounding environment, mic placement, acoustic treatment, and the addition of extra peripherals, all serve to affect the creation of your final product. But don’t fret! This article will walk you through each step of the way.
Recording audio at home, while always fun, can present with several environmental interferences. Busy streets, noisy neighbors, or general ambient leakage can tarnish captured audio and ruin a great session. Finding a relatively “dead” room is always a good place to start. A carpeted, small-ish room with little-to-no windows is ideal, but a mattress against the door and some sheets across windows is an effective (and cheap!) way to begin to create an ideal recording space.
If you can’t redecorate for the purposes of recording, there are many models of affordable windshields available that surround a microphone. Personally, I use Neewer’s NW-9 Vocal Booth whenever I’m capturing audio. It helps to isolate the sound I’m trying to record, while also accommodating the limited space I have in my flat. To learn more about this topic, see our article on whether reflection filters are worth the cost.
Treating a room’s acoustics essentially refers to the dampening of reverberant or ambient sound within a closed space. The NW-9 above, for example, isolates the wanted sound by absorbing any unnecessary frequencies around it. The slatted foam inside breaks up reflections and acts as a shield around the microphone. This is just one of many options out there, however. Even the earlier mattress idea is a means of acoustic treatment!
If you were to carve out the foam of the NW-9 and straighten it to a square, you’d have an acoustic panel to stick on the wall. This is exactly what studio tiles are! Spongey, square chunks of foam that sit around recording spaces to help deaden frequency responses. Some have patterns, like the NW-9, to aid in the diffusion of unwanted mid-to-high frequencies, while others are designed to simply absorb.
Should you want to avoid placing things directly onto a wall, acoustic paneling can also come free-standing. They’re essentially long, upright boards with metal feet at the bottom that can be carried and moved with ease. These boards can also be stored out of the way when not in use, making a perfect temporary solution to a functional vocal booth!
The SM58 is renowned for its durability, providing a lot of headroom for Sound Pressure Levels (SPLs) without adding distortion to the output signal. As such, the mic itself can be typically “gain hungry” – it needs a fair amount of input gain to really punch the signal through to its final destination. To combat this, a preamplifier can be introduced that converts the mic current into a strong output signal.
While there are many external preamps available, audio interfaces can also provide preamplification. My Focusrite 18i20, for example, supplies me with 8 preamps inside its combo inputs. There are many models etc. to choose from, however, so I’m going to try my best to delineate the best options for your sessions further into this article. For now, we’ll move onto perfect mic positioning.
Our prospective setup is limited to one microphone (easy!).
Pop up the stand, slide your SM58 into its grip, and position the grille of the SM58 to be at mouth height with a slight angle downward. A good 4 – 6inch gap is enough to provide you with breathing room and also reduces distortion that may emanate from any harsh syllables.
We’ve gone through a lot of “big stuff” regarding equipment and set-ups, but small details are what’s going to bring that extra essence of professionalism into your podcast. Pop shields are prime examples of cheap-but-effective enhancements that will ensure fidelity throughout a session.
Acting as a direct form of wind-shielding, these circular pieces of mesh dramatically reduce plosives and sibilance (the hard “puh”, “buh” and “sss” sounds) that naturally occur within human speech. Pop shields sit between the mic and your face, typically attaching to the mic stand itself. As far as recommendations go, my personal shield has no named brand. A quick online search will crop up with a plethora of shields to choose from, but each serves the same purpose. You could even make one if you were so inclined.
I briefly mentioned audio interfaces and their preamp capabilities above, but now is the time to delve into exactly what they are and how they work to serve you.
Audio interfaces essentially replace the soundcard within your PC/Mac to provide studio-grade fidelity and optimization to your system. I would personally argue that an interface and decent mic should be a top priority when constructing your podcast setup.
Focusrite is a company synonymous with high-quality, stable, audio interfaces. They offer a range of models with varying connectors and prices to suit your needs and budget. The name of my Scarlett 18i20 refers to the number of inputs (18) and outputs (20), but I’d consider this overkill for a single podcaster.
Don’t stress! Focusrite also provides interfaces with soloists in mind. From their Scarlett Solo (1 input) to Scarlett 8i6, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that doesn’t suit your needs. My old Scarlett 2i2 now belongs to my mother who, while she has no real training in production, can easily hook this up via its USB connection and get recording. Once you’ve downloaded the drivers from their site, Focusrite interfaces are just that simple.
We’re so close to finalizing the perfect SM58 setup! But now is also time for a bit more of the fiddly bits. Once you’ve got your recording space, mic placement, and interface sorted out, you can begin to connect everything. Assuming your interface is already connected via USB and the drivers downloaded, this part is super easy.
Grab an XLR cable and lock the female end (three holes) into the bottom of your mic. Stick the other end into a relative input of your interface and you’re in business.
You can begin to gain-in your mic at this point, using the level meters provided on your interface. If you make sounds into your SM58 and turn up its input-gain knob, you should see some indication of a signal. While you won’t be able to hear anything just yet, you’ll be able to see green (or red, if you’ve gained too much) indicators.
The Scarlett 2i2 shows green or red rings around the input pots, while the 18i20 has its own set of line indicators to the right of the console. Each brand or model of interface comes with its own way of indicating levels, but most will use a traffic light system to reflect ideal input.
So, where’s the noise?
To hear things, we’ll have to configure some software.
We haven’t yet touched on Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs), but they’re essentially the pieces of software that allow you to record and edit sound samples. There is a myriad of choices here too but, for the purposes of this article, I’ll be demonstrating on my personal DAW of choice – Pro Tools.
Once you create a blank session, it’s time to start optimizing connections. Navigating to Setup > Playback Engine gives you several parameters to configure. Select your interface and buffer size. I have to change my buffer settings to the larger option to reduce strain on my PC, but each system will differ.
Closing that and navigating to Setup > I/O opens lists of available inputs and outputs. I recommend unchecking unnecessary connections here, just to simplify things. Make sure you have some headphones connected to the interface, and the outputs correspond.
Create a mono audio track (ctrl + shift + N / cmd + shift + N > Create), and ensure the correct input is selected. Once you press the red button under the track name and speak into the mic, you should see levels entering the channel and hear yourself in the headphones.
Optimizing Pro Tools
To simplify monitoring the length of your podcast, Pro Tools enables users to change the format of session measurements to suit different applications. Pro Tools will default to “Bars¦Beats” once you create a new project, which is great for music production, but not necessarily what we’re looking for here.
Navigating to the transport bar, you should see a grey drop-down arrow sitting beside the large green numbers. Clicking on that and selecting “Mins:Secs” changes the format to a real-time display of your session length. This also seriously helps with editing later on.
With all that under our belt, let’s record something!
While the red button we pressed earlier looks suspiciously like a start recording switch, Pro Tools calls these “pre-record” buttons. We’re essentially getting the track ready to hold some audio. Once you’ve selected pre-record and the track light is blinking, “record enable” the session by clicking on the red circle on the transport bar.
If that wasn’t preparation enough, Pro Tools won’t begin recording until you press play.
With that, you’re ready to soundcheck!
Before we begin to record properly, there are a few more tweaks you can do to bring the best performance out of the SM58. EQ is a great place to start.
Vocal EQ is relatively simple, given that average human speech sits between 85 and 260Hz. Applying a High-Pass Filter (HPF) at around 60 – 80Hz, while also cutting off at around 15kHz, will remove any unnecessary hum and frequency information. It’s extremely unlikely we’ll be dealing with signals above this threshold during a podcast, and the SM58 doesn’t respond to frequencies beyond 15kHz anyway!
The bits in between are up to you. Find the range your voice sits in, and experiment with enhancing it.
There are many other plugins we could apply at this stage, but I would recommend leaving these until after the recording process. This is to preserve the audio in its most natural state possible, avoiding any irreparable influence on your captured sound. Of course, don’t let my opinion deter you from experimenting with the techniques listed below. If you feel you may benefit from some pre-production effects, have a go.
Ideally, your podcast won’t need much editing at all. Should you find yourself wanting that little bit of extra flair, however, there are plenty of options.
We’ve got a crisp podcast session recorded, but how do we reduce awkward noise in-between sentences? The approach to this depends upon your DAW. Audacity, for instance, can take a “Noise Profile” and give users the option to reduce decibels (dB) manually. Pro Tools’ Dyn3 Expander/Gate plugin, however, automatically reduces ambient interference based upon a given threshold.
By pinpointing the amplitude of our wanted sound, we can use that figure to determine at which point the gate should be “opening” and “closing”. Once you’ve got the hang of it, this is a very useful bit of software – especially if you’re a shuffler like I am.
If also like me you can’t seem to regulate the volume of your voice at the best of times, adding compression to your vocal track will help reduce that dynamic range and save your listeners’ ears from sudden peaks.
Again, there are many options out there, but Pro Tools’ Dyn3 Compressor does the job just fine. As far as recommendations for settings specific to the SM58, there are none. Take your time to experiment and figure out what works, it’s called the Creative Process for a reason!
The application of reverb is to imply a sense of space, a sense of environment. The notion of a podcast is intimacy, one-on-one between listener and creator. Unless you’re wanting dramatic effect, or you’ve done so well curating your space that it’s now too “dead”, I’d argue reverb isn’t needed at all.
There are so many ways in which to finalize your podcasting session, and there are many resources to guide you along the way. But, ultimately, this is your product. Exploration and research are key.
Have fun. Make mistakes. The SM58 will forgive you, and your podcast will sound all the better for it.