My original plan was to write a typical Andy Hong review of the new Shure KSM8 mic, with measurements and thoughts from empirical testing accompanying my commentary of actual in-studio use. But soon after assembling most of my notes for the review, Chris Koltay messaged me a photo of The Mummies on-stage at Third Man Records in Detroit. "Shure guy brought a pile of KSM8 mics for Third Man Records plant opening. Anyone on a review? I love these things. Using them for the first time. Mummies are smashing everything." Sure enough, in the photo, you can see the portable organ up on someone's head and mic stands tipping off the stage. Receiving a pitch like this, I of course handed over the assignment to Chris. His review follows shortly.
But first, let me suggest that you visit the KSM8 minisite <shure.com/ksm8> for the history and engineering behind the mic's pneumatically mounted, reverse-airflow, dual-diaphragm cartridge. It's this trademarked Dualdyne design that gives the KSM8 a unique edge over all of the familiar standards in the handheld vocal mic category. But it's also the reason why the KSM8 is a great studio mic too, as I discovered when I recorded the "porch music" of Boston country band Possum.
With five voices, four stringed instruments, and a drum kit — all playing live in my room — formulating the mic'ing strategy for Possum required extra care and time. After two days of experimenting with many mics and their locations, we recorded a dozen songs on the third day. Band leader Russell Feathers sang through the KSM8, and the resulting vocal tracks were nearly perfect.
The KSM8's Dualdyne technology certainly contributed to the success of this session in a number of ways. The mic has a huge sweet spot, not only in terms of distance, but also in terms of angle. Even right up to the grille, proximity effect is minor, and the frequency balance doesn't change drastically. The amount of rejection at the rear of the mic is exemplary, and more importantly, bleed picked up at the sides is devoid of any peakiness and pesky resonances. Plus, plosives are barely ever a problem. So in other words, the KSM8 is a great vocal mic, and it's also a fantastic room mic too. Russell's voice through the mic sounded as good as it ever has. Simultaneously, the bleed into the KSM8 of Russell's acoustic guitar, as well as the other voices and instruments in the room, was very controlled and sounded great too.
Given these qualities, the KSM8 is now one of my go-to mics for live vocal recording. Enough said — let's move on to Chris Koltay's review. –AH
Man, I love benchmark gear; though you won't find me doing it, you could argue that Shure has made more contributions to this list of benchmarks than anyone else. We all have our favorites; I certainly do. But off the top of my head, the tally of Shure's accomplishments is staggering. One of the rad things about, say the Shure SM57, is that you can rebel against it —ignore it for years. Then you pull it out again, and there it is in all of its understated glory. The SM57 and SM58 both fall into this category for me. Meanwhile, I have had a solid 20 years of nonstop use of my vintage SM82 condensers. The M44-7 and M97xE phono cartridges as well. These Shure products are dependable, timeless classics. Plus, you have weirdo stuff happening like Level-Loc abuse or the X-Y SM57 polarity-reverse trick. I bring all this up because the very first experience I had with the Shure KSM8 Dualdyne mic gave me exactly this feeling, as soon as I heard it.
I work occasionally at Third Man Records here in Detroit doing a bunch of audio stuff. Recently, the superhuman staff there performed no small miracle as they opened the company's vinyl-pressing plant behind the retail/performance space. As part of the opening ceremony, we had The Mummies play. Yup — The Mummies. Local geniuses Craig Brown Band were on first. Second was the superb songcraft of Kelley Stoltz, followed by heroic legends The Oblivians. The Mummies headlined. Trust me — it's all relevant here.
Anyhow, our Shure homie Nicholas Sandoval dropped off a handful of KSM8 mics right after I had soundchecked everyone. He gave me the lowdown on the mic, and I decided to say "fuck it" and swap out all of the SM58s. Nic assured me, "You should be fine." What an understatement. What apprehension I had was swiftly replaced with satisfaction. The vocals had way more presence, and the rejection was intense, yet forgiving. The sound of the KSM8 felt like that of the SM58, only more distinct and articulate. I instantly knew how to EQ it. Awesome! It was like getting a pair of Stan Smith sneakers again. The "hello old friend" vibe is strong with this mic — only your old friend has gone Paleo and does yoga every day now.
Kelley Stoltz sings through a bunch of crazy shit, and while he is insanely gifted and makes downright enthralling music, his grasp of gain structure is... well, "singerly" if I may. The KSM8 performed with aplomb despite the gauntlet of hellish pitch-shifting and swirling delay, getting only barely seared a few times. I was already impressed, but I was blown away when Greg Cartwright a.k.a. Greg Oblivian (who is also the frontman of Reigning Sound) sang the KSM8 through an Ampeg Jet guitar amp. We initially had some feedback issues, but I was shocked when I went onstage to troubleshoot, and I realized that the KSM8 wasn't the culprit, but it was the mic on the amp. The rejection control on the KSM8 seems almost adaptive — human even. When The Mummies finally took the stage, in their typical fashion, they were aggressively active — to say the least. The handling noise of the KSM8 was non-existent, despite all the manhandling of the mics. I kinda felt bad, since Nic was right there and watched these dudes abuse the shit out of the mics he lovingly brought to the gig a few hours before. I took the KSM8s home to High Bias Recordings after the gig, and they had nary a scratch or dent. If you know The Mummies, then you know this is a very durable mic!
Rachel Eve is a singer-songwriter from Detroit. She has been making music forever, but recently, she started working with caped wizards Heavy Color from Toledo. Ben Cohen and Sam Woldenberg of Heavy Color are two of the most intuitive musicians I've had the pleasure to record. They lend their special ebb and flow to Rachel's rock-solid songs. She's a beast on the rhythm guitar and a top-shelf vocalist. For the session, the emphasis was on laying a foundation with the trio, to be expanded upon later. Given the restrained nature of Rachel's guitar parts during live tracking, she was able to really open up vocally. In an effort to capture any magic moments as potential "keepers," we used the KSM8 for our scratch vocal. We routed it through a vintage Calrec PQ 1161 channel with its EQ bypassed, followed by a dbx 160 compressor. In a word — wow! We all prepare for and encourage those moments that give you chills; all you can do, really, is facilitate and hope. It can be devastating when this happens but the audio recording is not useable. Fortunately, the KSM8 did not disappoint us. This lady can sing, and hearing her through this mic was jaw dropping. I was reminded of the Shure SM7B [Tape Op #36], but with more top end and more rejection than an SM58! Somehow, the KSM8 was forgiving to singer movement, without sacrificing rejection; and while an off-the-floor scratch vocal may not be the most eloquent application for a mic, the KSM8 slayed as such. We liked the KSM8 live tracks so much that we used them as vocal doubles to complement the main vocals recorded later through an AKG C 12. Super cool!
We recently did a trial-by-fire project for High Bias assistant engineer Evan Michaels. He brought in local outsider enthusiast Andy Taub for this session. They tracked acoustic guitar and vocal as a bed for the songs, so we used the KSM8 on vocals. As before, the sound was immediate, without the KSM8 doing the thinning-out thing like an SM58 or Electro-Voice RE20 can. The vocal had a really nice, finished feel; and again, I was super pleased with the result. When I got back from record shopping that day, these dudes had recorded tons of stuff with the KSM8. I kept asking, "What mic is that?" Over and over, I received the same answer.
I have yet to find a voice or instrument — live or in the studio — that the KSM8 doesn't flatter. On electric guitar, it reminds me of the Sennheiser MD 409, but it's not fizzy in the slightest. On snare, it has a heft that is incredible, especially if you can saturate a transformer somewhere along the signal path. I recorded a bass with beautiful results, and immediately, the instrument was identifiable as a Fender Precision through an Ampeg B-15; and the track sat in the mix with no struggle. Moreover, I really love how this mic reacts to different preamp impedances — total premixing! It seems that Shure has thought of everything with this mic. And while I would say, "This isn't your dad's 58!" — the KSM8 certainly feels oddly familiar and classic while bringing some sonic (and mechanical) updates that make it a modern contender for tons of applications.
P.S. If you get a chance to unscrew the grille on one of these, the Dualdyne cartridge inside is downright gorgeous!