The venerable Shure Brothers, long known for manufacturing affordable and durable "working class" mics such as the SM55 (or the "Elvis mic"), SM57, SM58, and SM81, has made a bold move with the creation of the company's first new studio condenser microphone in years. At a time when many manufacturers are struggling to offer scaled-down versions of their premium mics to the personal-studio market, Shure has gone upscale to meet the competition with the KSM32. A fixed-cardioid, electret condenser mic with a 31/44-inch diaphragm, the KSM32 boasts smooth sound, sleek styling, and a lavish feature set that puts it on a par with the multitude of prestige imports.
BEAUTY PLUSThe KSM32's tapered body gives it a sleek, distinctive look. I reviewed a pair of the more expensive KSM32/SLs, which sport a lustrous champagne finish and ship with a full complement of deluxe accessories. (The less expensive KSM32/CG has a charcoal gray finish and comes with a swivel mount and padded carrying bag.) All the exterior parts of the microphone are metal, precisely machined, and built to last. Even the triple-layer mesh grille surrounding the side-address capsule is unusually sturdy and refused to change shape under considerable pressure.
A modern Shure logo identifies the front of the KSM32; as a nod to the retro crowd, the rounded, old-style, 1950s Shure logo is stamped on the back. Also on the back of the microphone is an accessible 15 dB pad switch and a highpass filter with three positions that provides a flat response with either an 18 dB/octave cut at 80 Hz, or a 6 dB/octave cut at 115 Hz (see Fig. 1). Other nice touches include gold-plated XLR connector pins, curved ribs that sweep up the side of the mic to make its satiny surface easier to grasp, and no visible screws or mounting threads to disrupt the mic's elegant lines.
Electronically, the KSM32 raises the ante for its price class, with Class A preamplifier circuitry, a transformerless output, and an innovative capsule design. By using a low-mass 31/44-inch diaphragm that is embossed with diamond-shaped bumps to increase its surface area, Shure has provided the exemplary transient response that small-diaphragm mics are known for, along with the extended low-end reproduction more commonly heard from large-diaphragm mics. The capsule backplate is permanently charged (that is, the mic is an electret), and Shure claims to have solved the long-term reliability problems that commonly plague inexpensive electrets. (Just the same, the company avoids using the term electret in the user manual.)
The KSM32 capsule and preamp are designed and built entirely in the United States by Shure Brothers, and the primary components are assembled at the Shure plant in Evanston, Illinois. (Shure doesn't identify the country of origin for the parts.) Shure's stringent standards are evident in the KSM32's superior construction quality.
SHOCK VALUEThe KSM32/SL comes with a cute, lunchbox-size flight case decorated with Shure's retro S logo. With tough plastic corners, braced hinges, locking latches, and multiple layers of protective foam inside, the case far surpasses what one would expect to receive as standard issue accompanying a midpriced mic. And the case is stylish, too. Unfortunately, its aluminum sides are easily scratched and scuffed with everyday use. So if you like to keep your toys in showroom condition, you may want to use the case for studio storage and transport the KSM32 in its nifty red velveteen pouch.
Shure generously includes a suspension shock-mount, which encloses the lower half of the KSM32 in a teacup-size basket and effortlessly guides the mic base into a threaded ring that screws on flush with the bottom of the XLR jack. The basket is made of plastic, which ensures that it won't scratch the mic, and appears to be unbreakable. Thick elastic bands anchor the basket to an outer ring. An adjustable, locking swivel-mount secures the assembly to a mic stand. While penny-pinching competitors contribute to future landfills with cheap plastic "hardware," Shure uses all-metal parts for the threaded fittings and bulk of the shock-mount.
In addition to the deluxe shock-mount (which works beautifully), Shure also provides an all-metal swivel- mount, for those occasions when the capsule's internal shock-mounting system is sufficient or when the shock-mount is too unwieldy. A brief, but thorough, user guide is also included.
DRUM DUTIESI first tried out a pair of KSM32s as drum overheads on a session for the band Slumber Inc. The Shure pair compared favorably in low-end response with my usual first-choice drum mics (a matched pair of cardioid Oktava 012 small-diaphragm condensers), but the KSM32s' mellow high end was unable to deliver the measure of extra brightness that drummer Richard Colbert needed to cut through this band's raucous wall of guitars.
I got better results by splitting up the pair on the Slumber Inc. drum kit, using one KSM32 for drum-room ambient miking, and the other on hi-hat. Both tracks not only sounded great but were ready to mix without EQ.
On this session, the KSM32 was ideally suited for use as a close mic for the acoustic strumming sound on the group's solid-body electric guitars. I have used this technique of combining amp sound and plectrum strumming with a variety of guitars and mics, and in this case, the KSM32's small diaphragm was able to grab the fast-transient pick sound that I wanted without a hint of brittleness.
My studio partner, Bart Thurber-a San Francisco Bay Area recording veteran who has worked with literally hundreds of punk, garage, and alternative bands-put the two mics to the test on several occasions, usually as a spaced overhead pair on hard-hitting drummers. He was full of praise for the KSM32's hot output, low noise, tonal balance, and pleasing accuracy in our live drum room, where he sometimes mounted the mics upside down (with the front of the mics pointed up at the ceiling, rather than down at the drums) as an effective way of dealing with overbearing cymbal bashers. Thurber rated the KSM32 as "especially good" on percussion.
When used as a spaced pair on a set of three conga drums, the KSM32s gave an honest, well-blended sound and displayed surprisingly good rejection of a drum set located only three feet away in the same small room. The Shure pair wasn't quite as bright as the mics I normally use for this purpose, but they also sounded less hyped and more true in the highs. When the conga player confirmed that there wasn't enough "slap" on his tracks to cut through the dense Latin-jazz mix, a conservative high-end boost was sufficient to bring out the skin sound to everyone's satisfaction.
WHIRLING GLADNESSI also had occasion to use the KSM32s on a Leslie 120 rotating-speaker cabinet. Here, the pair yielded excellent presence and tight stereo imaging, while softening the cabinet's slightly distorted, scratchy highs. In a way, the KSM32 worked as a good ribbon mic would in this application, downplaying the top end and bringing out an abundance of rich midrange tone. Once the band members heard the results, they wanted to put the stereo-miked Leslie on every song!
VOCAL PEAKSBased on its performance as a natural-sounding, detailed, and fairly warm transducer, the KSM32 seemed a good candidate for miking vocals. But after using it on three singers (two male and one female), I had some reservations about the mic's otherwise laudable high-end qualities. To my ears, all these diverse vocalists- a blues singer, a spoken-word artist, and a mariachi bandleader-sounded uncharacteristically "buzzy" on the KSM32 (recorded at a standard working distance of six to nine inches from the mic capsule).
This is a matter of personal taste to some extent; in fact, one of the singers preferred the KSM32's sharp- edged sound over that of a favorite tube mic I had used to record the performance simultaneously to another track for comparison. But I was bothered by what I perceived as uneven and raspy-sounding narrow-band resonances above 6 kHz. Almost any worthwhile vocal mic will exhibit some presence boost; however, models optimized for this purpose tend to incorporate more gently rising, shelving-type boosts, which augment broad regions of a singer's high-overtone range.
On the other hand, the KSM32 lived up to the even bass response shown in the manufacturer's frequency- response chart (see Fig. 1), supporting the male vocalists' low ranges without undue clouding or proximity- effect bass boosting. The frequency-response chart also confirmed my impression of the KSM32's uneven top end, showing a 3 or 4 dB boost centered at 7 kHz, a sharp dip at 9 kHz, and another sharp peak just above 10 kHz.
AN IMPERFECT MATCHAccording to a Shure Brothers representative, the response graph was obtained by averaging the output of 100 KSM32 microphones. Company literature states, however, that the manufacturer "has no formal process to match pairs of microphones," and it is unreasonable to expect mass-produced mics such as these to equal the consistency of higher-priced European mics designed for critical stereo recording. Indeed, when listening closely, I detected an audible difference in the general high-end response of the two review mics.
To confirm this, I set up a loudspeaker steady-tone test for frequency matching of the two mics and then documented minor (2 to 3 dB) mismatches at 800 Hz, 11 kHz, 12 kHz, and 17 kHz. At 16 kHz, I detected a 4 dB difference in response between the two mics. A variation of 2 dB or more from the published chart could explain the anomalous upper-range buzziness I heard.
In a sweep-tone test, the KSM32 pair again showed a high degree of variation above 10 kHz, but below that frequency, they appeared well matched. Overall, although not a perfect match, the two KSM32 mics were sufficient as a stereo pair for general pop-music use.
CABINET RESERVATIONSThe only other disappointment I had was when I placed the KSM32 on a cranked-up Bogner guitar cabinet and found it to sound surprisingly distant and dull at just ten inches away. Normally, this "not too close, not too far" placement works well to capture an amp's cutting high end while adding a bit of room ambience to the track. But in this case, the mic just sounded mushy, possibly because the 45-degree angling relative to the cabinet picked up unfavorable off-axis midrange coloration.
In all other applications, though, I found the KSM32's tight cardioid pattern (which, as with most directional mics, varies from subcardioid on bass frequencies to supercardioid above 10 kHz) to be an asset.
SERIOUS TOOLTo gain further insight into the Shure's personality, I compared it to a couple other microphones using recorded music as the sound source. In these tests, the Shure KSM32 displayed a remarkably flat low-end response and superior bass extension and clarity. It also displayed a prominent midrange, which can cause it to sound honky or murky on some musical selections. The mic was quiet, living up to its respectable 13 dB self-noise figure.
The KSM32's superior resolution of room character, reverb, and other nuances was instantly noticeable in the mixes that I auditioned. It provided ambient details and a real sense of space in the mix, even when I used a relatively inexpensive boom box as the music source.
The mic's balance of accurate lows, rich mids, and pleasing, natural high-end response is very appealing, not to mention rare in a condenser microphone selling for around $1,000. Add the sonic benefits of transformerless, Class A electronics and the bonus incentives of a quality flight case and suspension shock- mount-not to mention the visual allure of this mic's sleek, futuristic styling-and you have a serious, end- of-the-millennium microphone bargain.
The KSM32 doesn't offer an equalized or souped-up sound, and for this reason it may not bowl you over the first time you hear it. The mic's naturalness could be one reason that it didn't produce great results for the vocalists I tested it on. But the KSM32's realism also sets it apart from the growing ranks of comparably priced cardioid condensers, a class of microphones that tends to offer personal-studio owners "enhanced" sonics (that is, puffed-up bass, glittering highs, scooped mids, and so on) rather than accurate, full-frequency reproduction.
I really enjoyed using this mic and greatly appreciated its true-to-life sound and Shure Brothers' top-quality workmanship. The KSM32 is a serious recording tool, and it is gratifying to see a major player such as Shure raising the industry standard by emphasizing sonics, features, and durability. Clearly, the company went all out to make a better, rather than simply cheaper, studio microphone.
Myles Boisen is a guitarist, producer, composer, and head engineer/instructor at Guerrilla Recording and The Headless Buddha Mastering Lab in Oakland, California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.