SHURE PG ALTA MICROPHONES
Shure’s budget mics are all chips off the ol’ SM and Beta blocks. But how close to the originals do they come?
Review: Mark Davie
What is it with these budget mics and their ingenious mic clip tension clamps? It’s a revolution in anti-revolvers. Recently, I was impressed by Rode’s cylinder-clamping NT1 shockmount that tightened with the slightest grip of my thumb/pinkie combination. When I opened the case to peruse Shure’s budget PG Alta drum mic kit, the first thing I noticed about the tom mics was their bicycle quick release-style mechanism on the pivot joint. Surely that’s not new. But if it is, lets roll them out to every articulating joint on the market. They worked a treat; find position, lock in place — too easy. Compared to the slightly slippy traditional tensioner on Shure’s PGA27 condenser mic shockmount, the quick release versions were far superior.
Immediately I was getting a little excited about the build of these PG Alta mics; the second coming of the PG series which are priced at the bottom of Shure’s range under the SM series. The PG Alta range takes a few well-known Shure model numbers and adds another competitive option to the mix. So in the seven-piece drum mic kit, there’s the PGA52 kick mic and three PGA56 tom mics, derived from the Beta series; a PGA57 snare mic, drawn from — you guessed it — the SM57; and two SM-inspired PGA81 cardioid condensers for stereo overheads.
Rounding out the gaggle of mics I had on loan were the PGA27 large diaphragm condenser I mentioned before; the small diaphragm PGA 181 side address condenser — a tubbier version of the nifty Beta 181; and the PGA58 — no prizes there. It’s a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to how inspired these cut-down versions actually are. There has to be a little bit of money saved somewhere to warrant the budget figures. So where are the cuts?
PGA58 — SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT
Probably the best case to investigate would be a comparison of 58s. The PGA58 sounds suspiciously like the SM version. Remarkably similar, in fact, with just a little less presence — like a good understudy. The switch on the PG Alta isn’t silent, but it’s not deafening either. I’d like if it had a more secure snap to it though. The main difference here is what makes the SM58 so special; its lack of handling noise. The PGA58’s motor assembly sits in a rubber-mounted cup, a similar design to a lot of other handheld dynamics. But arguably the best aspect of the SM58 is the elegant pneumatic shockmount Shure engineer Ernie Seeler devised for the Unidyne capsule. It basically drops handling noise altogether. so the PGA was a pretty close approximation of the SM58’s sound, without the mechanical design bells and whistles.
PGA181 — UP IN YOUR GRILLE
I haven’t tried the Beta 181 yet, but the PGA181 makes me keen to. Using it on guitar amps — its natural home — it didn’t have that false, make my amp sound like a solid state-sound I find some condensers give me. It’s designed to be pressed right up at the grille, and it excels there. In that position, it can sound better than a mic worth 10 times as much that’s not designed for that purpose. I suspect it has something to do with basket resonances. I typically use dynamics and ribbons in recording, and purely dynamics live, but I could see this changing a few of my preconceptions.
Can handle 138dB SPL, requires about 18dB less gain than an SM57, to give you an idea. And because you’ve got it pressed right up against the grille, you don’t get nearly as much stage bleed as other condensers. It’s less bitey than an SM57 — a smoother, rounded finish. And makes a really good candidate if you’ve been looking for a bit of a different flavour to a dynamic, but at a similar price point to one.
“PGA 181 — A really good candidate if you’ve been looking for a bit of a different flavour to a dynamic, but at a similar price point to one.”
PGA27 — SNUGLY IN ITS PLACE
The PGA 27 large diaphragm condenser mic sits snugly in its little nest like a boiled egg in its plastic cup. Still, the low pass filter and -15dB pad on the back side of the mic are easy to get at. It’s a lovely looking mount that worked decently, though tapping the mic stand still made its way through.
Recording speech from a hands width away, the PGA27 didn’t have as much low end as other mics I put it up against. In fact, there was not a lot of difference between the normal and hi-passed takes at this distance. It was a clear mic with a nice, slightly exaggerated, high end presence that would make it suitable for vocal work. One letdown was that the frequency response changed more dramatically as I moved around the mic than other LDCs. If your singer gets a bit off mic you might find some dynamic EQ coming in handy.
CLAMPING DOWN ON QUALITY
Overall, the build quality seems quite good. The drum mics were robust; the grilles are tough, and unlike the free-floating PGA58 version, the diaphragm assemblies were all secured in place. On the inside they were mostly plastic, but precision-machined plastic you could see lasting a long time. The kit also comes with a zip up carry case, and enough clips and mic leads.
The rim-mounting system was simple to use, but a little limiting in a way that seems common for these systems. I have a custom Ayotte kit here with an isolation system that stretches most of the way around each tom. It only leaves one third of the rim exposed closest to the drummer; the most in-the-way position for a mic. The one-piece plastic part is designed to snugly hook over a standard rim, which didn’t quite work for my situation. Something to keep in mind if you don’t want to use stands. The clamp angles away from the edge of the tom. So as you move the mic’s position away from the drum head, it also moves closer to the rim. Again, a little inflexible compared to other mounts, but a handy attachment for the right kit.
FULL KIT SOUND
I lined up the Shure PG kit against an Audix DP7 drum mic kit I use live. You get the same number of mics in both packs, but the Audix is about two and a half times the price. So keep that in mind.
The Audix D6 is a really simple to use kick drum mic, especially live. Its scooped sound doesn’t require a lot of tailoring. It has a more satisfying thud than the PGA52, but the 52 didn’t need a lot of help in the click department, which was good.
The PGA81 overheads were pretty well-balanced, had the tightness of focus you want from small diaphragm mics, and were a much lower output than the Audix SDCs, which is perfect for overheads. They didn’t pick up a whole lot of low end, which was actually pretty handy in live situations, where I’d usually engage a hi-pass anyway. The PGA56s aren’t overly detailed mics, but serviced the toms really well.
Compared to an SM57, the PGA57 snare mic was missing a little bit of the high end snap, and consequently also a bit of the snare ribbon sound coming through from the underside. Nothing like the boosted 1-2kHz mid range of the Audix i5, which gives it a pre-fabricated sound. It was really a case of getting brighter as you went from the PGA57, to the SM57, to the i5. So depending on where you sit with your appreciation of the SM57 as a snare mic, you could go either way with these two. I still preferred the 57 most of the time, but going through these mics again made me think the i5 was more useful than I’d been giving it credit. It gave some nice snap, that brought out the snare ribbon sound in a very even manner, and brings the whole drum forward. They all had a similar level of bleed, but again the high end of the SM57 rendered any hi-hat bleed more ‘useful’, if you can call it that. It’s an industry standard for a reason.
While not as versatile as pulling together your favourite esoteric pieces from the cabinet, the PG Alta drum mic kit provided a really tight, one-stop drum sound. If my budget for a drum mic kit only extended this far, I’d rather have an entire mic kit that gave me the full picture than just a couple of mics to play with.