When Joe Biden steps up to the presidential podium in the coming weeks, the speeches he'll deliver will have one thing in common with his most recent predecessors. There’s been one constant in presidential speeches ever since Lyndon Johnson occupied the White House: the microphone; in particular, the Shure SM57.
“It simply sounds good, it sounds very natural,” said Michael Pettersen, the Director of Corporate history at Shure microphones. ”The other thing that makes it really useful particularly for the presidential aspect is the durability of it; it’s just nearly impossible to kill.”
Pettersen also served as liaison with the White House Communications Agency or WHCA, during the administrations of George Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
“WHCA has a big handbook,” he said. “And one of the things that they say in the handbook is that a microphone that's going to be used for the President will be used in a wide variety of environmental situations, and failure of the microphone in any situation is unacceptable. And so they chose a microphone that was very durable, with very few moving parts and would prove reliable over the years, and it has. They started using it 1965 and they've never had a failure of the microphone.”
White House adoption of the mic the same year Shure released it put LBJ ahead of the curve. The mic has become a perennial favorite for recording artists and engineers the world over.
“There have been surveys of recording engineers saying if you were on a desert island, and you could only bring one microphone, what would you bring? And almost everybody uses the SM57,” Pettersen said. “You will find it commonly used at live concerts, miking guitar amps, miking snare drums, and also, of course, used at the lectern of the US president.”
Before the establishment of the White House Communications Agency during Kennedy's tenure, microphone selection was an inconsistent affair.
“And eventually, in the early ‘60s, I think someone at the White House said, it's the President of the United States, we’ve got to be more consistent as far as the video and photography and the audio,” Pettersen recalled. “And that's when they started to think about, well, let's choose a microphone and stick with it.”
And stick with it they have. Although there have been variations in the number of mics used for reasons that include redundancy, camera considerations, and, well … pomp.
“When they first put them on Johnson, they had two microphones, one far left and one far right,” Pettersen noted. “And that was so that photographers could have an easy shot of Johnson through the microphones. Nixon comes in, and then a new military person takes over the White House Communications Agency. And he says, well, I’m going to have four microphones for Nixon, because four microphones is twice as good as two microphones. Of course, completely absurd regarding acoustical reasons, but there you have it.”
And then a switch to a more acoustically sound array, a pyramid of three mics, front and center.
“So you'll see towards the later part of Nixon's administration, he's got three microphones in the middle,” said Pettersen.
But four administrations later, that pyramidal array would spell embarrassment for George HW Bush's royal guest.
“They were having an event in the Rose Garden, and the Queen of England was to speak,” Pettersen said. “The Queen was a foot shorter than Bush. And from the photograph angle that all the press had, all you could see was three microphones and her hat. And this just caused the British press to go crazy. So the next day, I get this frantic call from White House Communications Agency. I said, well, why don't you put the stool out next time, and that would solve all your problems. But that's not how they solve problems in Washington. So I kind of said in jesting manner, why don't you saw off the middle microphone? And that's exactly what they did. They sawed off the middle one, and that's how they went down from three to two.”
So can we expect to see two SM57s at Joe Biden's inauguration? Well, maybe.
“The inaugural setup is typically covered by Congress, because he's the President-elect at that time,” Pettersen explained. “So I can't predict ahead of time what we're going to see there. However, once President Biden is sworn-in, and you see him in front of the large lectern, or the smaller lecterns that he uses when he's traveling, you will see two microphones there, and they will be SM57s.”