In the late 1960s, an unassuming dynamic microphone began making waves in broadcasting circles, almost as if out of nowhere. It was manufactured by Electro-Voice, and the hype was centered on its reputed indestructibility. The pitch was that a salesman would bash nails into a wooden plank, using the mic as a makeshift hammer; they would then plug it in and demonstrate that it still functioned perfectly to spec.
The model number was 635A, but the microphone came to be known colloquially as the “Buchanan Hammer,” a moniker appropriated from the now-discontinued Electro-Voice 664, and referring to the company’s manufacturing plant in Buchanan, Michigan.
For the past 50 years, the 635A has enjoyed a comfortable tenure as the industry standard microphone for on-location newscasting. It has also proven popular with radio DJs and talk show hosts, such as Eric Andre. Today, it maintains a ubiquitous presence as a talkback mic on large-format mixing boards. It’s also a very versatile mic for recording instruments in the studio, but in recent years, it’s been largely overshadowed by the Shure SM57, another dynamic microphone in the same price range.
While the 57’s reputation as an affordable workhorse dynamic is well-earned, its total ubiquity in the music industry has caused interest in alternative dynamic mics to decline significantly, and this is compounded by the ongoing popularity of more expensive broadcast dynamics like the Sennheiser MD 421 and the Shure SM7B.
This is a shame; the 635A has unique capabilities that make it a viable, interesting alternative to the SM57 in many contexts. Its low price and durability make it an attractive option for amateur recordists. Throughout this article, I’ll compare the two microphones, using the 57 as a familiar benchmark to illustrate the distinctive capabilities of the 635A.
Perhaps the defining characteristic of the 635A is its omnidirectional polar pattern, which stands in contrast to the unidirectional (cardioid) pattern sported by the SM57 (and most modern dynamics, for that matter). With a 635A in your arsenal, you can work with the tonal signature you’d expect from a dynamic microphone, while also enjoying the unique opportunities afforded by an omnidirectional polar pattern.
Because of its omni pattern, the 635A will tend to pick up more “ambience” or reflected reverberant sound than a comparable cardioid mic in the same position. If you’re working in a space with pleasant acoustics and you want to capture that ambience in your recording, this can be a huge advantage, because you can pick up the desired ambience alongside the direct sound, using just one mic. Otherwise, you might find yourself setting up a second, dedicated “room mic,” burning up session time and fretting about the inevitable phase discrepancies that arise when you put more than one mic on a source. I find that with a single 635A, I can intuitively balance the ratio of direct to ambient pickup, simply by moving the mic closer or farther from the source. This brings me to my second point.
Thanks to its omni pattern, the 635A doesn’t exhibit proximity effect. This is another key difference that distinguishes it from the SM57. You can place the 635A extremely close to a sound source and it will capture a relatively neutral, faithful recorded sound, without the artificial low-frequency emphasis that you’d get from an SM57. Proximity effect can be useful, but it enforces a limitation on how close you can place the mic before you start to significantly emphasize the low frequencies. If you’re already quite happy with the sound you’re hearing in the room, it’s nice to not have to worry about how proximity effect will color the recorded sound, and eliminating it from the equation will give you more freedom in moving the mic around and settling on a final position.
I regularly pick the 635A over my SM57 for use on electric guitar cabinets, so long as the space sounds good.
It’s great for vocals in aggressive rock styles, particularly for energetic vocalists who want to use a handheld mic. Over the course of a physically intense performance, the mic’s distance to the vocalist’s mouth can vary considerably. If you use a 57, this variation can result in a fluctuating, inconsistent low-frequency balance. Additionally, the 635A lacks the distinctive ‘presence peak’ of the SM57, so it can smooth out harsh vocal techniques such as screaming, where an SM57 might tend to exaggerate the harshness and sibilance.
The 635A performs admirably as a room mic for rock drums. You might also try using it as a ‘crotch’ mic on the drumkit, wedged somewhere between the bottom rim of the snare and the batter head of the kick. This will generally capture a balanced, albeit sort of dark, lo-fi picture of the entire kit. Think Beastie Boys, or John Bonham breakbeats. I often combine this with an overhead mic to capture more detail. If you grab two of them, the 635A becomes an attractive option for recordists who want to try using an A/B stereo miking technique with a pair of omni mics, perhaps for drum overheads, or to capture an ensemble in stereo.
While I can’t speak directly from personal experience, I would also encourage you to try it on acoustic guitar, harmonica, and even piano, if you’re looking for a darker, smoother sound than you might get with the condenser mics that are so often brought out for these instruments.
The only real downside is that the 635A needs a lot of gain, so you might find yourself cranking the gain knob if you’re using it with the built-in preamps of an inexpensive audio interface. Also, the omni pattern makes the 635A far more prone to feedback than a cardioid mic. Compared to the SM57, its usefulness in a live sound context is marginal.
With an MSRP of $140, the Electro-Voice 635A is readily accessible to amateur recordists. Once I tried it out, I found that it offered a compelling and useful alternative in numerous contexts where, had I not had one on hand, I might have reached for an SM57 by default. It’s my go-to mic for electric guitar cabs and sees regular use in my drum mic schemes as well. Give it a spin!