Microphone Man-5

As promised…this time we will look at Western Electric’s last dynamic microphone…the model 633A “Saltshaker”.

The 633A was introduced in 1937 just two years after the “Eightball” which we covered last time.
Apparently Western Electric went through a major design change in their broadcasting equipment at this time. A new more “modern” look was the idea…and the new Saltshaker mike was one of the items that highlighted this change. Instead of the dark colors of previous equipment now the theme was a lighter touch and a more “modern” style.

Instead of the black of the Eightball….the Saltshaker came in a medium gray color. The 633A had a bullet shape with a rounded top where the sound entrance holes were and highlighted by three snazzy fins on the top. On the bottom of the mike was a male threaded stem for attaching to the stand which had a hole in the middle to allow the cord to exit. Interestingly Western Electric used a different stand mounting arrangement than any other microphone manufacturer.

Whereas every other manufacturer used a female thread attachment on the mike itself….Western used a male attachment on the mike with a slightly different thread spacing…5/8 -24…instead of the industry standard 5/8 -27 thread. This meant that you had to use Western’s special mike stands….or you had to buy an adapter to mount their mikes on normal stands! There was also an optional round baffle that fit on the front of the mike to give a slight directional effect.

The 633A Saltshaker was an omnidirectional mike with a slight boost in the high frequencies for good speech intelligibility and good lower response, too, down to around 40 hertz (or “cycles per second” to us old-timers!). This made it fine for both music and speech. It made a great mike for remote broadcasts away from the studio…like news and sports….but it got plenty of studio use as well. I don’t think the 633A had as smooth a response as the earlier Eightball which I always thought was a better overall quality mike.

In radio the Saltshaker was used by big and small stations and the major networks like CBS ABC and Mutual…but NBC, owned by RCA, never used any Western Electric products because they were bitter rivals! The Saltshaker also got a lot of use in the early days of TV. Growing up in Southern California, I remember KTLA channel 5….the very first commercial TV station licensed by the FCC…used the Saltshaker on their many live remotes. I remember seeing KTLA announcers like Dick Lane and Stan Chambers using Saltshakers usually with a KTLA call letter plate attached.

In 1949 the government forced Western Electric to sell off it’s broadcasting and recording equipment manufacturing because they thought Ma Bell was getting too big. Altec-Lansing Corp. became the manufacturer of Western’s audio equipment….microphones, loudspeakers, control-consoles and other equipment. Altec continued to make the 633A and even improved it by introducing a Mylar diaphragm instead of the aluminum one used by Western…which gave it a smoother response. The mike looked exactly the same it just had Altec’s name on it from 1949 to around the late 60s when it was discontinued. Altec also introduced a model 633C that included a transformer inside that could be connected for 150 ohm impedance…the 633A only had 30 ohms output directly off the voice-coil.

There are still hundreds of Saltshakers out there and you see them come up on eBay all the time. A few years back I bought one from an antique dealer in the Bay area. My 633A is a Western Electric version and was in pretty good shape except for scratched paint and the diaphragm being smashed in. The paint was easy to fix….I did choose a slightly darker gray, almost dark brown, than the original. Mine had the optional chrome swivel and the thread adapter with it. For the interior I found an excellent dynamic element from a very good quality Realistic omnidirectional mike that fit absolutely perfectly inside the mike body. I think it sounds very good…as you can judge by the sound clip.

That’s the story on the Western Electric-Altec 633-Saltshaker…an accepted standard in the broadcast industry…one of America’s great microphones of the 20th century!