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 “Eight Ball” microphone. 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 mic 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 Eight Ball 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 mic 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 mic itself Western Electric used a male attachment on the mic 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 Electric’s special mic stands or you had to buy an adapter to mount their mics on normal stands! There was also an optional round baffle that fit on the front of the mic to give a slight directional effect.
The 633A Saltshaker was an omnidirectional mic 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 mic 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 Eight Ball which I always thought was a better overall quality mic.
In radio the Saltshaker was used by big and small stations and the major networks like CBS ABC and Mutual but NBC 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 Corporation became the manufacturer of Western Electric’s audio equipment, microphones, loudspeakers, control consoles and other equipment. Altec Lansing continued to make the 633A and even improved it by introducing a Mylar diaphragm instead of the aluminum one used by Western Electric which gave it a smoother response. The mic looked exactly the same it just had Altec Lansing’s name on it from 1949 to around the late ’60s when it was discontinued. Altec Lansing 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 for sale on eBay frequently. 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 mic that fit absolutely perfectly inside the mic body.
I think my 633A sounds very good, as you can judge by this 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!