When you look at microphones from a strictly engineering standpoint, most of the crucial concepts have been around since the ‘20s and ‘30s. There have been no really new and revolutionary developments since then. The idea of microphones on integrated circuit chips may eventually cause a change, but these are still too noisy, and so on, to be used for professional applications.
In-ear monitoring was certainly a technology in its infancy, and Shure was the first major manufacturer to bring it down to a price-point where the average person could afford it.
Again, this goes to the idea of technology that’s very rugged and reliable at a reasonable price-point. This kind of permeates all of these recent products I’ve been talking about.
KC: Tell me about a product or two that you thought was going to be huge, but for some reason, have been overlooked.
Michael: The SM89 shotgun comes to mind. One of the main complaints about shotgun mics among those who use them - primarily filmmakers and documentary makers - is the off-axis coloration that tends to happen. Anything off-axis tends to sound strange and not natural.
We did a lot of research into this, and found that resonances were being created in the long shotgun tube. One of our engineers found a very interesting material in the medical industry, a porous plastic, and he discovered that by putting this in the tube, it cleaned up a lot of these resonances.
As a result, the SM89 is, by far to my ear, the best-sounding shotgun mike out there, particularly in terms of off-axis coloration. But it didn’t seem to catch everyone’s fancy – I think the market is relatively small for shotgun mics anyway, and there’s a lot of folks who just won’t change no matter what.
But it was interesting to take a material from a totally different industry and use it to enhance something in audio. Just because the world didn’t beat a path to our door to get it doesn’t mean it’s not a good product.
Home theater. Shure was actually in this market early, before it had matured. We actually had a home theater surround sound division in the mid-‘80s – a complete line of loudspeakers, power amplifiers, everything – but it was just too early, probably by about five to six years.
So we got out of this market because it wasn’t profitable. Like a lot of people at that time, I couldn’t see the logic in rearranging my living room for home theater, but we became the minority at some point, so in hindsight it’s a market that maybe we should have stayed in.
The other thing is that we were probably the first company making high-quality speakerphones and teleconference equipment. Shure had a teleconferencing division from the early ‘80s to the early ‘90s that did quite well.
What got us out of that business was U.S. Robotics, which brought out teleconferencing equipment that worked very poorly but sold at about a third of the price of ours, and then customers wanted to know why we couldn’t match the price.
Interestingly enough, after that happened and we phased out the division, U.S. Robotics figured out they also couldn’t make any money in the market and they pulled out, and this pretty much left the market to PolyCom. At a certain point in time, there were people in the business world who only knew us by our teleconferencing products.
KC: You’re a keeper of the historical archives at Shure. Can you tell me why?
Michael: A lot of it has to do with the fact that I’ve always been interested in history. As I filled in the gaps of my pro audio knowledge, I found out that going back and reading all of the original papers helped very much.
For example, Sabine’s original papers on acoustics, and a lot of the original Western Electric papers on sound reinforcement. In fact, I have a Western Electric paper from 1924 that’s still applicable today.
Mr. Shure was a big historian as well. He started the product archives in the ’30s, wanting to have a record of, if not all Shure products, at least the most significant ones.
When I started Application Engineering, I found that we would get a lot of questions about old products, mics that are 60 years old and still work.