January 06, 2008, by Keith Clark
Michael Pettersen has worn several hats since joining Shure in 1976. Currently he’s the driving force behind the company’s Application Engineering Department, which he founded in 1993.
The excellence of this department in terms of its ability to support customers has earned a well-deserved reputation of leadership in the professional audio industry.
Michael has seen a lot in the 25 years he’s worked with the company as it has evolved into one of the leading manufacturers in the pro audio industry, all the while maintaining a family atmosphere.
He graciously agreed to a conversation with PSW Editor Keith Clark, sharing his views, observations and future vision regarding both Shure and the industry in general. In turn, we’re pleased to share that conversation with you here.
Keith Clark: Michael, thanks for talking with us. Can you provide a bit of your professional background?
Michael Pettersen: Two years out of college, in 1976, I started working with Shure in the sales department, where I remained for about five years or so. But I’d always had a technical bent, even when I was a child, so I was more drawn toward product than the ‘let’s cut a deal’ aspect. So in 1981, I transferred into product management, heading up the fledgling line of mixers the company was offering.
Also during this time, I started the Shure Consultant Liaison Program, which focused on working more closely with audio/system consultants, providing them with a better idea of what we had to offer, specific product info and data that’s key to their work, and the like. The idea of this program, which continues today, it so to ensure that consultants understand what’s available from Shure in hopes that they select our products.
By 1993, I was looking for a new challenge and came up with the concept of the Application Engineering Department. The idea came from software companies, where you would naturally tend to select a brand of software based upon the technical support provided by the company. This seemed like a great thing to be able to offer our customers, and it would give us a competitive advantage.
By the end of ’93, we had three people in Application Engineering, and it’s grown to the point where we now have nine full-time staff members doing this in Evanston, another three at Shure Europe and two more at Shure Asia. It’s truly a worldwide support program.
The mission of Application Engineering is to provide such extraordinary technical support that a customer will choose to buy a Shure product even if there’s a competitive product on the market that might be equal. The simplest way to describe it is that we help people choose a product before they buy it, and help them use it after they buy it.
Application Engineering has the unenviable task of providing detailed technical information and support on a wide range of products spanning an equally wide range of technologies.
So I’ve basically had three careers with Shure – sales, marketing and engineering. I think I’ll pass on the finance side (laughs).
KC: In your 25 years with Shure, how has the company changed?
Michael: Probably the entire focus of the business. When I came on board in ’76, the hi-fi boom was still going, and at this time, the biggest portion of our business - by far - was hi-fi. Not that we didn’t make microphones and other products, there just wasn’t as much focus there.
That changed, particularly in the early ‘80s when the CD came out. I don’t think any company in the hi-fi business, or the vinyl business, expected the CD to take off so quickly. And, some of our competitors didn’t survive.
But Shure did, mostly by shifting to professional tools. And now microphones, be they wired or wireless, are by far the largest portion of our business. Phonograph equipment is still a very nice business for us, but it’s a minority part.
So that’s the biggest shift - we went from a company that was making its living off of “leisure” - for lack of a better word - because hi-fi was mostly a leisure product, and transformed into a company that does the majority of its business by providing professional audio tools.
Microphones are used to create leisure in many cases, but they are the tools of musicians, recorders, broadcasters, performers, etc. I think it’s really a shift more from a leisure basis to a professional tool base, to put it into a general context.
Another thing that’s changed has been the quickness with which we bring out products. In the late ‘70s through the early ‘80s, a major project would take maybe three to four years from inception to market, and now its typically 18 months and often less.
KC: Why do you think Shure has been so successful in the shift to the pro market?
Michael: We make a great product for the price, very reliable, very durable, you can depend on it to work, and people appreciate that.
We’re not necessarily the most “trendy” company around, and sometimes we might wish that to be different, but when people buy products that work for 20 or 30 or 40 years, it has a major impact.
In fact, one of the reasons I came to work here was that I had a Shure microphone in the ‘60s, and not only did it work great for me, but I had a problem with it that was fixed promptly. I said, ‘gee, this must be a pretty cool company’.
The other thing is that Shure is dedicated to being honest, to giving customers the truth. The Application Engineering Department is a prime example. We stress the truth and try to guide customers to the best solution, whether it’s from us or someone else.
Everyone in the department has my complete support to tell a customer that “this is not the right tool,” or “we don’t have the right tool for you, but let me help you find someone else that does”. Customers remember that far longer and more positively than if we steered them to use something that only “kind of” works.
So we don’t try to make the sale, we try to get the right tool for the customer. You combine that with great service and product that lasts a long time and doesn’t usually cost top dollar, and you’ve got a prescription for long-term success.
One thing I can say is that in my 25 years here, never once have I been asked by management to do anything that violated my personal ethics. And that’s real important.
Good times or bad times, you’re treated very well here. Plus I get paid to do my hobby, which is not too bad either!
KC: Can you tell me about some of your favorite co-workers through the years?
Michael: Well, that’s kind of a tricky question. If you start naming people, you invariably leave someone out. But I will talk about some of the important folks who have retired.
You have to start with Mr. (S.N.) Shure, who I was fortunate enough to know and work with. He was a very, very modest man, never taking credit for a whole lot of our success. People would come up to him at trade shows, shake his hand and tell him that he makes a great microphone, and he’d deflect it, saying ‘it’s not me, it’s the people that work with me’.
He was also a very approachable guy. For example, he had an interest in the history of words like I do, and we’d exchange notes about it. There was a personal aspect to him that went throughout the company, and there was also a kind of casualness about him – he was the driving force of a large corporation known around the world, but one that is run with a ‘mom and pop’ touch.
A gentlemen I did not know, Ben Bauer, was really the first brilliant engineer at Shure, creating the first Unidyne microphone - the single element, unidirectional microphone. This was in the late ‘30s, and is still probably the single greatest microphone achievement this company has given to the world.
We’re still building the Unidyne in one form or another. I didn’t know Mr. Bauer, but I know a bit about him by reading his papers that are still available here. A brilliant guy.
Another engineer who was here for a long time, since retired and unfortunately passed away, was Ernie Seeler. He developed the Unidyne III cartridge, which is better known as the SM58 and SM57. Ernie was ‘Mr. Precision’ – he had a German background but was born in Cuba – I don’t know how that happened – but his desk was perfectly aligned, everything in his office just so.
Interestingly, he created probably the most popular microphone for rock n’ roll, but he hated rock ‘n’ roll. He was a classical music fan.
Seated right next to him, like yin and yang, was Roger Anderson, another brilliant engineer, and one who was completely messy and the ‘gyro, gear-loose’ type. Roger created many of the advances we had in phono cartridges - Shure was the biggest maker of these in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and in fact, we still are to this day.
I was just in awe of these guys, working side-by-side with them, and they were amazing. Ernie would work things out with painstaking calculations and a lot of thought, and Roger was the great experimenter. They’re both very unique people that I’ll never forget.
KC: In your time, what are some of the most significant products and or technologies that have come out of Shure?
Michael: Well, you have to start with Unidyne, even though it was well before I arrived, because a large percentage of our business is still built on that concept.
Since I’ve been here, the V15-IV and V15-V phono cartridges, which included a dynamic stablizer, have been quite significant. The stablizer - what most people think is just a brush – actually does three important things.
Yes, as you might expect, it cleans the record, but it also destaticizes the record, which was a new concept at the time. Most importantly, it acts like a shock absorber, allowing warped records to track perfectly. That was a major development in the phono market, and still is to this day.
In circuitry products or mixers, two come to mind, starting with the DFR11EQ equalizer with digital feedback reducer. There are other ones on the market, but I think for speech applications ours works the best. I’m looking at this from an engineering standpoint and not marketing/sales.
We also made a big impact and helped establish the concept of automatic mixing, the idea of voice-activated microphones for speech applications. Shure first introduced a version of this in 1983 – it was called the Automatic Microphone System (AMS) – and it was unique.
The company still holds a patent on it, because it had double-element microphones working with a special mixer that activated only when a talker was seated within a certain angle. It was the first automatic mixer that activated microphones based on the direction of the talker’s signal.
Auto mixers had already been around for maybe eight to nine years before ours came out, but the AMS really helped establish automatic mixing as commonplace for city councils, boardrooms, any type of legislative situation. Of course, this is still the biggest portion of the auto mixer market now.
Also with mixers - and I’m a little prejudiced because it’s my area - we brought out the FP line of mixers. When Sony Betacam came out in the ‘80s, the one-piece recorder camera adopted quickly for broadcast news, there was no portable audio mixer to go with it.
So we developed the FP line - the FP31 was the first (3 in, 1 out) - that would run off batteries and you could hang it around your neck. Now you see this all the time with ENG crews, but back in the ‘80s there was no such thing. They either weren’t using an audio mixer or had something large and unwieldy.
The wireless microphone market, which we took our time getting into as it now stands, was actually addressed way back in 1953 with a Shure system called the Vagabond. It was used mostly in Las Vegas for a lot for live shows, but it was quite expensive, costing something like $9,000 in today’s dollars.
For various reasons, but mostly because it used vacuum tubes and was relatively fragile, this system didn’t work as well as the company wanted, so we got out of that market, returning in the late ‘80s.
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.
Our philosophy is that we help the customer, rather than ‘it’s not a current product - too bad’. We take the attitude that these microphones are of at least some historical interest, if not practical use, so we should have as much information as possible.
Also, if you look at the historical happenings of the 20th Century, you often see a Shure microphone in the picture. So it seemed to be a natural for me to take over the archives.
There was a technical writer here named Don Gayle, who retired a few years ago, and he served as unofficial archivist, doing a great job.
Since then, we actually hired professional archivists to come in and record/assemble all product archives, and to do the same with informational and photo archives.
This is quite valuable, because we can now look through a database real quickly to find information that assists customers. And many times we take things and re-use them. For example, the logo for the KSM32, which is cool, is from 1939.
We also get stylistic ideas from the past that we can draw on, and also avoid past mistakes. In fact, we’ve put together a two-volume history of Shure that every employee will be receiving soon.
So it’s fascinating to me, it helps customers on a daily basis, and it also helps continue a sense of history that everybody here has.
KC: How has the industry changed during your time in it?
Michael: There have been changes in competitors, obviously. Ten years ago, Shure and Sennheiser weren’t necessarily competitors, but now we’re head to head. Ten years ago, it was more along the lines of Shure competing with Electro-Voice.
So the competitive field has changed. And I actually think the total competitive field is a bit smaller. Look back to the early ‘80s, there was something like six or seven major microphone companies competing, and that seems to have contracted somewhat.
In addition, the products that are coming out seem to be understood by fewer and fewer people, based on the questions we get on a daily basis. I think we might be racing far ahead of what the average person can understand, perhaps because there are a lot more technologies to be understood now.
Also, there are more people with less experience using audio products, and there seems to be fewer competent installers. We get a lot of questions they should really know the answers to. I suspect that a lot of this is due to a lack of dedicated education for sound contractors - there isn’t a degree program for them.
One of the biggest things I’ve seen is change brought about by the Internet. Our web site has a technical Knowledge Base, which is basically an interactive FAQ system administered by the Application Engineering Department. This FAQ database has just been wonderful, because 24 hours a day, customers can go and look up their problem.
We have over 2,000 questions and answers up there right now, and they’re searchable. If their answer isn’t there, users can send us their questions and get a personalized e-mail response.
This allows more people to find answers, and at the same time, frees us up to work on the tougher problems, write educational pieces, and so forth. So some of the repetitiveness of Application Engineering has been relieved by Internet tools.
KC: Why have you hung on so long in this business?
Michael: Because they pay me to do what I would do normally anyway! (laughs). I have a degree in music, and have been an electronics hobbyist practically my whole life, building my first electronic circuit, a crystal radio, when I was in second grade. I’ve always had these interests, along with an interest in acoustics. So I get paid for my hobby. Why wouldn’t you hang around for that?
KC: What predictions can you make regarding products and technology for the next five to 10 years?
Michael: I think we’ll see that microphone arrays will be something of interest. I’ve read a lot lately about miniature microphones being placed on chips. I think it will be very interesting to see what can be done with a whole array of microphone elements on a chip, having different ones receiving the signal at different times and so forth.
I can’t even predict what this is going to do, exactly, I just know it will be very, very interesting.
Wireless systems will see change, although the specifics remain uncertain. The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) is altering the landscape about what frequencies can be used. I, along with everyone else, don’t know where that’s going to go – we’re all guessing right now.
I’m sure 10 years from now it will be quite different, but what, specifically? The audio industry is not the dog – we’re the tail being wagged by the FCC.
It will be interesting to see if there are any new transduction principles, changing acoustics and electronics. I haven’t read of anything, but that would be something.
And there’s been talk for years of optical microphones, and actually these already exist, where a laser beam is bounced off the diaphragm and it measures differences between the send beam and the return beam. But these have been very expensive and noisy so far.
I’m sure there will be many more new things that are software based, but we need more reliable computers to make this happen (laughs).
KC: Last question. Are you optimistic about the future of Shure, as well as that of the pro audio industry in general?
Michael: I certainly think Shure is well established. One of the advantages we have is that we’re privately held, and thus there isn’t the looming pressure of quarterly profit statements.
We have to be profitable, of course, but at the same time we don’t have hundreds of millions of dollars of debt hanging over our heads. Consequently, we can look out further and make longer term investments.
I can’t tell you the number of well-meaning MBA’s (Masters – Business Administration) who have come into this industry and decided they didn’t have to learn anything about it, that they know everything about business - and they’ve failed miserably.
The MBA’s who have been successful at Shure, and there have been some, have taken the time to learn this industry. Advanced education is great, but it has to be combined with knowledge and understanding of the industry. It’s quite unique, and that’s what I love about it.
Link to related articles:
History of Shure
Timeline of Notable Achievements
Interview With Michael Pettersen