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Broadcast Gear as Cultural Icons

ImageYou know you're getting old when you see broadcast gear that you actually worked with on display in a museum. It happened to me in the South recently, when I visited a local museum that featured a 60s-era "vintage" RCA audio console from a broadcast station where I had worked as a kid.

There's a funny thing about broadcast equipment. It tends to become operationally obsolete very quickly. But, after a few years pass, it can take on a nostalgic quality. Some items eventually acquire the status of cultural icons.

As one with a penchant for old things, I often find myself rummaging through ancient collectibles in New York City's antique shops. Lately, I've noticed that old electronics—tube gear, consoles with huge grapefruit-sized knobs, deco-style "on the air" lights, microphones, even turret-style RCA television cameras—have begun to appear in these stores with prices that will knock your socks off.

Of course, these electronic components are not being sold for their functionality (most don't even work) but due to their unique design. There's something about a classic RCA 44 or 77 ribbon microphone or "on the air" light that brings back remembrances of a simpler time when broadcasting still had a magical quality.

With the possible exception of RCA, no other American company has had more aesthetically enduring product designs over the years than Shure Brothers. Many of their microphones reflect the same timeless design characteristics that we find in America's great skyscrapers (the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center come to mind).

As far as design goes, the crown jewel of the Shure microphone line is the legendary 55 series, a microphone that not only made history for its groundbreaking technical achievement but turned an industrial product into a cultural icon associated with some of the most remembered moments in our musical and political heritage.

I recently rediscovered a booklet from Shure Brothers, written by Greg DeTogne in 1996, that recalls the fascinating story of how in the 1930s Shure engineer Benjamin Baumzweiger (who later changed his name to Bauer) created the 55, the world's first single element directional dynamic microphone. Introduced by Shure in 1939 as the first "Unidyne" microphone, the 55 became an instant hit and was adopted as the microphone of choice by entertainers, kings, queens, presidents and generals around the globe.

From Frank Sinatra and Doris Day in the Big Band era to Elvis at the dawn of rock 'n roll, 55 series microphones became—as a 1950 Shure print ad proclaimed—"The Microphone That Needs No Name." Viewed from a design perspective, DeTogne wrote that the 55 microphones "exude all the coolness of a '57 T-bird, Stratocaster guitar or a James Dean movie."

In its eighth decade, the 55 (now the model Super 55) remains a staple in the Shure product line. Today's version—at least from the outside—still resembles the second generation "Small Unidyne" introduced in 1951. On the inside, however, the microphone uses a modern dynamic cartridge, which offers better frequency response and directional characteristics than the original.

Though the current version of the 55 is still widely used by performers for its classic "retro" look, we wondered how the old warhorse holds up against current dynamic microphone technology? For the answer, we asked Michael Pettersen, an old friend, longtime Shure executive, and expert on all things Shure.

"Microphones are distinguished by their polar patterns at different frequencies," Pettersen said. "The microphones that typically have the best polar patterns are symmetrical around their axis. Because of its unique design, the 55 is hardly symmetrical. An SM58, on the other hand, is symmetrical.

"In a unidirectional microphone today you'd expect that at 180 degrees off axis the output level should be down maybe 20 to 25 dB," Pettersen continued. "With the 55, it will be down 10 or 15 dB at best. That means compared to an SM58—if the microphones are in the same spot and you've got a floor monitor in front of you—the 55 would be more susceptible to feedback."

The beautiful grill work that makes the 55 such a classic design also makes it more susceptible to wind noise than later designs, Pettersen added. "On modern microphones we look for surfaces that can act as disturbances to wind," he noted. "The ribs of the grill (on the 55) act as disturbances. If you get wind blowing across the grill it can create turbulence which produces wind noise."

With those limitations taken into consideration, Pettersen said, the current version of the 55 will deliver good sonic performance. "It is best used in applications where high gain before feedback is not critical," he said. "Though the 55 will sound good, it's the polar patterns that determine whether the mic will work for you."

There's little doubt that the 55's classic good looks, rather than state of the art technology, is what generates its continuing sales year after year. "People buy it for its esthetics," Pettersen said. "While it's a cool looking thing, it's important to know how to use it and to understand its limitations."

(The current model is the Shure Super 55 dynamic vocal microphone, which features a signature satin chrome-plated die-cast casing, supercardioid polar pattern and tailored frequency response for natural vocals and speech. An integrated, swivel stand mount is included. Price is 227.99.)