There are a few microphone shapes, designs, images that could be called icons, that symbolize what many think of when someone says the word microphone. One of those that has become an icon is the Shure model 55 series of mics. The Shure 55 made its debut in 1939 and its successors are still around today some 80 plus years later.
The Shure company was founded by Mr. S.N. Shure back in the 1920s. Later it became a family operation called Shure Brothers. Shure originally made relatively low cost carbon and crystal mics for use in PA systems and in the communications field as well as phonograph pickup cartridges. The year 1937 was a turning point when a young engineer named Benjamin Baumzweiger (who later changed his name to Bauer) began developing his idea for a unidirectional microphone using a single dynamic element. Prior to this all dynamic mics were nondirectional. As we related in previous articles in this series RCA and Western Electric had both developed unidirectional pattern mics using a combination of two different microphone elements in the same housing.
Bauer felt that the best way would be to use just one element reducing the large and bulky size of the dual element units. He came up with his theory of using a series of front and rear openings in the dynamic element which allowed sound waves to reach both sides of the element’s diaphragm. Using acoustic principles that produced a time delay between the sound entering from the rear and sound striking the front of the diaphragm. By varying the amounts of acoustical resistance encountered at the rear openings, Bauer was able to achieve cardioid, supercardioid, or hypercardioid patterns using a single element, and the first true unidirectional dynamic microphone became reality. Shure called this design the “Unidyne”. The Unidyne model 55 became an instant hit in the audio field. The Unidyne set a new standard of high quality audio pickup combined with discrimination against unwanted sounds. This offered a great new ability to control feedback and reduce ambient noise pickup. The Shure 55 also came in at a much lower price point than previous directional mics.
Utilizing Shure’s proprietary “uniphase” technology, the Unidyne was marketed for PA, recording and broadcast applications. The streamlined chrome head could be tilted up to 90 degrees. A built-in cable connector and stand mounting were part of the unit. With the Unidyne Shure was able to crack open the broadcast market against the dominant players RCA and Western Electric. In 1940 Shure introduced a separate broadcast version of the Unidyne which became the model 556. This unit had closer tolerances and an improved isolation mount of live rubber. An external call letter plate could be purchased separately as an accessory.
Many radio stations used the Shure Unidynes in their control rooms and studios. This being the Modesto Radio Museum site we want to mention that KTRB, Modesto’s first commercial radio station, used the Shure broadcast version Unidyne for many years from the time the station moved to the Norwegian Avenue studio site around 1942 and into the 1960s. In the main big studio KTRB utilized the very famous “Starbird” heavy-duty mic booms and hanging on the end of each one was a Shure Unidyne. Many famous performers visiting the KTRB studios had their voice picked up by these iconic microphones. KTRB also used the Unidyne in each of it’s two identical control rooms.
The original Unidyne model 55 is sometimes called the “fat boy” or the “Elvis mic,” of course many, many famous performers used these mics long before Elvis came along. In 1952 Shure came out with an updated version of the Unidyne that was quite a bit smaller with a more squarish shape compared to the rounded “fat boy.” This new model was the model 55S, the “S” for small Unidyne. Shure made both the large and small models available for about the first year and then the big model was dropped from the catalog.
The new smaller model Unidyne has continued production down to today, yes you can buy a brand new model 55SH Series II from any Shure dealer. The price today is about 3 times what you would have paid for the 1950s era model 55S about $170 compared to about $48 in the mid ’50s! The
“broadcast” version the model 556S was slightly higher in price…but this version was discontinued somewhere in the ’80s. The modern version of the 55 has a much improved internal cartridge unit that is on par with any modern unidirectional microphone.
The Shure Unidyne line of mics included mics with more modern cylindrical case design units that came into the catalog in the 1960s. These designs gave birth to the famous Shure “ball-top” SM58 model that is one of the most used vocal mics on stage in the world. There is also the model SM57 which has been used on the US Presidential podium for more than 40 years as well as being used for musical instrument pickup. All these mics came from the heritage of the original model 55 developed by Shure engineer Ben Bauer back in 1937.
Here I am talking to you through a Shure Unidyne 55 microphone:
Much of the information in this article came from the Shure publication “The Unidyne Story” which can be downloaded from Stan Coutant’s Microphone website in PDF format. I recommend a visit to the Coutant site for some great pictures of the Shure 55 series with a lot of great information for mic buffs on many different microphone manufacturers. Click here to visit the Coutant site.