Open House: A tour of Shure's IL headquarters

Posted By Luke Harper on May 16, 2013 09:25 am | Permalink
Right before departing for IL for a Shure press event, I had a lot of conversations like this:

"Wait, you're going where?"
"Niles, IL. HQ of Shure."
"You Shure? HAHAHAHAHA seriously bring me back a '57, k?"
"Ha. Yes. I don't think they have a gift shop."
"They should have a gift shop."

Turns out they don't have a gift shop. But they have a lot of marvelous things... Now,  you might not be an audio nerd, so why should you care? Well, because they're an impressive company. They would be in any field. The biggest and brightest have relied on their gear since the 20's, and still do to this day. From Roger Daltry to  President Obama to NASA, their client list is a thing of beauty. How they've managed to do it all these years is fascinating and worth knowing about. 

So, with that, here's a recounting of the tour. 

Shure is located in Niles, IL. Actually on the border of Niles and Skokie, if you want to be specific. Their HQ is a massive, beautiful work of modern euro-sensibilities, all exposed concrete and glass. It's totally open in the center, and the roof is also transparent so light flows throughout. This is useful in a climate such as theirs, as a little sun goes a long way.

Upon entering we were introduced to our two tour guides, Christopher Lyons and Mike Lohman. Christopher Lyons is the Manager of Technical & Educational Communications at Shure, and a consummate host. The man is the perfect cross between corporate pro, diplomat and genuinely nice guy. Mike Lohman is the Senior Manager of Media Relations at Shure. A massive weightlifting booster, and as loyal an employee as you'd ever want to meet.

Unfortunately cameras were verboten, to the extreme woe of the videographer types representing, but they did have a corporate photog following who was very accommodating. The photog was a technical writer for the company for years, so was also a great source of info.

Armed with all of this, our troop was lead upstairs where we had the privilege of meeting the President himself, Mr. Santo LaMantia. (He's known as "Sandy" around the company, but I wouldn't try it). A note about the leadership at Shure because it's interesting: The company was founded in 1925 by Sidney N. Shure, a salesman of radio parts. Since then, there have been two other presidents, both engineers. Mr. Shure's wife is still the Chairman of the Board, and a very consistent presence within the company.

Mr. LaMantia spoke of Shure's main challenges right now, which are common to the industry: wireless spectrum allocation woes. The FCC wouldn't be honestly described as either fast-acting or wholly clear about their intentions, much to the chagrin of companies like Shure, who have a large customer and product base dependent on the reliability of wireless signals. 

After this interaction, we were lead to the second part of the HQ. The Shure layout is sort of mullet-y. Business in the front, party in the back. The other building, while connected and of similar design, has a wholly different set of functions. Among other things, it also houses the studio, product design and testing facilities, archive and service departments.

First, the studio. Oh, the studio. The Russ Berger Design Group was contracted to do an interesting thing with this facility - they had to design a hybrid. Aesthetically the main room looks more or less like your average big main tracking room. The appropriate angles and materials are all present and where they should be, the acoustics are gorgeous... but there's something fundamentally different about the very basic footprint. This room was designed to mimic real-world spaces, which can often be not ideal. Along the back wall, there's a full backline. There's even a monitor world in the left wing. They need to test real world conditions, and can quite well. A lot of thought went into this. The control room is a symphony of amazing - The Pro Tools system is fed by 192s and Prizms, and the monitoring is all massive ATCs in a modular 5.1 set up. They have more than one theater, and the surround rears can be wheeled between set ups. 

From the studio we went into the heart of the Shure beast - the development and testing area. We all know that Shure gear is hella tough. This is because since 1945 everything they make is "milspec", or up to military specifications. So they have to function in adverse conditions. Like really gross humidity, or being repeatedly slammed into concrete. And by work, here's specifically what I mean: Out of the box the stock piece is given a frequency spectrum analysis. After torture, the equipment is tested again and has to perform within a fractional degree of that response. 

The machinery they've both contracted and built themselves to torture equipment with is pretty comprehensive, ranging from brute simplicity to incredibly expensive and high-tech. For instance, they have a mic stand positioned over various surfaces which is designed to be triggered to fall from certain heights. Six feet is the average for microphones, but rack gear is also subjected to gravity, albeit from lower positions. Rack gear isn't typically six feet up and precarious, though, so I think they've done a reasonable job covering their bases. For the sheer hell of it, the Manager of Corporate Quality Engineering, Boris Libo, dropped a 58 a few times, denting it rather nicely. 

Apparently the spherical filter on the top of the mic is multi-purpose - besides being a popper stopper, it's also very specifically designed to be a crumple zone, and crumples in a pretty specific way to avoid hurting the capsule. Clever. Every single piece of gear gets hurt, though. Every lav, wireless receiver, microphone... everything gets drastically heated and cooled, beaten and maimed, and dunked in the grossest humidity outside of Minneapolis in the dead of summer (90%! Yay!). 

For sonic testing, they have a pair of matching anechoic chambers. I don't know if you've had the pleasure recently, but anechoic chambers are kind of creepy. To be more specific, what they do to your hearing and equilibrium is a touch creepy. 

The entire space is designed to eat any and all acoustic reflections. We are so used to sound coming at us from a specific source or set of sources and then reflecting off whatever we are surrounded by, that suddenly having that removed is disorienting. So you're standing in there, looking down through the mesh floor at the same massive wedges underneath you as are on the walls and ceiling, marveling at the precision of it. And then the guide starts talking, and turning while he talks. The difference in volume between facing you and facing the other direction is remarkable. The voice becomes quiet to the point of slightly hard to understand. 

The point of all of this, of course, is to create as ideal a sonic situation as possible to test the frequency responsiveness of the equipment. There is a track upon which a stand and mic are placed, and aimed at a high-end and incredibly flat loudspeaker, through which test tones are run (it's a concentric-coned Tannoy, just in case you're keeping nerd score). These tones are very specifically tailored to provide a wholly accurate response test from the microphone. You see the results from these represented as the frequency response charts within the documentation that comes with any microphone. Something like this, which is the KSM313.

After the anechoic chamber, we traipsed to the radiation room. Which blocks pretty much every electromagnetic signal that tries to barge in. It's funny to watch your cell phone before and after, five bars outside and zero on the inside. You are effectively shielded. In this chamber they can bombard gear with various frequencies and make sure that they aren't too permissive in reception and easily jammed up, and, if so, where their faults are. 

They can also use this facility to make sure the equipment is transmitting as it should and not interfering with anything else. When you make some of the best wireless systems in the world, there's not a huge amount of room for error.  The Axient® line is about the most trustworthy, solid and comprehensive wireless system in the arena. I'm not just saying that because they are nice people. They took great pains to show us the very guts of the operations, and how even when jammed, the Axient can dance from one transmitter to the other, and to another clean band within significantly less than a second. This means that even a worst-case signal stomping results in the barest flicker in the performance. 

After all this testing and developing, we moved on to the heritage section, where their in-house archivist and corporate librarian Julie Snyder took us on a brief tour of the history of Shure products. And what a history it is. 

Every United States President since Lyndon B. Johnson has had a pair of SM-57s on the lectern. The White House has hundreds of them, and they fly into every location the President is to visit before for set-up and testing. These are stock, entirely off the shelf 57's. Shure also created the world's first wireless mic for artists, The Vagabond. This was in 1953, if you can believe that. It was pretty rudimentary, you had to stand within a circle of copper wire connected to the receiver for it to work. But work it did if the conditions were right, which is pretty outstanding for that era. We were also shown a Shure microphone that has been to space some 22 times. On the OUTSIDE of the shuttle. Tough little bugger. Anyway, no one could argue that Shure doesn't have an amazing history in the industry, and I think that it's superb that they've dedicated an archivist solely to collecting and maintaining a library of memorabilia. It's pretty fascinating for the audio nerds among us.

So that's the past, what's the future? Well, battling the good wireless battle for one thing. Maintaining the standards of yesterday and innovating the products of tomorrow for another. For example, the VP83F LensHopper is one of the best ideas I've seen in awhile - It's a combination mini-boom mic/SD card recorder that fits right onto your standard DSLR hot shoe. It's a brilliant and extremely timely concept that was executed extremely well, and I hope to have a dedicated review of it and the VP83 DSLR mountable mini boom microphone coming up in the next couple of issues.

So that's it. A great American company making great American products. I hope you didn't think my tone too commercial, but let's be frank: We all use their gear. Reliability in the face of mission critical objectives is crucial, and knowing about the process can help ease minds even further. If you're ever given the chance to tour the Shure HQ, I can't recommend it enough.