There are thousands of treasures to choose from in the Shure Archives, and each has its own story. In this series, Shure resident historian Michael Pettersen shares some of his personal favorites. For this installment, he describes how a stock rental mic found its way to the stage of the legendary Monterey International Pop Music Festival to become part of rock ‘n’ roll history.
Meet Michael Pettersen, Shure Director of Corporate History
Since 1976, I have worked at Shure on teams from sales to product management to applications engineering. Music performance and history have always been my passions. In 2016, these two worlds coalesced when Shure President and CEO Christine Schyvinck decided the company needed a corporate historian. She asked me if I was interested in the job, and I accepted without hesitation.
My involvement with documenting Shure history dates back to 1995. With the company’s 75th anniversary looming in 2000, I suggested a book celebrating the company’s history to commemorate the event. Much of the book’s content came from a small, crowded archive closet.
Today, the Shure Archives have a well-organized space of their own. Corporate Archivist Julie Snyder maintains the collection. Together, we preserve the history that Mr. Shure and Mrs. Shure held so dear.
The Original Festival Mic
It’s scratched. It’s dinged. But this SM56 unidirectional dynamic microphone also has a distinguishing little mark identifying it as a relic of rock ‘n’ roll history: a red McCune Sound label. According to Allan McCune, the grandson of its original owner, this is proof that the mic was part of the legendary Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967. The concert would become the standard for every music festival in its wake – from Woodstock in 1969 to Lollapalooza. The artifact is a unidirectional dynamic microphone, the Model SM56.
Introduced in late 1964, the SM56 was a direct descendant of the Shure Unidyne I Model 55 “Elvis” mic that debuted in 1939. The stand-mounted unidirectional dynamic SM56 featured microphone engineer Ernie Seeler’s recently patented Unidyne III cartridge, an on/off switch that also offered a choice of impedance and an internal shock mount that isolated the mic from mechanical noise. The SM56 was ideal, according to Shure literature of the time, for “studio and remote use in broadcasting, recording, motion picture and critical sound reinforcement applications.” Shure engineers designed the SM57 and SM58 microphones that came along in 1965 and 1966 to meet those same requirements for broadcasting applications. No one at Shure was giving much thought to live concert sound for any of these microphones at the time.
A Twist of Fate
The San Francisco-based Harry McCune Sound Service had been renting sound equipment to dance bands in the Bay Area since the 1930s. Firmly established on the West Coast by the 1960s, the company was tapped to provide a large-scale PA system for the Monterey event.
Like the festival, the PA system supplied by McCune was groundbreaking and would become the model for all the monster concert sound systems that followed. One essential link in the PA chain was a microphone from McCune’s rental inventory: the SM56. Why this particular model? Probably because it was an extremely durable mic that rejected feedback, handled high sound pressure levels and was flexible enough for vocals and instruments. Which is why McCune happened to have them in their rental stock.
If you weren’t lucky enough to be there or you haven’t seen the D.A. Pennebaker film Monterey Pop, consider this line-up: Otis Redding, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Grateful Dead, The Who, Simon & Garfunkel, The Animals, Ravi Shankar and many more. They all shared a stage at the festival where five concerts were scheduled over three days, and ticket prices ranged from $2.50 to $6.50. Monterey County Fairground officials were expecting 7,500 music fans. But at the beginning of the Summer of Love, somewhere between 25,000 and 90,000 people showed up.
It was at Monterey that The Who became famous for smashing their equipment and Jimi Hendrix poured lighter fluid on his Stratocaster to watch it go up in flames.
Jack Tossman, then a local DJ and today an LA sound mixer, was lucky enough to sit in the front row. “In the film, I can be seen knocking a burning piece of Hendrix’s guitar out of my hair. You can also see recording engineer Wally Heider trying to save the mics when The Who decided to blow up the stage.” It’s hard to find an image of performers on the stage where multiple SM56s (with A2WS windscreens) aren’t visible.
Ready to Rock
The SM56 mic established Shure in the rock ‘n’ roll scene, thanks, in part, to Harry McCune Sound Service’s decision to entrust Monterey Pop’s sound to a microphone not originally designed for the stage. The SM (Studio Microphone) line, then struggling to find its place in the market, immediately gained an enthusiastic audience that would ultimately pave the way for worldwide acceptance of the SM57 and the SM58 – still the world’s best-selling microphones.
By 1984, SM56 sales had declined and the model was discontinued. Absent the on/off/dual-impedance switch and the pistol-grip mic stand mount that made the SM56 difficult to steal, its fraternal twin, the SM57, offers the same sonic performance.
Still, given its place in the pantheon of Shure rock ‘n’ roll history, I wonder if it isn’t time to bring back the SM56 for another round of glory.