By Dan Leach
By Dan Leach
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HEAD engineer Bob Kita leans on his desk in Shure’s HQ in Chicago. He has a problem - converting their Stereo Dynetic phonograph cartridge to a 15-degree angle cannot be done. They will have to build an entirely new one.
It’s 1964 and Kita and his team are about to produce the needle of choice for turntablists and hip-hop DJs 20 years into the future - the M44-7. Fast-forward half-a-century and, incredibly, this same cartridge is still favoured by top DJs and sound-engineers around the world.
Popularised by one musical invention, the jukebox, and then resuscitated by another in hip-hop and, more specifically, turntablism, this is the story of how a classic piece of American engineering survived the tidal wave of five decades of technological change.
Given that today, a new piece of technology can be outdated within a year, the point is worth emphasising. Since 1964, personal computers, the music synthesiser, the walkman, GPS, the mobile phone, genetic sequencing, CDs, MP3s, email and the internet have all been invented and fundamentally changed our world in countless ways. Yet the M44-7, distinctive-looking with its black and white block shape, has never changed. Even the advent of digital controller DJing cannot kill it.
Sound engineer Rob Thomas has spent many years working with the world’s top DJs at clubs such as Sankeys in the UK. He said: “It’s such a great sounding needle and lots of DJs request them all the time. They just seem to add a lot of warmth to vinyl tracks and are very reliable.”
DJ QBert, a legend in the world of scratch DJing, gave the cartridge perhaps the highest compliment possible when he named the M44-7 as the one to beat when designing the Thud Rumble Ortofon needles. And this was 40 years later.
The story of such a serious piece of engineering deserves some high-spec machinery to provide the illustrations. The exclusive slow motion footage you see in this feature is from the state-of-the-art Photron SAx2 (used in military weapons testing). All videos were recorded at 500 frames per second (20x slower than normal) except for the chapter entitled 'The Odd Couple' which was filmed at 1000 fps. The behaviour of a record needle tip has rarely been seen through such a powerful medium.
When the RIAA (Record Industry Association of America) released “Bulletin E3 “on October 16, 1963, little did they know they had started a chain-reaction that would result in a design icon.
It stated: ‘The reproducing stylus motion shall be tangent to, or lie in a plane which passes through the record center, and which is inclined at a nominal angle of 15 degrees, clockwise, to a normal (sic) to the record at the stylus tip, as viewed from the record center.’
They believed the introduction of this standard would improve sound quality since, up to that point, the angle used to cut stereo records varied among manufacturers. If the cutting angle was different to the angle of your record player needle, it would create distortion. So now the record manufacturers all began to cut at an angle of 15 degrees and this naturally forced a change in needle design.
Shure is a Chicago institution. It was founded in 1925 by Sydney Shure as a one man radio parts company and remains privately owned today. Although famous for its ubiquitous microphones, developing phonograph cartridges was what made Shure blow-up. “We were making upwards of 25 or 20 thousand cartridges per day - entire manufacturing lines of people with microscopes just assembling phonograph needles and cartridges and diamonds”, says Bill Oakley, Global Product Manager for Shure.
Their 1948 development of the first cartridge capable of playing both long playing and 78rpm records made it the biggest cartridge manufacturer in the US.
So, when Shure’s engineers realised they couldn’t adapt their current line to the new 15-degree angle, they were not about to be fazed.
What they came up with was the M44-7. It was actually designed for the high-end audiophile market, belying the modern perception, held by some, of it being a sonically unsubtle cartridge designed to hold the groove at all costs.
Bill paints a fairly low-tech picture which, you sense, does not quite do justice to the complexities involved: “As far as “technology” goes, back in the analogue days, there wasn’t a whole lot you could do, because it was just a transducer, but you could mix and match, you know? How many coil turns do I have around the magnet? How much spring wire do I use to get this kind of vertical compliance? How long do I make this?
“So you’re just kind of playing with the pieces and trial and erroring it and then testing it, until you find what it is that kind of works. The development was done by the phono guys and it’s the same technology that goes into a microphone so it’s just physics basically.”
To achieve the high quality audio, head engineer Bob Kita and his team focussed on achieving good vertical compliance - the ability of the diamond stylus to move up and down freely in the groove of the record because, Bill says: “if that is not done well, you lose information or you have poor audio quality that the diamond is trying the read out of the valleys and peaks of the grooved record.”
Shure was extremely proud of the creation, which reduced harmonic distortion with little or no cross-talk between the channels. Bill says: “It had such great sound quality. It was the full spectrum of 20 to 20,000 Hz. It had good resistance, but a really really all around good sounding audiophile cartridge.”
Shure’s press release at the time talked of a “totally efficient retractile stylus that momentarily retracts whenever excessive forces are applied to the tone arm”. It is this feature of the cartridge - the suspension system - that would seal its fortunes and why it would make the perfect partner to the jukebox.
Fittingly for such an iconic needle, it all started with an iconic item of Americana - the jukebox. Yes the needle you see DJs using today is the very same needle that people in many of the diners and bars across America, and beyond, would dance to, inspiring the likes of Elvis.
Once the 44-7’s suitability for the jukebox was realised, the cartridge really took off, with sales shooting up.
"If you think about what happens when people are dancing around a jukebox”, says Bill, “whether the floor’s shaking or they’re bumping into it, the needle has to stay on the seven-inch 45 and not skip. So the suspension was such that it made those play better, not to mention it sounded good.”
According to Rock-Ola jukebox expert Ross Blomgren, Rock-Ola went from a ceramic phonograph ‘pickup’, made by another American company, Astatic, to the Shure M33 around 1964 and a few years later, the M44-7. “They were used in their machines from around 1968 to 1989 when the last of the vinyl jukeboxes were made”.
He says the partnership made sense for cost and logistics (both Rock-Ola and Shure are Chicago companies) but this was not the only reason:
“That cartridge was rugged enough to handle the relatively heavy tracking of a jukebox changer while still producing excellent sound quality. The cartridge has a very long life - many from the 1960s are still in use today.”
Despite this, according to Danish jukebox historian Gert J. Almind, Shure did not have the monopoly. He says: “The Shure pickups were used in several Rock-Ola models in the 60s and 70s, but also the Astatic pickups were used. In fact, most R-O models in the 60s used the Astatic pickups. In Europe, most Rock-Olas also used Elac pickups, so it is not easy to say exactly which was or were the best.”
John Papa has been restoring classic jukeboxes for 30 years. He says that the multitude of components in a jukebox make it difficult to assess an individual cartridge: “It is a system with a cartridge, needle, amp, speakers, record, etc. When everything gets along well it sounds good. Some of my best sounding jukeboxes have had a kiddie phonograph cartridge.”
According to Wikipedia, the jukebox in the famous TV sitcom ‘Happy Days’ was the 1967 Rock-Ola 434 Concerto. Could the M44-7 have been used in this most legendary of jukeboxes?
No says Blomgren: “I think that 434 used the Shure M33”.
But according to Almind, the jukebox used in the diner in 'Happy Days', as seen in photos with the cast, was in fact a Seeburg 100G which would have used an Astatic needle.
For the record, he adds, the intro sequence shows a mix of machines - a title-board from a Seeburg 100C (pre-100G, same as used in 'MASH') and what is most probably a Rock-Ola mechanism.
So it's not beyond the realms of possibility that the needle seen today in London's superclub, Fabric, was part of the mechanism that Henry Winkler's character 'The Fonz' would jolt into action in 'Happy Days'.
The 1980s brought with it the CD and what seemed to be the death of the phonograph cartridge. Demand dropped and the natural decision was taken to discontinue the product.
Jimmy Lawson was given the task of streamlining the department to concentrate only on audiophiles, but his research into possible new markets led him to attend DJ competitions run by the organisation known as the DMC (Disco Mix Club). He was surprised to find that many of the winners were using the M44-7s.
It was a rather incongruous picture. “If you can imagine a 60 year old gentleman”, says Bill Oakley, “white hair, wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt just showing up and hanging out - that was pretty much Jimmy.”
Jimmy approached the DJs:“Where did you get them? We don’t make these anymore. Why are you using them?”
“Oh these things are great! They stick to the record like glue and we get them in the Philippines and Japan. We bring them back here by the suitcase-load and sell them to our buddies for $150 in the street”.
Ritchie Desuasido (aka DJ Yogafrog), member of DJ crew ‘The Invisibl Skratch Piklz’, confirmed this was happening in 1997 and that stocks had virtually run out: “On a trip to Japan, our stores [the outlets that sold their breaks records] informed us they had the last batch. I personally bought them all.”
You can see some of the footage on the Youtube video ‘Turntable TV 4’. QBert exclaims to the camera: “You’ll never ever see this fuckin' needle in history!”
So Jimmy naturally saw an opportunity relaunch the needle, but he had to convince the company. Firstly, he took engineer Bob Kita to New York to see Roc Raida do his turntablism body tricks. Then he flew DJ QBert into Shure’s HQ to introduce turntablism to the executives in the boardroom itself.
QBert says: “I remember that! They were looking and calling people in the room to check out why their needles are selling again... They never saw skratching and were like... "Come in here Bob, you gotta see this! Go call Mary too!"
And so it was that Jimmy “Needlz” Lawson single-handedly brought the 44-7 back into production with the entire marketing strategy based around turntablism before any other manufacturers had really cottoned on to the idea.
Now, instead of streamlining, the phonograph department now grew, with each new addition taking on the “Needlz” moniker. Greg Riggs became Greg Needlz who would then become mentor to Bill Oakley and together they became known as the Needlz Brotherz.
Shure was the first to bring artist endorsements into the world of turntablism which Yogafrog and QBert’s company, Thudrumble, helped to coordinate. Yogafrog says: “We brought ISP, Beat Junkies, ATrak, X-Ecutioners, PTrix, and Magic Mike on board to help reintroduce the needles. It really made a powerful impact back into the market.”
It was not only good for Shure. It proved a powerful injection for the turntablism movement, lifting the status and visibility of the artists and, most of all, giving them commercial confidence.
But not everyone was entirely happy with the way this was happening. Tony Prince, head of the DMC, says:
“It was a great move on their [Shure’s] part although I rankled that they were dealing with our champions without working directly through us. All equipment companies do this even today and it hurts when we are struggling financially to keep the events alive to see everyone capitalising on our initiative somewhat through the back-door. But hey, that’s life and it’s good for the DJs they use.”
Shure and the DMC formed a strong bond in 1997 when the 44-7 relaunch happened to coincide with the end of an exclusivity deal the DMC had with Stanton, a rival phono cartridge company.
Prince says that, ever since then, they have been strong international allies over the years. He paints the picture of a mutually beneficial, almost conjoined, relationship: “The M44-7 held the grooves better than any other stylus,” he says. “It was irresistible for the championships to improve. They developed deep roots with our American office and branches around the world. We needed each other.”
Jimmy is remembered fondly by Bill, not just as an excellent businessman, but also as a “great human being”.
“He was open-minded and just fascinated with how our phono cartridge products worked. He took a lot of interest in the art [of DJing], he was genuinely appreciative of the DJ and the artform so he kind of built a relationship with members of those crews and realised that there was something starting here.”
After ascending to prominence with the jukebox and rock ‘n’ roll, then almost disappearing into the analogue abyss created by the CD, turntablism and hip-hop had given the 44-7 a new lease of life. Like the groove of a record, the 44-7 was expertly riding the peaks and valleys of music’s violent evolution.
After 50 years how is it possible that the same design still performs so well? And how did they manage to create a suspension system that would cope with such violent pressures?
Bill says: “It’s not a secret. I’ve told this story many times. And when I travel doing sales presentations on this I would flat-out say here’s why the cartridge performs as well as it does, yet no one’s been able to reverse-engineer it for some reason.”
Bill describes the 44-7 as an example of extreme pragmatism. Everything in it is designed to get the job done. If you actually take apart a cartridge, you’ll find the outer plastic part, which is strictly there for mounting purposes. Inside is a long, rectangular metal structure, and inside that is an insert with coils surrounded by plastic moulding. It’s very light material and very small.
(Left) Inside a needle cartridge - the cantilever moves a magnet in between the coils, (right) different cantilever types
As the tip, or diamond, of the needle runs over the peaks and valleys in the record groove, it vibrates the s-shaped cantilever (the small aluminium tube it is attached to) much faster than the human eye can see.
This, in turn, vibrates a magnet which is attached to the other end of the cantilever, suspended by a donut-shaped synthetic bearing. The magnet moving between coils (that sit around it) creates an electrical charge which is transmitted through the terminal pins that you see sticking out the back. The more accurate the vibration, the more accurate the sound.
The material used for the bearing must have a very specific spongy quality and be cut to precise dimensions because the way this behaves and combines with the spring wire at the back is the key to the suspension system and the excellence of the 44-7. It defines the tracking force of the stylus on the record and allows the cantilever to be thin and stiff enough to produce accurate sound.
So by mixing and matching parts and by keeping the material as light as possible, the 44-7 maintains enough tracking force through the cantilever to provide audio accuracy while under violent forces. It’s particularly noticeable in slow-motion that, even when under severe pressure, the diamond stays rock solid in the groove while the cartridge body shakes all around it.
Bill explains: “The last place to shock-absorb anything is at the stylus level and that wobble that you’re seeing is the bearing and the spring wire, kind of resisting and holding on to make sure that the diamond stays where it is supposed to be. The s-shape also plays a role in that, but what you’re seeing is not so much that, as the bearing and spring wire letting the cantilever shake side to side.”
Back in 1964, skip resistance was a goal for the designers in order to maintain audio integrity, but they could never have conceived of someone wanting to grab the record and move it back and forth. And so it was a happy by-product that a suspension system designed primarily for an audiophile purpose worked fantastically well for turntablists.
Successfully putting all this together requires rigorous testing and it is on this that Shure prides itself. Shure even used to sell records for people to test their own audio set-up, including one to check the resonance of the record player’s tone-arm (to see how much unwanted audio it was adding) - a tonal sweep that would throw the tone-arm completely off the record.
Bill says: “The standards that Mr Shure set are followed very closely. Testing is to some ridiculous, to us it’s a matter of course. It’s what we expect and to which we all hold true."
The main checks would be for vertical compliance (the up and down movement); for frequency response - that the cartridge is representing accurately what’s on the record, and stereo separation - making sure the left and right channels remain as crisp and isolated as possible.
“So those tests are still done today because we are still manufacturing it. We still have to check the product. We archived a few hundred of these test records so we would always have something available to pull out as long as we were manufacturing the cartridge. We provided some of these test records to the Smithsonian and actually a lot of the tests that were done, over the heyday of audiophile phonograph cartridges were kind of defined by the Shure engineers as far as what should be done.”
Something that should not be underestimated is the care and expertise shown in the manufacturing process. Every cartridge is put together by hand at Shure’s own factory in Juarez, Mexico - no outsourcing. The magnet, bearing and spring wire are assembled using a microscope. The diamond is glued on by hand. The cantilevers are formed by a hand-pulled tiny lever – hand-crimped and then all put together. At the final stage, the magnet is magnetised in batches of a few dozen with a small magnetizer. The final product is tested on a machine and then packaged. Bill says some of the employees have been there for 40 years and are like family.
And for the DJs out there - how do you set up a 44-7 properly?
The key is in the overhang, according to Bill. The stylus should hang at the precise point for the particular tone arm it is attached to: “If you’re past - ahead or behind - the proper tangent point for a curved surface, you end up having the wall - because there are two walls - exerting force on that diamond. If you’re going forward, one wall will push harder in one direction than the other wall and, if you go backward, then it will flip the other way.
“So you want to make sure you’re applying pressure in the groove equally on both walls [of the groove] so that you have proper stereo imaging and don’t damage one side over the other either. If you’re at the tangent point the pressure is equal regardless of if you’re going forward or back, and that’s when wobble doesn’t happen.”
There is something fascinating about a phonograph cartridge. The dipping and swaying movements are almost mesmerising as it makes its graceful journey to the centre of the record. It has a tangible quality that we can appreciate more than a CD. We can see the needle touching the record, literally reading the music.
The record needle is also symbolic, and not just of music. The dexterity shown by a person who can manually lift or place the stylus on a record testifies to countless hours spent listening to music and thus their passions and tastes. It also symbolises history and heritage. We may remember our parents using record players and it connects us to them.
The M44-7 is an icon because its journey embodies this nostalgia, because it links our past and present. It poignantly recalls an era inhabited by phonographs when analogue was king, before it traced a path through three technical and cultural revolutions - jukeboxes and rock ‘n’ roll, digital and CDs and hip-hop and turntablism.
Even in the midst of a fourth revolution - digital controller DJing - the cartridge excels. When used in Digital Vinyl Systems (DVS) the 44-7 is just as good at reading digital timecode from a record since the principles are the same. Add to this the recent resurgence in vinyl use and it seems, for now at least, further resuscitation of the M44-7 will not be required.
When I ask Bill how they will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 44-7 I am expecting a big marketing campaign. “We’ll definitely do one of our vinyl sessions - we’ll hang out and play 45s and drink small batch beer” was the answer. This says a lot about Shure as a company - they prefer to let the quality of the products speak for themselves. In our saturated collective consciousness full of advertising white noise, this is refreshing.
“We don’t try to fluff it, that’s just not what we do”, he says. “Others are welcome to do that, there’s nothing wrong with that. But we, as an audio company, stand by old-school audio engineering principles and if it does what we intend it to do, then that’s the success and it’s all the success we need. If it doesn’t do what we intended it to do then we shouldn’t be making it and we’ll fix it.
“Audio is just a beautiful thing and I think this cartridge sums up classical engineering.”
Macho Zapp would like to wholeheartedly thank:
Shure, Bill Needlz, Paul Crognale
Gert J. Almind
Extra special thanks to:
Mark Johnson of www.slowmo.co.uk
For more information on Shure's fabulous cartridge see here.