One Cable to Connect Them All: The Making of Shure Plex
From theater to sporting events, lavalier microphones like TwinPlex, DuraPlex and the brand new UniPlex face special conditions and challenges. But a great mic is only as good as its connection. JOHN BORN explains what it took to create the revolutionary SHURE PLEX CABLE.
When working with new lavaliers and headsets, end-users mainly interact with the cable. And typically, when a subminiature microphone fails, it’s usually the cable that fails, not the microphone itself.
One might think when we develop lavaliers and headsets at Shure, we spend all the time on the microphone (to be clear – we do spend a LOT of time developing the microphone!) However, if the cable fails it’s as though the microphone doesn’t matter. In fact, the cable is at least as important as the subminiature microphone itself, as it interacts with the user wearing it, the technician putting it on the singer, actor or person speaking, let alone the audio professional at the mix board.
In mission critical deployments – from NFL referees in the ‘big game,’ the next Hollywood blockbuster, West End’s latest musical, or your favorite award shows – a lavalier or headset microphone, and its cable connection, simply cannot fail.
In early stages of designing TwinPlex mics, I laid the gauntlet down with the team that we need two completely new cables, 50 percent thinner than anything we’d designed, and it had to be an absolute ‘beast.’
Then, of course, we had to define what being a beast actually meant.
To be successful in high-tier, demanding situations, I knew that the cable needed to be highly flexible, paintable (for theater applications), have incredible tensile strength (over 50 lbs.) and lay flat and supple after years in the field. All of these requirements oppose each other in cable design. Our amazing strategic supply department along with our cable commodity team – yes, we have a whole team devoted to cable construction – went to work. We searched for a partner in designing a new cable to our specification and from start to finish. The cable specification, design, iterations and approval took almost four years.
The cable partner that we selected – a specialist in medical cable construction – quickly understood our needs as we immersed them in use cases in the audio world. We tortured the first cable they developed: pull-to-failure, flex-to-failure, chemical reaction, artificial sweat, different paints, pens and markers, electrical specifications – we really ran it through the ringer.
After the first round of flex testing, we realized we were on the right path. The first samples exceeded our benchmark by 20 times! This was due to the unique grounding construction that we co-developed with our partner.
The Shure Plex Cable has dual, redundant grounding, which is typically the first thing that fails in a subminiature lavalier/headset cable. These tinsels reinforce and re-connect the shield throughout the cable. This means that you can have a complete break in the shield in one spot and our grounding tinsels maintain the ground connection at a different location in the cable, ensuring nothing is lost or heard, except your voice.
Additional we also deployed this tinsel technology in the conductors, making the cable extremely flexible and ‘relaxed’ as there is not a traditional copper strand to kink. This allows the cable to lay and route easily, which is really important to anyone who places lavaliers and headsets on talent for a living. It also means that Shure Plex Cables are highly resistant to kinks!
Lastly, an amazing cable is only good as it’s connector. We soon realized we would need all-new designs that not only mate properly with our 1.1 mm and 1.6 mm cables, but actually extend, or add to, the product’s reliability. Working with a leading connector partner, we specified and co-developed new reinforcements in all the major connector types, ensuring that Shure Plex Cables mate with nearly any bodypack.
As mentioned above, start to finish took about four years. From establishing all new specifications and processes and ground-breaking testing (literally, hundreds of samples were destroyed in qualification) we have come to know how to expertly build and test the finest audio connection from microphone to bodypack.
And that means audio professionals, singers, actors, anchors, and audiences everywhere never again have to worry about whether the lavalier and its cable are going to work!