Shure’s truly unique Beta 181 ultra-compact, side-address, condenser microphone is an eye catcher. Featuring a gunmetal blue preamp/body and four variations of capsules—181/C cardioid, 181/S supercardioid, 181/O omnidirectional, and 181/BI bidirectional (figure-ofeight)— the Beta 181 is a modular, flexible microphone solution for both live and studio applications ($499 body and one capsule; $249 individual capsules).
The Beta 181 is small: 4.9 inches long, 1.36 inches at its widest point (the lollypop-style capsule), with a 0.8-inch diameter body. It can handle high SPL levels; max. SPL ratings (1 kHz at 1 percent THD with a 1,000- ohm load) of the four capsules range between 149 to 153 dB SPL. Based on Shure specifications, each capsule is relatively flat from 50 Hz to around 3 kHz, where each has a significant presence peak ranging from +3 dB (181/BI) to +7 dB (181/O) until a rather sharp drop-off, across all capsules, at 15 kHz. The response provides what I’d describe as the desirable “Beta Sound,” the one that works especially well in defining transient sounds (string plucks, percussion, vocal detail, etc.).
Changing capsules is extremely easy at any stage of microphone placement. Simply turn off phantom power, unscrew the cap’s knurled ring, slide the alignment key (on the front of the cap) in the body’s key groove (or out), and then tighten the selected cap’s knurled ring down tight. I must note how extremely rugged and trustworthy these interchangeable capsules feel.
Over the span of several months, I used a collection of Beta 181 microphones— a pair per capsule type for a total of eight microphones. Pattern-wise, each of the capsules offered “textbook” accuracy in all applications I threw their way, in both stage and studio environments: drums (with 181/C, 181/S and a pair of 181/BI in stereo on snare, toms, kick drum/beater side, hi-hat and ride), percussion (181/C and 181/O on shaker and tambourine), acoustic guitar (181/C and a pair of 181/O), guitar speaker cabinet (181/C), and both male and female vocal (181/C).
The vocal applications were probably the least ideal uses; yet, especially in live applications, using the Beta 181 on a vocal was physically unobtrusive, and the performers seemed to enjoy using the visually unique mic.
The Beta 181’s physical attributes are what make it so easy and enjoyable to use, in a number of ways. Once the Beta 181 bodies are in place, trading caps in a hurry is a breeze. Being a relatively tiny sideaddress condenser, I was able to get it in tight places that would normally be impossible, or imposing to the musician (such as a Beta 181/BI between snare and hi-hat).
The Beta 181 serves as a very multipurpose condenser microphone thanks to its modular design. Multitasking pro audio types will want at least a pair of cardioid 181/ Cs, a supercardioid 181/S cap or two if working live, then a pair of omni 181/O caps, two 181/BI caps for Blumlein stereo apps…collect ‘em all!