Shure’s truly unique Beta 181 ultra-compact, side-address, condenser microphone is an eye catcher. It attracted more than a few glances upon its debut at last year’s AES Convention in San Francisco, ultimately enough to win a 2010 PAR Excellence Award. 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-of-eight) — the Beta 181 is a modular, flexible microphone solution for both live and studio applications.
The Beta 181 is small, ideally designed to fit in positions where you normally wouldn’t fit a side-address condenser: it is 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 (1 kHz at 1 percent THD with a 1,000-ohm load) of the four capsules range between 149 to 153 dB SPL. Frequencywise, based on Shure provided 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. Their range-wide, upper-mid bump provides the user with 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.).
The most notable physical characteristic of the Beta 181 is, of course, its interchangeable capsules, based on a knurled ring/alignment key/alignment groove design, so 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.
Best of all, Shure does offer these 181 capsules for individual purchase. For example, if you already own a pair of complete Beta 181/Cs, you can buy two extra 181/O capsules for $249 each.
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, performing as you would expect, 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 latter vocal applications were probably the least ideal of all placements, as I would normally choose a larger-diaphragm condenser microphone for close-miked vocals; 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, commenting about it. As a matter of fact, it performs well in a stealthy way (with little flash and fanfare), simply doing the job of a well-built, high-quality condenser microphone that can take high levels of SPL.
But its 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 side-address 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).
Whether live or in the studio, the Beta 181 would serve you as a very multipurpose condenser microphone thanks to its modular design. As such, it is a very interesting addition to Shure’s venerable Beta Series. At $499 street each, 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, Shure style!
Price: $499 and $249 (each, complete and capsule-only, respectively)
Contact: Shure | shure.com
Strother Bullins is the reviews and features editor for Pro Audio Review.