Thursday, September 27th, 2012 | by Tony SanFilippo
So, I while back I read about the Shure Beta 181 small diaphragm, modular microphone set. If you’re not aware of this mic, it consists of a small threaded mic body with four different, side address small diaphragm capsules. They can be purchased with numerous capsule combinations. The kind folks here at RecordingHacks kindly facilitated an evaluation loan of a set that included two mic bodies, two each of the capsules (Supercardioid, Cardioid, Figure 8, and Omnidirectional), and two A75M universal mic mounts.
I was interested in the mics, first off, because they offer a small-diaphragm bidirectional capsule, which no one else makes these days. [sE Electronics has announced one for the sERN-17. --Ed.] I also like that these are side address mics, because I find side address mics easier to place at times. The fact that there are three additional patterns is a bonus.
As to be expected from Shure, the build quality is excellent. The threading on the mic bodies and capsules is smooth and easy to line up. There are marks on the capsules for pattern, and a small nipple then fits into a small notch on the body. The stereo set comes with a nice padded soft case with cut dense foam to house the bodies, capsules and what I assume to be drum mounts (that I did not use).
Session 1: Drums
The day after the mics arrived, I had a session tracking drums for an up and coming pop/country singer-songwriter. I had cut demos for her with a click track, and now I was ready to rebuild the songs with live drums. I chose the cardioid capsules in an ORTF array using the Shure A27M stereo stand adaptor [see Jon Tidey's review of the A27M, in which he calls it "life changing!" --Ed.]. I really liked the stereo picture of the drums, and I was quite surprised at the tone. So many modern mics are all about the sizzle in the top end (often in a bad way) but the Beta 181 sounded more focused in the midrange and a bit truer in the highs. They gave me a nice picture of the drum set.
The first song had a lot of dynamics, hats, ride cymbal and riding on the rim and all were represented well. There was nice attack and meat from the snare and toms. I cut two songs with stereo OH and full kit miking.Beta 181 pair as ORTF Overhead mics
Full kit mix, including ORTF OH
For the third song, I was playing a very simple pattern with a brush on the SD and cross stick backbeat and BD. I took one of the Beta 181s from the OH and put it on SD to capture the detail of the brush and meat of the cross stick. Again the 181 did just what I wanted it to do.Mono OH plus Snare Mic
Session 2: Guitars
The next day it was time for some acoustic and electric guitars on the same project. I put one bidirectional capsule on one of the mics and left the cardioid on the other. Both sounded really good on electric guitar.
I love getting a little sound of the room from the backside of the mic, while having a good focus on the speaker. I would describe the tone of both capsules on guitar as utilitarian. This is not meant in any way as a bad thing. As sessions can sometimes move super fast, as players have ideas, and as money people want to keep prices down, it’s good to have a mic on a stand that just works on anything you put it in front of.
Session 3: Acoustic Duet
On acoustic guitar for this project I found the 181 a little too dense and big. I often prefer a mic that’s “pre EQ’d” to sit in a mix in a certain place. However, on a project where there was little other than two acoustic guitars, the 181 was really great, giving a full sound representing the whole frequency spectrum nicely. That project was two acoustic guitarists, both singing as they played. I set them up on a 90-degree angle and used a bidirectional capsule on one player, with the other player sitting in the null point. On that player I used the cardioid capsule, so the first player was in his null. I did the same with the vocal mics. Even though the players were just a few feet from each other, I was able to get very good isolation, while capturing 2 live singer/players. I was able to ride up solos without the whole color of the mix changing. The full sound on the acoustics worked great in context.Figure-8 on guitar
Cardioid on 2nd guitar
Session 4: Female Vocal
On that same project I had a female singer come in to cut one background part. As I had recorded the duo with room mics in addition to the close mics, I decided to use a 181 in cardioid close and one in omni for the room. The sounds blended quite well with what we had already tracked. The singer was on her lunch break and we got the take in less than 15 minutes from her arrival at the studio.Female vocal through Beta 181 Cardioid
Session 5: Blumlein Pair on Acoustic Guitars
Next up can the whole reason I wanted to try the Beta 181s: Blumlein Stereo. For those not familiar, Blumlein technique is a coincident pair of bidirectional mics at a 90-degree angle. It gives a good focus on the front of the mics, while still grabbing some nice ambient tones from the backside.
For this session, I had the guitarists facing each other with large-diaphragm cardioid condensers on the guitars, and the Beta 181 in a Blumlein array in the room. I was quite surprised at how much gain I needed on the 181s, again thinking of modern mics that tend to be hotter than an engine block after a four-hour highway drive. [The Beta 181 series has relatively low sensitivity of 2.5–4.7 mV/Pa, which is higher than an SM57 at 1.9mV/Pa, but much lower than Shure's KSM condensers at 15–30mV/Pa. --Ed.]
The sound was great. It was not overly roomy, but gave the pair of guitars a lot of life. I think the pair really helps these recordings quite a bit, as both players were (at first) playing a very popular line of guitars with piezo pickups tailored for stage performance. Luckily one of the players brought a fuller guitar to subsequent sessions. The Beta 181 picked up that guitar nicely too.Full mix with Beta 181 Blumlein array
The patterns and chords these guys play are pretty heavy and dense, and the Blumlein set really did them justice. It’s a much more focused stereo sound than using spaced omni room mics (which I often do). The detail of picking patterns and extended chord tones didn’t get washed out by the room sound, but instead, enhanced.
Session 6: Toms
While I had the mics, I saw an internet posting about someone using the Beta 181 on toms, so when I had two very different bands coming in in short succession, for a unit on recording at Illinois State University, I thought the 181 in supercardioid might just be the ticket. Both bands would be using my house Gretsch drum set in a 4-piece configuration. I tend to be a hardcore Sennheiser Electronics Corporation MD 421-II on toms kind of guy. I’ve tried other things, including Oktava MK012 SDC with supercardioid that a few friends just swear by on toms, but have never gotten the meat and chest thud I love about the 421.
Well, the Beta 181 on toms RULED!!! Big, bold and clear is how I’d describe them. The player in the first of the bands played solid but not with a ton of fineness or power, but the toms still sounded massive. The player in the second band was much heavier handed. All I needed to do was lower the gain on the mic pres, no moving of the mics, and I was golden. The side address allowed me to place the mics nice and close without getting in the way of close cymbals or being visually distracting to the drummers. A room full of students, their teacher (a “known” indie rocker), and members of both bands loved the toms’ sounds.
I was really glad to be able to use these mics on a number of sources to really get a feel for them. I think “versatile” is probably the best word to describe the Beta 181 set of mics. I used them on pop, acoustic, rock and even some reggae influenced music, on a number of sources and players and was able to get really solid results. I only opted to swap a 181 for a different mic once, not because it sounded bad, but because I was able to hear how a different mic would be a more appropriate choice for what I was trying to achieve.
The modular nature allows one to start small and add capsules later, or get the whole kit and caboodle all at once, a feature I think many consumers would be happy about. Being side address aids a lot in placement, and the sounds are solid and very useful. As an added bonus, a brand new, great sounding bidirectional SDC mic is again available to us all. The Shure Beta 181 provides a very useful set of tools for any engineer.