The Shure Beta 181 Condenser Microphone
Slim, easily positioned mic provides a natural drum sound
A long time ago in a galaxy far away, to enhance producer aspirations, I took a studio engineering course. Much of the knowledge acquired is completely obsolete today, barring an industry-wide return to the necessity of painstakingly splicing Ampex 456 master tape. But one aspect that has not changed is the critical importance of choosing the right microphone for a given application, and the ability to position that mic effectively. Even as “just a drummer,” I knew that when an engineer or soundman asked, “Is that in your way?,” what he or she really meant was, “Are you going to accidentally hit and damage our expensive piece of equipment?” The Shure Beta 181, introduced in 2010, addresses this issue, both for studio use and live sound reinforcement.
The Shure Beta 181 measures only 4 3/4 inches, compared to the full six inches of the dependable, indestructible SM57, and it’s much lighter, too. As opposed to a switch to change between cardioid, omnidirectional and bidirectional (“figure-8”) patterns, the Beta 181 features interchangeable “capsules,” including the three above plus a supercardioid option.
The process of attaching the capsule is foolproof. Shure has ingeniously designed-in an “alignment key” (a slightly raised nub on said capsule) that fits specifically into the “alignment groove” to connect with the six-gold-pin internal socket. A Shure logo denotes the front of the microphone, and the final step is tightening a knurled screw-ring. The mic I was sent for review is the Beta 181/C (Cardioid), which ships with a protective zip case, universal mount adapter, stand clip holder and windscreen. The complete mics retail for $499 each; the individual capsules are available separately at around $249 each.
Thanks to Frank Todd, recording engineer at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., we were able to put this condenser microphone—which requires phantom power from a mixer or high-impedance preamp and balanced XLR cables—through some critical diagnostic testing to demonstrate its impressive qualities. Full disclosure: If he had started talking about Pascals, microbars or the Inverse Square Law, my eyes would have glazed over and I would have started replaying Coltrane/Elvin duets in my head. Instead, Frank objectively pointed out the microphone’s salient characteristics. The small diaphragm produces consistently true sound, with a virtually flat frequency response from at least 50 to almost 10,000 Hz, where it spikes a bit and then deals with lower dB levels around 20,000 Hz. This is one transparent tool, adding nothing to the source sound.
Although Shure promotes the supercardioid capsule version for close-miking the snare, all except the supercardioid for drum overheads, and the bidirectional specifically for “dual sound sources,” the 181/C is acceptably versatile enough for all those uses. This unidirectional configuration picks up directly only from the front and fairly from the sides, while the back remarkably rejects all input. So, for instance, one could position this mic properly over the snare and not have to worry about it inadvertently capturing from the rear the “air breath” exhalation of hi-hat cymbals closing. With some finessing, it functioned as a single overhead for a jazz snob like yours truly who prefers Rudy Van Gelder’s classic “less-is-more” drum-set recording method. Speaking of the “less-is-more” approach, for a third example, the 181/C can easily and successfully handle a solo gig between two mounted or floor toms, congas or bongos. And it works well for other acoustic instruments, including, but not limited to, piano, guitar and bass.
The Beta 181 is a precision-engineered, superior microphone that is significantly more compact than most others in this high-quality range, enabling ultra-flexible positioning. The hardened steel-mesh grille is both ruggedly sturdy and aesthetically pleasing: no output noise or leakage, and enhanced isolation. Yeah, Shure!
Jim Miller is a Philadelphia-based drummer and the founder of the Dreambox Media label. In addition to recordings with Gerald Veasley, Jim Ridl, Denis DiBlasio and many others, Miller has released two albums of his own compositions. Visit him online at www.dreamboxmedia.com.