CTA Tests: Shure Beta 181 & KSM353

I’ve been wanting to get to these tests for quite a while, but haven’t had the time to go through the audio files. A few months ago, I took into my possession a demo of the new Shure Beta 181 and new to Shure KSM313. While I had them both at the same time, it never quite worked out that I was able to get recordings of both mics on the same guitar cab at the same time. We played with both mics for a few weeks each, and used the KSM 313 extensively during Good Friday and Easter weeks. 

I also brought the 313 home for a few weeks to let my daughter do some recording with it. We tried it on acoustic guitar and wow, did it sound good. As a side note, we also had a demo KSM 353 that we also tried on the acoustic. While we weren’t happy with those results, it was a stellar vocal mic, at least with her voice. Actually, we recorded both my daughters on the 353 and both came through with tons of richness, warmth and clarity. But that’s another post.

Now, this is not an ideal mic shootout or review. I wasn’t able to get the same source recorded with both mics (plus my normal mic for reference), so it’s a bit hard to make fair comparisons. So while I’m including audio tracks of both mics, take them for what they are; different songs played on different days by the same player, with the same guitar and amp setup. It should be noted that these recordings were made on our rhythm guitar, not the lead.

Shure Beta 181 with a cardioid head.

The Beta 181 is an interesting mic. It’s a small diaphragm, side address condenser mic with interchangeable heads. Available patterns include, cardioid, hyper cardioid, omni and figure eight. Shure recommends it for acoustic piano, acoustic guitar, snare, acoustic bass and percussion. But I’m looking for a new electric guitar mic, so that’s what I tried it on. 

The 181 was up first in our testing, and I noticed an immediate difference in the house. Our normal electric guitar mic is a Sennheiser e609, which works OK, thought I’ve never been crazy about it. It works, but I’m not in love with it. The 181 was at once considerably more crisp and detailed than the 609, and it was much easier to get the electric to sit right in the mix. Our worship leader also liked it quite a lot in his ears.

As you’ll hear in the audio sample, it’s quite detailed with a nicely extended high end. Some of the low end grunt is missing, but that’s partly the clip I have available. I chose a few sections of the song to highlight how the mic sounds like with various levels of guitar distortion as well as lighter picking.

After a few weeks of it, I was reasonably happy with the sound we got out of the mic. Priced around $500 with one capsule, it is an interesting option. Honestly, while it sounded good, I’m not sure I’d use it for the electric. But that’s partially because I got really spoiled with the next mic.

Shure KSM 313. The ribbon is made of Roswelite. Apparently, it's alien.

The KSM313 came to Shure from Crowley and Tripp. It’s an side-address ribbon mic that retails for around $1300. The 313’s most intriguing feature is the dual-voice design. Addressed from the front, the response is pretty flat out to about 6K where it rolls off pretty dramatically. They call this the “warm and full response for amplified instruments.” Turn it around and the response hangs in there out to 10K before rolling off pretty quickly. This is the “bright for flattering vocals” response. 

We tried both sides on the guitar cab, and actually preferred the flatter response. One item of note is that Shure recommends flipping the polarity of the mic when addressing it from the rear. 

Frequency response curves of the front and back of the KSM 313

When I first heard it, I immediately fell in love with it. It sounded warm, rich and hand plenty of texture. I didn’t feel like I needed to push the guitar up in the mix to make it sit right. It just worked, at least with our band. I used almost no EQ and found it almost effortless to get the guitar sounding just the way I wanted. 

Interestingly, our worship leader didn’t like it at all in his ears. He described it as sounding like there was a blanket over the amp. Everyone that heard it in the house however, agreed that it sounded simply wonderful. There is one negative to the mic; the mic stand mount is stupidly over-engineered. It’s way too complicated, uses too many parts and takes way too long to set up. I would much rather have a simple spider mound for it. 

By now you may think that I’ve purchased the mic, but you’d be wrong. I would like to, but I’m having a hard time justifying the price tag. Yes, it sounds amazing, and yes I would love to mix with it every week. However, we don’t have a second electric every week. In fact, some months we don’t have a second electric more than once. So it’s really hard to justify over $100 a weekend for a year to make the electric sound better. Yes, it’s a noticeable improvement over our current e609, but $1300 worth? That’s hard. I have a lot of other things that I need to buy first, so this is going to have to wait. However, if Shure gave me one, I would use it every single time I had a second electric and would even tweet about it. 

Again, this is not an exhaustive test, but more of a taste of what these mics sound like. Truth be told, they’re both good mics and would be a good addition to a mic locker. Whether they are useful for you depends on your needs and what you have already.

A few notes about the audio files. They were recorded in Reaper straight off the MADI bus, right after the A/D conversion. There was no EQ or compression applied during recording, or with the edited files. I normalized them, but that’s it. They are 256 Kbps MP3 files for your listening enjoyment. Feel free to download them and listen at your leaser. As I mentioned earlier, they are recordings of different songs, on different days. The guitar, amp and player are all the same, however. 

Beta 181 Audio Sample (click to play, right click to save)

KSM 313 Audio Sample (click to play, right click to download)

Sennheiser e609 Audio Sample (click to play, right click to download)