Every live sound engineer figures that the studio is just another venue, and every studio engineer thinks that live sound would be a piece of cake. Both are wrong. The engineer who does both jobs well learns very soon that the difference between live and studio work is akin to the musical differences between Green Day and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. One is not better than the other, but they are worlds apart in difference.
The same holds true for microphones. Dynamics and condensers are two very different worlds. Generally speaking, dynamics for the stage, condensers for the studio. There are plenty of crossovers, enough that it’s the most general of rules. However, it’s largely one way, dynamics are used all over the studio. Condensers are not found nearly as often on stage. Condenser mics have a weakness on stage that comes from their strength in the studio, and that’s their sensitivity. In the controlled environment of the studio, that sensitivity is manageable. In the chaotic Wild West of the live stage, it’s not. Mic positioning and gain are critical to avoid creating feedback paths. Feedback is the sound of a mic hearing its own output, picking it up again, re-amplifying it, then picking it up again, amplifying it again, then… well you get the idea. Whether high-pitched squealing or deeper uncontrolled roaring, feedback equals bad. In extreme cases it can damage equipment.
Enter the Shure Beta 87A. The intent is clear. Make a studio-sounding condenser mic that can function on the live stage without being a feedback monster.
TIME TO END THE SUSPENSE: They did it. The 87A does give the best of both worlds.
Sign up too to receive Hear the Music updates directly in your Inbox. No spam. You’re safe with us.
Setup and Usability
An XLR mic with no switches or roll-offs, the 87A does require phantom power. As an electret condenser, it doesn’t need that power to charge its condenser capsule, but it does need some power to boost the small signal that’s created from the electret capsule.
Once upon a time, only high-end live mixing boards had phantom power available. Had the 87A been around back then, there’d have been a lot of gigs that you couldn’t use it, because there was no power for it. This is not usually a problem nowadays. Phantom power options are available on most mixing boards, live or studio. I mention this only because there are great old pieces of equipment, built like tanks, still cranking it out years later. If you’re heading into a gig where they assure you there’s a house PA, it’s possible, though less and less likely, that you could encounter such an ancient beast, and your 87A will be dead in the water. If you don’t know what you’re getting into, PA-wise, it’s a good idea to have a dynamic backup for the 87A. Note this is not a downside of the mic. It’s a downside of clubs with old equipment.
Similarly, the tight hypercardioid pattern of the 87A means that positioning is very important for the best sound. But hey, it’s a handheld end-address mic, hard to screw up, right? True. It’s such a nice warm sounding mic, however, you’ll want to use it on other sound sources. The lack of sensitivity that works so well onstage can limit your mic placement options in the studio. Again, not really a downside for the mic, just a personality quirk created by successfully designing its principle purpose.
Yummy. Is that allowed? It’s not very technical of me, but yummy is the word that keeps popping up. I love this mic on female voices in a live setting. To over exaggerate a bad analogy, the SM58 is wool socks to the 87A’s silk stockings. Now, the 58 is a fine sounding mic. If you asked me what I’d recommend to backup an 87A, the SM58 would be on the list. It’s just that the 87A is, well, yummy. It’s the difference between good and great, and the difference is enough that the 58 suffers in direct comparison. (Read my full Shure SM58 Review)
The typical Shure sound is there, presence peaks around 5,000 and 8,000Hz. About 400Hz, response starts to roll off, by design, because like most cardioid mics, the 87A is subject to bass proximity effect. So this natural roll-off, combined with the design of a handheld vocal mic, naturally adjusts for the effect, producing a smooth, natural low end without overdoing it on boomy proximity boosts. This is another incidental that limits the 87A in the studio. When used at typical miking distances of a foot or more, it may sound thin on some instruments. That can be a good thing if you’re recording a full group, but this is not a mic to use on a solo acoustic guitar session.
On stage for vocals, you get a warmth with clarity that can create the polished sound of a large capsule condenser. It works in the studio too, as long as your singer isn’t too far away. Even then, if you’re layering harmonies, keeping some distance from the 87A would actually blend pretty well without building up low frequencies. I’ve said it before. Always try to capture the sound at the mic that is the closest to what you want to hear. Your EQ job will be much easier and the quality of your recordings that much stronger.
The Beta 87A is another indestructible Shure product. Except for lack of a good striking surface, this is a mic that would be comfortable as a hammer on a house framing job. My experience with the 87A is not as extensive as with SM57s and 58s, but I’ve not heard of an 87A failing, and this is supported by user reviews. You just expect Shure mics to top the durability charts and they rarely disappoint.
Here is a video from Shure explaining the differences between several of their microphones:
One, count em, one 1-star review, and it sounds like that guy was dealing with a counterfeit supplier. His mic was awful, he got one exchange, even worse, and then the company abandoned him. That is not Shure, or a reputable music retailer.
Counterfeiting the 87A is a tempting proposition, since it’s a $250 mic. Shove the same lousy electronics in it as in a counterfeit SM58, which sells for $100, and the counterfeiter clears another $150. Watch where you source your mic and make sure you’re buying from a reputable source.
Otherwise, the reviews are glowing. Many users talk about how good this mic sounds with no EQ at all, how it seems more open and airy than similar dynamic mics, and there are endless comments praising it as a stage mic. The usual machismo low star reviews are notable in their absence.
This is a terrific one-mic solution if you’re looking for a vocal condenser that can handle the stage. It comes close to the big condenser performance, but doesn’t quite match the performance of large capsule condensers in similar price range. If your mic will never leave the studio, those are probably a better way to go. They won’t, however, help you out at a live gig the way the Shure Beta 87A will.
Sign up to receive Hear the Music reviews directly in your Inbox with no spam other than my bad analogies. And agree, disagree or want to talk more about wool socks, just leave a comment below. We love to hear what your experiences have been with these products. Share today!