Since the TRP has been made as a companion piece to AEA’s highly regarded ribbon mics (and as we haven’t yet presented a review on the AEA R84 ribbon itself, but have heard great things about it), we decided to request the R84 so we could pair it with the TRP and see how the duo performed together.
For the novice: Ribbon mics are a specific breed of dynamic mic that produce sounds by the means of an aluminum (or duralumin) ribbon placed between the poles of a magnet that generates voltages via electrometric induction. This particular design, while effective for getting some unique sounds, is a real hassle to produce — hence the historic high price of said mics.
The R84, like many ribbons, has a typical figure-8 pickup pattern. As with the classic ribbons of yesteryear (RCA 77s, for example) the R84 has a vintage look and feel that is immediately impressive — but it’s the frequency response that really matters here. Having a frequency response greater than that of a typical human’s hearing (20Hz to above 20kHz) and handling an amazing SPL of 165dB, the R84 is truly a multi-purpose mic, unlike many of its predecessors.
Its companion, the TRP, is a two-channel preamp designed for mics that do not require phantom power. The unit’s controls are what you would expect to see in a high quality preamp minus, of course, the 48V switch. Each of the A and B sections have Grayhill series gain switches, level pots, polarity reverse, and high-pass pushbutton switches as well as a power on and three level LED indicators. Around the back of the unit are one set of XLR balanced ins and outs plus 1/4" unbalanced outs. Easy and effective. But how does it sound?
THE DUO AT WORK
Having used this R84/TRP combo on tons of vocal sessions in the past few weeks, I’ve found that this pairing worked either very well, or not very well, depending on the qualities of the singer’s voice. Beginning each session by comparing the R84/TRP to pairs of a similar price point, I ended up settling on the R84/TRP on approximately 50% of the performers. Let me emphasize that it’s not that the couple didn’t sound good on tracks where I ended up using other mic/pre combos; to the contrary, the sound was mostly too good — too glossy, too accurate. The times that I passed on the R84/TRP was simply because I needed different colors that could be added by tube condensers matched with more “effected” pres to cover up the nuisances in some of the performances, or because I wanted a higher output volume, such as I could get from a Royer R122.
Though I first noticed that each side of the mic sounded just different enough to warrant experimenting with the placement (the back, in my opinion, sounded more aggressive than the front), what I ultimately found remarkable is the mic’s directionality. Having the vocalist simply move his or her head from side to side caused a noticeable change in volume. Even more interesting, the only change was in the relative volume, never the timbre. To me this suggests that the mic’s “sweet spot” is very large, which is especially impressive given the R84’s huge size. Considering my experiences with other ribbons where it was difficult to ensure the source signal was hitting the sweet spot at any time, this was a welcome, and positive, change in quality from the rest of the fold.
As with most ribbons, the R84 really beefed up the low end (which in my experience makes it useful for thinner female vocals). Though sometimes this caused a bit of mud around 250Hz, this was easily rectifiable with a bit of EQ in that range, generally resulting in a perfect sound afterward. Still, the R84 is unforgiving — if a vocalist isn’t articulate and doesn’t control any sibilance, it may not be that flattering to them upon playback.
Next was an acoustic guitar — a Martin 0001. I was very impressed with the gloss and tone the R84/TRP gave the track. As it was in a figure-8 pattern, I had to be sure to keep the “unused” side pointed to a quiet location, but that’s a bit of a no-brainer. I noticed on this session that as I moved the mic forward, or off-axis, the quality of the highs started to change. Nothing dramatic though — potentially very useful, in fact.
Turning the input up and the output down on the TRP results in a polishing of the signal. It’s also a very “quiet” box. This was especially apparent when I put the R84/TRP up against a Neumann U87 and a No Toasters Nice Pair pre to grab the room tones for Brian Phillips’ rhythm section. Beginning by placing the mics about 20 feet away from the drum kit, on opposite sides of the room, about 15 feet away from one another, I cranked the gain on the TRP while lowering the output level (the signals of both combinations were going straight into Pro Tools). As the R84 was positioned exactly 90º from the front of the kit, the sound we achieved from the figure-8 pickup pattern was very accurate (surprise) — you could hear the null points as the side of the mic pointed straight at the drums — but the TRP added just the right amount of gloss to make the track sound as if it was already compressed, like I was listening to the R84 through a filter of sorts that, instead of sucking up the articulations, left us with some great tonal nuances. It also picked up just the right amount of bleed from the isolated bass amp to really blend the rhythm sound together.
The ability to easily manipulate the sound of both the R84 (by moving it in different positions) as well as the TRP (by setting up different gain stages) makes both units valuable to me, as they are incredibly flexible. However, don’t expect the R84 to shroud a bad performance; it’s scarily accurate at all times. Both units burst with vintage charm, and if you’re looking at adding a ribbon to your mic locker (and wish to protect it from damaging jolts of 48V), check out this combo before you commit to anything.