I also had a perfect session to try this new mic out on. Singer/songwriter Peggy Honeywell (Galaxia) writes quiet, old-style folk music that would be at home at the Grand Ol’ Opry circa 1948. She plays a steel string acoustic guitar and a banjo and prefers to record herself singing and playing and not to overdub. I thought the smoothness of a ribbon just might work. The AEA R92 needs a lot of gain. The manual says it needs “60–65dB clean gain” to get good levels on anything with a low level source. Peggy sings and plays very delicately and quietly so I reached around for a good preamp. I had been using the John Hardy M2 solid-state pres a lot then so I put the mic in and routed the output to a Summit DCL 200 tube compressor for an additional gain stage and maybe a little peak taming and into Pro Tools. While the John Hardy was quiet enough, it didn’t have enough gain — I found myself making it up too much at the compressor and adding a good amount of noise. I could tell the mic sounded good though. The next thing I reached for was a 1956 Berlant Concertone Series 30 preamp that I got on eBay. This amp had been modded a bit with balanced XLR ins and outs and was very clean. Tons of quiet gain — perfectly fit the tone of the recording. I put the mic about a foot away from Peggy’s face slightly tilted up. Her voice sounded smooth and warm — exactly what we were looking for. I put a pair of AKG 452s through the John Hardys on her guitar to get a clean stereo guitar sound and was amazed at the way the AEA R92’s pattern rejected the guitar. Phase issues were easy to deal with and the recordings sounded great.
Next I had a piano overdub to do for Helene Renaud’s band Beam. I have an old upright grand and I took the front cover off and put the AEA R92 horizontally facing the middle of the strings about a foot away. This time I used a Millennia HV3D mic pre with the +18dB gain switch pushed in. The super-clean mic pre and the relatively quiet R92 performed perfectly for what we needed for the song: A mono, chordal accompaniment that felt smooth and present with a healthy low end — exactly like the piano sounds when you stick your head in it.
We had some flugelhorn overdubs to do later and I knew that the AEA R92 would shine in this situation. Ribbon mics are made for horns. Using the same path — Millennia HV3D pre through the Summit DCL200 compressor — the mic sounded fantastic. Two or three feet away from the bell gave us a buttery yet detailed and dynamic sound that was to die for.
Like I said, never having owned a ribbon mic before, I needed to get some perspective on how this mic stacked up to some classic ribbons. I called a friend who has lots of ribbon mics in his studio’s microphone filing cabinet: Kevin Ink at The Studio That Time Forgot. I asked him if we could do some comparisons with a couple of his favorite ribbon mics. He uncovered an early RCA 44BX that was hanging from a colossal Atlas stand and a RCA77DX (from the studio in Gary, Indiana, where the Jackson 5 did all their early demos) that was similarly hoisted. I took the AEA R92 out of the plastic box that it comes with and handed it to him. “Wow, why is this mic so light?” was the first thing Kevin said. “They must be doing something special with the magnets. . . .” Indeed.
We started by putting all three mics in front of his piano (same situation as mine — front cover off) about a foot away from the strings in the middle all pointed basically at the same spot. Then we put them in front of an upright bass and finally I played some acoustic guitar into each one. He had them all going through Neve 1073s with +70dB of gain. They all sounded good and exactly like you’d expect, but each was different. The 44BX was the fattest with a deep well-balanced low end but not too much detail in the highs. The 77DX was noisy and had smooth lows but an annoying high-mid chirpiness. The AEA R92 had the cleanest, smoothest, most even frequency response but didn’t have the expansive low end that the 44BX had.
Kevin said, “The R92 had more highs and less lows than the 44BX. The high detail was very flattering. All around I’d say that the R92 is a more useful mic than the 44BX — definitely more than the 77DX. I liked the even frequency response. I think it is better than most vintage ribbons for all around usability — especially for the price. But I still gotta have the 44 for sax.”
He suggested for a final test that I try it out on an electric guitar since this is where ribbons also excel. I’ve used Royer and Coles ribbons on amps before and been very happy with the results — so when I plugged the Tele into the Deluxe I was prepared for something nice, but what I got was fantastic. Putting the R92 a little off axis, about 18 inches away from the speaker resulted in a deep, creamy presence without the normally irritating 3.5k brain drill this combo usually exhibits.
But I wanted to test the inherent figure-eight pattern that this mic has so I turned the mic around so the back lobe was facing the speaker and I put a reflective piece of plywood leaning on a stand about three feet in front of the amp so I could pick up the reflection in the front lobe of the mic. After moving the wood around to get the phase to be interesting, I was surprised by a nice, warm, roomy and thick tone. The back lobe has much less highs so it really smoothed out the top edge coming directly off the speaker. I should have been doing this a loooonnnggg time ago.
To sum it all up, this microphone exceeded all expectations that I had. The versatility, the design, the excellent wind-blast protection, the reduced proximity bass boost, the clean, the even frequency response, great high end, and very affordable price make this a must have for anyone looking for a real ribbon to add variety to their sound or to replace some finicky vintage mics. MSRP $900 (www.wesdooley.com)