Addressing the unique needs of ribbon mics, Audio Engineering Associates (AEA) has released the Ribbon Pre (TRP; $965), a 2-channel solid-state JFET mic preamp that offers a whopping +84 dB of output gain delivered by a minimalist, low-noise circuit design. With +63 dB of gain at the main gain stage and a secondary control offering an additional +21 dB, the TRP can supply sufficient clean gain for any conceivable ribbon-mic usage. The unit's noise is rated at an impressively low -130 dB EIN (A weighted), and its frequency response is equally remarkable, with a rated bandwidth of 300 kHz (-3 dB down at 6 Hz and 300 kHz).
The Ribbon Pre is a 2-channel preamp designed for use with ribbon mics. It offers +84 dB of gain.
Input impedance can have a noticeable effect on a microphone's performance, particularly with regard to output level, noise, transient response, and frequency response. The ½U TRP's singular design uses a high-input impedance (>30 kΩ) to provide an optimal match for the differing output resistance of various vintage ribbon mics. The preamp also provides DC coupling for superior bass response.
Another unique feature of the TRP is that it does not provide 48V phantom power. One reason for this is that most ribbon mics don't need phantom power (the new phantom-powered ribbons excepted) and can in some cases be damaged by it. Eliminating the 48V phantom supply also contributes to the sonic purity of the device by reducing the number of components in the audio path. This means that AEA's preamp cannot be used with solid-state condenser mics. If connected to an external +48V supply, phantom power is shorted at the TRP's inputs by a built-in protection circuit.
Go with the Gain
Each channel has its own set of controls, arranged symmetrically. The Gain control ranges from +6 to +63 dB, stepped in 5 and 6 dB increments. The Level control is continuously variable and detented at 12 o'clock, which is calibrated at +2.5 dB. Going clockwise from the detent, the Level control boosts the gain up to +21 dB.
When rotated counterclockwise, Level acts as a trim control; at its extreme position, it mutes the audio. Polarity-reverse switches are located to the left of the Gain controls, and 12 dB per octave low-cut switches are to the right of the Level controls. Three LEDs (green for nominal signal, yellow for 0 to +20 dBu, and red for overload warning at +20 dBu) indicate output gain for each channel.
On the rear panel, each channel has a balanced +4 dBu XLR in and out jack and an unbalanced ¼-inch output with 6 dB less level (-2 dBV). The power socket is a 7-pin DIN connector. There are no ¼-inch instrument DI inputs. The TRP has a threaded hole on the bottom of the chassis, and two units will fit on a standard universal rackmounting tray.
Cutting Through the Mix
Although I am a big fan of ribbon mics, I rarely use them for recording vocals; typically (and even with modern ribbons) it is too difficult to get adequate high end and sufficient level with them. But my first studio experience with the TRP changed all that.
In preparation for recording vocalist Julia Shirar of the band Pillows, producer Kent Sparling and I auditioned a number of mics. We finally settled on the Royer SF-1, a flat-response ribbon that dealt well with Shirar's prominent midrange. But even with an assortment of expensive solid-state preamps at my disposal, I still wasn't satisfied with the sound we were getting. Then along came the TRP. Right away I was amazed at the difference that this preamp made on her vocal tracks.
Although I had previously struggled to get this singer to cut through, the TRP positioned her effortlessly in front of the mix with clarity and detail. Here was all the smoothness I had come to expect from a top-flight ribbon mic, along with silky highs that needed little EQ boosting to cut through electric guitar and drum tracks. Transients were crisp and realistic, and I had no problem getting sufficient level to analog tape.
In later sessions I used the TRP with an assortment of ribbon mics on violin, trumpet, and cornet. The tones I got were big and detailed, bringing dazzling new dimensions to some of my favorite mics. The TRP also worked well with one of my trusted tube microphones.
I thought I had sworn off buying new preamps, but the AEA TRP is clearly a must-have to supplement my mic closet. It is an excellent midpriced, 2-channel preamp that works wonders without breaking the bank.
A staggering 84 dB of gain makes the TRP one of the most potent preamps on the market and one of the few optimized for ribbon mics. And it can be used with dynamic and tube condenser mics, increasing its value and usefulness for studio owners.
Value (1 through 5): 5
Audio Engineering Associates (AEA)