TheAES R84 ribbon microphone offers punchy lows, detailed mids, andexceptional high-end response.FIG.1: This shows the frequency response curves for the R84. The uppercurve is the front (0 degrees) and the lower curve is the rear (180degrees).AUDIOQUALITY5.0VALUE5.0RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO5PROS: Big, gorgeous tone.Superior treble response for a ribbon transducer. Comparable output tosimilar ribbon designs. Lightweight. Affordable. Padded carryingbag.CONS: Short cable. Easilyaudible variation in response between two units.ManufacturerR84Specifications
Element1.8 µmaluminum ribbonPolarPatternfigure-8FrequencyResponse20 Hz-20kHzOutputImpedance270žRecommendedLoad Impedance>1kžSensitivity-52 dBV/94 dBSPL (2.5 mV/Pa)Maximum SoundPressure Level168 dB SPL >1kHzPowerself-poweredDimensions12.0" (H) ×4.0" (max. W) × 2.5" (diameter)Weight1.75lb.
Sometimes the audio industry resembles a time machine gone haywire.One technological innovation promises to rocket us toward the future,while another seeks to re-create the overheated allure of a 40-year-oldtube compressor right down to the virtual-Bakelite knobs. Nowhere isthis time schism more apparent than in the microphone sector, where“back to the future” has been a guiding principle for thepast few years.
The resurgence of interest in ribbon microphones has certainly beena surprising development, made possible largely by advances inengineering and recording technology. But a few intrepid souls —such as Wes Dooley of Audio Engineering Associates — havechampioned ribbon mics all along. Dooley's commitment to the causedrove him to re-create the classic RCA 44 a few years ago. Enthusiasticreviews of that product no doubt inspired another time-traveling tripto the drawing board. But this time, AEA has set the controls for thefuture of recording with the innovative and affordable AEA R84.
SPEC IT UP
Although it relies heavily on the vintage appointments of a classicRCA ribbon mic — right down to the yokemount, hard-wired cable,and rounded red logo set in a chrome band — the R84 is not areplica mic like the AEA R44C. Cosmetically it does recall the roundedcontours of the venerable RCA 77, and the chrome yokemount is similarto the one used on that model.
It should also be noted that the R84 uses the same long low-tensionribbon as the AEA R44C, measuring 0.185 by 2.35 inches, with athickness of 1.8 microns. However, with the exception of the new oldstock RCA ribbon material, this is actually a completely redesignedribbon microphone. AEA's new transducer is primarily intended for useas a close mic for solo and spot mic duties, and to that end the R84'sspecs boast virtually flat response up to 20 kHz (see Fig.1).
The first clue that this is not your grandparent's RCA mic is theweight — just 1.75 pounds, compared to over 7 pounds for a 44!Obviously, the development of lighter magnetic materials has a lot todo with this rather spectacular weight loss and contributes to themic's slim and trim profile. The R84's body is mostly taken up by asturdy wire-mesh grille, with rounded black caps at both ends. At thetop of the mic is a silver graphic that indicates the on-axis andoff-axis sides of the mic's figure-8 pattern.
The 6-foot fixed cable (which AEA informed us at press time has beenincreased to 10 feet), attached with an oh-so-old-school spring strainrelief, is anchored to the black plastic socket at the bottom of theyokemount. This socket also contains a rubber shockmount system toshield the microphone from vibrations conducted through the mic stand.The R84 can be rotated from side to side or swiveled up and down over awide angle around the axis of the set screws at the top of theyokemount.
Instead of a hard case, the R84 comes in a utilitarian padded bag.The drawstring, snaps, pockets, and straps give the impression thatthis mic is ready to go on a camping trip, and the enclosure does seemrugged and thick enough to deal with any wildlife your studio mightoffer!
GETTING ON TRACKS
In a variety of session duties around my Guerrilla Recording studio,the R84 impressed me with its ability to convey forceful lows, richlydetailed mids, and unusually crisp and open highs. Ribbon mics arealways my first choice for electric-guitar recording, and the R84 wasdefinitely a strong competitor in this category.
On a punky “noise-guitar” track, the R84 worked itsmagic to smooth the brittle high end of a Telecaster guitar beingplayed through a clean, solid-state amp. Rotating the mic about45-degrees off axis and positioning it midway between the cone and edgeof the speaker emphasized a fundamental lower-midrange tone thatpleased the band once they heard it on tape, even though this richnesswas not audible in the room.
The R84 also extracted a gorgeous tone with palpable low-end airmovement from a Parker Fly — Vox amp rig in another session. Theresolution, low-level detail, and frequency balance on thisexperimental guitar track was nothing short of amazing. On both ofthese guitar tracks, the Universal Audio 2-610 tube mic preamp was anasset as well.
As a room mic, AEA's lightweight creation managed to impart thatbig, thumpy RCA 44 sound to the diminutive sopranino saxophone. Forthis instrument, the R84 (paired with a Focusrite Red 6 solid-statepreamp) definitely saved the day, rendering a naturalness and tone thatI couldn't have captured on the close mic alone (a Lawson L47MP). Inkeeping with the big-eared signature of vintage RCA ribbons, the R84delivered a superbly warm low end and a focused, realistic timbre at adistance of four feet.
During the same date, as a room mic on a bass clarinet, the R84'smerits were less dramatically apparent, but the microphone was a usefuladdition to the mix nonetheless. Adding a portion of this distant micto the mix rounded out the instrument's tone and added a convincingheft to the low end. For a ribbon mic, the R84 sounded very open andclear, and also provided good 90-degree, off-axis rejection when thatwas needed to cancel out a drum kit in the room.
On a trumpeter who moved around quite a bit and employed a varietyof mutes and unusual techniques, the tight pattern of the R84 wassometimes a disadvantage. When the horn — or its shifting, highlydirectional expressions — approached the side of the R84'sfigure-8 pickup pattern, the sound quickly became murky in the high endand attenuated dynamically. But when the trumpeter stayed on axis, thesound was accurate and always natural. At times, the ribbon transducerand its smooth high-end contour also served to soften the trumpeter'sbuzzy high end.
Although I was did not have the opportunity to test it on anysingers, my studio partner Bart Thurber reported good results using theR84 on female rock vocals. Unlike most condenser mics, ribbonsgenerally have no presence boost to aid vocal intelligibility andexhibit a fairly flat or attenuated high end response above 10 kHz.However, the R84's extra sizzle made it a contender in the vocal booth.As expected, Thurber still had to use some high-end shelf boosting toget the vocal track to cut through, but he was quite impressed with themic's ample tone and its superlative treble response.
TESTING, ONE, TWO
To get additional perspective on the qualities of the R84, I put itside-by-side with a selection of ribbon mics from the GuerrillaRecording vault. I played full-frequency mixes through a small comboP.A. cabinet and auditioned the mic pair, placed about four feet awayfrom the cabinet, on studio monitors in the control room. I used Grace101 preamps to amplify the test mics, and matched levels carefully byear and with meters.
Compared with a Royer SF1, the tone of the R84 was definitelybrighter and more present in the 4 to 6 kHz range, with more low-endthump on kick drum, and a rounder representation of bass guitar. Upagainst this Royer, which I think of as a very flat ribbon, the R84 hada more forward and lively sound. Output levels were very closelymatched with this pairing.
Next to a Royer R-121, I noted that the R84 had a less aggressivemidrange, but again more substantial lows, and it generally had aclearer and more natural-sounding treble response. The R84's output wasabout 2 or 3 dB hotter in this test.
The R84 had a much bigger sound than a Coles 4038, with easilyperceived low- and high-end extension. In particular, the highs on theAEA mic were much more open and crisp; the Coles sounded distant andmuffled by comparison. In this case, output from the R84 was about 2 dBlower.
A vintage RCA 77DX was the only ribbon I tested that had a low-endpunch equivalent to that offered by the R84. This mic's output was alsoabout 5 dB hotter. But like the SF1 and the Coles, the RCA mic didn'thave the high-end clarity that I was now hearing as a trademark of theAEA R84.
I also tested the R84 against a second R84 that I had received fromAEA. In a stereo matching test, these mics showed less of a discrepancythan the mics in the aforementioned test pairs. But there were stillnoticeable differences between the two mics. The first R84 — theone used in the previous tests — did prove to be the brighter ofthe two, with more sizzle around 6 to 7 kHz. The two R84s alsoexhibited different levels of midrange response around 800 Hz, and amore subtle response difference in the lower octaves (below 80 Hz).Because the delicate ribbon elements in these mics have to be tuned andadjusted by hand, such discrepancies are understandable. Additionally,this mic pair was not offered as a matched stereo set, and based on mytests I wouldn't use it as such.
TIE A RIBBON
With its vintage good looks, light weight, affordable price, andgorgeous tone, what's not to like about the AEA R84? I am particularlyenthusiastic about the superior high-end clarity of this new ribbondesign, and its incisive detail has been a real ear opener for me. Myonly quibble is with the relatively short cable. But overall, thisredesigned “back to the future” ribbon mic is a winner inevery way and gets my highest recommendation.
Guitarist, producer, and composerMyles Boisenishead engineer and instructor at Guerrilla Recording and The HeadlessBuddha Mastering Lab in Oakland, California. You can reach him bye-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.