Ribbon Mic Summit

Ten top engineers share their favorite techniques.

Although condenser and dynamic microphones still dominate most personal studios, ribbon mics are gaining in popularity. More products are now available, covering nearly every price category, so it's not surprising that engineers at every level want to take advantage of the unique recording characteristics that ribbon mics offer. The question most frequently asked is, how do you use them?

To answer this question, I asked ten world-class engineers about how they use ribbon mics on a wide range of instruments and in unusual recording situations. The ribbon enthusiasts were (in alphabetical order) Chuck Ainlay, Joe Chiccarelli, Steve Churchyard, Wes Dooley, Ross Hogarth, Eddie Kramer, John Kurlander, Al Schmitt, Bruce Swedien, and Dusty Wakeman. Their collective recording experience spans nearly every musical genre — rock, pop, rap, jazz, country, classical. Printing a list of their credits — most of these guys are Grammy winners — would take up several pages. So rather than name-drop, I will point you to their Web sites in case you want to research their credits further.

In the interviews, when an engineer mentioned a mic by name for a given application, it was for its sound, features, durability, or a combination of those characteristics. Products by Audio Engineering Associates (AEA), beyerdynamic, Coles, RCA, and Royer came up frequently. Despite the specific mic recommendations, all of the techniques in this article can be applied using any ribbon mic. If you can't afford a classic RCA 44 or 77, let alone an AEA, Coles, or Royer of more recent vintage, there are many less-expensive alternatives that will allow any personal studio to begin working with ribbon mics on nearly any budget. (For a roundup of 13 currently available ribbon mics, check out “Ribbon Revival” at www.emusician.com.)

Two Mics in One

If you are new to ribbon mics, note that there are a couple of important rules to follow. First, never allow a blast of air to directly hit a ribbon mic. The ribbon is thin and relatively fragile, so a misdirected sneeze or cough (or even slamming your mic case shut) can stretch the ribbon and change its sound.

Second, with the exception of the Royer R-122 or SF-24, don't use phantom power on a ribbon mic. “If you have a bad cable where one side shorts out, or you have a bad power supply, you know it immediately with ribbon mics because they go dead,” mic designer and forensic audio specialist Wes Dooley (www.wesdooley.com) explains. “If you send 48V DC to it, it launches the ribbon out and snaps it.” He also suggests storing long ribbon mics vertically to keep the ribbon from sagging, and covering them when they're not in use to protect them from wind and “tramp iron” (the fuzz that covers a magnet after it has been dragged through sand).

Abbey Road veteran John Kurlander (www.studioexpresso.com/profiles/johnkurlander.htm) suggests keeping the cable between a ribbon mic and the preamp as short as possible. “With a mic like the AEA R44 that comes with 5 or 6 feet of cable attached to it, I try to take the mic pre to the mic, placing it on the floor next to the stand. If it's a mic like a Coles 4038, which doesn't have a permanently attached cable, then I use the shortest cable possible.”

Although there are a number of exceptions — including the multipattern RCA 77 and BK5, and the hypercardioid beyerdynamic M 160 and M 260 — the majority of ribbon microphones have figure-8 patterns. Joe Chiccarelli (www.studioexpresso.com/profiles/joechiccarelli.htm) notes that the figure-8 pattern is often used to pick up the ambience of the recording space. “In a sense it's kind of like having two mics in one. And it comes down to working with the mic's position.”

“Try to find the best placement in the room for the instrument,” says Ross Hogarth (www.hoaxproductions.com). “You should use the room as your friend, not foe.”

Vocal Tracking

Since the days when crooners ruled the airwaves, ribbon mics have been used to round out singers' voices. “For vocals sometimes I'll use an RCA 44, but it depends on the song,” Steve Churchyard (www.stevechurchyard.com) says. “They've got a very smooth top end, so with just a little bit of EQ they really come to life. But it has to be the right song and the right singer. It doesn't always work, so usually I'll have a condenser running simultaneously, and I note as we're doing sound check if it's working for the song. Typically I'll set up two mics: a tube Neumann U 47 and a ribbon mic alongside it. The singer stands 8 or 9 inches from the mic. You don't want to get too close, and you want a really good pop shield as well.”

Nashville-based engineer Chuck Ainlay (http://chuckainlay.com) also uses a 2-mic approach on vocals. “Sometimes I'll use a condenser mic with a ribbon mic right beside it or underneath it, and blend the two. I probably wouldn't use a ribbon as the only microphone on a vocal, because it usually doesn't have the air that I'm looking for. But sometimes it helps to fill out the sound, because a condenser can sometimes be too harsh on things, such as a female vocal.” (For an in-depth view of Ainlay at work, see the article “Mix Magic on Music Row” at www.emusician.com.)

Bruce Swedien (Quincy Jones/Duke Ellington/Paul McCartney) notes that he used ribbon mics to record Michael Jackson's backing vocals. “Michael sings all his own background parts, and they're really well sung: pitch and articulation and everything. After I do one pass with Michael singing the first harmony, I'll move him back 4 feet for the second pass, so there are more early reflections in the sound. And then I raise the level of the second pass so that it matches the first. It enriches the content of the early reflections and makes a gorgeous sound.”

Eddie Kramer (www.kramerarchives.com) gained his signature sound with Jimi Hendrix by taking advantage of the hypercardioid pattern of the beyerdynamic M 160. “When I started recording Hendrix, I used the dual-ribbon M 160, and it saved my ass because I could record him singing live in the studio while he was playing, without much leakage.

“Not only did it work well for the vocal, I started using it on his amp,” Kramer continues. “And I discovered this beautiful silky sound. What it did was it took some of the harshness of the Marshall away.”

Totally Amped

Using a ribbon mic on a guitar amp is extremely popular. The most common application is to put the mic close to the speaker grille, pointing directly at the cone. But everyone I interviewed agrees that finding the exact position is key to getting a sound that works for the song.

Like many of the others, Kramer takes it further by augmenting the ribbon sound with other mics. “My normal miking will be right up close on the grille. I like that presence and the crunch — right in your face. But I will experiment depending on what the guitar player's doing. If he likes a lot of crunch and a lot of air, and there's a lot of woof from the amp, I might back the mic up a foot away. But I like to go dead center on the middle of that cone. I want to get that edge.

“I use four microphones quite often on a Marshall amplifier. I use the beyerdynamic M 160 when I can, but it's rarer now. Ninety percent of the time I use a Royer R-121, a Shure SM57, a Sennheiser 421, and a Neumann U 67. Each one has its own unique characteristic. Think about it: 57, dynamic cardioid; 421, dynamic, but with a totally different tone attached to it; the Royer ribbon at the complete opposite end of the spectrum; and a U 67, totally the other end. And when you combine those in a specific manner, you get all the variety and impact that's available to you.”

But Kramer notes that inevitably you get into a situation where multiple miking techniques do not work. “So you just pull each mic down until you find the one that does work. I often find that the killer combination is usually either a single Royer, a single 57, or a 57 and a Royer. And that's the sort of de facto guitar tone.”

Churchyard is also a fan of that combination. “The R-121 makes the guitar sound like it does to the guitarist in the room. It doesn't have the exaggerated midrange that the 57 has. If I combine the two, I might put the 57 right on the cone, and offset the ribbon to one side, on the same speaker, slightly apart, so the phase is coherent. If I use the Royer by itself, I'd probably put it dead center.”

FIG. 1: Like many engineers, Ross Hogarth combines several different mics on a electric guitar speaker to create a tone to match a particular song. His typical setup includes (L. to R.) a Sennheiser 421, a Royer R-121, and a Shure SM57. [photo by John Jennings]

“I've been using ribbons through my whole career, starting with RCAs, beyers, and Coles,” Hogarth says. “With Motley Crüe, we were using RCA 77s and 44s on the Girls, Girls, Girls record. But now, with the advent of the Royers, which you can shove right up on a speaker and not blow them up, I haven't done a guitar in about ten years without a ribbon mic right up on the speaker.”

Hogarth combines three mics on guitar amps: generally an SM57, a 421, and an R-121 (see Fig. 1). “It's always a balance. If I'm doing metal or really heavy guitar, I will use less of the Royer because it's going to get too big on the bottom: what ribbons give you is the fatness. Also, there's a midrange push to ribbon mics that you don't get out of either condenser or dynamic mics. But depending on where the guitar needs to be placed in the mix, you're going to have to balance between the microphones. That's why I like to use extra microphones instead of adding EQ or taking frequencies away. I use the microphones like EQ.”

The style of music largely dictates how an amp is miked, and Dusty Wakeman (www.maddogstudio.com/dusty.html) offers an alternative to the previous suggestions. “I love the sound of a ribbon mic about 2 feet back from the amp. I do a lot of roots music: I'm not going for a huge, modern-rock guitar sound. When you're back about 2 feet, point the mic toward the center of the cone, because you're getting plenty of room sound at that distance. Moving the mic forward or backward will really change the balance of the direct to the ambient signal. You have to be in a good-sounding room to do that, though. You can't do it in your closet because it'll sound like a closet.”

FIG. 2: To get a big guitar sound from an open-backed amp, Chuck Ainlay points an SM57 at the front of the speaker, while simultaneously miking the back of the amp with the back of a Royer R-121. By pointing the back of the R-121 at the rear of the speaker, you keep both mics in phase.

The Turnaround

Ainlay also suggests combining a ribbon mic with an SM57, but he adds a twist. “Sometimes I'll place the ribbon mic in back of an open-back cabinet and turn the microphone around backwards, and then mix that in with a 57 in the front [see Fig. 2]. Obviously, the back of the speaker is the opposite phase of the front of the speaker: if you turn the ribbon microphone backwards, so that the back of the microphone is facing the speaker, you're putting the microphones in phase with each other. It makes a huge guitar sound.

“I place the ribbon mic about 3 or 4 inches from the back of the cabinet,” Ainlay continues. “You have to put the front mic up close to the speaker. You don't want it too distant, or you're going to have time smear.”

Rather than reach for the EQ, some engineers suggest using the back of a ribbon mic to brighten up the sound of an instrument. “Sometimes a ribbon close on an electric guitar amp gives you a nice, chunky, lower-midrangy kind of tone,” Chiccarelli explains. “But if I feel like the sound I want is close but a bit dark sounding so I want to brighten it up just a bit without using any EQ, I will flip the mic around. The back side of some ribbon mics is a bit brighter.”

“You can turn the mic around and use the back side if you want an acoustic guitar to sound a little brighter,” says Wakeman. “You can also do vocals on the back of the mic and they sound great.” But he notes that it depends on the sound of the singer's voice “and how much brightness you need for the track.”

Acoustic Guitar

Al Schmitt (www.studioexpresso.com/profiles/alschmitt.htm) prefers using ribbons on acoustic instruments, and guitar was one instrument he singled out in our interview. “If it's got an f hole, I might place the mic about 8 or 10 inches from the bottom one. You have to listen and see where the sound is, because every guitar is a little different. Moving the mic an inch or two makes all the difference in the world: you really have to listen.”

FIG. 3: Hogarth captures the player''s perspective when he records an acoustic guitar by placing a stereo ribbon mic over the player''s head. [photo by John Jennings]

Chiccarelli used ribbon mics to track jazz guitarist Peter White, whose nylon-string guitar presents its own recording challenges. “I've used the Royer R-121 on his nylon-string guitar and gotten great results. The ribbon is a lot slower on the transients, and a nylon guitar played with fingers can be a little spiky, attackwise. The ribbon definitely softens that.” In terms of placement, Chiccarelli will start by aiming the mic above the sound hole, where the neck meets the body, anywhere from 6 inches to 2 feet from the guitar.

Hogarth, on the other hand, has a distinctive — and personal — way of miking an acoustic guitar. “We all mic guitars at the 12th fret or the sound hole, but that's not where I hear the guitar, unless I'm in front of the guy. Because I'm a guitar player, I've always wanted to capture what it sounds like to me when I'm playing the guitar. To do that, I place a Royer stereo ribbon mic right over the head of the guitar player [see Fig. 3].” Hogarth adds that you should turn down the player's headphones to avoid bleed-through.

Ainlay says a ribbon mic is the ultimate mic on two other acoustic string instruments: the banjo and the Dobro. “They're kind of noisy instruments, and ribbons sound really great on them. I mic the Dobro about 6 inches away, on the portion of the resonator away from where the right hand is picking.”

He also mics the banjo head from the same distance. “I just try to mic an instrument where I'm out of the way of the musician. And I'll move the mic around a little bit if it's too bitey because it's close to the bridge.”

Call of the Drums

Using ribbon mics on drums is a classic sound, whether it's out front or overhead. “I use either a Coles 4038 or an RCA 44 in front of the kit — 3 or 4 feet back — to get a big, mono drum sound,” explains Hogarth. “To me there's nothing that does that like a ribbon mic. U 47s do a pretty good job of getting the top end and the smack, but nothing grabs the low end, and the fat, and the punch like a mono ribbon mic in front of a kit.

FIG. 4: Ainlay''s mid-room mic blends together the most important elements of the drum kit—snare, kick, and hi-hat.

“It's generally placed waist high: I don't go down to the floor with it,” Hogarth continues. “I move around the studio and feel where the low end goes away, and I don't go any farther away from the kick drum than that. There's a point where you really feel the punch, and then you go farther back and it's more like a room mic.”

Ainlay's approach involves putting an R-121 about 3 feet in front of the kit (see Fig. 4). “I call it my ‘midroom mic,''” he says. “It offers a nice overall drum representation that I can mix in with the other drum mics. I place the mic off center from the kick, out from the snare drum, about 4 feet up from the floor. Then I listen to the mic and move it around until I get mostly snare, but a nice blend between kick, snare, and hat. And then I just totally smash it with a UREI 1176.

“I almost always record three room mics: a pair of spreads further away to get the ambience of the room, and the midroom mic, which, on its own, sounds great all smashed out like that. I can just mix that in with the close mics, and it fills out the drum kit and makes it sound more real.”

FIG. 5: Chiccarelli uses a spaced pair of ribbon mics, focused at the bass drum, to get a rocking drum sound.

Chiccarelli says his favorite thing is to put a pair of ribbons in front of the kit (see Fig. 5). “I place them 3 to 5 feet in front of the kit, with about 5 to 8 feet of separation between them, and maybe 2 to 3 feet above the floor. They're about the height of the kick drum or the floor toms, and angled in a little toward the kick drum, almost like a triangle between the kick drum and the two microphones. And sometimes that's my only pair of room mics for the drums.

“I find that it gives a lot of weight to the kit,” Chiccarelli explains. “There's that chunky, almost Bonham-esque kind of low end that you can get from a pair of Royer R-121s or R-122s. Occasionally I'll use Coles 4038s. The older ribbons don't work as well for me in this situation. They're kind of soft and dark, and not punchy. That's the one thing about the new ribbon mics: they're not condensers, certainly, but they feel faster and more aggressive than an old RCA.

“If I'm using them as my only pair of room mics, I'll compress them with whatever seems appropriate,” Chiccarelli adds. “If I'm blending those in with other room mics, I may not compress them. But I may compress the other room mics.”

Kicking It

Dooley relates a classic bass-drum miking technique used in the studios of Capitol Records for decades. “The frequency response of an RCA 44 goes down solid to 20 Hz, but you'd blow the mic out if you aimed it right into the bass drum. What Capitol would do on all the pop sessions from the '40s up into the '70s is take the bass drum with no head on the front, throw a sandbag inside it, which tends to keep it in place nicely, and then lay a 44 on top of that, so the 44 is laying flat and aiming towards the inside top of the bass drum shell. You also get the sound of whatever resonance there is from side to side inside the kick.”

FIG. 6: Dusty Wakeman uses the bi-directionality of the Royer R-121 to capture both the front of the bass drum head (aiming the positive side of the mic at the beater) and the bottom head of the snare drum. He then flips the polarity of the mic by 180 degrees to make it phase coherent with the mic pointing at the front head of the bass drum and the mic on the top of the snare drum.

Wakeman suggests another interesting way of using a ribbon mic on the bass drum — on the beater side of a kick drum (see Fig. 6). “Place it between the beater and the bottom of a snare, pointing at the beater. In this application, you're taking advantage of the bidirectional nature of the mic. If you point it on an angle, you can use it for both the beater side of the kick drum and to get the bottom of the snare coming in the back side of the mic. Then you reverse the phase on the ribbon mic, so that it puts it both in phase with the front of the kick drum and the top of the snare. If you compress that, and you bring it up in the mix, you get a lot of size. You want the mics to be electrically in phase, and you'll know instantly if they are in or out once you hit your phase button.”

Listening from Above

Hogarth also uses ribbon mics to “detoxify” the hi-hat. “The thing I like about ribbon mics is the warm, muted top end instead of the bright, splashy top end you would get out of a condenser mic. So if you want to make the drums a little more jazzy or punchy, use them as overheads. But the problem is that because of the figure-8 pattern, you're going to get the ceiling. So you have to be careful that you have a decent-sounding ceiling or else you'll end up having a boxier sound than you really want.”

Many of the engineers — Ainlay, Hogarth, Schmitt, and Wakeman — use the Royer SF-24 stereo ribbon mic, with its Blumlein pattern, as a drum overhead. “I raise and lower it in height depending on how much spread I want to get, and how much focus I get at the center of the snare drum,” says Wakeman. “The lower you get it, the wider the stereo spread is going to be. But you want to get it high enough that the cymbals sound good.”

Although Churchyard uses ribbons only as overheads on drums, he prefers to use a spaced pair. “I like the Coles 4038 as an overhead mic. It makes the kit sound really musical. I put one over the area of the snare and hi-hat, and one over the area of the floor tom, usually about 2 to 3 feet apart, and about 6 or 7 feet above the kit — far enough away so the drummer doesn't hit them.” On occasion, he'll add a touch of compression to the overheads, with a ratio of 2:1 or 4:1.

Shaking All Over

Ribbon mics are also great for taming the rough sounds of hand percussion. “When recording shakers,” Hogarth says, “I want them fatter: I don't want them spittier. So I usually add some midrange EQ. When you listen to the Rolling Stones, those shakers are all in the 500 Hz to 2 kHz range of the mix. They're crunching away in a good way; they're not spitting away. They're not 10 kHz shakers. They're not 5 kHz shakers. They're lower. I find that ribbon mics bring out those frequencies by muting the top end in a nice way.”

“I just did a Brazilian album and used two Royers as a Blumlein pair on maracas,” notes Swedien. “You may think this would give you a big pickup pattern, but it doesn't. I purposefully kept it very small, and the resulting sound is fantastic. And it's not mono: it's not a single-point source, but it's not moving around the stereo space.

“When you use a Blumlein pair on a single-point source,” he continues, “you preserve the polar response of the sound source, so you don't lose the width. The sound moves, but it doesn't move in an apparent fashion. It moves with the spectrum — very much like you would hear it live in a band.” (See the sidebar “Thinking Ahead with Ribbon Mics.”)

Swedien also points out an interesting way to record hand drums.

“I use one of the ribbon mics very, very close. Then, if I have a good studio — one that is fairly free of peaks and valleys in its response — I will put the other mic across the room. Then I record both mics at the same VU. The result is very interesting to the ear.”

Ribbons and Keys

Ainlay's use of the stereo Royer extends to the piano. “I use the stereo Royer with a pair of condenser microphones inside the piano. I'll put the ribbon microphone where the curve of the piano is, a couple of inches down from the lid, and just outside the lid. This gives me a nice stereo spread of the piano. I mix that in with the two microphones that are inside the piano, and it fills it out wonderfully.”

Churchyard also uses condenser mics on a piano, but with a mono ribbon added to fill in the sound. “I'll mic the piano high and low with a pair of condensers, such as U 67s or U 47s. Then I'll put a Royer or an RCA 44 sitting above the piano, on the outside looking in, in the space between the lid and body of the piano. Maybe I'll add some compression to that, kind of squash it up a bit, and then mix that in with the condenser mics.”

But Churchyard notes that you have to determine the use and placement of ribbon mics on a piano on a song-by-song basis. “You have to be a little bit flexible with the ribbons. Sometimes they work great on their own, and sometimes they work better in tandem with something else. On an album I worked on recently, I put two U 67 tube condensers inside the piano, and then right next to them I put Royer R-122s and mixed that sound in with the condensers to add some body and thickness to the sound.”

FIG. 7: To get a strong center image while using the Blumlein configuration that results from using a stereo pair of figure-8 mics, Hogarth suggests adding an additional figure-8 mic to fill in the area between the two front stereo lobes.

Hogarth agrees that ribbon mics warm up a piano sound. “For really gorgeous, open sections of music, a lot of times I'll place the stereo mic just outside the edge of the lid, taking a picture of the whole piano. That's a mic I can bring in and blend. I've been doing that on a lot of instruments: using it as an ambience mic, but close enough that there's detail. Then I blend that microphone in with the close mics for three-dimensionality, because it's a Blumlein pair, looking side to side, back to back.

Chiccarelli says that he likes ribbon mics on some of the more modern, bright pianos. “Everybody goes for the big, large-diaphragm, sparkly condenser, hi-fi piano thing. But sometimes, especially in a rock or pop track, it can be more competition. You usually have bright acoustic guitars, or bright electric guitars, then you're putting a bright piano on things. I found that a pair of Coles tends to be a great remedy. Depending on the piano, the player, and the playing intensity, you just have to fiddle with the proximity to the strings, because it's a figure-8 microphone and you're picking up a lot more reflections off the lid of the piano than you would with a cardioid microphone.

“Sometimes I'll put a pair close up over the middle of the piano,” adds Chiccarelli. “But I tend to like the separate string thing. It's a little punchier and wider. Sometimes with a bunch of big rock guitars, where you want the piano to be sort of in there and supportive, you don't need any more top end; you need that really warm, rich middle. I'll often use the older ribbons: an RCA 74 Junior Velocity works great as a mono mic in the piano. (I recently tried the Avantone CR-14 ribbon. It's very smooth and worked great in this application.) Sometimes I'll just use it alone with a lot of compression. Or sometimes I'll use it in combination with a pair of large-diaphragm condensers to get that warm, lower middle that I'm sometimes missing with the high-end/low-end piano approach. The older ribbons seem to fill in the blanks with the condensers.”

“With a Blumlein pair, the one place the mics aren't looking at is the actual center,” explains Hogarth. “So a lot of times, I'll place another microphone right underneath the stereo ribbon mic, in another figure-8 pattern. Then you get, if you draw it as a diagram, two Xs — front and back — and a figure-8 in front. Although you're not getting the true sides, you're covering every other angle [see Fig. 7].”

But he warns that you have to be careful about using a ribbon mic on a piano in a rock 'n' roll context, because to cut through a busy mix, the piano needs to be brighter than you would prefer it on its own. “You might listen to the piano soloed up and think, ‘Man, that's too bright.'' Then you put it in the track and go, ‘Wow, that needs to be a little brighter,'' because a piano sounds so huge. So I find that ribbon mics tend to be a little too big on piano for rock 'n' roll.”

Strike Up the Band

When it comes to recording brass, the engineers agree that there's nothing better than a ribbon. Kramer was enthusiastic about using ribbon mics to record trumpet. “The RCA 44 is one of the greatest trumpet mics of all time. It's an undeniable sound.

“If I'm miking a trumpet section, I like to put an RCA 77 maybe a foot away, sometimes 2 feet away so you get all that air. If it's a nice studio, with good acoustics, a wood floor, and a nice high ceiling, that makes a big difference. The 44 is the darkest-sounding one. The 77 is brighter, and you can switch the patterns — figure-8, omni, and cardioid. What we used to do was put two trumpet players, one on each side, and set the mic to figure-8. If there is a nice quiet passage, maybe I'll get the players to lean in. But if they're screaming, they need to get back — you don't want to overload it. There's a famous saying: distance makes depth.”

FIG. 8: Eddie Kramer extols the sound of a trumpet recorded with an RCA 44 at approximately 2 feet. Each engineer offered their own preferences for distance between mic and musician, but the room sound and volume of the musical passage must also be taken into consideration.

Ainlay, Churchyard, Kramer, and Wakeman all noted that they have the trumpeter play directly into the mic, suggesting a range of distances — 1 to 3 feet — between the mic and player, depending on the room, the music, and the trumpeter (see Fig. 8).

Chiccarelli, on the other hand, doesn't have brass players play directly into his mics. “The guys that are well trained tend to feel more comfortable playing off-axis a little bit, 3 to 5 feet in front of the mic, depending on the room and everything else. If they feel comfortable with the horn sound and the mic position, and things aren't in their way, they're going to perform better. Certainly, the more you can back them off the mic and it sounds good, the happier they are. I think they feel like there are too many little anomalies and little bumps in the sound when they are too close to the mic — all the little squeaks and honks are magnified. But when the player is backed off the mic, you get the room and it tends to be a wider sound, and not so scratchy.”

Schmitt noted his preference for ribbon mics on trombones. “If I'm doing a section,” he explains, “I'll have it about two or two and a half feet in front of the trombonists. Although lately we've been putting a mic on every trombone.”

Chiccarelli says ribbons are great on the lower brass: “Like that Salvation Army brass band sound, where you don't necessarily want punch and percussion out of the tuba or euphonium. They have a rich lower midrange. For me, getting enough lower midrange out of an instrument, and getting quality lower midrange that doesn't murk up a track, is always tricky. You always want to clean up that area because you want to make room for vocals or whatever the lead instrument is. At the same time, if you can leave a lot of that information in a track, it makes the track sound huge, realistic, and warm. It's always a trick of how much you can get away with.

“I found that if you put a mic too close to a tuba or euphonium, they can be really brassy,” Chiccarelli adds, “and it can sound like you're getting only half of the instrument. Usually with a tuba, I'll put the mic over the bell, and on a euphonium, I'll mic it out front. A lot of brass instruments don't radiate sound in one direction, so instead of putting a lot of microphones up, I've found that a ribbon mic with a figure-8 pattern, depending on where you place it, can give you enough of the real sound in the room as well as the presence of the instrument. The distance of the mic from the instrument is based on the room and how hard the player's playing.”


As with brass instruments, the engineers in this story often reach for a ribbon mic when tracking woodwind instruments, such as saxophones and clarinets. To Ainlay, condensers sound shrill on a saxophone. “But if you put a ribbon on there, it's just the ultimate sax sound. I mic it about 3 feet away, aiming at the keys. If you get too close to the mouthpiece, it gets too reedy, and if you're too close to the bell, it's too brassy.” Wakeman agrees about pointing the mic at the keys, but suggests placing the mic 1 to 2 feet away from the instrument.

Schmitt, on the other hand, combines condensers and ribbon mics when doing sections. “When I'm doing woodwinds, maybe I'll have a Neumann U 67 up on the woodwinds and a Royer stereo mic up for the overall room sound. That'll be about 10 feet above the section, maybe 4 or 5 feet in front.”

“I love using either Royers or RCAs on keyboard reed instruments that can be a little harsh sounding in the midrange,” notes Chiccarelli. “I love them on accordion — usually right in front, depending on the instrument. You have to listen a little bit for the sweet spot, but it tends to be somewhere between the keyboard and the bellows. On pump organs, I usually place the mic in the back. I find there's a little bit more sound there.”

Strings and Things

Ribbon mics are preferred by many engineers for recording bowed string instruments. “The figure-8 pattern works in your favor,” Chiccarelli explains. “If you're in a decent-sounding room, the distance from the mic to the source sets your proximity-effect balance. For a violin or viola that you want to sound warm and natural, mic it anywhere between 2 to 4 feet overhead, pointing at the bridge/f hole area.”

FIG. 9: John Kurlander''s work with renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman resulted in this configuration: two RCA 44 mics are placed at a 90 degree relationship.

Hogarth also records the violin from above. “How high you set your microphone is going to depend on how hard the player is digging in. Ribbon mics give you the proximity effect: the closer you get to a source, the fatter it's going to sound. But the violin isn't a very fat-sounding instrument. So generally, a violin doesn't get that much fatter as you get closer; it gets screechier. So there's that balance between being too far away and losing articulation, and being too close and getting the harshness of the bow scraping across the strings.

“Generally there's a certain amount of movement to a violin player,” he adds. “So you will have to approximate where the sway is in their playing.”

Kurlander relates his personal experience with a well-known classical violinist. “I recorded Itzhak Perlman for about ten years, and we came to an understanding about the sound that he liked: it was an RCA 44. The way I miked him had to be compatible with the rest of the orchestral setup. Sometimes it would just be one mic, and that would be a solo spot, because a lot of the violin was being caught on the main mics. In other situations, I went at the violin from two positions. One was aimed down the line of the strings at his face, with the mic out a couple of feet from the end of the instrument. The other would be aimed straight at the body of the violin [see Fig. 9]. When you looked at them, the two mics were at a 90-degree angle relative to each other.”

In contrast, Dooley relates a hybrid miking technique for capturing solo string instruments. “A good way to record an acoustic instrument and still have good room sound is to put one ribbon up close and a pair of good, small-diaphragm pressure omnis back a couple of feet and spaced apart slightly. Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma were soloists in the recent movie Memoirs of a Geisha, and those sessions were done at Royce Hall [on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles]. On Perlman they used a pair of AEA R44s in a Blumlein configuration up close, and a pair of Schoeps omnis back a couple of feet and spaced. They miked Yo-Yo Ma the same way using Coles 4028s. Because these ribbons are fast and smooth, you do get the close-up sound of fingers on the strings, and the plucks, and everything without any harshness.”

“Sometimes I'll use ribbons exclusively, but I usually use them in combination with other microphones,” notes Churchyard. “On a string section, I'll set up some close mics, usually condensers, like U 67s, and room mics, like M 50s. But I'll also set up ribbon room mics — Royer R-122s or the RCA 44s — and I'll mix that back into the sound. I think that adds thickness and depth to the sound. So I'll mix some close ribbon mics in with the room sound and the close mics.

“The ribbon mics are not real distant room mics: they're kind of close. Usually on either side of the conductor. I'll do that for brass as well as strings.”

Kurlander says that he generally uses ribbons in combination with other mics when tracking. “I don't think you can really get away with using ribbons exclusively. The public is accustomed to a brighter orchestral sound than it was 50, 60 years ago. You need a little bit of the modern high end in there as well, just to make the soundtrack competitive.”

But Kurlander notes that on certain projects he uses ribbon mics as a coloring device for the whole orchestra. “I did that particularly on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, where we wanted to get a very distinct ‘aged'' sound on the whole score. We put a pair of AEA R44s 4 feet apart, behind the conductor, 6 feet from the floor. And they were positioned in a very wide left-and-right pattern over the whole orchestra.

“What that did was provide a tonal color that is missing from the rest of the condenser pickup, in the fundamental areas between, say, 200 and 800 cycles [Hz]. It provided an old-fashioned warmth that is missing in a lot of the modern mics, which have so much extended frequency on them. I could use the ribbons pretty much as you would use a graphic equalizer. Instead of putting a bump in the lower middle with an EQ, I would be able to warm it up by using more or less of the ribbon pair in the mix. And it also provided another perspective to the audio picture of the orchestra that the other mics didn't have, because they're up high in the air.”

The Bassics

Ainlay will often use two mics to track an acoustic bass. “I'll put a ribbon mic out in front of the f hole, and point a condenser between the two hands of the player, a foot or foot and a half from the bass: both mics are about the same distance away. The upper mic gets more of the percussive sound of the bass, while the mic at the f hole gets the fundamental.”

Hogarth has a similar concept when recording the bass: “I have it just about where the f hole is, back just a few inches. Sometimes optimum mic placement is not optimum for the player. Particularly when it comes to upright bass, you have to position it based on where the player is standing, as well as where the focus is of the performance. Is it on the high strings going up the neck? Or is the player laying down the low end?”

Hogarth will also augment the ribbon mic with a condenser or a contact pickup through a DI, which he will blend in as necessary. “The second mic will be some kind of large-diaphragm condenser, placed alongside the ribbon mic and blended for phase.”

The Big Picture

Wakeman notes that ribbon mics can be used to put other instruments in their place, mixwise. “I really try to paint a picture in the track. If you use a bright vocal mic, you shouldn't need to add a ton of presence or top end to get it to cut through in the track. The more ribbon mics I use, the more of a natural bed I've created in the backing tracks. And that way, the vocal just sits right in there, without having to work too hard.”

Near the end of his interview, Hogarth offered a reality check on being too specific about which mic to use and where you put it. “If you try to take what I'm saying and lay a template over your recording, it's going to suck. Understand that I'm using ribbon mics like EQ. Take the direction, but use your ears.

“I try not to engineer with the lab coat on,” Hogarth continued. “If it sounds good, I use it. A lot of times I'll just put a mic somewhere and see what it sounds like. If it sounds cool, that's good. If it doesn't sound good, I'll blow it off. The key is keeping your mind open.”

Gino Robair is a senior editor at Electronic Musician.



Using ribbon mics in the initial recording of percussion tracks can definitely make life easier when it comes to mastering a recording. Here's how it works: if you have the Michael Jackson album Off the Wall, listen to “Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough.” Listen carefully to the percussion: it is Michael and his brothers playing glass bottles. I wanted the glass-bottle percussion in this piece of music to have a unique sonic character and a great deal of impact in the final mix.

The year was 1979. I used a mic technique that came from my experience during the days when it was difficult to put much transient response on a disc. I used all ribbon, or velocity, microphones to record the glass-bottle percussion section. The mics I chose were my RCA 77DXs and RCA 44BXs.

If I had used condenser microphones, with the condenser mics' ability to translate the entire transient peak of the bottles, the bottles would have sounded great played back from tape in the control room, but when it came time to master, such an incredible transient peak would have minimized the overall level — on disc, cassette, or CD — of the entire piece of music. In other words, condenser mics would have compromised the dynamic impact of the sonic image of the entire piece of music.
Bruce Swedien
(Reprinted with permission from Mix magazine.)