The vintage vibe of the ribbon mic
enters the personal studio.
Ribbon microphones have become personal favorites of mine for recording electric guitar, brass and reeds, and bowed strings, among other instruments. During more than ten years of professional recording, I have come to rely on a collection of ribbon transducers for their lush timbre, palpable low-end air movement, natural room sound, and punchy transient attack. And with a historical legacy reaching back to the early days of big-band jazz, ribbon mics can bring a vintage vibe to vocals, drums and percussion, and acoustic music ensembles.
The basic operating principle of the ribbon (or velocity) microphone has remained unchanged since the early RCA ribbon mics of the 1930s. (For an overview of this transducer-type mic, see the sidebar “A Brief History of the Ribbon Microphone.”) At the heart of a ribbon transducer is an extremely thin ribbon of aluminum suspended by both ends. The ultralight ribbon is free to move back and forth within a magnetic field. The ribbon's bidirectional movement, coupled with its insensitivity to vibration at its sides or ends, yields a natural figure-8 pickup pattern.
A relatively low output voltage is produced from the motion of the aluminum strip in response to sound pressure. Therefore, a ribbon mic typically requires a maximum of 60 dB of preamplification to achieve a standard 0 VU signal level.
The delicate ribbon is surrounded by a weighty magnet assembly, making many such microphones relatively large and bulky. In addition, the transducers require special handling during use and storage to avoid damage to the ribbon element.
The benefits of ribbon miking are often characterized as a smooth and natural timbre without sibilant highs, full low-end response at any distance, and high-SPL handling. Low noise and superb transient response are additional benefits, especially when a ribbon is paired with a quality microphone preamp. (See the sidebar “Preamps for Ribbon Mics.”)
For this survey of modern ribbon transducers, I gathered together 13 monophonic studio-quality ribbon mics, spanning a wide range of prices. With the exception of two of the beyerdynamic models, all of the mics in this roundup are classic side-address, bidirectional, single-ribbon designs.
I have grouped the 13 models in this lineup into three classes, based on price and physical construction: Premium Classics, Entry-Level Classics, and Compact and Handheld Ribbons. (At press time, we learned of a new ribbon mic, the Crowley-Tripp Studio Vocalist, which lists for $1,395 and is available at www.soundwaveresearch.com. Other types of ribbon mics — such as stereo and phantom-powered versions — are explored in the sidebar “Specialty Ribbon Mics.”) First, I will provide overall impressions of each mic, then I'll examine their performance in real-world studio situations.
FIG. 1: For close vocal work, the R84 is available in a DJ version from AEA.
Innovative designs with vintage flair, exceptional sound quality, and a premium sticker price distinguish ribbon mics made by Audio Engineering Associates (AEA), Coles, and Royer Labs from the rest of the pack. Those companies not only manufacture their own mics, but they also develop original designs based on the esthetics and mechanisms of vintage ribbon models.
Audio Engineering Associates AEA R84
The AEA R84 recalls the rounded contours of the iconic RCA 77, with a cylindrical wire-mesh grille and rounded black domes capping both ends of the mic (see Fig. 1). The chrome yokemount, with locking set screws to hold the mic in position, adds its own nostalgic touch. A silver graphic on the top cap, along with the red AEA logo, indicate the on-axis side of the mic's figure-8 pattern.
Other old-school touches include a 10-foot fixed cable attached with a plastic strain-relief and a cushionmount at the base of the yoke to prevent stand-borne vibrations from reaching the mic. The R84 can be rotated from side to side or swiveled up and down over a wide angle around the axis at the top of the yokemount.
The R84, primarily intended for solo and spot-mic duties, is available in a DJ version, which is optimized for close vocal miking. An all-black finish TV version can also be ordered. (For more information on this mic, see the October 2003 issue of EM at www.emusician.com.)
FIG. 2: The AEA R92 is suspended at both ends by elastic bands, which help mitigate unwanted low- frequency artifacts.
Audio Engineering Associates AEA R92
Like its cousin, the R84, the streamlined AEA R92 sports a capsule-shaped body with an attached cable (see Fig. 2). The rounded silver caps at both ends support a cylindrical grille wrapped in black fabric.
This unique pill-shaped mic is suspended at both ends by elastic bands, which act as a shockmount and anchor the mic to an ingenious 360 degree swiveling yokemount. The AEA R92 comes in a padded plastic case and is designed especially for close miking, with an extended high-frequency response and reduced proximity effect compared to other AEA models.
FIG. 3: The Coles 4038 has been a studio staple for decades. It covers everything from drum overheads and brass instruments to woodwinds and strings with equal aplomb
For a number of years, the distinctive 4038 was the only classic ribbon mic available on the market. With a pedigree that dates back to the 1950s, the BBC-designed “Ringo mic” has earned its place in recording history through its use on numerous Abbey Road sessions, including records by the Beatles and Pink Floyd.
The business-end of the 4038 resembles a horse's hoof, due to the massive horseshoe-shaped magnet inside (see Fig. 3). The assembly swivels 90 degrees at the end of its thick all-metal stem, which serves as a handle for the heavy mic, as a bracket for the separate stand-mounting hardware, and as a receptacle for a removable XLR adapter. An elastic suspension mount is also available, as well as the AEA SNT stereo-mounting bar.
FIG. 4: The heavyweight Coles 4040 offers a beefy midrange and plenty of presence.
The newest model from Coles, the 4040, has a thoroughly contemporary European look and could easily be mistaken for a modern condenser mic (see Fig. 4). That is until you pick it up. The hefty, cylindrical barrel is finished in tasteful gold satin and topped with a beveled heavy-duty mesh grille. A red dot on the strip of text around the mic's midsection indicates the address side of the mic. The ribbon element has a protective internal pop filter, which makes it impossible to see through to the magnet assembly.
A set of three hardware mounts — a durable metal and plastic jointed swivelmount and two basic North American and European stand adapters — are provided. The interchangeable mounts screw into a threaded socket in the bottom of the mic. There are also two screw adjustments in the base, which can be locked to secure the ribbon assembly during shipping. Loosening those screws frees an internal shockmount system built within the 4040's housing. Both Coles models come in a plastic padded case, with a protective cloth drawstring bag embroidered with the Coles logo. (The Coles 4040 is distributed exclusively in the U.S. by Independent Audio.)
FIG. 5: The distinctive Royer R-121 has vertical ridges that outline the off-axis areas of the mic''s figure-8 pickup pattern.
Royer Labs R-121
The unorthodox appearance of the Royer R-121 traces its lineage to a vintage Bang & Olufson ribbon mic made in the 1960s. The mic's side-address grille is well protected by a series of slots in the cylindrical body (see Fig. 5). Alongside that grille, vertical ridges outline the pickup pattern's off-axis areas, or null points, located at 90 degrees and 270 degrees relative to the front of the ribbon. A raised Royer badge identifies the on-axis side of the mic. The manufacturer adds that the smaller size and the robust build quality allows the R-121 to be used in live-performance applications.
The R-121 comes in burnished satin nickel or matte-black chrome finish. All Royer Labs mics are housed in a form-fitting mic sock inside a deluxe cherry-wood box.
FIG. 6: The Royer SF-1''s ribbon is thinner than the R-121''s, which helps contribute to its excellent transient response.
With a heritage drawn from the vintage Speiden stereo mic and the Royer Labs stereo SF-12 (see the sidebar “Specialty Ribbon Mics”), the SF-1's cylindrical body shape is the same as the R-121's, minus the unique fins (see Fig. 6). The SF-1, however, has a thinner ribbon and a different magnet structure than the R-121. According to the manufacturer, these design aspects yield a superior transient response and improved high-frequency pickup. The mic body is fashioned from ingot iron and finished in matte black chrome only.
Royer Labs also distributes its own RSM-series shockmounts, along with the Audio-Technica AT-84 shockmount and the Stedman PS101 metal-mesh pop filter, which is highly recommended for use with any ribbon or condenser mic. (For more information about this mic, see the June 2001 issue of EM at www.emusician.com.)
Four additional companies offer classic bidirectional ribbon elements similar to the AEA, Coles, and Royer models, but at a budget price. These companies are not manufacturers themselves, but market affordable Chinese- and Russian-made ribbon mics in the U.S.
Apex 210, Nady RSM-2, SM Pro Audio MC04
Aside from minor differences in finish, connectors, and shape of the grille top, all three of these Chinese-made mics sport the same design, body type, and specifications (see Fig. 7). The Apex 210 has a blue body with a brushed platinum grille that is beveled at the top. Nady's RSM-2 is finished in green, and comes with a rounded gold or platinum grille. The SM Pro Audio MC04 is finished in gray, and its flat-topped grille is platinum.
FIG. 7: Similar in design, specs, and sound, the three Chinese-made mics—Apex 210, Nady
All of the models have a stocky round body that is suspended in a yokemount and attached by set screws, which allow the microphone to swivel up or down like the AEA R84. When finger-tightened, these mics are not locked in position and can still be easily nudged into a new position.
The metal mesh grille is flexible under normal finger pressure, and an internal pop filter is visible. The Nady and SM Pro Audio models have a cable clamp built in near the yokemount's socket, and the Apex and Nady mics have attached 10-foot XLR cables with minimal strain relief where the cable is attached.
FIG. 8: The Russian-made Electro-Harmonix EH-R1 is an updated version of the Oktava ML-52. It has a dip in the frequency response at 7 kHz, which contributes to its relatively dark sound quality.
The SM Pro Audio MC 04 has an XLR connector hub on the back, allowing you to use any mic cable. This handy feature is somewhat negated by poor placement, because the connector hub protrudes out from the body far enough to impede upward angling, with or without an XLR cable attached.
All of the Chinese mics come with a padded black nylon carrying bag. The bags are well-made, durable, and perfectly suitable for transporting and securely storing ribbon transducers. In addition, the Apex and SM Pro Audio mics come with identical aluminum carrying cases. (For more information about the Nady RSM-2, see Jonathan Segel's review in the July 2005 issue of EM at www.emusician.com.)
The EH-R1 is an updated version of the Russian-made Oktava ML-52. With its slotted Art Deco grille and matte black paint job adorned with silver lettering, the EH-R1 would look right at home in a 1950s science-fiction movie (see Fig. 8). Reinforcing that sci-fi vibe, the chunky magnet and ribbon assembly is clearly visible inside its dark grille enclosure.
A jointed swivelmount, though crude and easily bent along its L-shaped arm, does allow you to position the mic in any direction. The EH-R1 fits snugly in its sturdy foam-lined wooden box. A frequency response graph generated at the Oktava factory shows a broad bass boost between 60 and 200 Hz and a steep cut centered at 7 kHz.
Compact and Handheld Ribbons
FIG. 9: The beyerdynamic M 130 is a side-address mic with a figure-8 pattern.
With their diminutive bodies, conventional ball-shaped ends, and compact ribbon assemblies, beyerdynamic's ribbon mics are clearly in a class by themselves. Low handling noise and rugged brass construction (as well as high gain before feedback on the hypercardioid models) make these mics a viable alternative to dynamic mics for live sound use.
The space-saving ribbon elements of the M 130 and M 160 pack in an innovative dual-ribbon that is actually longer and thinner than some of the other designs in this survey. beyerdynamic's use of two ribbons mounted on top of each other offers several technical advantages, including increased output. It is also worth noting that beyerdynamic designed the M 130 (figure-8) and M 160 (hypercardioid) to work together for mid-side (M-S) recording.
beyerdynamic M 130
beyerdynamic's side-address figure-8 mic, the M 130, is the smallest and lightest microphone in this roundup (see Fig. 9). At first the address side of its spherical chrome mesh grille was a mystery to me, until I discovered that the beyerdynamic name on the thin text strip encircling the XLR end of the mic indicated the active side.
Like all beyerdynamic ribbon mics, the M 130 ships with a black padded zipper bag for storage and comes with the company's standard MKV 8 swivel mount. Each M 130 has its own frequency response printout, documenting a flat response within ±2 dB from 100 Hz to 10 kHz. The M 130 chart also shows a bass boost between 50 and 100 Hz, and a steep drop in high-end response above 10 kHz.
FIG. 10: The beyerdynamic M 260 and M 160 are unusual in the field of ribbon mics because they are end-address and have a hypercardioid polar pattern. The two mics, however, sound very different from each other, especially in the low-frequency response.
beyerdynamic M 160
The M 160 is beyerdynamic's premium hypercardioid ribbon mic, and it is end-address like most dynamic-and small-diaphragm condenser mics (see Fig. 10). The frequency response chart shipped with the M 160 shows that it has a flat response within ±2 dB from 40 Hz to 11 kHz, and an almost ruler-flat response between 200 Hz and 7 kHz.
beyerdynamic M 260
The most affordable hypercardioid mic from beyerdynamic has a specialized timbre that bears little resemblance to the other mics in this roundup. With a strong bass rolloff (which is designed into the mic's response and is not switchable), the M 260 gives you a unique solution for problems brought on by proximity effect.
The low-end cut offers a useful alternative approach for close-miked vocals and instruments in the studio or in live settings. The M 260 can be used as a handheld mic like the M 160, and beyerdynamic offers pop screens (PS 260) and windscreens (WS 260) for both hypercardioid models.
Setting the Stage
Because of the large number of mics in this roundup, I had well over 100 individual mic tests to analyze. Although bench-test results were not the purpose of this roundup, all reasonable efforts were made to create consistent test conditions.
By listening to recorded material through the mics — using test tones and music mixes in controlled loudspeaker tests — and live sources in different rooms of my studio, a clear picture emerged about the unique characteristics of each mic. The recorded test tracks were played through studio- and mastering-quality monitors, and in the end, I was pleasantly surprised to hear how much tonal variation there was among this collection of ribbon transducers.
The off-axis and rear response of the figure-8 pattern mics was not tested. AEA and Royer Labs, however, encourage users to experiment by turning their ribbon mics around 180 degrees, because the rear pickup mode can produce new and interesting timbres. The back of a figure-8 mic is polarity-reversed and out of phase relative to the front address side. Therefore, in this application, the phase relationship should be monitored and can be adjusted with the polarity switch found on many preamps and in software programs. The bidirectional pattern of most of these mics contributes strongly to their complex sonic signature, especially in a large or reverberant room.
In addition, proximity effect — the proximity-dependant bass boosting which is a characteristic of any unidirectional or bidirectional mic — has a major impact on the overall timbre of a ribbon mic. Close-miking within a foot or less is a practice that is often followed in studios to maximize output voltage and minimize ambient room tone or leakage. But close-miking with a ribbon mic can easily skew the timbral balance of an audio source in favor of abundant bass, because of the proximity effect. The proximity effect, combined with a frequency response that rolls off above 10 kHz, contributes to a general perception of ribbon mics as warm, bass-heavy, or dark sounding.
All of the mics in this roundup had comparable output gain — within a 6 to 7 dB range. The Coles mics and the Electro-Harmonix EH-R1 showed the hottest average output on full-frequency mixes. The beyerdynamic M 260 had the lowest output gain, due in part to its bass rolloff.
One anomaly I discovered was that the end-address Beyerdynamic M 160 was wired out of phase, producing a reverse-polarity waveform relative to the other mics in the roundup. This was corrected in my DAW — Digidesign Pro Tools LE — before I auditioned the recordings.
Although it doesn't cover the whole story, controlled loudspeaker testing is a revealing way to compare the signature sounds of various mics. For these tests, I played a variety of rock and acoustic music mixes through a Dynaudio BM5A powered monitor and placed pairs of ribbon mics 16 inches away from the monitor. To avoid magnetic interference between the mics, they were separated from each other slightly. I recorded the output of each ribbon mic into Pro Tools LE at 24 bits, 48 kHz. In the signal path was a Grace Designs 101 preamp, an Apogee PSX-100 A/D converter, and a Digidesign Digi 001 interface.
The Apex 210 and the SM Pro Audio MC04 sounded similar on the loudspeaker tests. They were close enough in frequency response that I could use them as a matched stereo pair. The Nady RSM-2 showed minor relative differences in the extreme high and low frequencies, but it was also timbrally close to the other two Chinese-made mics.
At times the Chinese mics also sounded surprisingly similar to the full warm timbre of the beyerdynamic M 130 and Coles 4038. But upon closer listening, the M 130 and 4038 tracks were more clear and immediate across the frequency spectrum. A slight murkiness was always evident in the Chinese mics despite their full-frequency transmission. On a heavy rock mix, the Apex 210 had a more powerful bass presence and sounded compressed compared to the M 130, which was audibly more spacious and dynamic, and brighter on guitars and cymbals.
The Electro-Harmonix EH-R1 was muffled in the high end on loudspeaker test material. It did, however, pick up more lower bass frequencies than any of the other contenders.
On modern rock mixes, the Coles 4038 and AEA R84 were slightly bottom heavy. The Royer SF-1 showed its stuff by clearing up midbass muddiness to deliver the most listenable character while still retaining its big-ribbon power. The beyerdynamic M 130 was also clear and big, but it lacked the complex, multi-dimensional quality of the classic large ribbon mics and was slightly grating around 3 kHz.
The AEA R92 was uniformly bright and aggressive without getting harsh; its broad midrange boost around 1.5 kHz gave a hot sound on full-frequency mixes. The Coles 4040 and Royer R-121 also conveyed a penetrating midrange that worked to push vocals to the front of the mix. The 4040 lacked the airiness of the Royer and AEA models, while the R-121 had the most balanced and natural tone overall among this trio.
The Royer R-121 and beyerdynamic M 130 performed similarly on pop material, with audible differences in the treble end and warmer, thicker low mids coming from the M 130. In the same trial, the M 130 and AEA R84 were also closely matched timbrally, showing lots of warmth, good overall frequency balance, and clear highs that were pleasant and soft relative to the brighter mics. The AEA R84 had the bigger sound of those two mics, with more dimension and subtle midrange details and clearer highs on delicate acoustic mixes.
On lighter acoustic fare (featuring acoustic guitar and cymbals), the M 260 sounded especially thin and hollow. To be fair, the M 260's built-in bass rolloff puts it at a disadvantage for evaluation on distant, full-frequency mixes. The 4040 and the R-121 demonstrated a tunnel tone of excessive midrange coloration on that kind of material.
The two darkest mics — the EH-R1 and theM 160 — showed very different characteristics. The EH-R1 had more highs and lows and was especially notable for its bass boost, which seemed excessive at times. The M 160's response was concentrated more in the midrange, with extra energy around 350 Hz. But in loudspeaker tests, it too was always a bit muffled, lacking the kind of midrange projection and clarity heard in the Coles 4040 or Royer R-121.
In this phase of testing, Royer's SF-1 really shone with overall accuracy and a pleasant, flat response. The SF-1 always yielded good high-end clarity and tightly focused bass response, while never getting too bright or tubby sounding.
Abundant bass was sometimes a problem with the normally balanced and full-sounding ribbons such as the AEA R84 and Coles 4038, even at 16 inches from the loudspeaker. And strong mid-to-upper-midrange coloration detracted slightly from the otherwise airy naturalness of the M 130, the R-121, and the R92.
On Electric Guitar
As part of the loudspeaker tests, I rolled a Fender Pro Reverb guitar amp in front of the test mics at a distance of one foot. The mic test pair was aligned to the center of one of the speaker cones, and the recording chain did not change. To maintain consistency in this simulated live-performance test, I played along to full-band recordings that employed both clean and overdriven, single-note and chordal textures, using a 1976 Stratocaster and SansAmp GT2.
The Coles 4040 was consistently loud and present on the guitar tracks, but it lacked character in the highs and lows. Compared to the Coles 4038, Royer R-121, AEA R84, and others, the 4040 often sounded like a smaller guitar speaker was being recorded. The 4038 sounded great on clean tones, sparkly and thick in the low end for distorted chords, and it exhibited a relative “smile curve” that lacked the midrange snarl produced by the R92 and the R-121.
The EH-R1 was generally muddy and lacking in high-end definition. But it could be just the thing for a warm jazz-guitar track, due to its abundant lows.
The R92 and SF-1 were comparable and usable for clean guitar tones. The R92 contributed plenty of snarl and sparkle on clean picking. At the testing distance of one foot, the R92 tended to pick up too much high-end hash on overdriven parts, and it lacked powerful lows on distorted rock chords. The SF-1 remained smooth through all tonal variations and was preferable with the Stratocaster on clean treble pickup tones. The R92 and R-121 tended to be more pointed and harsh.
The M 260 was predictably the brightest of all, but could be usable for clean picking. And despite their physical similarities, the M 160 and M 260 were as different as night and day through monitors. The hypercardioid M 160 was passable for clean sounds, but it was noticeably lacking in necessary highs for power chords. It also sounded much drier and tighter than the other mics, due to its focused pickup pattern and soft highs. But the M 160 was definitely warm and sustained in the lower midrange and sometimes even richer than the AEA R84 on interior chord tones.
The M 130 was commendably warm in all tests, and it was thick to a little dark on power chords. But it was also clear on clean picking, and it fared well alongside the large ribbon mics.
Compared with many of the mics, the R84 sounded a bit dark. But I particularly liked the punch and fullness of the R84's tone and could really feel the air movement of the speaker on undistorted low notes.
On electric-guitar sessions, I often pair the R84 in an x-y configuration with a brighter dynamic mic, such as the Sennheiser 421. That method, supplemented by stereo panning of the mics, delivers a commanding, spacious tone with incomparable lows thanks to the R84's beefy bass.
The Apex 210 and other Chinese mics lacked crucial upper-midrange elements and sounded generally smaller than the other ribbon designs, especially on rock chording. On some clean picking parts, the Apex 210 came close to the R84 timbre, but ultimately lacked air and sounded subtly filtered or harsh.
The 4038 and SF-1 tied for first place in the electric-guitar round, based on their flatter tonal fidelity, authoritative low end, and versatility across a range of styles. But the R-121 definitely takes the cake for capturing huge overdriven rock tones with loads of harmonic richness and a tangy ready-to-mix color.
Acoustic Instruments and Voice
To get a real-world experience with the microphones, I asked my friend and musical collaborator Jonathan Segel to come to my studio and do some demo tracks. Segel sang and played acoustic guitar to a recorded version of his song “Mean Mean Girls,” sitting about four feet in front of a four-mic cluster.
The mics were routed to a bank of four Focusrite Green-series preamps, with the preamp outputs connected to a Digi 001 interface going to Pro Tools LE. A full 60 dB preamp gain setting worked well for all the mics, with the hotter Electro-Harmonix and Coles models needing slightly less gain to achieve 0 dBfs digital levels.
After laying down the guitar and vocal track, Segel switched to violin and played along, again in front of the same four mics. Two more mic clusters were set up after that, with the end result being 11 pairs of guitar, vocal, and violin tracks to evaluate. Based on the previous tests, I assumed the timbre of the three Chinese mics was going to be similar, so I used only the Apex 210 to represent those models.
The M 260 sounded too thin at a distance of four feet, and it was by far the brightest mic in the lineup. While not bad on the guitar and vocal, it tended toward shrillness on the violin.
The Coles 4040 and Apex 210 sounded comparable (they were also bass lean with a defined high end) and lacking in body, especially on the acoustic guitar. The diminutive M 130 weighed in with audible improvements in low-end warmth and overall fidelity compared with the harsher-sounding ribbon mics.
The AEA R92 exhibited crystalline highs and less ambient room tone, providing excellent definition without sounding thin. The R84 had a more solid bass response and a roomier sound that emphasized nasal midrange frequencies around 800 Hz.
I noted a similar dichotomy between the Coles mics. In keeping with the previous trials, the 4038 conveyed more full lows and a natural, hi-fi character. The 4038 was also impressive for its pleasant and unhyped highs at a distance of four feet. The 4040 exaggerated upper-midrange timbres for a more aggressive sound.
The 4038 and SF-1 were comparable in regard to timbre. The 4038 had more low punch, while the SF-1 issued more open and extended highs, as well as more ambient details of the room. I was also very pleased to find that a Coles 4038 I purchased in 1997 was still well-matched in frequency and gain to the new 4038 sent for this test.
The Royer mics had a noticeable but smooth midrange presence boost on vocals and guitar. That subtle coloration was part of a readily identifiable signature sound common to the SF-1 and the R-121. The AEA or Coles pairs did not share a similar sonic kinship. The R-121's midrange came across as more subtle and musical, adding extra dimension and presence to the guitar and vocal in particular. The SF-1 was more open and neutral on violin, but less striking on the vocal and guitar pass.
Segel's vocals were attenuated by the dull highs and upper-midrange dip inherent in the EH-R1. Delicate highs above 10 kHz seemed smothered on his violin and vocals, and the guitar's lows were boomy. The EH-R1 and M 160 were roughly comparable in terms of dark coloration, although the beyerdynamic mic had a more balanced and natural sound that really flattered the violin.
My choice for vocal and acoustic guitar miking in this setting would have to be the presence boosting Royer R-121, with the slightly brighter AEA R92 or warmer Coles 4038 and Royer SF-1 mics as commendable runners up. As an aside, I have used the R92 on a few acoustic-guitar recording sessions and have always found it to be impressive because of its bright high end that approximates the presence boosting of a condenser mic.
As far as picking an ideal mic for violin, it's a toss-up between the smooth, transparent tones of the Royer SF-1 and the Coles 4038. The beyerdynamic M 160 ran a solid second, displaying a pleasing timbre with a drier, more focused sound due to its hypercardioid pattern. On Segel's violin at a distance of four feet, it was easy to hear the midrange coloration of the Royer R-121, the Coles 4040, and the AEA R84.
Based on these observations, for recording a mixed all-acoustic group including stringed instruments and vocals, I'd reach for the smooth, warm response of the Royer SF-1 or the Coles 4038.
All three of beyerdynamic's models, mounted in the supplied MKV 8 metal and plastic swivelmounts, were well isolated from vibration and rumble when I walked around the mic cluster. The AEA R84 and R92 and the Coles 4040 demonstrated partially effective internal shockmounting during the vibration test, as did the Royer SF-1 when mounted in a standard spring clip.
The remaining models — Apex 210, Nady RSM-2, SM Pro Audio MC04, Coles 4038, Electro-Harmonix EH-R1, and Royer Labs R-121 — transmitted serious low-end rumble when I walked normally within two feet of their respective mic stands. For those six models, some form of shockmounting or decoupling from the floor is highly recommended if the mics are to be used near vocalists, foot-tapping guitarists, and percussionists.
Housing Resonance and Noise
The physical resonance of a microphone body is also a consideration in testing, especially with ribbon microphones that pick up sound bidirectionally and require lots of gain. Tapping lightly with a plastic ballpoint pen on each of the test mics and recording the resonance with about 55 dB of gain produced some unexpected consequences.
The EH-R1 rang like an empty gas can, with a strong midrange F note as well as detectable odd overtones. The Nady RSM-2 also resonated with a more restrained but clearly pitched low F. The resonance of these microphones didn't show up on a frequency sweep test, but they could conceivably produce artifacts or frequency coloration in the real world. In addition, the Apex 210, the Royer SF-1, and the beyerdynamic M 260 had faintly audible ringing, while the rest of the mics issued only a low, damped transient when tapped.
The beyerdynamic M 260 was the only mic in the roundup that produced audible noise under any conditions, in the form of high-end hiss that could be heard only at above-average gain. At average listening levels, even with 60 dB of preamp gain, noise was never a problem with any of the other mics.
Forms and Feelings
As an enthusiastic user of ribbon mics for the past decade, it's no secret that my bias tends toward the higher-priced, premium ribbon mics. And during my tests for this article, I was pleased to find that the ribbon mics I generally liked best overall were brands that I had already added to my mic closet — specifically the AEA R84, the Coles 4038, and the Royer SF-1 and R-121. While all three provided lush timbres with pleasing highs, ample midrange detail, and full lows, each of those mics gave their own euphonious take on what a flat-frequency ribbon-mic response should be.
Among the other premium ribbons mics, I was most excited about the AEA R92. The sweet highs of this pill-shaped transducer make it an ideal candidate for applications that have always challenged ribbon mics — namely acoustic guitar, percussion, and modern pop vocals.
The Coles 4040 could shine as a vocal or as an electric-guitar mic in some circumstances, and it would be worth a try on a variety of midrange instruments. In one session, I preferred it over both of the AEA mics for a sensitive trumpet part. This mic's highly colored midrange timbre and relatively attenuated upper and lower octaves, however, may limit its versatility for general studio use. And to my ears it never sounded as good as the venerable and less expensive Coles 4038.
beyerdynamic's figure-8 M 130 and hypercardioid M 160 mics offer solid value and sonics commensurate with their intermediate-level pricing. Those two models generally conveyed the dynamics and transparency of the pricier classic ribbons, demonstrating the manufacturer's attention to quality in circuit components. Though not quite as flat in response or as impressive as its more expensive counterparts, the M 130 was often a close second to the full-sounding Coles 4038, AEA R84, and Royer mics.
Timbrally the M 160 was always on the dark side, but it caught my ear on violin by having a sweet character that offsets its restrained treble response. Its hypercardioid pickup pattern gave a typically drier tone to the recorded tracks, with less in the way of room details. This could be a plus or minus on a ribbon buyer's scorecard, depending on your attitude toward leakage and ambient room sound.
The M 260 really strikes me as a specialized mic for close-miking duties, and it has little in common with any of these other mics besides its ribbon element. All of the beyerdynamic models are seem built to last and could be used onstage or on location without reservations.
The Chinese mics often came close to the broad timbre of the big-sounding classic ribbons. But those nearly identical transducers never stood out to me in any application, and often they seemed to be missing essential sonic information at the extremes of the audio spectrum.
Although I have championed the Russian-made Oktava mics in the past, the Electro-Harmonix EH-R1 didn't impress me in any testing applications or session work. The EH-R1 is hampered by dark coloration and an erratic frequency response. (I tested three of those mics while working on this article to check for consistency.)
The EH-R1's limited high-end response in testing is confirmed by its published and individual frequency graphs, which show more than a 10 dB difference between a 100 Hz peak and a 6 to 7 kHz dip.
Ranking the overall frequency characteristics of the mic collection as a whole, the brighter mics, which had an attenuated proximity effect, are the AEA R92, the beyerdynamic M 260, and the Coles 4040. In the middle of the sound spectrum, with relatively flat and full-frequency response, are the AEA R84, the Apex 210, the beyerdynamic M 130, the Coles 4038, the Nady RSM-2, the Royer SF-1, the Royer R-121, and the SM Pro Audio MC04. With their attenuated high end, the beyerdynamic M 160 and Electro-Harmonix EH-R1 reside at the darker end of the spectrum.
The results of my research tell only part of the story of these products. Any individual mic can be a perfect match for your tastes when used in a particular room, with a knockout channel-strip processor or on a specific instrument. For example, one of my favorite ribbon mics for trumpet is a vintage Altec 639b mic (nicknamed “Birdcage”), which would be described in my listening tests as far from flat and very bass-lean, with a prominent midrange boost.
What Price, Ribbon
In addition to features and sound quality, price plays an important role in purchasing decisions. For a high roller's first ribbon investment, I recommend the Coles 4038 or the Royer SF-1, based on their uniform performance when used for close and distant miking. Electric-guitar enthusiasts, however, may wisely opt to beg, borrow, or earn the cash for the ready-to-rock Royer R-121.
There are also some deals for around $1,000. At under a grand, the crisp AEA R92 is a strong contender, as is the big sound of the little beyerdynamic M 130.
I believe every studio should have at least one ribbon mic, and any one of the Chinese-made mics would be a worthwhile introduction to ribbon tone if that's what your budget allows. The Apex, Nady, and SM Pro Audio models are certainly an amazing deal for a first ribbon microphone. But at a street price around $250, these imports shouldn't be expected to convey the dynamics, richness, or transparency that attracts critical listeners to premium boutique ribbon mics. But for the budget-conscious, the deluxe carrying case and attached cable on the Apex 210 make that import model the one to beat.
Myles Boisen is the head engineer at Guerrilla Recording and the Headless Buddha Mastering Lab in Oakland, California. Thanks to Jonathan Segel, Bart Thurber, and John LaGrou of Millennia Media for their observations and expertise.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE RIBBON MICROPHONE
The ribbon microphone, also known as the velocity microphone, was first developed by General Electric (and later by RCA engineers) during the late 1920s, yet its basic design principles endure to the present day. RCA's first production models dated from the early 1930s and include the 44A broadcast model, the PB 17 soundstage microphone, and the 30A lapel mic (see Fig. A). Offering dramatic sonic advantages over the carbon microphones and temperamental condenser units that preceded it, the ribbon transducer concept was simple, elegant, and reliable.
RCA's classic design suspends a light, extremely thin corrugated aluminum-leaf ribbon vertically between the two poles of a large magnet. “The element in a velocity mic vibrates because of the sound pressure difference between the front and the back of the ribbon,” says Wes Dooley of AEA. Its movement within the strong magnetic flux field generates a small AC voltage. That signal is sent to a step-up transformer within the microphone body, which raises the output voltage and also increases the output impedance to a value (typically 150 to 300 Ω) that is optimal for input to a microphone preamplifier.
FIG. A: The Audio Engineering Associates AEA R44C bidirectional ribbon microphone (right) is a replica of the original RCA 44B (left). The mic in the middle is an RCA 44BX.
Because of the mechanical characteristics of the suspended ribbon, sounds that originate at the front or back of the microphone are reproduced evenly over the entire audible frequency range, while sounds that arrive at the sides of the mic — which produce no pressure on the ribbon — are rejected. This polar response is known as a bidirectional or figure-8 pattern and is characteristic of classic ribbon mics. In 1933, RCA introduced the 77A, a cardioid-pattern, dual-ribbon mic. Toward the end of the decade, Western Electric introduced the 639, a unidirectional, dual-element ribbon/dynamic hybrid that combines omni and figure-8 elements.
Spurred on by the movie and broadcasting boom of the 1930s, a number of smaller American companies (such as Electro-Voice and Shure Brothers) began producing microphones, and most of them had ribbon models in their catalogs throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and even into the 1960s. A roster of long-forgotten microphone manufacturers vividly recalls the United States's glory years of industrialism, including such grand names as Altec, American, Amperite, Bell, Bruno, Carrier, Eastern Sound, Lifetime, and Universal.
Overseas ribbon-mic manufacturers included Aiwa, beyerdynamic, Coles, Lomo, Marconi, MB, Oktava, Peerless, Reslo, STC, Toshiba, and Bang & Olufsen (B&O), whose space-age silver-finned ribbon was the inspiration for the design of the Royer R-121. AKG, Neumann, and Sennheiser never marketed ribbon mics, choosing instead to concentrate on dynamic models (which were more rugged than ribbons) and high-output condenser mics. Their technological innovations, resulting in outstanding and versatile microphones such as the Neumann U 47 and M 49, helped signal the end of the ribbon mic's golden age.
A few ribbon mics have persevered in the marketplace, and ribbons have even gained renewed popularity among a new generation of digital recordists. Notable among currently available models is the venerable Coles 4038, which has remained in production unchanged (except for a transfer of ownership) since the mid-1950s. This model, which is listed in the Beatles' recording logs as an overhead mic, was used by Pink Floyd and has often been championed by engineer Steve Albini.
My experience recording with the Coles 4038 has been that it gives you a pronounced and rounded low-end response and can help soften unpleasant upper mids and highs, making it an ideal choice for using on string instruments, electric guitar, organ-and-Leslie-cabinet combinations, jazz guitar, and woodwinds, any of which can sometimes sound scratchy when recorded with large-diaphragm condenser mics.
Despite the signs of a comeback, it is unlikely that ribbon transducers will ever dominate the industry as they did back in the 1930s and 1940s. On quiet sounds and sources that may benefit from a high-end presence boost (such as pop vocals and drums), condenser mics provide a clear advantage. Figure-8 ribbon designs can also be challenging when miking large ensembles or when seeking isolation in studio recording environments. But when used creatively, bidirectional ribbon mics can yield wonderful room ambience, as well as blends of direct and reflected sound, that cardioid patterns cannot. And nothing's quite as sweet as that old-time ribbon-mic sound for rootsy blues, R&B, jazz, swing, retro rock, and certain folk-music styles, especially on acoustic bass, cello, tuba, trombone, and trumpet.
SPECIALTY RIBBON MICS
The new mono mics featured in this roundup are only part of an exciting resurgence in ribbon-transducer technology. The ribbon rebirth was kicked off in the mid-'90s by AEA's Wes Dooley, the country's foremost ribbon-mic enthusiast. After years of selling Coles 4038 mics and repairing vintage RCAs, Dooley decided to market an exact replica of the famed RCA 44.
FIG. B: The Royer Labs SF-12 is a stereo ribbon mic with a Blumlein pickup pattern.
The cost for being the first on your block to own a new RCA 44 is high, with these museum-quality reproductions selling for $3,000 and up. But by all accounts, the sound of the replicas is equal to or better than the originals.
Encouraged by this success, AEA went on to develop the mics in this article, as well as the stereo R88 ($1,895). That double-ribbon behemoth uses two Big Ribbon assemblies, mounted end-to-end at right angles to each other. Its fixed Blumlein pattern — two figure-8 patterns at 90 degrees to each other — is designed for ensemble and live concert recording, but is also useful as drum overheads or for recording piano, string sections, and vocal groups.
Royer Labs also offers a stereo mic, the SF-12 ($2,495). With a slimmer profile, the SF-12 is basically two SF-1 assemblies placed end-to-end, again in the fixed Blumlein configuration (see Fig. B). Potential applications would be the same as those mentioned for the AEA R88.
The first major ribbon mic innovation in decades — 48V phantom powering of onboard active circuitry — was pioneered by Royer Labs. The R-122 ($1,695) was the company's first model to incorporate an internal FET preamp and custom transformer, creating what amounts to a souped-up R-121. That active circuitry increases output gain by approximately 15 dB, making the phantom-powered ribbon comparable to modern condenser mics in terms of output level. In addition, Royer's new electronics keep self-noise low, and the impedance matching circuitry allows the ribbon to operate at its full potential regardless of the mic preamp's input impedance.
Essentially, those two mics sound very similar. But the increased gain of the R-122 expands its usefulness for recording quiet string instruments, acoustic guitar, timid vocalists, small amplifiers, and toy instruments. Royer Labs also has a phantom-powered version of the SF-12 stereo mic, the SF-24 ($3,795). You can find an in-depth examination of the sonic differences between the R-121 and R-122 in the January 2003 issue of EM, available at www.emusician.com.
RIBBONS FROM THE PAST
Vintage ribbon mics offer dependable — or, at the very least, interesting — sonic qualities, and the designs range from classic to quirky. Discontinued oddities such as the Fostex and beyerdynamic printed ribbon mics are recent hybrid innovations, combining aspects of the ribbon sound with a heartier dynamic diaphragm and conventional end-address body.
Before they came up with the ML-52, the Russian Oktava factory made other original ribbon designs such as the ML-16 and ML-17. Those are rarely seen in the U.S. due to the trade restrictions of the Cold War-era.
Obscure ribbon mics from the Golden Age (1940s to the mid-1960s, when solid-state condenser mics nearly eliminated ribbon-mic production) are still plentiful among the used gear and hobbyist networks. Some mics — such as the Western Electric/Altec 639b, which allows the user to mix the output of dual ribbon and dynamic elements and the better RCA models — are collectable, pleasing to the eye, and capable of pro-studio quality.
Used ribbon-mic bargains can still be found at swap meets and flea markets, but often those are broadcast or public-address mics that were cheap and lo-fi when new, and of limited value now. Inflation has severely restricted the market for the best vintage ribbon mics, but presumably with so many good new ribbons coming on the market, vintage prices will return to reasonable levels again. RCA's top-of-the-line ribbons — notably the 44 and 77 series — always represent the best investment in vintage sound and collectability, as long as the body and ribbon have been properly cared for.
PREAMPS FOR RIBBON MICS
In its manuals, AEA recommends using a low-noise mic preamp with at least 60 dB of gain and 1.5 kΩ input impedance for optimum bass performance with its microphones. During the past ten years of reviewing, testing, and recording with ribbon microphones, I have gotten great results with vintage-style all-tube preamps such as the Universal Audio 2-610 and the modified Ampex 350-series amplifiers, as well as top-notch, solid-state preamps made by Focusrite, Grace Designs, Millennia Media, and Sonosax.
“Ribbon mics have lower voltage output and need higher gain,” explains mic-preamp designer John LaGrou of Millennia Media. “Therefore, a mic amp with exceptionally low noise at high gains is essential. Most modern ribbon mics have a well-managed output impedance in the neighborhood of 200 to 300 Ω, hence they require at least 1,000 to 1,500 Ω destination impedance [a 5:1 ratio] for adequate performance. My personal opinion is that a bridging ratio of at least 10:1 — preferably higher — is essential for top performance of most dynamic and condenser mics.
“Some mic preamps offer switchable input impedance settings at substantially less than 1,000 Ω,” adds LaGrou, “but that improperly loads the design criteria of most microphones, including ribbons. Such mic preamps may make nice effects boxes, but it is not what the microphone designer intended.”
RIBBON MICS FEATURES COMPARED
Click here to download the Feature Comparison Table for ribbon mics.
Audio Engineering Associates (AEA)
(Coles 4040 U.S. distributor)