You see, we’re in a “ribbon renaissance” right now with much of this renewed interest being sparked by the success of some of the Royer Labs mics. With the intro of the R-121 in 1997, Royer proved that ribbons can be dependable workhorses for studio and stage and not just delicate recording instruments.
Now, consequently, innovative designs from companies like AEA, Royer, Crowley and Tripp, Coles, and Nady are joining the venerable mics of yesteryear, like the RCA 44, RCA 77DX and Coles 4038.
So when I was offered the opportunity to check out some of the new ribbon mics, I eagerly accepted. Six of the ribbons I auditioned were introduced just in the last two years. I thought it’d be interesting to see how they compared to the old standard ribbon mics. The team of new mics consisted of the Royer R-121 and R-122, AEA R84 and R92, Coles 4040, Crowley & Tripp Studio Vocalist and Proscenium, and the Nady RSM-2. The veterans consisted of the legendary RCA 44B and 77DX, two of the most revered ribbon mics ever to grace a studio. Though they have been out of production for years, their value continues to rise and they are still commonly used in studios today.
Another classic ribbon is the Coles 4038, the heralded BBC mic. Though this year marks the 50th anniversary of its introduction, it is still in production and can be purchased new today. The Beyer Dynamic M160 is another veteran that has proven its worth on lots of legendary rock albums, including what many believe to be the “greatest drum sound in the history of rock,” the 1971 Led Zeppelin classic “When the Levee Breaks” featuring drummer John Bonham recorded in the stairway at Headley Grange.
So I lined up all 12 of these mics to see how they compared. The sources were rock drums, alto sax, electric guitar, and female voice. Each mic was carefully calibrated to ensure a level playing field. Listening tests were performed using Chandler TG2 preamps and Cranesong HEDD converters.
While there are several “new ribbon” manufacturers that seem to be trying to change the rules by flattening the frequency response, the coolest thing about the R84 is that it sounds like a vintage ribbon with the advantage of lighter weight and smaller size. While it is still a large mic, its yoke and integrated shockmount make it easy to position. On brass and strings, it sounds divine, lending a “Hollywood film score” vibe. While I don’t love it on drums and electric guitar, I know others who do. On sax, it sounded very warm with lots of tone, but little air. On voice, it sounds very natural but dark. It takes EQ well, and one can easily add 6dB on the top end to flatten out its response. The pronounced proximity effect, true to most ribbons, is very evident in the R84 and I frequently position it 16-36" from the source.
This is the same “large ribbon” mic as the R84 but in a different housing and voiced for up-close work. It’s a brighter mic with drastically less proximity effect, allowing the talent to work in a more typical LDC fashion, 4-6" from the mic. It has more definition up top than the R84, but lacks the warmth and majesty that the 84 presents. For the guitar amp and drums, I liked it better. It sounded very nice on sax and voice as well.
Beyer Dynamic M160
The only handheld mic in this group, the M160 is unusual because of its small size, unidirectional pickup pattern- and double-ribbon design. It’s still being made, along with its bidirectional sibling, the M130. I was honestly surprised it is still in production, since I’ve seen so few of them in the past 20 years. This mic has an unusual but very distinctive sound. On saxophone, it sounded very present, almost hyped, while still having a nice low end. I didn’t care for it on voice, but it made up for that by sounding wonderful on the drums. On electric guitar, I preferred other mics more. It’s the second least expensive mic in this lineup. Highly recommended.
With its waffle-iron looking swivel head, the 4038 is one of the most unique mic designs ever and still the favorite ribbon mic of many engineers. It has one of the most unique sonic characters of these mics. With a very pronounced midrange peak, it sounded amazing on drums, even in mono. For female voice, it had a nice presence without much high end. On sax, it had a presence that would cut right through a track, but it sounded a bit pinched to me. On guitar it was not my favorite.
This is a completely new design from Coles and it looks and sounds nothing like the 4038. Its cylindrical shape and dimensions are more reminiscent of a Neumann FET47. It has drastically more top end than the 4038 and feels like the low end extends another octave. While it doesn’t have the “uniqueness” of the 4038, it still sounds wonderful. On drums, it was great. The low end “oomph” of the floor tom was delightful. For guitar, it has a lot of power and body that some of the others did not. On saxophone, it felt scooped in the midrange compared to the 4038.
Crowley & Tripp Proscenium
When you first pull the Proscenium from its beautiful hardwood case, you may be surprised that it doesn’t “look” like a ribbon mic. Several people asked about why I had “condenser mics” in the ribbon session pictures. It looks like a side address LDC. The weight of the mic is the only thing that betrays its lineage. All of the Crowley & Tripp mics are built in the same housing, which is compact and heavy. They all share the same ribbon and magnet assembly. But each model is voiced differently for different applications. The Proscenium is the fullest sounding, designed to be used at medium distances like at the front of a stage, hence the name. I thought it sounded very nice, an admirable first product from this new company. This is a mic that would find many uses around the studio. Although I listened to it on only four sources for this comparison, I also tried it on cello and it sounded excellent on all of them. It has less character than the Royers but sounds more neutral than the AEAs. Based on this brief listening, I would recommend it.
Crowley & Tripp Studio Vocalist
Is the world ready for a “bright” ribbon mic? If so, then the Studio Vocalist is going to be a huge hit. With the fullness of a ribbon and the presence of a frequency-tailored dynamic mic, it could well fit the bill for someone looking for something other than an LDC for vocals. To my ear, it sounds like a marriage of the Proscenium and an SM-57. You can see the upper midrange bump on the frequency response chart and you will hear it too as soon as you plug it in. By comparison with other ribbon mics, it sounds very midrangey. I didn’t like it on this female voice in the lineup against the others. But when I took the voice recording home and listened to it in isolation, I heard the admirable qualities that had caused the singer to pick it as her favorite. I used it again on her voice later in the week and it sounded wonderful. The immediacy of an LDC without the fizzy top end and a relaxed presentation (typical of ribbons) that I rarely hear from a condenser. At this price point, I think this may fill a niche that has been empty before. On electric guitar and sax (and trumpet the day before), I thought the mids were too harsh, though on the drums I liked it.
Frequently referred to as “the Chinese ribbon,” this mic is the least expensive of the group by a long shot, by more than half. Borrowing from previous designs, it’s establishing a niche for itself by introducing the ribbon sound to engineers who have been curious about ribbons but wouldn’t spend $1000+ to satisfy their curiosity. Think of it as a “ribbon primer” for the uninitiated. Ribbon zealots, like myself, who seem to always run out of ribbon mics before they run out of instruments to put them on, will be thankful to have an extra ribbon or two, even if it sees less action than the standards. The RSM-2 has very low output, second only to the R92, and is one of the darkest mics in this lineup. So make sure you have a high-gain preamp and EQ ready. Still, it does have those characteristics of a ribbon mic that are so endearing — warmth, bidirectionality, proximity effect. Some have likened it to the R84, but it is very different sonically. I found the Nady sounded good on electric guitar, with a wooly, gnarly tone. On sax, it felt restricted. For voice, it sounded too dark. On drums, I might find it useful but more like an effect. I think it has a place in the market. For the engineer who is just getting started, there are mics like SM-57s that will be used more and cost less. But for someone who has a decent mic collection, but no ribbons yet, this is a good starting point.
This is the granddad of ribbon mics. For most of the world, this is the one mic they recognize, usually with an NBC or CBS logo on top of it. It played a significant role, not only in the history of studio recording, but in radio and early live sound as well. But how does it sound compared to the mics we use today? For a mic that was introduced in 1932, it holds up admirably. Still a favorite on film scoring stages, the 44 has a dark, full sound that was designed for working at a distance. In circumstances that are typical today, with singers three inches from the mic, it does not sound as good. But get back 3 to 4 feet or more and it has a wonderful natural sound. The character of the 44 can be best described as warm and full. For the drums it didn’t sound crisp at all. On sax, it has a vintage tone like you have heard on recordings from the 1940s and 50s. For female voice, I didn’t care for it at all, unlike its cousin the 77, which sounded great. It excels on orchestral trumpets and brass, where distance from the instrument is key to its natural sound. It takes the edge off brassy sounding sources and makes them more pleasing to the ear, at least my ear. That’s part of the reason that ribbons have experienced such resurgence. They tend to counteract the fatiguing high-end sound of digital recorders. The 44 is a classic and for good reason. It still sounds as good today as it always has.
This mic surprised me the most. I have tried it in the studio many times and always found things I liked better. But in this listening test, it was one of my favorites. While it doesn’t sound anywhere near flat, it imparts a very unique quality to each source. With continuously variable pattern control, from omni- to unidirectional, and two hi-pass options, it is the most flexible ribbon mic I’ve ever encountered. I used a single setting (Uni, M) for all my listening. On the drums, it picked up the pitch of the snare like no other mic in the lineup. For E/G it had an aggressive, edgy, in-your-face sound that none of the others captured. For sax, it was very forward with an unpleasant bite, at least on this horn. On voice, in the studio I thought it sounded small, but on computer speakers outside the studio it had a wonderful presence.
Since its introduction nearly eight years ago, the Royer 121 has become a new standard for recording electric guitar cabinets among engineers who make their living cutting rock and roll and heavy metal music. If all a mic needs is one good trick to justify its existence, then the 121 has earned a well-deserved place in the microphone hall of fame. But it excels at more than that. Its high SPL handling capability makes it a great choice for miking kick drum, snare, brass, and percussion. It does a wonderful job on woodwinds and acoustic guitar as well. For this comparison, the 121 sounded great picking up the drum sound, very good on the saxophone, and although I found it too dark for the vocal sound, it was amazing on the electric guitar sound.
The R-122 is a higher output version of the 121. The magnet assembly is identical, the ribbon identical, the housing identical except for the length of the body (the 122 is longer). The frequency response chart should be identical, right? Well, regardless of what the specs tell you, the 122, with its different transformer and buffered output stage, is a different sounding mic. The output is hotter by about 11dB, according to my measurements, and that can make a big difference when your preamp doesn’t have enough gain, like whether you can use a ribbon or not. This ingenious ribbon mic delights first engineers and confounds second engineers. It is the only ribbon I know that requires phantom power — it will not work without it. (I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard, “There must be something wrong with your Royer. It’s not making any sound.”) The 122 is brighter in the midrange. For those who like the sound of the 121 but consistently find it too dark, the 122 is the mic for you. On brass, especially low brass like bass trombone and tuba, and for percussion, and woodwinds like clarinet and oboe, I have found it without equal. For this listening session, it did an admirable job on the drum kit, but I like it better as an overhead mic where it picks up not only the cymbals but the tone and body of the toms as well. On guitar cabinets it sounds like a brighter 121, which you may like better or not. On saxophone it sounds very nice, more present than the rounder R84. For voice, I usually prefer other mics. That was my experience here as well.