You Ask, We Answer: Recording with Ribbon Microphones

Getting Great Results with Ribbon Microphones in the Studio
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I WANT TO USE A RIBBON MIC FOR RECORDING, BUT WHEN I’VE TRIED IT, THE RESULTS DON’T SOUND GOOD. I OFTEN HAVE TO CRANK THE INPUT GAIN OF MY 2-CHANNEL USB INTERFACE ALL THE WAY UP TO GET ANY SIGNAL. WHAT AM I DOING WRONG?

BENJAMIN CANALE
PAHRUMP,
NV VIA EMAIL

The Cloud Microphones 44-A phantom-powered ribbon mic also features switchable response curves. One reason passive ribbon mics may not sound good with a lowcost audio interface is that the interface’s preamps don’t provide enough gain. They typically offer 55 to 65dB of gain, which is fine for a condenser mic, but not enough for a passive ribbon mic, which needs 70 to 80 dB to sound good. The input impedance of your interface may also be too low, which also negatively affects a ribbon transducer’s sound quality.

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An easy fix is to place a device such as the Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter CL-1 ($149) between the mic and interface input. This handy device boosts the mic signal 25 dB before it gets to your preamp. And although you feed the CL-1 phantom power, it doesn’t pass through the device, so it won’t damage your ribbon mic. (It is never a good idea to send phantom power directly to a passive ribbon mic.) Another option, albeit more expensive, is to use a preamp specifically designed for ribbon mics, such as the AEA Ribbon Pre ($895). Both solutions work well with dynamic mics, too, greatly increasing their sound quality beyond what you’re getting now.

Active ribbon mics, however, have an internal preamp that accepts phantom power, giving you greater output level (with the correct impedance) than a passive ribbon design. Examples of active ribbon mics (and their street prices) are the AEA N8 ($1,098), the Cloud 44-A ($1,899), and the Royer R-122 ($1,750). Sure, these mics aren’t cheap, but they will provide a lifetime of recording and will sound even better when you upgrade your preamps or interface.
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