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Ribbon Mics: The Secret Weapon of the Mic Locker

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This post is going to highlight the ribbon microphone: the neglected and underutilized black-sheep citizen of the mic locker.

If I do a session without using a ribbon mic, I get cranky. What’s a ribbon mic? Why should I care? Ribbon mics are the stepchildren of dynamic microphones. Dynamic mics such as the Shure SM57, Electrovoice RE20, and Sennheiser 421 have circular diaphragms that are coupled to their transformers. This coupling of the diaphragm and the transformer means it moves slowly, producing a gutsy but somewhat unarticulate sound. Ribbon mics work in much the same way but instead of having a circular diaphragm, they have a thin ribbon element. This ribbon is not mechanically coupled to a transformer, producing a smooth, even vibration with a faster articulation. Ribbons are totally unique. These days everyone and their cousin has a large-diaphragm condenser and a collection of dynamics, but when you break out a ribbon mic you’ll turn some heads. Contrasting the clear, bright sound of condensers with the roundness of ribbons helps bring balance to the modern digital production sound.

Back in the day ribbon mics were the standard in the 30s, producing such classics as the RCA 44 and the RCA DX77. Traditionally these microphones had a substantial high-end roll-off that resulted from the need to protect the fragile ribbon element from being knocked or damaged by a strung gust of air. These days there are quite a few choices and many of these choices are employing newer materials that are more resilient, allowing less protective material. The result? Ribbons are more articulate than ever and still produce that much sought-after smooth, round sound.

Ribbons and Drums / Piano

Ribbon microphones provide a natural kind of compression that is extremely flattering to the percussive nature of drums and piano. Ribbon microphones work very much like our ears and, as a result, often are the most natrual-sounding microphone choice. Their quick release and neutral high-end tame strident cymbals. One of my favorite applications for ribbon microphones is as room mics for drums. In my experience, nothing sounds quite like a pair of Coles 4038 mics eight feet in front of a kit. Because of the roundness of the tone and their lack of distortion, they maintain their composure even under heavy compression. The Coles are an expensive option. There are more recent, very inexpensive, Chinese-made microphones designed after the Coles that do a good job of achieving much the same type of sound such as the Apex 205 (that people are modding to good effect). Also very popular are the active Royer ribbon microphones, which have their own internal preamps to achieve the sensitivity of condenser mics.

Ribbons and Guitars

A classic technique for achieving fatter guitar sounds in the studio is blending a ribbon positioned a couple of feet back with a traditional close-mic 57/421/etc arrangement. Again, the subtle compression, neutral response and round quality compliment the somewhat edgy and in-your-face sound of a close dynamic mic. My favorite mic for this application is the AEA R92. Also very effective is the less expensive CAD Trion 7000. Keep in mind that the spacing should be different enough to avoid phase issues.

Ribbons and Vocals

Before the Neumann U67 broke on to the scene, Ribbon mics were the standard in the 40s an 50s. The classic crooners of the era used the husky RCA 44, creating the distinctly soft, silky sound that those early tracks are known for. Mic company AEA has painstakingly recreated the 44 with their R44. The natural resonance of most ribbon mics is much lower than their condenser counterparts, making them excellent choices for creating male vocal tracks with a mellow character.

Ribbons and Brass / Strings

Famous for taming the harshness of brass instruments and strings, particularly trumpet, mics like the AEA R84 capture the smoothness of saxes, trumpets, and violins.

Things to Consider

With the exception of active mics such as the Royer line, most ribbon mics will have much lower output levels than dynamics or condensers. As a result, you will most need a preamp capable of gain of around 60-65db. Otherwise, you’ll find your optimal volume will be hard to achieve and, at worst, you’ll end up with distortion.

Other things to consider – many newer ribbons are more durable, but the traditional ribbon mic will be destroyed if you subject it to phantom power. As a rule, don’t get any ribbon anywhere near a phantom power source.

In my opinion, having a good ribbon mic and knowing when and how to use it is one of the biggest differences between an average engineer / producer and an outstanding one. Keep them in mind next time you want to achieve something special. Get in on the secret.

Mix Online has a fun interview with ribbon mic hero Wes Dooley that’s worth reading.