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Thread: Ribbon Rookies Article

  1. #1
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    Default Ribbon Rookies Article

    Here is an article I just turned in to EQ. It reveals some of my findings after doing the Ribbon Roundup recordings. What you will see here, that I am frequently reluctant to offer online, is my opinions about some of the mics I auditioned. I hope it will not deter you from wanting to hear the recordings or the mics for yourself.

    The Ribbon Rookies

    A look at the rookie class of ribbon mics, alongside some "hall of famers"

    BODY

    Over the past ten years, the number of new mics entering the recording field has expanded exponentially. Nowhere is this more evident than in the category of ribbon mics. A field that was stagnant for the past 45 years has seen incredible expansion and growth recently. Others may not have noticed but, to a ribbon zealot like me, this is a very exciting time.

    You see, we are in a "ribbon renaissance" right now as new ribbon designs are springing up with regularity. Much of this renewed interest has been sparked by the success of the microphones of Royer Labs. With the introduction of the R-121 in 1997, Royer proved that ribbons can be dependable workhorses for studio and stage and not just delicate recording instruments. Some people have called the R-121 the "SM-57 of ribbons," because of its rugged build quality and durability.

    Now 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 have been introduced just in the last two years. I thought it would 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 saxophone, electric guitar and female voice. Each mic was carefully calibrated to insure a level playing field. Listening tests were performed using Chandler TG2 preamps and Cranesong HEDD converters.

    __________________________________________________

    Sidebar 1-optional

    Did you know that the classic Led Zeppelin song "When the Levee Breaks" was actually written in 1929 by "Memphis Minnie" McCoy, a famous female blues musician who was born in 1897?
    __________________________________________________

    Sidebar 2- optional

    Though I originally intended to research audible differences between the mics, several other misconceptions were also laid to rest during this listening session. Several mics were accidentally hot-swapped with phantom power applied. While this is not standard operating procedure, all of them survived. Another misconception about the fragility of ribbon mics was tested as well. One of the mics accidentally fell from its resting place atop a stool and landed on the wood floor. Just how delicate are these new ribbon mics? Well, it still worked fine. Yes, it was a Royer. Don't try this at home, but know that if you do, it doesn't automatically mean a repair trip.
    __________________________________________________ __

    Sidebar 3-optional

    I personally own pairs of the AEA R84, R92 and Royer R-122, so I have much more experience with those. My time with the other mics is limited to a few days in the studio.
    __________________________________________________ __


    Sidebar 4

    The Ribbon Mics (alphabetical order)

    AEA R84
    AEA R92
    Beyer Dynamic M160
    Coles 4038
    Coles 4040
    Crowley & Tripp Proscenium
    Crowley & Tripp Studio Vocalist
    Nady RSM-2
    RCA 44B
    RCA 77DX
    Royer R-121
    Royer R-122

    MIC EVALUATIONS


    AEA R-84

    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 shock mount 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 6 dB 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 inches from the source.

    AEA R-92

    This is the same "large ribbon" mic as the R84 but in a different housing and voiced for up close work. It is a brighter mic with drastically less proximity effect, allowing the talent to work in a more typical LDC fashion, 4-6 inches 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 is still being made, along with its bidirectional sibling, the M130. I was honestly surprised it is still in production, since I have seen so few of them in the past twenty 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 is the second least expensive mic in this lineup. Highly recommended.

    Coles 4038

    With its waffle-iron looking swivel head, the 4038 is one of the most unique microphone 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 this 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 this guitar it was not my favorite.

    Coles 4040

    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 a 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 a 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.


    Nady RSM-2

    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 is establishing a niche for itself by introducing the ribbon sound to engineers who have been curious about ribbons but wouldn’t spend $1000+ to find out. 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.


    RCA 44B

    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 a 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.


    RCA 77DX

    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 anything 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.


    Royer R-121

    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.


    Royer R-122

    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 11 dB, 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.


    So there you have it. In my opinion, though the family resemblance among these ribbon mics is clear, each is a very different tool with different strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, they are each valuable assets for a studio or engineer and this excellent new group of ribbon mics are doing an admirable job of building on a long history of excellent sounding mics.

    ENDING

    Reading about mics is like dancing about football. If you would like to hear what I heard, or see more pictures and read details of the testing, order a copy of the 3D Audio Ribbon Roundup CD from www.3daudioinc.com/catalog. The cost is $25 + $5 s/h.


    Thanks to: Blackbird Audio Rentals, Vintage King, Royer, AEA, Independent Audio, Nady, Crowley & Tripp, Playground Recording, and Latch Lake mic stands. Andy Peake, Mark Baldwin, Sam Levine for performing.

    __________________________________________________ ______

    Sidebar 5

    For more info on these mics:
    www.beyerdynamic.com www.independentaudio.com (Coles) www.nady.com www.royerlabs.com www.soundwaveresearch.com (C&T) www.wesdooley.com (AEA)

    __________________________________________________ _______

    Sidebar 6- EXTREMELY OPTIONAL

    I am frequently asked how different ribbons stack up in terms of output level. I had never tested them, until now. After calibrating them, I noted how much gain each mic took as I mic'd the guitar cabinet. Not intended as a scientific measurement (far from it), these are simply the face plate markings from the Chandler TG2's. They are only intended as a simple reference.

    122 (active) 23
    Proscenium 34
    Vocalist 34
    121 34
    4038 34
    4040 34
    44 38
    77 39
    R84 39
    M160 40
    RSM-2 42
    R92 43
    __________________________________________________ ______
    Lynn Fuston
    3D Audio

    Making beautiful music SEEM easy since 1979.

  2. #2
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    This should be an interesting CD. I love using my R84s as room mics for drums (actually more like overheads out in front of the kit). But you prefer other microphones.. I haven't been able to audition all of those mics so it will be interesting to see if this makes me want to.

    I'm curious, what was the positioning like on the drums? Were you able to close mic with them?

  3. #3
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    Most of your questions are answered in the pdf of the liner notes. Please take a look at it. It's 25M and has lots of pictures and info.

    http://www.3daudioinc.com/050709r2linernotesv16

    If you do not find the answers there, then ask. I may not have included the info you seek in the liner notes.
    Lynn Fuston
    3D Audio

    Making beautiful music SEEM easy since 1979.

  4. #4
    David Klausner is offline Gold Club Member (1000+ posts)
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    Great review (as always). Like the shootout CD's, if you know one of mics well, you have a baseline to extrapolate on the others. You also underscore the interesting fact that first impressions aren't always lasting ones. I have several pieces that I fell in love with at first, but find myself using less and less, and others which I was a bit disappointed with in the beginning, but now rely heavily on.

    BTW - A tiny nitpicking point - Beyer Dynamic is always written as beyerdynamic - something to do with a lawsuit from a well known aspirin company...

  5. #5
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    Originally posted by David Klausner:
    <STRONG>You also underscore the interesting fact that first impressions aren't always lasting ones.</STRONG>
    Let me tell you just how interesting that observation is. One of the mics that didn't wow me on these sources in this listening test is one of my favorites mics in the world, one that I use on nearly every session. It's one that I absolutely love. What does that tell you?

    Get your hands on the mic and try it in person. That's what.
    Lynn Fuston
    3D Audio

    Making beautiful music SEEM easy since 1979.

  6. #6
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    Interesting article. I have several ribbons, but none of those, except for the tape op group buy mic that's pretty much the same as the Nady. Maybe at some point I'll do a "shootout" with mine. What I have besides the TO mic are the Shure 300, shure 315, reslo rv, rca varacoustic, amperite RBMKH and Electro-voice V2. I don't find the TO mic to have particularly low output, so I was a bit surprised to hear that. The back side is brighter than the front.

    btw, it's "yoke" like they use with cattle, not "yolk" like in an egg. Just fyi.

    (LF writes: I corrected it here, even if it does show up wrong in print.)

  7. #7
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    Hi, new here.

    Just wanted to share an experience that happened last night.

    I was micing up a brilliant classical guitarist with a AEA R84. While we were checking levels, he felt it prudent to place his mouth on the grill of the mic and sing into it!

    I thought i had torn a testicle! My stomach turned and i went into mild shock.

    ANyway, after the gig i went back to the studio and checked the mic.

    Not a problem! It behaved absolutely perfectly. Still sounds gorgeous.

    As an aside, which preamp would you respected people use to drive a ribbon in a live situation. The guitarist absolutely love the sound of the R84 on his $25,000 classical guitar, and he wants to use the mic in venues that would require a bit of amplification.

    Ribbons rock!
    sui

    friendly person.

  8. #8
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    Originally posted by ubertar:
    <STRONG>btw, it's "yoke" like they use with cattle, not "yolk" like in an egg. Just fyi.</STRONG>
    Well, duh. I knew that. I wonder if my spell catcher twisted that one. Either way, it may be too late. But good catch, nonetheless. I never even noticed it.
    Lynn Fuston
    3D Audio

    Making beautiful music SEEM easy since 1979.

  9. #9
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    Originally posted by 3D Audio Inc.:
    <STRONG>Most of your questions are answered in the pdf of the liner notes. Please take a look at it. It's 25M and has lots of pictures and info.

    http://www.3daudioinc.com/050709r2linernotesv16

    If you do not find the answers there, then ask. I may not have included the info you seek in the liner notes.</STRONG>
    when i click on this link, it says page not found...

  10. #10
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    Originally posted by TomM:
    <STRONG>when i click on this link, it says page not found...</STRONG>
    Sorry. I've been modifying it daily and the URL changes. It should work now.
    Lynn Fuston
    3D Audio

    Making beautiful music SEEM easy since 1979.

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