Ribbon microphones

October 17, 2013

This week’s blog post is about Ribbon microphones. We will be discussing both their merits and uses in the studio, and concluding with a selection of audio files of some of the models we offer.

First off, the science! Like its counterparts the dynamic and the condenser, a ribbon microphone is effectively a transducer, i.e. it converts one form of energy into another. In this case, a sound wave into an electrical current. In order to do this it relies upon a thin strip of corrugated aluminium, suspended within the magnetic field created by two magnets. The sound waves that arrive at the ribbon cause it to move within this electro-magnetic field, and this in turn creates an output voltage to be passed onto an amplifier.

(For a more detailed summary of these principals, the Royer labs website is worth a visit)

In recent years ribbon microphones have enjoyed a surge in popularity. There are a number of reasons for this, but the obvious one to start with is their sound.  If we do away with all the usual superlatives, the qualities that people are drawn to in a ribbon mic are: reduced high frequency response, excellent handling of transients and a well defined low and mid range. All of the above characteristics make them well suited to modern production aesthetics. Many of todays engineers / producers are looking for ways to introduce some character into the perceived ‘cleanliness’ of digital recording. Sources that might be perceived as brash or harsh through other mics can easily be tempered and rounded off with a ribbon. Drum cymbals, horns and electric guitars are all good examples of this. Many ribbons offer an increased bass response when placed closer to the source. This is known as the proximity effect,  and can be used to great advantage on vocals, guitar cabs etc.

Detail of Altec 639 ‘Birdcage’ dual element dynamic / ribbon mic.

The ribbon’s appeal has been further enhanced by a number of dedicated modern manufacturers, looking to stretch the boundaries of the original designs and build upon the history. Both Royer Labs and AEA typify this approach, and have produced amazing products to advance the ribbon’s standing and relevance in modern production. Active electronics & improved impedance matching, higher output and better spl handling all mean that many modern ribbon mics are being employed in situations that would have been unthinkable 50 years ago. The Royer 121 is a great example of this, and is probably now widely considered a ‘go-to’ mic for recording loud electric guitar cabs. Older ribbon designs would not have enjoyed these volumes!

Kore Studios Melodium Ribbon Mics

Kore keeps a large stock of ribbon mics, viewable here. These range from common studio standards like Coles , Royer and AEA, to some more exotic finds that have been exhumed from the depths of ebay! Some of the more esoteric makes we offer include models by Melodium, a French manufacturer who produced mics for their national radio broadcasts in the 1940s, plus models by B&O from Denmark, Altecs from America, and Phillips from Holland. All of our mics are serviced and looked after by the fantastic Stewart Tavener of Xaudia Elektrik. He is one of the countries leading authorities on ribbons and his website is well worth a look. Another excellent resource for further research is Dr Coutants exhaustive directory, viewable here.

We have prepared a sample of 8 of our ribbons for you to check out at the bottom of this post.

They are as follows:

AEA R84: Data Sheet / Website.
Melodium Type R:  Link.
Royer 121: Data Sheet / Website.
Melodium 42B: Data Sheet / Website.
Coles 4038: Data Sheet / Website.
Cascade Fathead 2: Data Sheet / Website.
B&O BM5: Data Sheet / Website.
Altec 639B: Data Sheet / Website.

The mics were placed as close together as possible on the horizontal axis, about 4ft in front of a drum kit, at level height to the top of the kick. They are recorded at 24 bit / 44.1 through Tweed c515 mic amps and level matched as closely as possible. It is interesting to note some very marked differences between them, specifically with regard to HF response between the newer and older models. It is also worth noting that distance to source plays a big part here, so you could expect an even more pronounced low end had we moved them closer in. Either way, we hope that this ‘level-playing field’ will provide some insight into the subjective qualities of each. We hope to see you here soon to plug them up in earnest!

Many thanks to our friend, drummer Geoff Dugmore, for providing us with sound.