The Creator's Toolbox: Why Ribbon Mics are the Go-To Choice for Savvy Digital Recordists
By Danny Miles • November 21, 2016
With more models available than at any time in recent memory, ribbon mics are becoming increasingly popular with home and project recording studios. We asked two leading manufacturers for tips on adding a ribbon mic to your toolkit.
From vocals to acoustic instruments to amps, drums, and winds, ribbon microphones have become a go-to choice for many a savvy digital recordist. Once regarded as too fragile and too expensive for use outside professional facilities, ribbons are becoming increasingly common and affordable for home and project studios.
We asked experts from two leading manufacturers—Royer Labs and Shure, Inc.—to explain the ribbon’s appeal and applications. Other companies in the ribbon arena include Beyerdynamic, Audio-Technica, AEA, Røde, Samson, and others, with prices ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.
The KSM313 is one example of Shure's current line of ribbon mics
Ribbon mics aren’t new. Invented in the 1920s, they were the high-end mic of choice in both recording and broadcast for decades—or, as Wired magazine once put it: “Ribbon microphones captured iconic sounds from Bing Crosby’s pillow- talk vocals to Ringo Starr’s cymbal crashes and the audio of many iconic recordings made before the 1980s.”
By then, however, they’d long been losing ground to condenser and dynamic mics, which were regarded as more reliable. That began to change in the late 1990s as designers found ways to maintain the classic ribbon sound using more durable—and versatile—materials.
“Modern ribbon microphones can be more robust than vintage ribbon microphones,” says Rick Perrotta of Royer Labs, the company that’s largely credited with fueling the ribbon revival when it introduced the R-121 back in 1998 and patented a design known as the offset ribbon and direct corrugating method. “That being said,” he continues, “ribbon microphones do require a certain level of respect and are sensitive to air-plosives and abrupt shocks—more-so than other types of microphones.”
“A traditional ribbon is typically made of thin foil and are extremely delicate, since the ribbon is typically thinner than a human hair,” adds Shure product specialist Soren Pedersen. “A loud source, a blast of air, or phantom power through a cable can completely destroy a vintage ribbon element. Shure ribbon microphones use a proprietary material called Roswellite, which is a molecularly bonded film that is immune to phantom power and can handle extremely loud sources so you don’t have to go out of your way and be extra careful anymore.” In fact, modern ribbons are durable for road use.
The Ribbon Sound
The sonic characteristics of any type of microphone can be hard to put into words. And as you may have observed by comparing two models in the same category—say, two different large diaphragm condensers—mics of the same basic type can sound quite different. With that caveat in place, ribbon mic fans seem to agree that the design exhibits certain characteristics that set them apart from other mic families.
“Ribbon microphones have a natural high frequency response and good low frequency extension, which results in a mellow and warm sound,” Pedersen says. “Condensers are very sensitive and detailed, so they work great in applications like a quiet vocalist or an acoustic guitar, but can sometimes be harsh or brittle and don’t have the warmth or vintage vibe that ribbons offer.”
The AEA R44C is based on the classic RCA ribbon mics used by Elvis and others
Technically, a ribbon mic is a type of dynamic microphone. The ribbon is a thin metal membrane that is more sensitive than the elements found in standard dynamics, a quality that puts them in their own category. They have some of the enhanced response people associate with condenser microphones—which require phantom power—but unlike condenser mics, “there are no active electronics required,” Soren says. “Ribbon mics create signal by manipulating a conductive material—the ribbon itself— inside of a magnetic field. Because they operate [in a similar way to dynamic mics] they share some sonic qualities. Dynamics tend to emphasize the low end like a ribbon but also tend to have a presence boost in the upper midrange. Ribbons are the only things that will give you that velvety warmth hard to find in a dynamic or condenser mic.”
Down to Digital
According Perrotta, a big part of the ribbon revival has to do with the move from analog to digital recording. The warm ribbon sound helps compensate for some of the harshness some listeners associate with digital technology.
“Most microphones exhibit some form of ringing— distortion—due to the physical characteristics of the diaphragm,” he explains. “Condenser microphones are more prone to this phenomenon than dynamics. Although this was not a major issue when tape was prevalent, it does cause issue with modern digital analog- to-digital converters. Ribbon microphones are conspicuously devoid of these harmonics and therefore translate more naturally. They are characterized as ‘warm’ or ‘smooth,’ but in reality they just lack the distortions than can become unfavorable with certain source material.”
These sonic qualities can make ribbons surprisingly good at multitasking. “Because ribbon microphones don’t add unwanted harmonics and tend to smoothen [the sound], they are very effective with instruments that have edginess or gritty-ness, such as reed instruments, violins, electric guitars, female vocals, percussion and many other sounds,” Perrotta says. “The smoothing effect is very desirable, and since ribbon mics take EQ very well, their sound can be tailored very effectively without compromising the qualities of the instrument.”
“Ribbons are a great choice for anything that has some harshness to it, like a cranked up guitar amp, trumpet, or crash cymbals on a drum set,” Pedersen adds. “Their natural high frequency really smoothens and mellows the harsh parts of the sound while still delivering that warm natural tone that’s very pleasing to the ear.”
Although ribbon mics used in place of dynamic and condenser mics in many applications can require a different approach. “Ribbon microphones require a certain technique to use them effectively and without damaging the ribbon,” Perrotta says.
Blue (Woodpecker), Samson (VR88), and Røde (NTR) are among the companies adding to the rise of ribbon mic production
One major difference between most ribbon mics and their condenser and dynamic counterparts is the pickup pattern. “In general, ribbon microphones are naturally figure-8,” Perrotta says. Figure- 8 mics pick up sound equally from in front and behind the capsule, as opposed to the front-of-mic focus of cardioid and hyper cardioid patterns. “Cardioid and hyper cardioid [ribbon] microphones exist, but their frequency response is compromised somewhat. In many applications the figure-8 pattern works to the user’s advantage in that the side rejection is quite severe, so rejection of unwanted sounds can be achieved.”
Positioning is important with any mic, but can be especially critical with ribbon mics. Royer, for example, offers illustrated tips for using their mics on a range of sources on the company’s website (royerlabs.com/ usingribbonmics.html), and many of these tips would apply to other quality brands.
“As with any mic, placement is the most important thing,” says Shure’s Soren. “And as with any directional mic, proximity effect—which is the build-up of low frequencies as a mic gets closer to the source—will be present. For example, say we are using a ribbon on a guitar amp in the studio. If you get right up close on the grille, there will be a bass build up—proximity effect. But there will also be room sound, because the mic also picks up from the back. As you move it away from the amp, you’ll get less bass build-up and more room sound. I like to start a few inches away from the grille pointing right at the center of the amp’s speaker and use a high-pass filter—a.k.a., a low frequency roll-off—to find the right amount of low end for the sound. If there’s another instrument in the room recording at the same time, use the great side rejection [of the mic’s figure-8 pattern] to keep your amp isolated. The more the side of your ribbon is facing the other instrument, the less of it you will hear. It’s all about finding the right balance and what tone works best for what you are trying to record.”
According to Pedersen, ribbons on their own are less effective on sources like voice or acoustic guitar—“where you’d want a condenser to capture that extra nuance and detail to make it sound realistic”— but notes that they can be very effective when used in tandem with other types of mics. “Try combining the ribbon with a dynamic or condenser to really round out your sound,” he says. “[That combination] on a guitar amp gives you everything you want in a guitar sound.”
And while the ribbon revival may have started with a desire to recapture some of the vintage warmth that was being lost in the digital age, the technology isn’t exactly retro, but continues to develop.
“Ribbon microphone technology has been advancing since their re-introduction in the late 1990s,” Perrotta concludes. “Royer actually invented the first phantom-powered ribbon mics, to address low output issues. The fact that ribbon microphones have regained such popularity with the emergence and proliferation of digital recording these days is simply because ribbon microphones and digital are an almost perfect match. The lack of unwanted harmonics work very harmoniously with digital equipment. A-to-D converters especially benefit from the ribbon microphone’s attributes.”