Microphones, Part 3: A Guide to Ribbon Microphones

In part 3/3 of this popular series exploring the ins and outs of microphones, Matt Loel T Hepworth examines what makes ribbon microphones sound fantastic. [Includes video demo too].  

Did you miss the previous articles? Well worth checking out:

1. Microphones, Part 1: A Guide to Dynamic Mics

2. Microphones, Part 1: A Guide to Condenser Mics

The design, uses, and advantages of ribbon microphones can be a challenging topic to understand. In fact, I’m regularly shocked to discover that many studios have NO ribbon microphones in their lockers! When I inquire as to why, I usually hear the old stereotypes of ‘too expensive’ and ‘too delicate.’ That’s really a shame, especially considering the wealth of fantastic sounding and affordable ribbon microphones on the market. In this article, I’ll discuss three of the most popular modern ribbon mics: Audio-Technica AT4080, sE Voodoo VR1, and sE X1R.

A Little History

Although he didn’t invent them, Dr. Harry F. Olson is considered by many to be the father of classic ribbon microphone designs. While working for RCA in the late 1920s, he designed the first commercially available ribbon mic. Shortly thereafter, he designed the legendary RCA 77A and 44A: microphones that are still coveted by collectors to this day.

There were two things that set ribbon microphones apart from other designs: method of electromagnetic induction, and the sound. (More on the sound in a moment.) Ribbons produce induction by placing a conductive metal strip (the ribbon) between the positive and negative poles of a magnet. In that way, they’re similar to dynamic microphones, which create induction by the movement of a thin diaphragm and a metal coil placed inside a magnet.

Ribbons Just Sound Different

It’s their sound that make ribbon microphones so appealing. What’s different, you ask? Well, as an audio engineer, I can usually quickly identify the recorded sound of a microphone used to capture a particular instrument. My inner dialog is constantly saying things like, “Ah, a (Shure) SM57 on that snare drum” or, “That sounds like an (Audio-Technica) AT4050 on that vocal.” But with ribbons, that’s a much harder game to play. You see, ribbons sound incredibly natural, with an inability to lie or embellish. So instead of identifying instrument A recorded with microphone B, I find myself saying, “Wow, that recording sounds very honest.” The natural essence of any acoustic instrument is easily captured with a ribbon, with the microphone acting as only a neutral sonic mediator.

When you first hear the sound of a ribbon mic, you may be turned off by how really neutral they sound. Most dynamic and condenser microphones have a very carefully and intentionally crafted frequency response. (Some ribbon enthusiasts call that ‘hype.’) But ribbon mics have a very uncolored frequency response. In fact, many ribbon mics don’t have a full 20 Hz-to-20 kHz frequency range, which also makes them sound somewhat dark in comparison to other microphone designs. Listen to the audio in the video below to hear examples of the microphones I used for this article.

Why Aren’t All Microphones Ribbons?

Cost and fragility were the original weaknesses of ribbon design. But modern ribbons can cost as little as a couple hundred dollars. And modern ribbon designs are much more robust than their vintage counterparts, though you still shouldn’t toss them around like a Shure SM58.

However, most ribbon mics do come with two major considerations: a fixed figure 8 polar pattern, and many can be damaged by the application of phantom power. The design of most ribbons gives them a natural figure 8 pattern, which can be a real advantage when adding a cardioid microphone for M/S (Mid-Side) applications. But because of the proximity of foldback monitors, it’s usually too challenging to use ribbons for live performance or stage recording. You may even need additional baffles to block the back of a ribbon mic to prevent the sound of a lively recording environment from becoming too prominent in the recording.

Because passive ribbons (like the sE models in this article) have low output that require large amounts of preamp gain, some manufactures (like Audio-Technica) make active ribbons that actually require phantom power. But that +48V charge can destroy certain ribbon mics. So before you plug in a ribbon, make sure the phantom power is off, or find out if that mic is susceptible to damage from phantom power. (Note: If your mic preamp doesn’t have enough gain for your ribbon microphone, the Cloudlifter from Cloud Microphones can add +25 dB of gain to any preamp.)

Meet the Models

The first ribbon mic we’ll look at is the sE Electronics X1R, which is also one of the most affordable. It comes in very spartan packaging and comes with a standard hard mic clip, but at this price point, one shouldn’t expect all the niceties of premium models. But don’t let the price fool you; the sound of the X1R is all ribbon.

Figure 1. The sE Electronics sE X1R in supplied hard mount.

Figure 1. The sE Electronics sE X1R in supplied hard mount.

The X1R looks a lot like any side-address condenser microphone, but remember, unlike many other microphones, it’s always a figure 8 pattern. It required significantly more preamp gain than the VR1, which is also a passive design. But the sound of the X1R really surprised me. I had expected a rich, warm response, but was also pleasantly surprised by the detail in the mid and high frequencies.

sE 1XR Specifications:

  • Frequency Response: 20 Hz to 16 kHz
  • Polar Pattern: Figure 8
  • Sensitivity: -55.3 dB Volts
  • Maximum Input SPL: 135 dB
  • Street Price: $199.00

Notice that the frequency response drops off at 16 kHz, but that’s typical for many ribbons and should not be specifically misconstrued as a weakness. Considering the investment is in between that of many dynamic and lower-priced condenser microphones, the X1R is capable of capturing a lot of detail for a remarkably low cost.

The next model is also from sE Electronics: the Voodoo VR1. Designed by sE CEO Siwei Zou, the sonic characteristics are matched by an equally innovative cosmetic design. The VR1 is small… REALLY small. It’s only slightly thicker than an original iPhone, and only half the width. Unlike the X1R, it comes with a shock mount and wooden case (with magnetic closures.)

*Figure 2. The sE Electronics Voodoo VR1 with included hard mount. (Not pictured: included shock mount.)

Figure 2. The sE Electronics Voodoo VR1 with included hard mount. (Not pictured: included shock mount.)

I photographed the VR1 in the hard mount so that you could compare the size to the X1R. It fits so nicely in the palm that I kind of wanted to use it to grind nutmeg. (Not recommended.) The shock mount certainly adds to the VR1 futuristic appearance. The sound is even more nuanced than the X1R, and the frequency response extends to 18 kHz.

sE Voodoo VR1 Specifications:

  • Frequency Response: 20 Hz to 18 kHz
  • Polar Pattern: Figure 8
  • Sensitivity: -56 dB Volts
  • Maximum Input SPL: 135 dB
  • Street Price: $699.00

For a larger investment, the VR1 captured more subtleties than the X1R. It didn’t have the somewhat more obvious midrange of the X1R, but it had a noticeably smoother overall frequency response. It also required a bit less preamp gain. The small size would make it very attractive for orchestral recordings, for not only would it sound great, it would also be less visible to the audience. The Voodoo VR1 provides a very open high frequency response with the natural core characteristics of ribbon microphones, and would be a great addition to any mic locker.

Finally, let’s look at the Audio-Technica AT4080. It is the most expensive model in this comparison, and it also had the most refined sound of the bunch. When listening to the AT4080, I felt it sounded more stereotypically ribbon-like with more warmth and neutrality than the more affordable models.

Figure 3. The Audio-Technica AT4080 with included shock mount.

Figure 3. The Audio-Technica AT4080 with included shock mount.

While the sound may be subtle, the appearance is striking. The AT4080 is silver and looks very futuristic. It’s about the same size as many side-address mics, and since it’s an active ribbon, you must use phantom power to charge the on-board electronics, the benefit of which is not needing nearly as much preamp gain as passive models. It comes with a shock mount (no hard mount included) and a standard AT black case, which while offering great protection, is a little disappointing considering the less expensive Voodoo VR1 came with a more appealing wooden case.

Audio-Technica AT4080 Specifications:

  • Frequency Response: 20Hz to 18 kHz
  • Polar Pattern: Figure 8
  • Sensitivity: -39 dB Volts
  • Maximum Input SPL: 150 dB
  • Street Price: $999.00

Even though the AT4080 doesn’t quite make it to 20 kHz, the high frequency response is still very smooth and natural. But it’s the warmth and low end detail that really sounds fantastic. After I understood the low frequency capability of the AT4080, I found myself being very thoughtful about placing the microphone where it would capture the full essence of the instrument being recorded. If you have a somewhat larger budget, the AT4080 gives you everything you’d expect from a ribbon microphone.

Special Considerations

When using a ribbon microphone for vocal or dialog recording, you may need to baffle the back side of the mic. Doing so minimizes the possibility of any unwanted sound (like room ambience) from getting into the recording. sE Electronics makes the Reflexion Filter PRO for just that application.

Figure 4. The sE Reflexion Filter PRO with Voodoo VR1.

Figure 4. The sE Reflexion Filter PRO with Voodoo VR1.

Coming Attractions

While it didn’t arrive early enough to be included in this article, watch for our upcoming review of the sE Rupert Neve RNR1 active ribbon microphone.

Learn more about recording in this video course: An Introduction to Recording:

https://www.askvideo.com/course/introduction-to-recording

Matthew Loel T. Hepworth

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MATTHEW LOEL T. HEPWORTH has been teaching music technology since 1984. The son of educators, he has the ability to thoughtfully instruct people to get the most from complicated music products and software. He authors the Cubase and WaveLab tutorials for macProVideo.com and authored several books including WaveLab 7 Power!, The Power i... Read More

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