Five Reasons to Start Using Ribbon Microphones

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In the early 1920's a couple of German physicists were messing around with powerful magnets and thin strips of aluminum, and they managed to invent our beloved ribbon microphones. These ancient recording tools recently staged a formidable comeback in home and professional studios. Why? Because ribbon microphones deliver an uncanny smoothness that can mellow out brash sounds, and bring an old school vibe to recordings that you just can't deny.

Audio fanatics are constantly chasing after "vintage tone" with valve microphones, tube preamps, and exotic compressors (in both hardware and software forms). Condenser microphones deliver a crisp reproduction of sound with lots of detail, although the higher frequencies sometimes sound brittle and too electronically enhanced. Dynamic microphones provide a rounder bass and present-sounding mid tone, even if they sometimes can't capture the detail of specific instruments and voices. Ribbon microphones bring a warmth to the mid frequencies and a softness to the highs that just can't be attained with other kinds of microphones. And they always look really, really cool. Here are 5 more reasons pick up a ribbon mic for your next session:

1. Because you should to use more colors in your recordings.
 

From 1901 to 1904, Pablo Picasso primarily painted with blue and blue-green colors. He proved that you can create beautiful works of art even when you impose strict limitations on yourself. Picasso eventually freed himself from these strict rules and started using more vibrant colors, and he continued to produce more beautiful pieces for decades to come. If you're only using dynamic and condenser microphones in your work, then you're limiting the amount of color you can add to a recording. Having more colors on your recording palate will add depth to your productions. Plus ribbon microphones look really, really cool.

2. Because you can exercise your preamps

Some modern ribbon microphones use phantom power to add electronics to enhance the tone of the mic, but like a typical dynamic microphone, the physical process of how the ribbon picks up sound happens without power. The output level of the mic tends to be lower, which means that you sometimes need to crank up your preamp a bit more to get a usable signal. Most modern day mixing consoles and computer audio interfaces can easily supply a ribbon mic with enough juice for proper recording. If you happen to own a higher end preamp, you can really hit a ribbon microphone with a lot of gain to bring out the character of the pre. Sure, the noise floor is a little higher, but thankfully this didn't stop musicians and producers in the 1950's and 1960's from making great sounding music anyway.

Ribbon mics then and now, 1932's RCA 44A, and 2007's Blue Woodpecker

3. Because ribbon microphones are used on countless classic recordings

You may recognize the RCA 44A pictured above. That's because they were used heavily for several decades on countless classic recordings and broadcasts. At one time ribbon microphones offered the highest fidelity available. When studios and producers incorporated condenser and dynamic microphones into their recording schemes, they continued to use ribbon microphones as well because of their familiar and warm character. If you've ever listened to an old recording and wondered why your stuff doesn't sound as nice, then using a ribbon mic could put you one step closer to that sound. Until recently, ribbon microphones were prohibitively expensive, and easy to damage and destroy. Recent advances in manufacturing and ribbon design have brought their price down and made them more durable. So now there's no excuse to deny yourself the tone.

4. Because it feels good to take care of something

Like owning a plant or a poodle, owning a ribbon microphone requires a bit of care. Today's ribbon microphones are much more resilient to damage than their ancestors, but it's still a good idea to be a little more careful with your ribbon microphone than you are with your Shure SM57. In the past, if you accidentally hit a ribbon microphone with phantom power, you could damage the ribbon. Most of today's ribbon mics are designed to handle phantom power, and active ribbons like the Blue Woodpecker require phantom power; but you still want to be careful. Just like your pet iguana, you want to avoid dropping a ribbon mic. Instead of tapping and blowing on the grill to check if you're getting signal, jingle your keys in front of the mic to test if it's on. Never use unbalanced cables, try to only use XLR cables, and be very careful if you're using a patchbay. In some cases the ribbon can take a jolt if it's being hot-swapped in a patchbay or by a cable being plugged and unplugged while being fed phantom power.

5. Because ribbon microphones can tame harsh sounds

Have you ever had a recording session where you just couldn't get a good sound on an instrument that sounded great in the room? It's a really frustrating situation, especially if you've moved the instrument around and tried a battery of different microphones in different positions around the instrument. All ribbon microphones have a figure eight polar pattern, which allows the room to be introduced a little more into the sound. It's also a great polar pattern for rejecting other sounds coming in from the sides. Ribbons can be a lifesaver on sound sources that aren't translating naturally with other microphones. Vocals, strings, and woodwinds that might sound a bit too strident on condensers may shine on a ribbon microphone. Today's ribbon mics have a high SPL rating, so feel free to put them on drums and guitar cabinets. This is another area where they really excel, so expect impressive sounding results. Once you're mixing, the smooth high frequencies allow room for a little play with the EQ.

If you look at the frequency response of a ribbon microphone, you'll notice a lot more roll off toward the higher frequencies. This is partially why their highs sound so smooth. If you've only ever used condenser and dynamic mics, be prepared to hear a different response when you first plug in a ribbon. All of this talk about ribbon microphones is one thing, but actually using one is another. We are currently rounding up a bunch of ribbon microphones for a good, old fashioned microphone shoot out! Please stay tuned for the follow-up article on this topic, where we'll test drive the Blue Woodpecker, the Audio Technica 4081, the Shure KSM313, and more. Also, be sure to check out the nice monitor and ribbon mic kits we've created. And when you're in New York City stop by the B&H SuperStore where you can personally test drive ribbon microphones, and a slew of other mics, outboard preamps, and compressors.