We recently published an article that spelled out five reasons to start using a ribbon microphone, and as a follow-up we promised to test out several ribbon mics on instruments and voices in a real world setting. Instead of conducting our tests in a custom-built recording studio with a team of Grammy winning producers lending a critical ear, I thought it would be more interesting (and more feasible) to test them out in my friends' living rooms, using our commonplace audio interfaces and aging laptop computers.
This shoot-out article is for anyone who's involved with home recording, but doesn't have very much experience using ribbon microphones. Some of the people involved in this test had never used or heard a ribbon microphone before (myself included). However, we all have several years of home recording experience under our belts using condenser and dynamic microphones.
I was fortunate enough to get my hands on four new active ribbon microphones: the Blue Woodpecker, an Audio Technica AT4080, an Audio Technica AT4081, and a Shure KSM313. This motley little crew of ribbons proved to be an interesting cross-section of different microphone design concepts, and I was excited to find out what they could do. The first stop on my magical microphone tour was at Jessica Elkhatib's place. Jessica is a classically trained cellist who's performed at venues like Carnegie Hall, on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and played with musical luminaries such as Dave Brubeck. I set up a MOTU Ultralite in her living room, and brought along my RME OctaMic II preamps. One of the areas where ribbon mics are known to excel is in the recording of stringed instruments, so I figured I'd bring along the best preamps I had. The eat-in-kitchen of this apartment had a particularly nice sound to it (not exactly Carnegie Hall, but pretty sweet sounding none the less), so we set up the mics and got to work.
|Cellist Jessica Elkhatib|
When I started dialing in the gain on the preamps, it was immediately apparent how the ribbon microphones required more juice than your average dynamic and condenser microphone. I found myself cranking up the pres dramatically more than usual. If you own an outboard preamp that can supply a lot of extra headroom, you can put that horsepower to good use if you use a ribbon microphone. If you don't own a fancy preamp, don't be discouraged from using ribbons. Later in this article you'll see how the stock built-in preamps on common audio interfaces can supply enough gain to pull off even somewhat tricky overdubs.
With the microphones in place and a comfortable gain structure set up, I started recording into Ableton Live 8, and Jessica played The Prelude of Bach's Suite No. 1 in G Major. After a few passes we gathered around to listen to the playback. When I soloed each microphone, they really revealed their individual character. The Woodpecker had an airy quality to it with a lot of textured sizzle in the highs and upper mids. The Audio Technica ribbons had a similar, yet complimentary quality to them. The 4080 did a jaw droppingly good job of capturing exactly what the room sounded like. The 4081 sounded similar to the 4080, but lacked the complete zest and "full-bodied" tone of its bigger brother. Yes, I just borrowed a term often used to describe beer, but I already warned you that this wasn't a terribly scientific analysis.
The Shure KSM313 sounded slightly different than the other mics. This is likely due to the Roswellite material that's used as the ribbon in the place of traditional aluminum. Roswellite is rumored to be an exotic metal that's only available when a UFO loses control and crashes in the desert. The KSM313 had a more round sound, picking up the highs and lows with equal consistency, while offering an emotive picture of the mids. At first the KSM313 was Jessica's and my buddy Brian's favorite, but after repeated listens the Audio Technica 4080 stood out as the best. Who knows... in a different kitchen with a different cello any of these microphones could have taken the top spot. Another thing we noticed was that it always sounded better when two of the ribbon mics were unmuted. I know that's the last thing you want to hear, but to really go all the way with ribbons you're best off buying two.
I moved on to another friend's living room for the next round of ribbon microphone testing. Kristin Mueller is an accomplished songwriter and musician, as well as a talented multi-instrumentalist and an old friend of mine. She writes and performs music under her own name, and also plays drums in a slew of New York City bands such as The Caulfield Sisters and Hidden Driveways. We set up shop in her home studio, running the mics directly into the preamps on her Digi002. I wanted to see how well the ribbon microphones would work when using standard, built-in audio interface preamps. I recorded a quick multi-track song with Kristin playing drums, guitar, and doing the vocals.
We started out by placing the microphones a few feet in front of the drum kit, a little below ear level. On playback we decided to drop the position of the mics down about a foot, to pick up a little more kick drum. The two Audio Technica ribbons did a good job of picking up a more neutral tone. They sounded closest to what it sounded like in the room, with all the detailed mids and smooth highs that ribbon mics are famous for. The Shure KSM313 sounded starkly different from the other three ribbon mics. Its overall sound was a bit like what you'd expect to hear from a dynamic microphone (like a Shure SM57), but with a rounder, deeper center. The Woodpecker had a bit more air than the other three mics, which suited the drum set nicely, capturing the shimmer of the cymbals along with the lows of the kick drum.
We left the mics in the same position, and Kristin got in front of them and quickly overdubbed one of her songs on acoustic guitar over the drum tracks. We didn't analyze the acoustic guitar recordings very much; this portion of the experiment was more about using built-in preamps. We needed to crank the pres up almost all the way, but we were able to get good levels recording subtle acoustic guitar over loud drums. With the guitar tracks recorded, Kristin recorded some quick vocal takes. We liked all of the mics on her voice, but the Blue Woodpecker really seemed to suit her voice the best. It had a rich, textured quality that condenser and dynamic microphones simply do not supply.
After this session Krisitn and I agreed that ribbon microphones really do bring a quality to the table that can't be found elsewhere. The ribbon microphone phenomena isn't just marketing hype. It's an entirely different dimension in sound reproduction. This is a great time to get in on the fun, because ribbon mics have long-been a standard in professional recording studios, but are just now being built with a durability that can be introduced into home studio scenarios. Ribbon microphones give you some play room when it comes to EQing. Since they aren't too heavy on the highs, you can bump the EQ around a bit to shape the sound. This can help to remove unwanted frequency imbalances that are common in the average home studio room.
I decided to do some further recording tests with acoustic and electric guitars in another session. This time it was just me at home with my DAW and instruments. I recorded a full song with acoustic guitars, electric bass guitar, Farfisa organ, a Korg Mono/Poly analog synth, harmonica, and vocals. For someone who's been recording for a long time with just dynamic and condenser microphones, it was a real treat. I did a complete song recorded entirely with ribbon microphones. If I've failed to convince you to buy a ribbon microphone, I certainly convinced myself. I'm definitely going to have to rework my 2010 budget to include a couple of ribbon microphones!
I got a great sound with the Woodpecker on my Guild mahogany M20 acoustic guitar. It sounded really nice on my voice too. I liked the 4080 on my vocals as well. It sounded less hyped-up than the Woodpecker, but that was useful for capturing good vocal performances. The KSM313 picks up different tones in the front and back of it, and on an electric guitar amp you can get some really nice flavors. I turned the KSM313 around backward on my Fender Twin, and got a really smooth and finished sounding recording of my Gibson SG. The track sounded like it was already pressed on a vinyl record. I'd love to finish this article off by telling you exactly which ribbon microphone is the best one to buy, but really, I think everyone should go out and get a few. These things are wonderful to have around, and I already miss them all deeply. To quote Stevie Wonder, "there's a ribbon in the sky for our love."