Inexpensive twin ribbon mikes / Blumlein stereo kit
By Phil O'Keefe
Ribbon microphones have seen a revival of interest over the past ten years or so, and their basic sonic characteristics make them a very good transducer choice for capturing many sound sources; especially when recording to digital, where their warmth, natural sound quality and complete lack of high frequency harshness tends to complement and offset some of digital's edgier characteristics. Cascade has been getting a lot of attention for their affordably priced ribbon microphones, and they were kind enough to loan me a stereo pair of Fathead II's for review.
The Fathead II is a "short" ribbon design, using a 1 3/4" x 3/16" x 2 micron ribbon mounted symmetrically within the magnets inside the large 3" diameter head, which means the front and back side response and "sound" of the microphone is pretty consistent. As with most ribbon microphones, the Fathead II has a true bi-directional or "figure 8" polar pattern, and picks up equally well from the rear as it does from the front. The good news is that the side rejection is nearly perfect -- by carefully placing the microphones so that the front and rear are aimed to pick up what you want them to hear, and the sides are aimed at whatever you don't want them to pick up, it is possible to do things such as record a solo singer / acoustic guitarist and still maintain excellent isolation of each sound source on their individual tracks. Additionally, they're perfect for Blumlein stereo pair use, and the included stereo bar makes it easy to mount them in the proper orientation.
OPTIONS, ACCESSORIES AND BUILD QUALITY
When I opened the shipping box, I was looking at a nice aluminum "camera" style case. Inside I found the two Fathead II ribbon microphones, two sturdy shockmounts, a pair of chamois cleaning cloths and the Blumlein stereo bar all neatly packed into cutouts in the interior foam. (Figure 1) While individual Fathead II's are available for $219, getting the pair for $399 is actually a bit less expensive, at least on a cost-per-unit basis. You don't get the oiled wood box that apparently comes with the single mic package, but you still get the other goodies, which makes these fairly well accessorized.
Figure 1: Cascade's stereo kit comes in a nice aluminum case.
The Fathead II is offered with three different internal transformers. The price is $399 "direct" from Cascade for the stereo set with the stock transformers. For either the Lundahl or Cinemag transformer equipped versions, the price is noticeably higher, but still quite reasonable at $699.00 direct for the stereo package. In other words, you get two high-quality ribbon mikes with world-class iron for about the same price (or less) as you'd normally expect to pay for a single USA or European built ribbon mic. While definitely more expensive, the frequency response plots for these microphones shows extended reach in both low and high frequency ranges compared to the stock transformers. However, I specifically requested the standard transformer equipped models for this review. I wanted to hear with the basic model sounded like; with the assumption that things would only be better with the upgraded transformers.
These are really nice looking microphones. I was sent the version with the brown body with gold grilles, which I think looks really classy, but if you want something with a touch less flash, the microphones can be ordered with black bodies and polished nickel grilles. Just to make sure everyone's preferences are covered, they are also available with black bodies and gold grilles (Figure 2). They're larger than I thought they were going to be too; they have sufficient size and weight to them that you're given the impression of a solid, professional tool, not a cheap toy. The overall build quality looks good, with nothing appearing to be out of alignment in terms of the body, grille and case. The ribbon appears to be properly tensioned, and while no claims were made of these being a "matched pair", they have sequential serial numbers and sounded virtually identical to each other.
Figure 2: Three Cascade Fathead II ribbon microphones, showing the available color options.
While they are made in China, Cascade Microphones inspects the build and audio quality of every mic they ship out before it leaves their facility in Washington state. This extra level of quality control is appreciated, and means you're less likely to get a "bad" mic; which is not unheard of with some Chinese built mikes. However, the overall build and sound quality of the two microphones I was sent was quite good, especially in light of their low price tags.
SOUNDING THEM OUT
Is it worth the extra money for the nicer iron? That will largely hinge on whether or not the sources you're recording will benefit from the enhanced frequency response. For instruments like electric guitar amplifiers, which tend to have a rather narrow frequency response that typically sits in the 100Hz - 6kHz range, the stock Fathead II should be fine. I was surprised by how close it got to the sound of my much used and loved Beyer M160 ribbon mic on guitar cabinets. It also does exceptionally well in both mono and stereo as the rotor mike(s) for a rotating speaker cabinet (Figure 3) but again, there's not much going on in terms of frequency response from most rotary speaker systems above 7 or 8 kHz, and the stock Fathead II remains fairly flat up to that point.
Figure 3: The Fathead II works very well on rotating speakers such as this Leslie (TM) 142.
Acoustic guitar could go either way. The detail is there, and the note attacks are quite precise and clear, but if you're looking for top end sparkle, you may want to opt for one of the transformer upgrades. While the Fathead II "takes EQ" very well, and a slight boost with a high frequency shelving EQ generally brightened things right up, too much added EQ will tend to bring out any noise issues in your mic preamp and recording signal path in general. I liked the sound I got using the Fathead II on my Taylor 510, which can sound a little thin sometimes, and the stock transformer equipped model would also be a good choice for recording a vintage small bodied "delta blues" style acoustic guitar. It's also great for taming the sometimes abrasive top end of things like shakers and tambourine. In general, it handles percussion very well, and the snappy transient response really helps with the articulation. However, for drum overheads, I felt the stock model was a little too lacking in high frequency response. If you plan on using your Fathead II pair for drum overheads on a regular basis, you may want to consider a transformer upgrade. The highs start to fall off above around 8kHz. They're still there, but they are down several dB in the highest audible octave, which translates to a somewhat subdued sounding top.
The Fathead II probably isn't going to be the first thing most engineers reach for when tracking vocals -- especially for most modern music, where a fairly bright vocal timbre seems to be in vogue. However, if you're looking for a vintage flavor - and I'm talking about some old vintage; think 1930s through the early 1950s - or if you have a particularly nasal or thin sounding singer, then you may very well like the sound of the Fathead II for vocals. As with all ribbon microphones, just make sure to use a good pop filter in front of the microphone to protect the delicate ribbon from wind blast damage. And when I say "damage", I mean "destruction." Contrary to a popular myth, it's normally not high sound pressure levels ("loud volume") that damages a ribbon, it's wind. I recommend keeping the Fatheads in their case when not in use, but if you're going to leave them up on a stand, at least cover them with the plastic bags that they came packed in to help protect them. (Edit: Cascade indicates that the Fathead II Stereo kit normally comes bundled with a drawstring cover bag for each microphone. These were apparently inadvertently omitted from the review unit packaging, and are designed for keeping the mikes covered when not in actual use.)
DO YOU HAVE ENOUGH JUICE?
Speaking of mic preamps, as with most ribbon mikes, the Fathead II does best when coupled with a quiet mic preamp that has lots of gain on tap. The amount of gain you'll need will depend on the nature of and volume level of the sound source, and how close to it you position your microphones to it, but in general, having 60dB of gain on tap -- or more -- is a good idea. Another alternative is to use something like a Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter CL-1 or CL-2 to add up to 25dB of gain to whatever preamp you're currently using. These are small single (CL-1) and dual channel phantom powered gain boxes that are similar in appearance to the typical direct box. Just put one in inline between the microphone and and preamp and engage the preamp or board's phantom power. The Cloudlifter uses phantom power to provide power for its internal gain stages, and blocks it from reaching the ribbon microphone.
For home recordists who have limited mic collections, these are an excellent choice. Ribbon mikes definitely have a different sound than a moving coil dynamic or condenser mic, and their natural figure-8 polar pattern is perfect for use with stereo microphone techniques such as Mid-Side and Blumlein stereo pairs. The included stereo bar (Figure 4) makes it very easy to position the pair of Fathead II's so that they are properly angled and positioned as a crossed Blumlein stereo pair. It's also beefy enough that you could use it to drive nails (not recommended, but it would work); this is one heavy-duty stand, and it keeps the fairly heavy microphone pair positioned firmly and securely.
Figure 4: The included stereo bar makes positioning the microphones for Blumlein stereo very easy.
I was very impressed with the sound and build of the Cascade Fathead II microphones. Look, I'm not going to say that I preferred these over vintage RCA and Beyer ribbons; the frequency response isn't as good and they're not quite as detailed, but they absolutely surprised me with just how good they do sound, and at a price that is one third (or less) of what most of those other ribbon mikes cost. Even in a well-equipped studio with a nice mic locker, I could see the base model Cascade Fathead II's getting a lot of use. And for home recordists who have limited funds, small mic collections and limited experience with ribbon mikes, these are a no-brainer. If you've been recording your guitar amp with just a SM-57 or similar dynamic mic, adding a ribbon mic to your setup will give you a new range of sounds that can be a real eye opener. Are you worried about picking up too much "room" from the equally sensitive rear side of the mic? Just use some baffling behind it to reduce the amount of room sound it picks up. (Figure 5)
Figure 5: A baffle behind a ribbon mic can be a useful tool for reducing the amount of room reflections that are picked up.
Ribbon microphones are known for their "natural" sound quality, and the Fathead II is no exception in that regard. There is a nice "open" quality to the sound, and the attack transients are extremely detailed and crisp, with none of the lag and smear you typically get with most dynamic mikes. As a true symmetrical bi-directional microphone, the Fathead II does have significant proximity effect, and when you move to within a few inches of the sound source, there will be increased bass. This can be used to good effect to fatten up thin sound sources, and for times when you don't want it, all you have to do is move the mic back a bit or use a high pass filter at the board or in your DAW software. All in all, the entire package is a winner, and I have no problem with giving it an enthusiastic thumbs up. It would not only make a good choice for your first ribbon microphone purchase, but would be a welcome addition to any mic collection.
| • Type: Ribbon (velocity) Microphone
• Ribbon type & dimensions: 99% Pure aluminum, 2.5 micron, 1 3/4" (L) X 3/16" (W)
• Polar pattern: Figure 8 symmetrical design
• Sensitivity: -56 db +/- 2 dB (0 dB=1V/Pa)
• Frequency response: 30 - 18,000 Hz (+/- 3dB)
• Output Impedance: <=200 Ohms
• Recommended load impedance: >1000 Ohms
• Max. SPL (1% THD @1000 Hz): 165 dB
• Connector: 3-Pin male XLR
• Size: Diameter: 3" (grille), 1 3/4" (body); overall length 7 3/4"
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Associate Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard and Guitar Player magazines.