by Craig Anderton
Ribbon microphones, which had fallen out of favor due to cost and fragility, are coming on strong again because prices are lower—and today’s models are far more robust than their ancestors.
So what’s the big deal with ribbon mics? For starters, they’re a variation on dynamic mics, but use a different technology where a thin ribbon (typically aluminum) sits between the two poles of a permanent magnet. Sound pressure hitting the ribbon element makes it move within the magnetic field, inducing a small current that produces the output voltage.
Until 2001, when Royer introduced the phantom-powered R-122, ribbon mics were passive devices; in fact, with older designs applying phantom power was often a death sentence. Newer mics are nowhere near as delicate, and Royer has even designed tube ribbon mics like the R-122V.
A ribbon mic tends to have a detailed, smooth high end compared to dynamics and condensers because the thin ribbon element is extremely sensitive and have excellent transient response. This makes it well-suited to translating complex material with lots of harmonics (brass, guitar amps, etc.) as well as instruments with significant transients. Traditionally, ribbon mics have been the mic of choice for brass, piano, percussion, strings, acoustic guitar, and some vocals; lately, they’re being used a lot for drum overheads and guitar amps.
To learn more about ribbon mics in general, Royer has an informative description on their site. In fact the Royer site has a boatload of tips on recording with ribbons, including comments from Bruce Swedien and coverage of topics like why combining ribbons with condensers in multi-miking situations can be a good thing. There are also plentiful audio examples, as well as videos.
Although a ribbon’s pickup pattern can be modified in a variety of ways, the “default,” natural ribbon mic pattern is figure-8. This makes ribbons particularly suitable with Blumlein pair configurations (for an excellent article on Blumlein pair recording, see Phil O’Keefe’s “Blumlein Pair Stereo Miking for Better Ambience and Imaging”).
Royer’s R-121, introduced several years ago and typically selling for around $1,300, has become a de facto standard ribbon mic and is many engineers’ “secret sauce” when recording guitar amps (you know you’ve hit the big time when amp sim software includes your mic as one of the mic model options). However, the price point puts it out of the reach of smaller studios, especially when you want a matched pair.
So, Royer introduced the R-101 as the R-121’s little brother. It typically sells for around $800, so when you get two of them, you’re saving $1,000 compared to getting two R-121s. But what are you giving up?
The biggest difference is that while the R-101 uses the same basic ribbon assembly as the R-121, the body (which is somewhat larger and heavier than the R-121) and the inside frame are made offshore, then shipped back to Royer for assembly with the other components.
The package includes a shock mount, aluminum case (unlike the R-121’s gorgeous wooden case), and protective mic sock. The shock mount does the job, but the R-101 is a side-address mic, so keep that in mind when doing mic positioning.
Speaking of positioning, the figure-8 pattern has some interesting implications. The null point really is a null point, with extreme rejection. While you can of course point the mic at the sound source, how you position the mic can also determine room sound pickup. For example, take two guitar amps and put them side by side, separated by about two feet. Place the Royer in the space between them, about two feet in front of the amps, and point the null between the two amps. You’ll pick up the sound of the two amps, but you’ll get a lot of room sound in a smaller room with hard surfaces (like what I use for guitar amps). By rotating the mic to favor one amp or another you’ll get a different mix of the two amps, and I found that reversing the speaker connections on one of the amps to change the phase gave an entirely different, fuller sound because then the phase matched concerning mic pickup from the rear (as described in the next paragraph).
The sonic variations you can get on a guitar amp simply by moving the mic around are substantial as well. Royer points out on their site that you can use the “wrong” side of the mic (i.e., opposite from the logo) and within one meter or so from the sound source, you’ll get a brighter sound. I tried this with acoustic guitar, which Royer recommends as a useful option, and it indeed picked up a variation on the ribbon sound—there was still that trademark transient response and smooth high end, but the overall timbre was somewhat thinner and brighter. The same was true when I tried this with vocals. You’ll need to reverse the phase in a multi-miking situation because the sounds are hitting the back of the ribbon, but that’s not a big deal.
Perhaps one reason why the R-101 works so well for amps is that it has a strong midrange. This isn’t so much at the expense of other frequencies, and as bi-directional mics exhibit the proximity effect to a greater degree than omnidirectional types, you can “dial in” more or less bass with mic placement. I found that if I put the R-101 right up against an amp’s speaker, the bass boost was noticeable (although somewhat less than the R-121)...sometimes it sounded right for a song, but most times I EQ’ed out the low end a bit or moved the mic back somewhat. I did notice with acoustic guitar the sound could get really boomy if the mic was too close to the sound hole. As always, mic placement is crucial but perhaps even more so than with other mic types—if you haven’t worked with ribbons before, it really pays to take your time, experiment, and learn the mic’s character. I’d go so far as to apply the same rule as I do for software—never just open the package and expect to use it on a session! Do your homework. And don’t forget the pop filter...
I didn’t really push the amp where it was butting up against the Royer’s 135dB max SPL for two reasons: With guitar amps, I think there’s a “sweet spot” between too soft and too loud; while you need to turn up an amp a certain amount to “open up” the sound, if you turn it up too high, the amp’s electronics sound more “splattered” than “focused.” I also didn’t want to blow out the ribbon, although based on what I’ve heard from other engineers, you really can hit Royer’s ribbons pretty hard (but if you get totally out of control, in addition to a lifetime warranty on the mic itself, Royer will give you one “re-ribbon” for free).
Much is made of the generally low output of ribbon mics, but with a +55dB mic pre, I was able to hit levels above -10dB with the R-101. +60dB would have been able to take levels to 0 with close-miking, and a +70dB preamp would work for recordning low-level ambient sounds.
I had done very little work with ribbon mics prior to checking out the R-101, so I’m not exactly an authority who can comment on sonic nuances compared to other ribbon mics. However, compared to dynamics and condensers, I do feel qualified to make some generalizations. The high end is of course far more detailed than a dynamic mic; a good dynamic mic tends to have a “beefier” low end, but you can use the proximity effect to advantage with the R-101 if you want more of “that” sound.
Compared to a condenser, the high end seems smoother, and a little less “brittle.” I tried some narration with the R-101, and it sounded both smooth and rich—although a good condenser mic seems to “flatter” my voice somewhat, as it helps the vocals “cut” a little more. Interestingly, I could get a similar effect with the R-101 by processing it through the Waves Aural Exciter plug-in. For singing, though, the R-101 complemented the bassier nature of my voice, making it sound richer than what I get from condensers. If I ever sing country (doubtful, but never say never!), I think the R-101 would be a fine personal choice. This truly a “sweet,” smooth-sounding mic.
Nonetheless the main area of interest to me was using the R-101 for guitar amps (I don’t get a lot of trombone players or harpists going through my studio!). While there’s zero question that its sound with guitar amps is fabulous (especially if you have the distortion cranked up), I was pleasantly surprised by just how much audio experimentation I could do with the mic placement—using the back side of the mic, rotating the mic to pick up more or less room sound, and the like. In a way, the R-101 was kind of like having mechanical EQ built-in, along with a delay line that picked up more or less ambience.
Overall, I’d say that if you have the bucks, an R-101 would be a fantastic addition to a mic locker for getting a different range, and character, than you can get with dynamics and condensers. Granted the sound isn’t quite up to the level of the R-121, but the differences are quantitative rather than qualitative; Royer’s web site has lots of audio examples, as well a comparison of the two, so you can decide for yourself. You’re essentially getting 95\\\% of an R-121 for 60\\\% of the price—and that’s a tough deal to beat when it comes to ribbon mics.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.