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  • Audio-Technica AT4080 and AT4081 Bidirectional Active Ribbon Microphones ($999, $699)

    By Jon Chappell_1 |

    Audio-Technica's Active Ribbon Mics

    Vintage Technology Gets Active Electronics and a Modern Reworking


    By Jon Chappell



    Audio-Technica has several technologies at work in their AT-series ribbon mics including, active circuitry.


    It’s reassuring to see that the trend in new ribbon microphones is continuing. This means that a classic technology gets the benefit of new improvements in manufacturing and materials, while still respecting the sound qualities that made them so popular decades ago. Ribbon mics offer the sensitivity normally associated with high-quality condenser mics, but with greater warmth and body than some condensers, which can sound a little brittle under certain conditions. If you have a source that could use some warming up or thickening, reaching for a ribbon should be your first move.  Audio-Technica’s AT4080 and AT4081 are two new bi-directional active ribbon microphones. Note the word “active”—it’s important. We’ll get to why later.


    If you’re hazy on the history of ribbon mics, the technology dates to the 1920s, and many classic recordings were made with them. They were a favorite choice for vocals, including the RCA 77—that famous big one you’ve seen in Elvis and Frank Sinatra photos. But while they sounded great, the mics’ element (actually a very thin strip of aluminum or other metal) was fragile, and their output was relatively low. As a result, condenser and other dynamic mics eventually took over as the go-to tools for studio and live work, while ribbon mics became more specialized. It followed then that mic preamps that were designed to match those more popular mics became the standard. So even when a ribbon mic was working well, it didn’t always deliver its optimal sound due to level and impedance mismatches with the preamp.


    Fast-forward to the modern era, which is turning into a ribbon renaissance. These two Audio-Technica models are a prime example of how new approaches to old technology can yield great results. Both are solid enough to handle regular studio and (careful) live use. Right out of the box, each of these hand-made beauties exudes Audio-Technica’s trademark combination of sleek design and sturdy construction. Each has solid metal housings with an open acoustical design to reduce internal reflections and an ultrafine metal mesh to protect the ribbon element from damage. As when handling any sensitive electronic instrument, you should still take care to keep the mics in a clean environment and use a pop screen for close-miking vocals, but these babies aren’t going to fall apart if someone sneezes or taps them with a music stand.



    The AT4080 (see Fig. 1) is about the size of a large-diaphragm condenser (the kind you typically see on pro vocal sessions). It comes with the great AT8449/SV shock mount, a really nice addition for vocal applications, but also useful when you want to mic a guitar cabinet or other source that could produce rumble. The frequency response is an impressive 20Hz–18kHz, with incredible low-end response and signal-to-noise rated at 72dB at 1kHz (translation: the mic is quiet). AT4080 can handle anything from voice to brass to amp stack to drums.



    Fig. 1. The AT4080 is what you'd use in place of most studio quality large-diaphragm condensers.



    The AT4081 is in the shape of a large pencil mic but, like the AT4080, it’s a side-address mic, so it doesn’t “point” at the source the way some pencil mics do (see Fig. 2). It mounts to a standard clip, and its compact size makes it ideal for instrument recording, especially guitar and percussion (it can also handle 150 SPL), or application where space is tight. Frequency response is 30Hz–18kHz, signal-to-noise is 69dB.



    Fig. 2. The AT4081 is just the ticket for any application where a small-diaphragm "pencil" condensor would normally be called for.


    Each mic employs a figure-8 pickup pattern, which captures sound equally at the front and back—a pretty a common feature on ribbon mics. Both mics feature proprietary technology, including Audio-Technica’s MicroLinear ribbon, which, according to the manufacturer, offers superior durability and the ability to handle sound pressure levels (SPL) up to a whopping 150 dB. Dual-ribbon construction offers even more sensitivity than other ribbon designs, and the powerful N50 neodymium magnets give each mic a high output level.


    Now for the part about “active” technology: Both mics feature phantom-powered circuitry that boosts output without adding noise, and offers a better impedance match with today’s microphone preamps than you’ll get from typical ribbon designs.


    IN USE

    Audio-Technica’s mating of classic and modern design proved itself the moment I plugged the mics in. On vocals, the AT4080 delivered articulation and clarity, yet the singer also sounded natural and full-bodied. Sometimes, people say “warm” to refer to a sound that’s dull; but this was real warmth—strong, solid, and totally present. The AT4081’s sounded great on acoustic guitar, electric guitar cabinet and actually worked pretty well on a vocal part. Both mics impressed us for their low self-noise, but in the end, it was that sweet, natural sound that won the day.



    Audio-Technica has always offered excellent value, and these two new ribbon mics uphold that tradition. The AT4080—the more expensive of the two—is a classic vocal mic that can also get down with an amp stack and marshal high SPLs into warm and full signals. And you’ve gotta love the fact that it comes with a shock mount. The AT4081 is a versatile instrument mic that could well end up relegating both dynamic and small condenser mics to backup status at your sessions. But while each has its own personality, both of these two modern ribbon mics share the magic combination of innovative active circuitry and sleek design. The AT4080 and AT4081 go beyond just “bang-for-the-buck” to deliver outstanding performance—regardless of price.



    Audio-Technica AT4080 Bidirectional Active Ribbon Microphone Specifications:

    • Element: Ribbon
    • Polar Pattern: Figure-of-eight
    • Frequency Response: 20-18,000Hz
    • Open Circuit Sensitivity: -39dB (11.2 mV) re 1V at 1 Pa
    • Impedance: 100 ohms
    • Maximum Input Sound Level: 150dB SPL, 1kHz at 1\% T.H.D.
    • Noise: 22dB SPL
    • Dynamic Range (Typical): 128dB, 1kHz at Max SPL
    • Signal-To-Noise Ratio: 72dB, 1kHz at 1 Pa
    • Phantom Power Requirements: 48V DC, 3.0 mA typical
    • Weight: 474g (16.7oz.)
    • Dimensions: 177.5mm (6.99") long, 53.4mm (2.10") maximum body diameter
    • Output Connector: Integral 3-pin XLRM-type


    Audio-Technica AT4081 Bidirectional Active Ribbon Microphone Specifications:

    • Element: Ribbon
    • Polar Pattern: Figure-of-eight
    • Frequency Response: 30-18,000Hz
    • Open Circuit  Sensitivity: -42dB (7.9 mV) re 1V at 1 Pa
    • Impedance:  100 ohms
    • Maximum Input Sound Level: 150dB SPL, 1kHz at 1\% THD
    • Noise: 25dB SPL
    • Dynamic Range (Typical): 125dB, 1kHz at Max SPL
    • Signal-To-Noise Ratio: 69dB, 1kHz at 1 Pa
    • Phantom Power Requirements: 48V DC, 3.0 mA typical
    • Weight: 152g (5.4oz.)
    • Dimensions: 155mm (6.10") long, 21.0mm (.83") maximum body diameter
    • Output Connector: Integral 3-pin XLRM-type

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