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more... MicrophonesRecording TipsRecordingMarch 2009

Ribbon Microphones 101

How Much Do They Cost?
In general, you get what you pay for. Many cheaper designs are based on established products—even those from Eastern Bloc countries where engineering has always been cherished. Not all of us require the performance of a $2000 mic yet have an appreciation for the strengths of a ribbon. Even imperfect designs still have a certain character that, in some applications, will be impressive compared to a PA-style microphone.

That said, there’s a commercial reason for the higher price of the better brands: they are great performers. There’s also a mechanical reason: better mics have tighter tolerances, leading to better performance and consistency from unit to unit. Furthermore, the actual physical construction has an effect of the performance of any microphone.

Aside from effective isolation from extraneous vibrations, the mic’s chassis and popshield must be optimized for low coloration. An improperly designed pop shield can behave like cupped hands, albeit to a lesser degree. The most sophisticated manufacturers have the facilities and procedures in place to design all aspects of the microphone for better performance in all areas, while low-end mics are sometimes knock-offs of existing designs—warts and all. As with hi-fi speakers, guitar amps, pickups, etc., there’s no substitute for listening. Finally, ribbons are prone to hum and noise, so try to get a money-back guarantee, and test the mic quickly after purchase.

As far as actual street pricing goes, imports like Nady and Samson have much to offer the amateur and semi-professional recordist. Brands like Royer, on the other hand, can be fairly expensive to really expensive. Some come with nifty shock mounts; some have cool wooden cases (don’t slam a ribbon’s case closed with the mic inside). If a 48V phantom power supply is specified, you can expect higher output and higher impedance: there’s circuitry on board. While most have a figure-8 pattern, some offer more coverage options, so read the specs.

At the entry-level, Nady offers a mic at under $200 and it ain’t bad! Sampson has a $400 model. Groove Tubes does more than tubes, as evidenced by their Velo line, with a couple of models between $650 and $1000. They call ‘em Velo because ribbon mics were originally called velocity mics. My favorite mic name has to be the Blue Woodpecker. Blue has lots of mics, and the Woodpecker sells for around a grand. The famed Beyerdynamic line is also a good value from $700 to around $1300.

At the higher end, companies like AEA ($900 to $3600) and Royer ($1300 to $4500), are the equivalent of Gibson, Martin or even D’Angelico guitars. It’s all a matter of your requirements and priorities. As the man said, (I’m paraphrasing) you can’t always get what you want, but you can get what you need.