Listening Like a Microphone, Part 2
Favorite ribbon microphones, new and old
When I first got into recording music, listening
to different microphones was my initial
priority, and listen I did to some 60-odd
models. This was when I discovered that
ribbon mics sounded best to me (and also
sounded like “me” the most). This month,
as promised, I’ll share my thoughts on three
of my favorite ribbon microphones—the
Beyerdynamic M 160, the Royer R-122, and
the Audio-Technica AT4081—and discuss
how you might consider using them to capture
your own tone.
But before we jump into the details of these specific models, it might be wise to revisit some basic ribbon microphone guidelines. For starters, be extremely careful about not using any 48-volt phantom power with ribbon mics. If you have the bad habit of keeping the phantom power switched on at your mixer or microphone preamp, you may very well destroy the ribbons in a mic like the M 160 (we’ll talk about the other two mics and how they are affected in a moment). This is a part of ribbon microphones that you must embrace, so remember to keep the juice off.
The second thing to remember is to avoid placing a ribbon microphone too close to a loud signal source. This practice can literally “blow” the ribbon to the point of breaking, so keep your guard up until you’ve got this information burned into your cerebral cortex. Trust me on this—you don’t want to blow any ribbons, particularly if you bought a used mic without any warranty, because it can be costly (not to mention a real hassle) to send a mic back to the factory for repair. Ribbon mics are great for recording guitars—which is why we’re talking about them—but they do require some love and care.
With that out of the way, let’s talk mics. I mentioned in last month’s column that Jimi Hendrix’ engineer, Eddie Kramer, made good use of the classic Beyerdynamic M 160 ribbon microphone. This particular model has a couple of unique aspects to its design. First, it makes use of two ribbon elements placed in very close proximity to each other (most classic ribbon microphone designs use only a single ribbon), and second, it has a hypercardioid polar pattern, which means the M 160 will pick up most of the source from the front side of the capsule. This also means the M 160 will not pick up room ambience in the same manner as your standard issue, figure 8-type ribbon microphone. These two differences, plus the mic’s open and airy tonal qualities, make the M 160 a very popular microphone to this day. Just for the record, Beyerdynamic also makes a figure-8 version of the M 160, called the M 130. Either model will cost around $699.
The second mic on my favorites list is the Royer R-122. This is a figure-8 type of microphone with a preamp built into it. What this means to you is that you will not have to worry about the phantom power issue mentioned before, as this mic will not operate unless phantom power is applied. That also means that the chance of ribbon breakage is minimized. As is true with most figure-8 ribbon mics, you can use the R-122 to record any source with either side of the mic capsule. The rear “room side” is a bit brighter in tonality than the front side, and to my ear, the R-122 has a distinct bump in the midrange that makes it sound akin to a good old Shure SM57 dynamic mic. This may be very useful for capturing the particular tones you seek. With a street price of $1750, this mic will set you back a bit, but many engineers and studio pros swear by it.
Last but not least in our survey is the new Audio-Technica AT4081 ribbon microphone. This model was released with high expectations and what a cool-sounding mic it is! What makes the AT4081 so appealing is that it combines the preamp technologies used by Royer with the dual ribbon concept of the M 160. But the AT4081 also throws in a couple of twists that will make it especially useful for guitarists. First, this mic is capable of taking on massive SPLs (sound pressure levels) and is built like a Sherman tank—it will easily handle the heat of rock ’n’ roll. In addition, this mic has a much flatter frequency curve than the aforementioned models, making it very accurate to the source. The AT4081 has a bit more manageable bass response, and as a result of the flatter frequency curve, has amazing high-end detail to boot. If the sound doesn’t blow you over, the price certainly will ($699 street).
For what it’s worth, my first two ribbon microphones were the Beyerdynamic M 160 and the Royer R-122. And while I enjoy these from time to time, these days I find myself reaching for the AT4081 because of its accuracy and ease of use. On top of that, the rear side of the AT4081’s figure-8 capsule does not seem to exhibit the brighter tonal quality of the other microphones we looked at—both sides are much closer in sound to each other. Beginning recordists and experienced studio jockeys will both find the AT4081 to be the perfect “default” mic.
That does it for our look at ribbon mics—if you haven’t already, track down a ribbon mic and see how it captures your tone. You may be surprised at what you hear! Have fun, and we’ll see you next month.
The chief designer of “Snake Oil Brand Strings” (sobstrings.net), Dean Farley has influenced contemporary string design and is a great source of guitar lore.