We often hear questions about ribbon microphones and what they offer by comparison to dynamic, condenser or tube designs. Aside from the various manufacturing differences, each of the mentioned designs have very unique characters. Within this family of designs, the ribbon microphone is a peculiar one.
Originally ribbon microphones became a great alternative to dynamic and condenser designs, but lost favor as less expensive condensers became available. More recently the desire to include a quality ribbon in a studio has started to rise. So what is causing this sudden re-interest? It’s a particularly interesting question, because ribbons have often delivered comparable results to most condensers, but rarely shared the same glory.
So with that said, why should you invest in a ribbon microphone?
Ribbon Microphone Basics
We won’t go in to too much depth about Ribbon Microphone designs here, but for those that don’t know how they’re made, it’s helpful to touch the basics.
Ribbon microphones acquire their name from using an extremely thin metal ribbon that is suspended between a magnetic motor. The ribbon is often corrugated, for a more accurate response. By nature this suspended ribbon microphone is delicate, and historically considered ‘fragile’ by many engineers. The ribbon is also affected by sound from both the front and rear, so this causes a bidirectional polar pattern to occur naturally.
Ribbons have often struggled to achieve the same level of detail of a condenser microphone. The reduced frequency range and lower transient response created a ‘dull’ characteristic. However, this slight dullness of a ribbon is often quickly remedied. Simply adding a 3dB – 4dB boost in the higher frequencies can restore life, and the transient response defines the ribbon as a smooth and natural microphone.
Some ribbons are considered passive and could otherwise be damaged by use with phantom power. This has never really been a problem with larger studios that have individual phantom power, plus a roster of experienced engineers. However, as the market moved towards home recording it has become something of a wild card.
Modern ribbons are now designed to be much more robust than the original counterparts. There are now active ribbon microphones that require phantom power, plus other products such as the Triton Audio Phantom Blocker help to remedy the problem.
Overall, the viability of ribbon microphones in a home studio setup with less experienced engineers has improved. With a more accessibly design, the industry is seeing a growing demand for ribbon microphones once again.
Ribbon Microphone Samples
It should be noted that the difference in ribbon microphones can vary as wildly as any other design. The more you spend, the more linear, reliable and rugged the design. This isn’t a bad thing for a ribbon microphone. While a dynamic can often take a beating, no matter the price, ribbon microphones are often more delicate the less expensive they are. This has historically been true, but is becoming less of a factor now more than ever.
But nothing beats the sound of a quality ribbon, and to start we will have a listen to Katie Noonan’s performance of her song titled “Home” recorded exclusively with the RODE NTR Active Ribbon Microphone, and see how it performs.
We personally enjoyed the performance of the song, but putting any musical preferences aside, the microphone sounds great. The level of detail is astonishing, and the ability to capture the soft ‘oooh’ at the end of the first chorus shows how far ribbon designs have come along. The modern ribbon is a more responsive and full bodied experience than the originals, and the piano shows just how dynamic and natural the RODE NTR can be.
That said, let’s have a listen to a samples of the more affordable sE Electronics X1R Ribbon Microphone, to get a broader understanding of the range in value.
The sE Electronics X1R Ribbon Microphone is still very detailed and natural, at a much lower price point than the RODE NTR. The recording is obviously close to the source, and likely near the 12th fret. This can be observed through the minor finger sliding heard, but an abundance of bass in the recording.
However, there are plenty of highs in this microphone, which is more easily heard in the second sample below:
Understandably some people may jump to the conclusion that one brand is producing a better microphone than the other. This is not the case here. With a ribbon microphone the more you spend, the better the results will be. The X1R currently retails at a respectable £149.99, while the RODE NTR is targeted towards a much more modest £549.00.
The sE Electronics crew teamed up with one of the industry’s greatest minds, Rupert Neve, to develop their signature series. The sE Electronics RNR1 Ribbon Microphone is set at a mighty £1099.00 and is among some of the best ribbons available. Below are recordings of a Jazz Quartet, recorded with a blend of the RNR1 and RN17 microphones.
The tracks are also isolated, so be sure to check all three!
Ribbon Microphone Conclusion
We think that the quality on the RNR1 is breathtaking and justifiably expensive, and definitely has it’s own unique character that differs itself from the previous examples. While there are no more samples in this article, there are many other choices in similar and differing price points, so be sure to check out all of your options over at Studiospares.
It’s clear to see that Ribbon Microphones still have a place in the modern recording studio, and the examples below teach us that it’s possible to get the more open and natural sounds of a ribbon microphone.
At the same price as a decent condenser microphone, most of these ribbons offer a unique character. It’s really no wonder then, that many engineers are adding ribbon microphones to their arsenal.
If you want to find out more about ribbon microphones, feel free to drop us a comment in the section below and we will look to bring you more information on ribbon microphones if there’s enough demand for more on the topic. Thanks.