Hears Like Your Ears
We’ve been saying this since we opened our doors in 1998, and we’d like to take a minute to explain what we mean. Simply put, when you put a quality ribbon mic on an instrument, voice, or other sound source, what you hear on playback is closer to real sound in nature than with any other kind of microphone. This is because ribbons ‘hear’ sounds more like your own ears do, and the result is a warm, natural, and detailed sound that other microphones simply can’t deliver.
Experienced recording engineers will tell you that the most common weak link in the audio signal path is the transducer (or the musician – sorry, we can’t help you there). While dynamic and condenser microphones are important and have their place in studio and on stage, even the best of them impart noise, distortion, and other artifacts to your signal. Selecting the right mic at the start of your project can, and usually does, mean the difference between a merely adequate recording and one that blows people away. After reading this short essay, you’ll understand why we’ve dedicated ourselves to this remarkable technology and why our customers are such loyal fanatics!
A Musician’s Story
Gayle Levant is the leading harpist in Los Angeles. She has played on countless movie scores and has recorded with some of the biggest names in music including Ray Charles, Barbara Streisand, and Frank Sinatra. The first time she heard her harp recorded with ribbons was when she was doing us a favor recording a track for our first demo CD. The studio’s heater had broken the night before and we were ready to cancel the session, but Gayle sat down (coat on and fingers half frozen) and played a beautiful piece for us. The results were breathtaking. When she came into the control room to listen to that first playback, she literally broke into tears saying “I’ve never heard my harp recorded like this before. This is exactly the way it sounds when I’m playing!” It touched everyone in the room, and Gayle sat in the cold and played for hours. Over the years, we’ve been fortunate to collect hundreds of stories like Gayle’s. We love making music. We love recording music. And we know you do too. That’s why we’re dedicated to making the finest handcrafted microphones in the world.
But really, why ribbons?
Let’s say you’re a guitarist. You’ve spent tons of money on guitars, amps, effects, and mods; and years experimenting and listening to find your sound. It sounds amazing standing in front of your amp, right? So why is it so painful to walk into the control room after a take only to hear something that’s nothing like the actual sound your amp is making? Why can’t you capture that sound, so when you listen in the studio monitors it sounds and feels like you’re standing in front of your amplifier? The answer is simple: Most microphones can’t accurately translate the complex harmonic structures and subtle dynamic variations of sound that make up your tone. But ribbons can! Track with a Royer R-121 on your amp, and then give it a listen – it’ll sound and feel like you’re standing in front of your rig.
The same goes for piano, brass, drums, percussion, strings, voice, and right on down the line. When you’re trying to capture the sound of your instrument “the way it really sounds” ribbons will literally change your life.
What is a Ribbon Microphone?
Meet the transducer: a device that converts one form of energy into another corresponding form of energy for some useful purpose. Microphones are specialized transducers that convert acoustic energy (known as sound pressure) into electrical current for amplification, broadcast, or recording. Microphones have been around since the 1870’s when telephone engineers needed a way to turn the human voice into an electric current and send it down a wire where it would reach its intended recipient and be converted back into sound through another transducer called a loudspeaker.
Today, microphones are broadly divided into two types, based on their operating principle: dynamic and condenser. Dynamics are further divided into two types: moving-coil and; our favorite, ribbon. Generally, moving-coil dynamics are referred to simply as “dynamics” while ribbons are called, oddly enough, “ribbons.”
Of all modern microphone designs, dynamics are the simplest. They operate on the principle of electromagnetic induction, meaning the physical motion of components within the mic actually generates its output current by moving a suspended coil of conductive wire, the voice coil (Fig. 1), through a magnetic field. When the incoming sound pressure wave displaces the coil, the result is an output voltage proportional to that wave. Dynamics are generally regarded as the rugged workhorses of the audio trade and are thus often found in live sound applications where they will be subjected to extreme conditions and frequent abuse. They are also found in recording studios and are often used on drums and other very loud instruments because they can withstand high sound pressure levels. But ruggedness comes at a price: Most sound engineers agree that moving-coil dynamics don’t sound nearly as good as their ribbon and condenser counterparts – the high mass voice coil, relative to ribbons and condensers, results in diminished transient response, limited and uneven frequency response, and very poor off-axis response.
Fig. 1 – dynamic microphone with voice coil exposed.
Condenser mics are a little more complicated – we’ll try to provide a very simple explanation! The condenser employs a capsule (Fig. 1.2) consisting of a solid metallic disc called the backplate and, on one or both sides of the backplate, a very thin conductive plate called a membrane. The membrane, usually gold-sputtered Mylar, moves relative to the fixed backplate as it is displaced by incoming sound pressure. The plates form a condenser, or capacitor, and require an external dc voltage source for polarization, one plate being negatively-charged, the other positive. In its steady state, the mic’s output is zero because the circuit is in a state of equilibrium. Motion between the plates caused by incoming sound pressure waves displacing the moveable plate results in rapid changes in capacitance proportional to the displacement of the plate. Thus, output voltage is the result of constantly-changing capacitance. The relatively low output of the capacitor means a separate amplifier stage inside the mic must be used to increase voltage output to a usable level. Most modern condensers employ either a solid-state or vacuum tube amplifier, while the most sought-after vintage mics utilize a vacuum tube design. Condensers tend to emphasize the high end of the audio frequency spectrum, and well-made ones are found in recording studios around the world. Though their design leads to some inherent shortcomings “high frequency peakiness,” poor performance in high humidity and, in some cases, distortion artifacts that necessitate “fixing” the track at mixdown – they are an excellent choice for a wide range of applications and can make excellent companions to ribbons.
Fig. 1.2 – condenser mic capsule
The Ribbon – A Better Mousetrap
Ribbon mics operate on the same electromagnetic principle as their distant relatives ‘dynamic mics’ but with one important difference: Instead of the dynamic’s cumbersome plastic voice coil (Fig. 1), the ribbon mic employs an extremely thin strip of corrugated aluminum (Fig. 1.3) suspended in a strong magnetic field. Due to its extremely low mass, the ribbon responds to the subtlest variations in sound pressure and moves through space much more freely than the plates of a condenser or the voice coil of a dynamic. Thus ribbons exhibit a natural, even tone that is detailed and musical without the distortion of dynamics or the unnatural brightness of condensers. But low mass also means low electrical output and extremely low impedance: Ribbon microphones require the use of a transformer just before the output to step the voltage up to a useable level, and to raise the impedance from a fraction of an ohm to something more usable (ours are 300 Ohms). The quality of this transformer is critical to the performance of the mic. At Royer, we have not only elevated custom transformer design to an art form in itself, we individually test and grade each transformer before it goes into one of our handcrafted microphones. Active ribbons like the Royer R-122 and SF-24 go one step further and use a FET amplifier stage to increase output and to enable impedance matching. Other active ribbons employ vacuum tube amplifier designs like the Royer R-122V and SF-24V. We were, in fact, the first microphone manufacturer to apply active electronics to ribbons!
Ribbons are traditionally found in recording and broadcast studios due to their exceptional sonic characteristics and proven reliability. In fact, you’ve heard ribbons on some of the most famous recordings in popular and classical music, and they’ve been there to report some of the most significant events in modern history. Our award-winning line of live ribbon mics is enjoying its place on stage as well – a place where ribbons aren’t usually found. As we’ll illustrate below, ribbons offer the recordist and live sound engineer some serious advantages over other designs, and Royer ribbons have established a new benchmark in quality, reliability, and sonic excellence. We didn’t invent ribbon mics, but we have taken them to the next level using superior engineering, manufacturing, and quality-assurance processes and the results are nothing short of spectacular. But don’t just take our word for it!
Fig. 1.3 – corrugated aluminum ribbon element with damping screen
The Ribbon Sound
Thelonious Monk was once heard to remark “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” His point was that music is a transcendent medium that is simply meant to be listened to, felt, and enjoyed rather than deconstructed, critiqued, and reduced to mere academics. His well-informed sentiment notwithstanding, audio engineers often communicate abstract ideas about sound and use their own descriptive jargon to convey textural, technical, and artistic characteristics as they relate to the tools of the trade. You’ve no doubt heard of brown guitar tones, slammin’ kick drums, creamy vocals and the like. While our intention is to keep this discussion factual, some broad, abstract notions are worth exploring when describing tangible differences in sound between various kinds of microphones. When we dig deeply enough into this subject, we discover that it is the tangible, technical differences in design, and the application of physical properties of electrical and mechanical components that account for the vast differences in sound quality among tools that all essentially do the same job.
The qualitative sound output of most professional audio equipment and musical instruments can be divided into two broad categories: warm or bright. The understood meaning of these terms is probably self-evident. But for our purposes, when we say something is warm, we mean it emphasizes the low and lower-midrange of the audio spectrum. Conversely, something we describe as bright will emphasize the upper-mids and higher frequencies. Both characteristics can be musically pleasing and each has their place in modern recording and sound reproduction.
Ribbon designers can engineer a desired frequency response into a microphone based on selection of materials, physical size and shape of the element, corrugation method, and electrical properties of other components in the audio signal path. These decisions made on the drawing board are critical to the mic’s overall performance. Due to the physical properties of the ribbon element, well-made ribbon mics are warm, detailed, and very natural sounding. What you put in front of them is what you can expect to record. They effortlessly respond to even the slightest of sounds, and their transient response rivals the best condenser designs. In terms of how they “hear” and reproduce sounds, they are the closest electronic equivalent to the human ear (do you remember how we began this discussion?)
They are a particularly good choice for digital recording, where high frequency distortion on the analog side easily becomes an audible mathematical error on the digital side. The absence of harshness and distortion in the higher frequencies is particularly noticeable when compared to condenser and dynamic mics, and the electronic simplicity of a ribbon’s distortion-free signal makes for easier, more natural sounding passage through A/D converters and other digital signal processing devices. Engineers who remember working with tape often say that ribbon mics make them feel like they’re working with analog recording equipment again.
Ribbons and Polar Response
Polar response is the measurement of a microphone’s sensitivity to a given frequency relative to angle of incidence. Ribbons naturally exhibit a bidirectional, or figure-of-8 polar response because both sides of the transducer are equally exposed to incoming sound pressure waves. This means the microphone exhibits equal sensitivity to sounds arriving at the front as it does to those at the rear. This may lead you to conclude that a ribbon should exhibit an omnidirectional polar pattern. However, sound pressure waves arriving at the rear of the transducer are electrically 180 degrees out-of-phase at the output with those arriving at the front. If we draw an imaginary line down the center of the transducer, the microphone’s axis, sounds arriving at the side of the transducer (“the null point,” 90 degrees off-axis) produce equal but opposite sound pressure on both sides of the ribbon. As both sides are 180 degrees out-of-phase with each other, output at both null points is zero, resulting in a polar pattern that resembles the number 8 (fig. 2), hence the name of the pattern. Ribbons exhibit the truest bidirectional polar response, and feature absolute null-point rejection, opening up a world of mic placement possibilities.
Some multipattern condenser microphones are capable of producing a bidirectional pattern, but to accomplish this they must use complex active electronics which can impart noise, distortion, and undesirable off-axis artifacts. Accordingly, ribbon mics that feature unidirectional (cardioid, supercardioid, or hypercardioid) polar response must also create patterns electronically or mechanically to overcome the ribbon’s natural physical state. As we will learn in the next section, there are some serious advantages to using true bidirectional mics in studio and on stage.
Fig. 2 – bidirectional polar pattern
Ribbons and Off-Axis Response
Using our imaginary line from the section above, a sound pressure wave arriving at the transducer at an angle greater than 0 degrees is said to be off-axis. Off-axis response is a tricky subject because there is no standard of measurement for the phenomenon, yet it comes into play every time you use a microphone. Sound engineers can only say that a microphone has “good” or “bad” off-axis response after hearing it in action. Whether in studio or on stage, sound pressure waves bombard your microphone from every angle: some from other instruments in the room; others from reflections off walls, ceilings, control room windows, and stage floors. Due to their natural figure-of-8 polar pattern, ribbons exhibit significantly better off-axis response than do condensers or dynamics.
The big problem with poor off-axis response is that it produces sound that is very difficult to “fix.” Imagine that all off-axis frequencies have been tweaked with the worse possible EQ: The only way to deal with these frequencies is to either move the mic or remove them with EQ. Both tactics present the sound engineer with their own set of problems. Because of their smooth, natural off-axis response, ribbons significantly reduce or even eliminate much of this frustration. The result is simply better overall sound and far fewer headaches.
Ribbons and Transient Response
Audio transients are instantaneous sonic events with extremely short attack and decay times, and minimal sustain. Snare drum hits, kick drum hits, staccato piano, plucked strings, and slap bass are all good examples. Due to the low mass of the element, ribbons exhibit extremely fast transient response, often equaling or exceeding that of condensers, depending on the size and composition of the diaphragm or ribbon.
Good transient response leads to clean, dynamic, punchy, and detailed recordings (the sound literally comes alive) the sound stage opens up and envelops the listener, often appearing wider than the playback speakers themselves. Poor transient response results in recordings that are dull, muddled, and ill-defined with a smeared stereo image where the listener struggles to hear each instrument in its proper context.
Some sound engineers believe that condensers are always faster, but many times what they are hearing is overshoot – a disproportionate reaction to a transient common to condensers that results in higher output of the transient than its actual input. Overshoot leads to some nasty sonic artifacts and often contributes to the brittle, tinny high end found on some inexpensive condensers. Well-designed ribbons are not susceptible to overshoot.
Considering the mass of the element, we can conclude the fast transient response of a ribbon mic is a matter of simple physics: The higher the mass, the more energy that will be required to excite air molecules in proximity to the transducer and cause it to move, hence its response to incoming sound pressure waves is slower. The lower the mass – you get the picture.
Ribbons and Proximity Effect
Proximity effect is a physical phenomenon that results in increased low frequency response as a directional microphone moves closer to a sound source. Almost every directional microphone exhibits some proximity effect, but with ribbons, the effect is substantial – especially inside six inches. You can use this effect to great advantage. For example, proximity effect is often just the right thing to enhance a thin-sounding vocalist – naturally and evenly, without having to touch the EQ. Or you can use it to beef up an overly-bright acoustic guitar, a weak upright piano, or a lean cello. Any time you need a little more bass, try moving the mic a few inches closer to the sound source. Radio and television announcers have long used proximity effect to give their voices a full, rich, authoritative quality. We call this being “more real than real.” Of course, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing: Too much bass can overwhelm the track, mask other tracks, and lead to an overall sense of unintelligibility in your mix. The solution? Simply move the mic back until the bass sounds natural and realistic. By learning how to work with proximity effect, you can literally custom-tailor your track’s bass response to suit your needs.
Ribbons and Mixing
Mixing is where you realize the greatest strength of ribbons. Because ribbon-recorded tracks sound so much like the instrument you recorded, when you pull up the fader, the instrument is much more likely to drop into the mix right where it’s supposed to be. You’ll find yourself using much less EQ and signal processing to make the track sit properly in the mix, and you’ll spend a lot less time “fixing” things! You may even find yourself using less EQ on other tracks (tracks recorded with other microphones) because the ribbon tracks sit so naturally, they are less likely to fight for space and crowd or mask other tracks in your mix. We told you ribbons will change your life – we meant it.
Ribbons and EQ
While good ribbon mics deliver natural sound, sometimes you want to shape your tracks to cut through a mix. For example, a vocal take on a ribbon mic might be perfect for jazz or classical recordings, but in a rock or pop track engineers often want to hear more high end “sizzle” to help the vocal stand out. This is an application where a quality condenser mic can shine: But some vocalists sound sibilant no matter what condenser mic you put in front of them, so a highly EQ’ed ribbon mic can be the perfect option: push 12K by 4-6 dB and your ribbon will cut more like a condenser, but without harshness or sibilance. For a great example of a highly EQ’ed ribbon on a singer who was sibilant on condenser mics, listen to this recording of “There She Goes Again” by Sixpence None the Richer, sung on a highly EQ’ed Coles 4038 ribbon. The guitars and cellos were recorded with Royer R-121s.
The EQ-ability of ribbons is equally helpful on drums: Royer R-122s are great overhead mics, but the natural sound of cymbals is often not bright enough for rock. Opening up the high end with EQ helps the cymbals cut through the mix and sound more exciting, without affecting the power and tone of the snare drum and tom-toms. This EQ-ability is useful on a wide variety of instruments.
Equalization is probably the least understood and most overused form of signal processing in the audio engineer’s “toolbox” and the results are often disastrous. Many engineers take the approach that they can “fix” problems in a track by using EQ at mixdown. The reality is that the misapplication of EQ causes more problems than it could ever fix, and the real problem is that the track was never “right” from the beginning. A number of factors will influence the overall quality of the track: the musician’s technique, the condition and tuning of his instrument, the instrument’s interaction with the room and the mic, and, of course, the microphone itself. You’ll probably agree that classical music recording is the “purest” expression of the art. The goal of most classical music recording engineers is to make a recording with no equalization at all. They must be on to something! They spend a great deal of time before the performance listening, moving mics around, and making sure that when they are ready to roll, they essentially have a high-fidelity master coming through the speakers. Make sure everything is right at the source, and the quality of your recordings will improve dramatically.
Our advice is to take a step back and really listen to what’s coming out of your speakers before you ever press record. Chances are, if you’re using a Royer ribbon, things will already sound smooth and natural and you’ll be ready to capture that amazing take.
We’re not saying you’ll never have touch the EQ if you use ribbons, but the good news is that if you do need to EQ your tracks, no other kind of microphone stands up as well to EQ as a ribbon. They take EQ so well because of their natural frequency response and lack of distortion artifacts: there’s no “junk” to bring up with the signal- just the music!
Ribbons and Phantom Power
As one of the earliest microphone designs, ribbons actually predate phantom power by several years. Some ribbon mics can be destroyed instantly by the inadvertent application of phantom power. However, most modern ribbons were designed to handle phantom power being turned on and off: As long as the microphone cable is correctly wired, phantom power will not be applied to the ribbon element. Of course, active ribbons like the Royer R-122 or SF-24 that require phantom power for their operation will never be damaged by its application.
A word of caution about patch bays: Improperly wired or poorly-made patch bays can allow phantom power to leak into other channels. If the patch bay uses TRS connectors, plugging and unplugging cables with phantom power on results in brief jolts of phantom power hitting the ribbon element directly, so you may damage your ribbon microphone by connecting to or through one of these bays. It’s good practice to never connect or disconnect a patch cable with phantom power turned on.
Ribbons and SPL
SPL, or sound pressure level, is a measurement of the intensity of a sound pressure wave. Measured in decibels, it provides us with a relative scale of loudness which is useful in determining proper mic selection and placement. High sound pressure levels can damage some ribbons, and will stretch any ribbon mic over time. But Royer ribbons are tough! Through our patented work-hardened corrugation process, our pure aluminum ribbons will stand up to years of high SPL before they exhibit any signs of fatigue. That said, it is a good idea to limit exposure to unnecessary high SPL to insure the longevity of your investment. Please note that dynamics and condensers are also susceptible to the effects of sound pressure and like any physical membrane, their diaphragms will stretch over time leading to degraded performance.
Ribbons and Wind
Wind is the ribbon mic’s enemy. A strong gust of wind could potentially stretch or tear even the hardiest ribbons, and has done some serious damage to vintage relics. While proper use on a loud guitar amplifier won’t blow a Royer, you’re taking your chances with a strong gust of wind. Take care to make sure your ribbons are always protected from wind and other elements, and always transport a ribbon mic in its protective case. Every Royer microphone includes a plush felt windsock which should be used when the mic is moved, or when it’s left on a mic stand but not being used.
Storing Ribbon Mics
Most ribbon mics require vertical storage to keep the ribbon upright and prevent stretching. However, our patented corrugation method allows for horizontal storage. You can store a Royer on its side for years and it will be fine. Make sure to store it in its wooden storage box and inside the windsock.
Thank you for taking the time to learn a little bit about these amazing microphones and their application.
Here is a summary to help you remember why ribbons are so special:
- Extremely low mass allows freest movement through space.
- Truest figure-of-8 of all types of microphones – absolute null-point rejection.
- Excellent off-axis response.
- Tight, defined bass with significant, highly-useable proximity effect.
- Smooth, detailed, natural high end.
- Maximum midrange detail.
- Takes EQ better than any other microphone.
- A real pleasure to mix.
What ribbons don’t do is just as important
- Never harsh, tinny or peaky.
- They don’t distort easily.
- They don’t sound weak in the mids.
- Least susceptible to ringing.
- They don’t produce overshoot.