The Ribbon Sound

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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.

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