Four classic ribbon microphones
Why do we like ribbon microphones? Because we like the silky-smooth sonic character most of them have. Even the modern ribbon designs tend to have a non-obtrusive high end, and while they might lack the detail of the usual condensers or the ruggedness of most of the dynamics, they have their place in a studio.
Sometimes we don’t like the relative fragility compared to other mics (the ribbon is a very thin aluminum foil suspended between the two poles of a magnet), and we don’t like that they need a lot of clean gain from the preamplifier to get a healthy signal level happening. So they like to be surrounded by good gear and to be handled with care (thank you Traveling Wilburys!).
Beyerdynamic M 160: This German guy with the subtle looks – a silver ball on the end of a black cylinder – works good on most anything you put in front of it. Interestingly, this ribbon mic does not sport a figure eight pickup pattern; it’s a hypercardioid microphone. Its frequency response is pretty flat between about 100 – 2000Hz and there’s only a gentle boost of the high-mids before the smooth roll-off starts at around 8kHz. You can expect a very natural sound on most sources.
RCA 77-DX: It’s an old pharmaceutical capsule looking microphone from the 50s, but it’s still being used a lot for recording, if you can find one in a good shape and also if you can afford it. There are several magical attributes of this guy, one of them is the screwdriver operated shutter that you can change the pickup pattern with, so you can set it to either omnidirectional (non-directional), figure eight (bi-directional) or cardioid (unidirectional). Another trick can be done with angling the microphone so the ribbon element gets into a hanging position inside – this way you can get a nice mid-range boost because of the ribbon foil’s sensitivity towards gravity. Elliott Randall – famous guitar player who played the magnificent solos on Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In The Years” – likes to mic the back corner of his Marshall cabinet with this guy.
Coles 4038: This ribbon is THE choice if you want your microphone to look like the end of a metal detector. But before you write the shape off as an extravagant attitude, the purpose of the design is to enhance acoustic performance. The frequency response of this mic is pretty flat between 50Hz and 12,000Hz, then you get the “ribbon signature” smooth top end roll-off. A lot of famous (and some not so famous) British bands used these mics for drum overheads, including the Beatles or Led Zeppelin.
Royer 121: Released in 1998, we can call this microphone a modern classic. The simple looking tubular design sports horizontal slots at the top, with two short ears on the null-sides of the mic. The pickup pattern is figure 8 again, and due to the patented “offset ribbon transducer”, the front side can take a slightly higher sound pressure level (SPL of 135dB, which is quite impressive for a ribbon), while the other side has a slightly better high end response. Two mics in one, thank you, Royer Labs!