Table of Contents
If someone were to ask you to paint a picture of vintage microphones, you would probably start drawing ribbon microphones without you even knowing they were one. Ranging in shapes from box type, elongated, circular, and capsule, all of which are enclosed in a steel mesh grill, ribbon microphones were the popular mics in the industry from the mid-1930s up until the 1970s.
Ribbon mics were the go-to microphones for most recording and broadcasts back then because of the natural sound quality they can produce, may the sound source be a person’s voice, an instrument, or even the room ambiance itself. Of course, the simple but classic design also played a role in the popularity of ribbon mics as they had a professional appeal to them.
However, ribbon mics were replaced by condenser microphones during the mid-1970s as people were now looking for a “brighter” sounding microphone with high frequencies as opposed to the warm sound of a ribbon mic. This caused many ribbon microphone manufacturers to close down, which may explain why these mics do not have a household name compared to other microphone types.
Fast forward to the 1990s and today’s digital age, ribbon microphones are steadily making a comeback as people revert to a natural and warm-sounding recording that these dynamic microphones superbly produce.
In this article, we’ll find out more about these ribbon mics and go over their many applications and benefits. You will find though that it all boils down to what ribbon microphones are best known for – producing the most natural and warmest sound among other microphones.
A ribbon microphone is a type of dynamic microphone that is side-address and bi-directional with a figure-8 polar pattern. What makes a ribbon mic different than the usual dynamic mic is how its diaphragm is built; a ribbon mic has a thin strip of metal ribbon suspended within its magnetic field to convert an electrical signal or audio signal into sound waves.
Logically, this is where the ribbon microphone gets its name from. Simply put, a ribbon mic has a ribbon, two magnets, and a transformer. Putting these together, you get the warmest, richest, and most natural-sounding mic out there.
There are two kinds of ribbon microphones: passive and active. Let’s further differentiate the two.
Most ribbon microphones are passive ribbons, which means they have no pre-amplification or any active electronics in them. That being said, passive ribbons will require a preamp with high impedance to maximize their full potential. For best results, a passive ribbon mic must be paired with a high-gain and high-impedance preamp for their low-end, transient response, and frequency response to perform well.
An active ribbon microphone requires phantom power to operate as it makes use of electronics. The use of phantom power though allows for more adjustments in gain, signal-to-noise ratio, and overall frequency response while the electronics help protects the ribbon from blowing up while the phantom power is in use. An active ribbon microphone can be plugged into any preamp and recording interfaces.
While both have their advantages and disadvantages, it boils down to preference. A passive ribbon microphone will produce a superior sound to an active ribbon microphone, but it comes with a price of convenience and ease that the latter can offer. Regardless, a ribbon microphone can give a smooth and warm sound quality that is top-notch.
Ribbon mics are dubbed natural mics in the industry. The high-frequency roll-off, figure-8 polar patterns, and low-end pickup make ribbon mics preferred in many applications where you want all the warmth of an instrument, voice, or room to be captured and reproduced. Here is a summary of the many applications where you can use ribbon mics.
Ribbon mics can ‘tame’ high frequencies that tend to overshadow instruments at higher volumes by returning the low-end weight and producing a warm and full sound. The way ribbon mics are constructed also allows the ribbon to act as a diaphragm and transducer in one, which is useful when recording instruments as the mic will have a fast transient response while remaining sensitive.
While many ribbon microphones in the market can be used when recording instruments, the Royer R-121 is often the preferred mic for the job.
A bass drum and the drum overheads can be recorded using a ribbon mic as it can isolate the clarity, detail, and depth of these instruments while it tames down the high-end shrill sound when capturing cymbals.
Acoustic and electric guitars can also be recorded using ribbon mics because of their ability to tame high frequencies while returning the low-end weight and thickness for mixing. The mid-range and fast transient response of a ribbon mic when capturing sound make it also ideal for recording high-gain electric guitar cabinets.
As ribbon mics can tame high frequencies, brass and woodwind instruments come out warm. The high SPL of ribbon mics also tones down the “honk” sound source of horned instruments.
The bi-directional sound pickup paired with a figure-8 polar pattern of the ribbon mic makes it ideal for recording stringed instruments as it can record the details of the strings while capturing the room sound for more depth.
Ribbon mics are dubbed as one of the best vocal microphones in the industry because of their sensitivity and low-end frequency that contribute to the weight and warm pickup of the sound source. Although, since the microphone is highly sensitive, it is recommended to make use of a pop shield so as not to minimize plosives and capture mechanical noise.
For broadcasters, a ribbon microphone highlights the thickness and natural prowess of their voice even without any adjustments and tweaks done. While the bi-directional sound pick up of the ribbon microphone makes it ideal for podcasters and hosts who have a guest in front of them.
The design allows for both parties to use one microphone at the same time and still retain consistent sound quality. The figure-8 pattern also rejects any off-axis sounds so it’s perfect for recording studios with a live audience.
When it comes to recording vocals in singing or voiceover applications, ribbon mics are great at adding warmth that will highlight the natural talent of the vocalist. Just be careful when belting out high notes and placing the microphone too near the mouth as this can damage the ribbon due to the vibration and produce a distorted sound.
Yes, recording a room is done by many especially musicians. Believe it or not, each room has a unique sound to it based on materials used, soundproofing, and size. Room recording is mostly done to capture the full sound and experience of a performance as the ambiance plays a major role in the overall feel of the recording. Ribbon microphones are the best recording devices to take on this task because of the depth they add.
Capturing the sound of instruments, such as an electric guitar or drums, can be complicated. To add depth to this, room recording can be done by placing the microphone farther away from the electric guitar or instrument of choice to capture more of the room sound and create a fuller sound. The transient response of a ribbon microphone also helps in making the sound crisper and focused on the instrument while capturing a full ambiance of the room.
With an impressive high-frequency roll-off and the ability to tame high volumes, ribbon mics are becoming a popular choice of mics for digital content creation and recordings. The natural sounding result of the ribbon mic allows the recording to be different from today’s highly tweaked and edited sounds.
Legendary recording artists such as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, and Nat King Cole have recorded many of their songs and albums using a ribbon microphone because of the smooth, warm, and vintage sound that it can deliver while retaining clarity on top of the instruments.
Ribbon mics can minimize wheezing sounds while retaining a full sound may it be capturing low-frequency voices or low-volume voices. With precision proximity, ribbon mics can also soften high frequencies so it would be a breeze to do any post-equalizing.
For those who know how to properly use them, ribbon mics are an instant favorite as they can highlight natural vocals and talent. The most popular ribbon microphone for vocals is the Royer R-121 but for first-time users of this technical microphone, the Golden Age Project R1 Mk II is a good option. On the other hand, the Avantone Audio CR-14 is a good passive ribbon microphone for those who are recording instruments and vocals at the same time.
The stereo recording technique is also best done with ribbon mics. This is the technique used by musicians who are recording multiple sound sources, vocals, and instruments at the same time by placing ribbon mics 90 degrees from each other to create a full and majestic sound.
However, ribbon mics are not that ideal for live performances as they may capture unwanted sounds from the back of the microphone due to the bi-directional design. Direct sound sources that are too loud may also damage the ribbon so a pop shield is highly recommended. For more options on vocal mics that can be used on both live and studio recordings, check out this guide on the best microphone for vocals that we have created.
Ribbon mics are great at capturing both the direct sound source and the overall ambiance of the room to produce a fuller and complete sound. This ultimately gives a listener a new and more in-depth listening experience.
May it be recording studios or home studios, ribbon mics can give an impressive sonic experience due to the ability to capture the ambiance and the natural “feel” of the room as is. It can be hyper-focused on the sound it is directed at, in front or at the back, while rejecting any off-axis unwanted sounds.
Since the 1970s, ribbon mics and condenser mics are often put against each other. While both microphones are great at their job, the answer to this question will vary depending on the topic in question.
The ribbon microphone is often referred to as one of the most fragile and delicate microphones out there because of how thin its metal ribbons are. For context, most ribbon microphones like the Royer R ribbon microphones have a 0,004 mm metal ribbon while, in comparison, a human hair is 0,1 mm thin.
The Royer R-10 ribbon microphone can even stretch its metal ribbons thinner than 4 microns! With such a thin metal ribbon, the strip can easily be damaged due to loud vibrations and when the wrong phantom power is accidentally engaged.
A condenser microphone may be less fragile in that sense, but it’s not to say that it is not susceptible to damage. The backplate of a condenser microphone is most prone to corrosion and should this happen, then the overall sound quality will be affected.
As with other microphones, both ribbons and condensers should not be dropped. When it comes to safekeeping, ribbon mics will just require more care since it is recommended to place them in their respective cases after use whereas most condenser microphones can stand to be left out in the open relatively longer.
If you are opting for a warm and natural-sounding recording, then ribbon mics would perform better than condensers. However, if you want to belt out notes and plan on recording sounds with a high frequency, then condensers are your best bet.
Compared to condenser mics, ribbon mics have a low output and will need more gain. Too much gain will add to the self-noise level. On the other hand, condenser mics also have a limit regarding the signal level they can handle so they can also produce self-noise to a certain extent.
The intended use will affect the overall performance of your microphone as each type has a dedicated application for it.
A ribbon microphone is the most natural-sounding mic in the market that can produce a warm and full sound that is close to the source it is recording. With that said, ribbon mics are hailed as the type of mics that will allow you to “listen as you hear it”, making them the best microphone for recording sound as it is.
If this article has got you more curious about these microphones, then you can check out our top picks on the best ribbon mics here.