In this article, we’ll learn about the ribbon microphone. Although not as commonly used in audio recording as dynamic or condenser mics, ribbon microphones are adored by many because of their unique sound characteristics.
Ribbon microphone sound characteristics
Owing to their popularity between the 1920’s and 1950’s (after which they were superseded by condenser mics) ribbon microphones have become a popular choice for anybody looking to capture a ‘vintage’ characteristic in their recordings. Infamous examples of ribbon mics include the Coles 4038, a ribbon mic designed and patented by the BBC in the 1950s which continues to be a hugely popular item for ribbon mic users today.
The sound captured by a ribbon microphone is unique, often referred to as warm, smooth and silky. This is because ribbon mics tend to emphasize the low-mids and gradually roll off the highs. As such, they are less transparent than condenser mics, but a lot more natural sounding. Their frequency response makes them unsuitable for instances in which the capture of a lot of high end is required. Instead, they are used to capture a warm and rounded sound. This can be useful when trying to tame the harshness of a bright instrument. Ribbon microphones offer a fast transient response, enabling the capture of dynamic and detailed recordings. Common applications include the capture of acoustic guitars, vocals, horns, strings, guitar amps, bass amps and as drum overheads.
Factors to consider when recording with a ribbon microphone
Most ribbon microphones provide you with a bi-directional (figure-of-eight) pick up pattern. Whilst it’s true that ribbon microphones with other pick up patterns are available, bi-directional is by far the most common. A bi-directional pick up pattern means that the mic picks up sound equally from the front and the back. It will also exhibit a null at each side. Because of their figure-of-eight pick up pattern, ribbon microphones exhibit a lot of ‘proximity effect’. This means that the closer the mic is placed to the sound source, the more the low end will be emphasized. Both the bi-directional pick up pattern and the proximity effect are aspects which you must be mindful of. Each has its benefits, but each can present challenges as well.
Historically, ribbon microphones have always produced a very low output, much lower than that of dynamic or condenser microphones. This resulted in the need for a preamp which could provide lots of clean gain. To overcome this, in recent times companies have started to produce ‘active’ ribbon microphones. These require phantom power and provide higher levels of output than their ‘passive’ counterparts.
Handle your ribbon microphones with care
Although ribbon mics are capable of handling very high sound pressure levels, something that they cannot handle is direct bursts of air onto the ribbon. Even so much as blowing into the mic can cause damage. This poses a risk if you were to place a mic too close to a kick drum or the bass port of an amp. There are also specific requirements about the way that you should store a ribbon mic. You should store your ribbon mics vertically, as leaving a ribbon mic placed horizontally for prolonged periods poses the risk that the ribbon itself may sag. There is also the potential to cause damage by introducing phantom power to a mic which does not require it. As manufactures continue to design new ribbon mics, many are developing methods of overcoming some of these risks. Even so, you must always treat ribbon microphones with care.
Do you use a ribbon microphone in your home studio? If so, what do you use it for? Leave your feedback in the comment section below.