A ribbon microphone is a type of microphone that has been used for decades by some of the best studios in the world. Ribbon microphones are known for their warm sound and ability to handle high sound pressure levels without distortion.
Although they were once an expensive option, today, you can find many great models at affordable prices that provide professional-quality recordings with minimal noise and feedback. This article will explore how ribbon mics work, what types of microphones there are, and tips on how to use them effectively in your recording sessions.
What Is A Ribbon Microphone?
Ribbon microphones are a type of dynamic microphone. Unlike other types, they use an extremely thin metal ribbon in the traditional diaphragm/cone design to convert acoustic signals into electrical ones. Ribbon mics have been used extensively throughout all recording areas for their exceptional clarity and warmth since their introduction in the 1920s when they were co-invented by Drs. Walter H. Schottky and Erwin Gerlach.
Ribbon microphones have several features that make them unique. They are incredibly lightweight, sturdy, and delicate due to the thin metal ribbon used instead of a diaphragm/cone design. Underneath their distinctive look is an equally intriguing sound quality which many engineers agree has more warmth than other dynamic mics. This is due to how ribbon mics convert sound energy into electricity, which provides a smooth transition from low-to-high frequencies.
How Does A Ribbon Microphone Work?
Ribbon microphones are known for their high-end sound quality. The ribbon is placed between two magnets, creating a magnetic field that captures the vibrations of your voice. Their diaphragm (the part that picks up on vocal frequencies) works like any other microphone; however, it does not require phantom power or batteries to operate.
Furthermore, the ribbon is extremely sensitive to loud and harsh frequencies, so they tend to be more suitable for recording than live performances. When sound waves hit the ribbon, it moves back and forth between the poles of a magnet. A current is passed through the ribbon, creating an electrical signal corresponding with the original incoming audio signal.
Benefits Of Using Ribbon Microphones
Here are the benefits of using ribbon microphones.
- They have a natural sound and do not require power to operate.
- Ribbon mics can also be used in any type of environment, including live performances or studio recording.
- Ribbon mics are lightweight, making them easy to use with anything from video conferencing systems to voice applications on mobile devices. They’re even used in some handheld recorders.
- They are suitable for low frequencies and sound pressure levels up to 160 dB SPL
- They are a flexible, durable cable that is lightweight
- They provide a flat frequency response from 40 Hz – 20 kHz
- They are sensitive enough to pick up quiet sounds but also resistant to electrical interferences
- They are low cost and easy to maintain
Types Of Microphones
There are several types of microphones. They each have different characteristics that make them more suitable for some uses than others. Still, all can be used in various settings to record audio from various sources, including sound effects or music recording sessions. These include dynamic, condenser, and ribbon mics, among others. Let’s look at each of these in detail:
- Ribbon mics are the earliest microphones; however, they do not work well with bass sounds due to their inherent low magnetic resistance. They are very fragile as well and only built in a handful of companies.
- Dynamic microphones are the most common type of microphone used today. They do not require power or batteries to work, making them ideal for stage productions where access to electricity may be limited or non-existent. However, they can pick up background noise quite quickly, so it’s best to use them in a quiet environment. Dynamic microphones work by using the diaphragm to vibrate a coil suspended in a magnetic field which generates electricity when it moves within reach of another magnet.
- Condenser mics are the most sensitive of all types; however, they also pick up more background noise and require power or batteries to work, which can make them less practical for live shows. This is why condensers tend to be used in recording studios where it’s easier to control what sounds get picked up. Condenser mics typically use two metal plates held apart with an insulating material in between to create an electrical charge.
- There are also two other types of microphones: Boundary and PZM (Pressure Zone Microphones). While both can be used as standard microphones when placed on a flat surface, they work best at their designated tasks, including picking up sound effects from instruments such as drums or guitar amps or being placed on the floor for recording sounds such as footsteps.
Ribbon Microphones Vs. Other Microphones
Ribbon mics are the earliest type of microphones. However, they do not work well with bass sounds due to their inherent low magnetic resistance. They are very fragile as well and only built in a handful of companies.
Compared to condenser microphones and dynamic microphones, ribbon mics are much less sensitive than the former but more so than the latter. This creates an incredible range of applications and sound, which is why ribbon mics have been used for so many different recording areas throughout the decades.
Ribbon microphones also require a lot of care and delicacy, as they are very fragile. They will break if dropped or hit too hard. They also require a power source and often need to be plugged into an external preamp.
Ribbon microphones are great for vocals, as they can create a very warm sound that is still clear and natural sounding without too much coloration of the original signal. They can also work well on stringed instruments such as violins or cellos if placed correctly.
More experienced studio engineers prefer Ribbon microphones due to their care, delicacy, and sensitive nature. They require a lot of patience compared to other mics but can yield even greater sounds if this is provided. However, ribbon mics do not work well with bass-heavy instruments such as kick drums due to their inherently low magnetic resistance.
Factors To Consider When Buying A Ribbon Microphone
There are many factors to consider when buying a ribbon microphone. The most crucial factor is the application you need it for, like recording vocals or taking drums sounds. Other considerations include compatibility with your gear and budget. Ensuring that everything works together perfectly will ensure an easy workflow in any studio environment, regardless of how big or small it may be.
A vintage ribbon microphone is an excellent option for those who want to capture the sound of their favorite artists. The first choice should be what type of music you will be recording, determining which model and brand make sense. A directional ribbon mic like an RCA 44 BX can help you achieve accurate results when recording vocals or instruments in front of the mic.
A contemporary ribbon microphone like an AEA R84 is great for recording instruments further away, such as drums or electric guitars. This type has a cardioid polar pattern which helps you avoid any interference from unwanted sounds behind it. If you want to capture sound coming directly towards the mic without picking up too much of the room, a figure-eight ribbon mic like an AEA N22 is ideal.
If you want to record vocals and instruments that are close up with great detail in sound quality, then a stereo microphone such as the Royer R-121 or Cascade Fat Head II would be most suitable for your needs. This type has two directional mics that can pick up sound coming from either side of it.
Ribbon microphones are often the best choice for recording brass or string instruments, as they offer you a clean and accurate representation without too much coloration added to the tone. A ribbon microphone has more high ends than other types, which helps to bring out complex textures in your recordings.
When it comes to compatibility, you will want to make sure that any ribbon microphones are compatible with your gear. They can be connected via XLR or TRS cables depending on the type of mic and input method required. Some require phantom power, while others do not need this extra juice for them to function correctly. If your microphone requires phantom power, make sure that your preamp has this feature, or you will need to buy a phantom-powered mixer before connecting it.
One of the most critical factors is budget. Ribbon microphones are generally more expensive than other types because they are manufactured in smaller batches and require unique materials for their construction. If you have enough money to spend on one, then you will be able to get a great-sounding mic that should last you many years.
Ribbon microphones are a type of dynamic microphone and have been used throughout all recording areas for their exceptional clarity and warmth. They use an extremely thin metal ribbon instead of the traditional diaphragm/cone design to convert sound into electricity, providing a smooth transition from low-to-high frequencies.
Compared to other types such as condenser microphones and dynamic microphones, ribbon mics are much less sensitive than the former but more so than the latter. This creates an incredible range of applications and sound. It is why they have been used in many different areas in recording throughout the decades.