Back in the day, ribbon microphones were not only expensive but incredibly delicate, and generally, were only built and maintained by the studios that used them. In America, RCA records built their own ribbon microphones, while the BBC built their own Coles microphones. Of course, these days, you can find a massive range of affordable models available, and most of them are a lot more hard-wearing and less delicate than their ancestors. Here, I’ll go over the pros and cons of using the infamous ribbon microphone so you can make up your own mind.

Ribbon Microphones: The Pros & Cons

How the Ribbon Microphone Works

The ribbon microphone could be seen as an estranged cousin of the dynamic microphone. Instead of reacting to sound via a copper coil that moves around a magnet, a ribbon microphone uses an extremely thin ‘ribbon’, usually made from aluminium, that’s suspended within a magnetic field (see the diagram below). The ribbon is so thin that it’s able to detect the smallest of air fluctuations and move in response to it. The movement within the magnetic field generates a miniscule voltage that can then be amplified or recorded.

Polar Pattern

Because of the way they’re built, ribbon microphones almost always have a figure-of-eight polar pattern, as you can see in the diagram below. This pattern ensures that sound is equally registered from both the front and rear of the microphone while any sound coming from above, below or from either side barely does anything to the suspended ribbon. This is a specific feature that, thankfully, can be quite useful. For example, when using ribbon microphones to record a singer-songwriter, you can point one mike at the guitar and another at the mouth of the vocalist and position each microphone perpendicularly so that it only captures the sound it’s supposed to. This way, you can record the guitar and the vocals separately at the same time.

Ribbon Microphones: The Pros & Cons

The Ribbon Microphone Sound

Ribbon microphones have a really distinct character to them and are known for emphasising the lower-mid frequencies of the sonic spectrum. They can also go pretty far into the higher frequencies and their sensitivity decreases very slowly. When you hear how they sound for the first time, ribbon microphones can fall on the dull side, but are actually really easy to EQ. Because they have no perceptible resonances, you can safely boost the high frequencies without it sounding shrill. With any standard condenser microphone, you’d have trouble doing this. Vocals, pianos, and acoustic guitars all take on a round, vintage-flavoured sound and character when recorded or amplified with a ribbon microphone. These mikes can also bear a high level of sound pressure, so feel free to use one to close-mic a guitar amplifier, or set a couple up as drum overheads. Basically, you’d have to work really hard to make a ribbon microphone sound thin or shrill.

Ribbon Microphone Forever?

Ribbon microphones do come with their own pitfalls, especially older models with a lower output, which will need a good, clean preamp to raise the gain to a usable level. However, modern active ribbon microphones come with built-in preamps and you can even use them with any preamp you want.

Ribbon microphones are also pretty delicate, but nowhere near as delicate as they used to be. For example, you can’t store a classic ribbon microphone horizontally, since the ribbon will sag. These days, there two things to watch out for:

  1. Generally, ribbon microphones don’t like phantom power since it can burn up the ribbon. Active ribbon microphones are an exception to this rule: these microphones actually need phantom power to work.
  2. Ribbon microphones don’t do so well in windy conditions. So when recording vocals, always use a pop filter and never place the microphone right next to the bass drum port, since it might damage the ribbon.

Have you already got a ribbon microphone in your collection? Let us know why you love it and what you use it for in the comments.

See Also

» Polar Patterns Explained
» The Difference Between Dynamic and Condenser Microphones
» The Best Microphone Set-Ups for Stereo Recordings

» What’s the Best Windshield or Pop-Filter for Me?
» What’s the Best Microphone Preamp for Me?
» What’s the Best Speech or Vocal Microphone for Me?
» What is the best USB microphone for me?
» What is the best studio microphone for me?

» Ribbon Microphones
» Studio Condenser Microphones
» Live Condenser Microphones

No responses

No comments yet...

Leave a Reply