We often talk about condenser or dynamic microphones, which are the most sought-after in the audio field for their versatility, but we forget that there are also alternatives with the ribbon microphone. Often complicated to choose, it still remains accessible in price but complicated to manage in maintenance, in this article, we will explain all the subtleties of this microphone, and as a bonus for the lucky owners of these microphones who don’t know where to repair their precious vintage ribbon microphone, we have a tip to help you!
What’s a Ribbon Microphone? 🧐
All microphones don’t capture all sounds in the same way. Their choice will depend on the task to be accomplished and, above all, on the result expected by the user. In this article, we will focus on the ribbon microphone. It is one of the oldest types of microphone that has ever existed.
Function and particularity of the Ribbon Microphone 🛠
The ribbon microphone works on the same electrical principle as the dynamic microphone. The only difference is that the coil is replaced by a thin conductive ribbon which acts as a diaphragm and moving coil. In other words, it is the electrical equivalent of a dynamic microphone, but with only one coil.
As a result, a very small electrical voltage will appear across the ribbon depending on the sound that hits it. Since the electrical signal supplied by the Ribbon is particularly weak, a transformer must be inserted in the circuit. The purpose of this transformer is to raise the output voltage to an acceptable level.
If a Ribbon microphone is well designed, it is likely to have a flat frequency response easily exceeding 20 Hz. Because of the double-sided nature of the Ribbon, the microphone will automatically have a bi-directional polar pattern or figure of eight.
This can be said to be a standard configuration, as the diaphragm is exposed to sound waves on both sides. It is important to note that some ribbon microphones do have more directional characteristics.
We might be tempted to say that, in view of its characteristics, the ribbon microphone cannot offer any real advantages. Indeed, compared to other microphones, it’ s the most fragile. Nevertheless, as technology has evolved, ribbon microphones have improved over time. While they are still among the most fragile microphones on the market, they are relatively stronger. In addition, with innovations such as the “printed” ribbon, the reliability of the microphone and its frequency response have improved significantly.
For some applications, professionals still prefer to use ribbon microphones mainly because of the sound they produce. One example is the recording of classical music.
Microphone Sensitivity 🦻
The central part of the microphone is the metal alloy ribbon folded into an accordion shape and inserted into the axis of a cylindrical electromagnet. It will act as a membrane and a coil at the same time. It’ s this part that will give the microphone its very high sensitivity. To preserve the membrane of the microphone, we advise you not to expose it to high acoustic pressure. It is also extremely sensitive to shocks and wind.
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Using Ribbon Microphones ✅
The sound reproduction of a ribbon microphone is simply extraordinary. It produces a very smooth and natural sound. The microphone does not reproduce frequencies above 10 Hz well, so the sound produced will be warm with a vintage feel. It’ s a microphone that is not similar to any of its counterparts.
By the way, the majority of ribbon microphones all offer a bidirectional or figure-of-eight pickup pattern. This type of polar pattern plays an important role in the sound quality of the microphone. In cases where a silky sound and the reproduction of dynamic and harmonic variations are desired, a ribbon microphone is used. This type of microphone is preferred for recording acoustic instruments. It can also be used for vocals, drum overhead, or as a guitar amplifier. However, in some cases it is advisable to protect the diaphragm by using a special windscreen or filter. However, this is not an exhaustive list of applications, and nothing prevents the microphone from being used in other situations. It is always important to experiment, taking into account the specific characteristics of the microphone.
Ribbon microphones are widely used in the studio because of their fragility. They must also be stored in a special way to prevent the ribbon from relaxing. Under very high sound pressure, the ribbon may tear. This is why you should move it away from the sound source.
For More Gain 🙌
One of the main drawbacks of the ribbon microphone is its low output level. To overcome this, we recommend that you use a good preamp with a large amount of gain. The quality of the recording will depend entirely on the quality of the preamp. If you use a poor quality amplifier, you should not expect a stunning result. You may have to push the preamp to the limit to get a decent recording level.
In this case, we recommend the use of a Cloudlifter CL-1. It will boost the signal of your microphone by + 25 dB. Very practical, it is not necessary to connect it to the mains. The phantom power of your sound card will allow it to work properly. However, it is very important to note that ribbon microphones do not like +48 volts at all.
The Technical Characteristics of a Ribbon Microphone 🎤
The Ribbon microphone is a pressure gradient microphone, because the sound wave can attack both sides of the Ribbon. For best results, the microphone should always be placed perpendicular to its sound source. In this way, the sound waves will strike the front of the ribbon.
Ribbon microphones have a wide bandwidth. Therefore, they are much more accurate than other types of microphones. The sound quality is very good. It produces a soft and warm sound, even in the treble. It can be used to reduce the aggressivity of some musical instruments or voices.
This is a much needed feature to compensate for the cool effect of current microphones. In general, there is an attenuation from 14 kHz and a drop in the low frequencies. The response curve also shows a noticeable increase in the level of low frequencies when the sound source comes within one meter of the capsule. At this distance, the waves are rather spherical.
The Proximity effect and the Microphone 🖐
By design, as pressure gradient microphones, the Ribbon model is affected by the proximity effect. This is characterized by an amplification of low frequencies. It occurs when the sound source is placed at a very short distance from the microphone. This is explained by the different lengths of the paths that reach the diaphragm. This proximity effect is very important and is a key element in the sound quality produced by the microphone. It helps the microphone to produce an incredible natural sound.
Sharing experience when using the Ribbon Microphone 🤝
A ribbon microphone is a transducer that offers high quality sound performance. The sound produced is very specific, it is warm and incredibly natural. The microphone’s bi-directional pickup pattern also provides an amazing stereo image while remaining natural. This is an ambient microphone. It is designed to capture the sounds of a room. In the face of strong volume variations, the performance remains the same. It reproduces transients perfectly.
When applied to an acoustic guitar or drum kit, the sound is simply stunning. Given its performance, this is a microphone that would also be perfect for use in film or broadcasting. Its output level is very low, but it doesn’t accept +48 volts phantom power. This might make it completely unusable. For a little more gain, it is recommended to invest in a good preamp.
However, the quality of the preamp and the quality of the sound are intrinsically linked. So if you want HD sound, invest in a very good preamp. It is very sensitive and can pick up sounds that even a good dynamic microphone cannot. In other words, it is a microphone that can pick up distant sound sources. With a well realized soundstage, the ribbon microphone becomes the best ambient microphone.
Want to increase the sound quality of your projects? Consider investing in a ribbon microphone. It is an essential piece of equipment for studio recording and for voice recordings. You can also use it for a bass drum or a snare drum, the result will be breathtaking.
Our Selection of Ribbon Microphones ❤️
The market offers a good deal of ribbon microphones. Here is our unofficial selection of the best ribbon microphones of all time:
🎤 SE Electronics X1R
The SE Electronics X1R is a very good microphone. It can be used on just about anything: drums, guitar amps, acoustic guitar, vocals, bass… It offers a clear and crisp sound.
Like all other ribbon microphones, its sound has that sought-after vintage look. The possibility of handling quite high sound levels is another of its special features. Its output level is quite low. For optimal performance, a Cloudlifter can be used for an additional +25 dB of gain.
🎤 Beyerdynamic M160
This microphone is very small and can be easily installed. It is a must have for recording studios that already have a good preamp. The Beyerdynamic is a good all-round microphone that will produce a warm and heavy sound. Its double ribbon gives it a hypercardioid directionality unlike other microphones with a figure of eight.
This makes him an excellent companion in home studio. Its response curve is quite atypical, as it mixes smoothness and naturalness. The sound is characterized by a small hump that extends from 2.5 kHz to 9 kHz. The proximity effect is also very pronounced. It has a very good transient response without competing with professional condenser microphones.
It is a very sensitive microphone. An anti-pop filter or a windscreen is therefore mandatory for a vocal pickup and even for picking up guitar amps pushed very hard. To ensure its longevity, it should be placed horizontally in its case when not in use.
🎤 Coles 4038
Thanks to its exceptional characteristics, the Coles 4038 has won over many professionals. Like all ribbon microphones, it is fragile and delicate. Despite this, it is robust, hence its exceptional longevity. Indeed, it is a microphone produced since the 1950s, it is a big beast. The Coles 4038 is an absolute standard because of its musicality and its special grain.
It is an almost universal microphone. For voice recordings it produces a beautiful sound with a vintage, velvety feel. Applied to musical instruments, there is nothing to complain about. It magnifies them all (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, cymbals…). According to some users, it could even replace a dynamic microphone that can very quickly exaggerate in the treble.
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BONUS: Ribbon Microphone repair 🛠
The ribbon microphone is a bit complicated to clean and repair and needs some specific material to be adhered to in order to be done in good conditions.
If you have an old ribbon microphone or a newer one that is no longer under warranty and you want to get it working again, you can do so here (Please note that maintenance times can be long)