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Recording Tip Tuesday: Why are you still scared of ribbon mics?

Updated: Feb 9

Everyone who has poked their head into the recording world for more than a minute has probably heard someone talk about the great recordings from 50-70 years ago that were recorded onto a 4 track tape machine with vintage preamps that look like the controls to a WWI submarine and sound AMAZING! Somewhere in there you also probably heard about some legendary ribbon mics that Frank Sinatra or someone sang into. The covetted *warm* and *smooth* tone precede these mysterious mics. We all know (and probably own) a hand held dynamic mic or two (Shure sm58, sm57, etc.) and maybe a condensor or two as well but most beginner audio nerds don't know much about ribbon mics let alone own a few! Well, I was recently the beginner audio nerd above with little to zero knowledge of ribbons and wish someone had told me, what I am about to tell you, sooner! I am a recent(ish) convert and lately I've been telling everyone I talk to how excited I am about ribbon mics. #1 NO PHANTOM POWER! While most modern ribbon mics are not going to be completely toasted by phantom power, any vintage ribbon mic will most likely be destroyed by the 48 volts surging across the sub-paper thin metal ribbon inside. But as a budding engineer, you probably aren't about to drop thousands of dollars on a vintage Royer any time soon. Even so, Ribbons don't like excessive electricity. Even a lower impedance preamp will "burden" the ribbon to some extent and mess with the frequency response. #2 Figure 8 polar pattern. THIS IS SUPER COOL!!! Why is a figure 8 polar pattern so exciting? Because the nulls are so deep!!! Okay.... Wut? Yeah, sorry, we're going into full nerd mode now but you will see why in a second. So, the null is the area of a microphone that picks up no sound or at least, the least sound. On any normal cardioid microphone this is the back of the mic. It has a front and a back. This is super obvious. What you point the mic at gets picked up the most and any sound source that comes from the back of the mic is naturally rejected. With a ribbon mic anything in front or behind the mic gets picked up equally while sound sources exactly 90 degrees to either side are completely silent (Except for ambient room reflections). When tracking a group of live instruments, there is often no space for physical isolation. You will have excessive bleed almost no matter what. The deep nulls of a ribbon mic make signal isolation pretty easy between several sources in the same space. All you have to do is point the side null of the microphone at the source of potential bleed while keeping the face (or rear) of the mic pointed at the desired source. I recently used this technique while tracking 4 horn players in a brick basement with medium acoustic treatment with amazing results. I actually thought one of the mics was broken at one point during set up because I wasn't seeing ANY signal coming in. The real reason was that the only sound source in the room at that moment happened to be exactly in the null of the mic (as I had set it up). Anyway, I could go on for hours about this but I will conclude this point by saying that ribbon mics should really be called ninja mics because of how precisely they can slice away unwanted sounds. #3 You don't necessarily NEEED a really fancy preamp or Cloud Lifter, Fethead or other inline clean boost but they really help on quiet sources. If you are recording any element of a rock band you're probably okay without the extra boost. If you are recording piano, soft vocals, finger picked acoustic guitar, ukulele, violin, etc. you might want to step up the signal. I recently used my cheap pair of MXL r144 mics straight into some stock Presonus pres to record auxiliary percussion and had no problem with lack of signal or unwanted hissssss. #4 You may have heard this one but DON"T BLOW INTO IT! This also means, don't put in from of a ported kick drum. Don't use it for vocals unless you have a decent pop filter. Don't swing it around. Don't drop it. Don't give it to a child or pet. Don't use them outside. These are, to some extent, grown-up mics. Any session where I am using ribbon mics I will make an announcement at the beginning just telling everyone not to yell into these mics or anything. People get excited when recording and might goof off by grabbing a mic and doing their best metal scream into it to put on a show for their friends. This has not happened to me personally but I have heard horror stories of juvenile clients destroying vintage ribbon mics this way. Just be careful! (Side note: if you do blow out the ribbon, replacing it is not that expensive and will just take a little research and practice) That's about it for now. I currently own 3 ribbon mics and I wish I had gotten on board sooner! If you have any questions, leave them in the comment section! Happy recording, Peter Bull