When RCA abandoned ribbon mics, Wes Dooley of AEA believed they still had a place in the modern studio — so he set about making his own.
We automatically associate Los Angeles with Hollywood and the entertainment industry, but it is also a city of engineers. Wedged between the sprawl of LA and the San Gabriel Mountains, the college town of Pasadena is home to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology (known as Caltech). It also houses the headquarters of Audio Engineering Associates, the manufacturers who have perhaps done more than any other to bring high-quality ribbon microphones back into widespread use.
The AEA factory is a modest, single-storey building in a residential neighbourhood. Its lobby contains an extensive reference collection of vintage microphones, including the RCA ribbon designs from the 1930s onward that AEA have helped bring back into vogue. The invention of talking pictures created strong demand in Hollywood for high-quality microphones like the RCA 77 series, with their iconic pill-shaped bodies and central axis mounts.
The vintage Ampex tape machine in AEA's test room is another reminder that the modern sound-recording industry began just a few miles away in Hollywood. It was Bing Crosby's desire to pre-record his radio shows that led to him putting up the capital for the Ampex company to start mass production of reel-to-reel tape machines in the USA. Recordings no longer had to be cut directly to acetate disc, making all kinds of studio manipulation possible. One of the very first Ampex machines was given to Les Paul by Crosby, enabling Paul to perfect his overdubbing technique. The Les Paul Trio had already enjoyed a US number one hit backing Crosby on 'It's Been A Long, Long Time' in 1945, and legend has it that it was Crosby who suggested building the original home studio in Les Paul's Hollywood garage. Radio engineer and DJ Sam Phillips purchased two Ampex 350 machines for his Memphis studio in 1954, the same year he auditioned Elvis Presley.
We may think of the Shure 55 as the 'Elvis mic', but look closely at photographs of Presley's Louisiana Hayride debut in 1954, and you'll see that radio station KWKH had provided a ribbon mic for the lead singer. The backing band had to make do with gathering around the cheaper Shure dynamic mic. RCA ribbon mics were built by craftsmen, with a commensurate price tag, although some radio and recording engineers managed to obtain them as US Government war surplus. The new condenser microphone designs of Georg Neumann, sold under the Telefunken brand name, had yet to take over the American recording market.
In the 1950s, being a producer and recording engineer meant building much of your own equipment. Bill Putnam covered all bases by founding both Universal Records and Universal Audio. Relocating to Hollywood from Chicago, Putnam started the UREI studio equipment company, and acquired the company that became Teletronix. He also developed two studios, United Recording and Western Recorders, a block apart on Sunset Boulevard, which became known as the United/Western complex. Recordings made at United/Western included sessions for Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, who had both invested in Putnam's studio ventures.
Putnam was assisted at Western by Wally Heider, a former lawyer who was able to break into the top flight of the recording business because of his passion for making live recordings of big bands. By the time Putnam hired him as a setup technician, Heider was already well-known to some of the musicians recording at Western. Band leader Stan Kenton asked for Heider to engineer his recording on Heider's second day at the studio. This unprecedented promotion started a career which would lead to Heider creating the 'San Francisco Sound' of the late 1960s, including recording Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Neil Young.
Before moving to San Francisco, Heider mentored a young student called Wes Dooley, who was attending Pomona College during the early 1960s, and was beginning to make recordings of his own. "As Wally Heider taught me, microphone positioning is more important than anything else you do as an engineer. If you have great musicians, you can make a great recording if you put the mics somewhere useful.” Heider told Dooley that EQ was only to be used in emergencies, and to try different microphone positions or changing the microphone first. "Wally said, you never want to get into a situation where you're trying to fix it later.”
Dooley had joined the staff of the Pomona College radio station in enrolment week, and began hanging out in Los Angeles nightclubs. "A friend of mine was doing a folk show, and I thought that was ultra-cool, so for the next three years I did a folk show. Only, playing records (even when I was the first one to break Bob Dylan in LA — I think I played 'Baby, Let Me Follow You Down') wasn't nearly as much fun as going to the Ice House, the Troubadour and the Ash Grove.”
He soon began borrowing the station's tape machine to make after-hours live recordings, with scant consideration for electrical safety regulations. "The station went dark at midnight, so I pulled the Ampex 350 out of the cabinet, and with everything exposed so you could kill yourself, put it on a cocktail table at the Troubadour.”
Some of the bands would oblige Dooley with an impromptu recording session. "I talked to the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem and they said 'Oh yeah, we'll stay after 2am and do a radio set for you.' I had one reel of tape, of course, so that tape became some weeks later someone like Lightning Hopkins, or Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. I started with the Electro-Voice 664 dynamic mic. Bob Gerbracht, a friend of mine at Caltech, went to an auction at Hal Roach's Culver City movie studio, where they had a Telefunken U47 that no-one bid very hard on, as it didn't have a power supply. So, like most people in the early '60s, we built our own power supply.” (Gerbracht went on to complete his physics doctorate, and his computer programming would later help NASA bring Apollo 13 safely back to Earth.)
"In the process of doing all this, I met Wally Heider, who came over to the Ice House, where I took care of the sound system. Frank DeMedio, the chief engineer from United/Western was there with him, as they were good friends. Wally at that point was still working at United/Western with Bill Putnam, before he split off and started his own business. We had a couple of quarter-inch two-track machines, one with home-brew electronics. Frank DeMedio had built a three-track on a quarter-inch Ampex 351 deck, expanded out to half-inch. Wow! Stereo, plus Jackie DeShannon's voice in the centre! You could rebalance the voice later!”
After shows, Dooley would give Heider and DeMedio a hand loading equipment into their rented bob-tail truck. The engineers said, "Could we hire you to do this?” Dooley would have happily helped for free, but he was being offered a job moving gear and running the cables. So Dooley got to hang around at the Hollywood studios, watching and learning. "Through Wally, I got introduced to Bill Putnam. I got to see 6000 Sunset Boulevard, where Western was, and Studio A where Sinatra got recorded.” Heider told Dooley to put the old RCA 44 and 77 ribbon mics up for brass and woodwind, rather than the modern condenser mics — training that would prove very useful, many years later.
With the help of splitter boxes designed by Frank DeMedio, it was no longer necessary for bands on tour to stay late at venues and record a second set, just for Dooley and his friend Bob Gerbracht. "We built stuff for some people in Germany, and they traded us a pair of Telefunken U67s without power supplies. So I was incredibly lucky — at age 21 I had a pair of U67s and a U47. I'd set those up as main mics on stage, give a split to the PA, and make a little mix on our custom four-by mixer. That made my radio show.”
Dooley now regrets that he only owned that one reel of tape in those days. "Now, I tell people: save everything! Media is cheap! Keep good notes so you can find it again.” At the time, Dooley didn't know anything about syndication, either.
As the 1960s progressed, Dooley dropped out of college but continued working with the college's radio station. His engineering skills led him to build some early project studios for musicians in Los Angeles, including rooms designed around the new Moog synthesizers. John Stephens, who had worked at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was building innovative tape machines, including an eight-track that you could carry — a far more appealing prospect for Dooley than the large, heavy and sometimes unreliable Ampex multitrack machines. By the early 1970s, Dooley was travelling in Europe and Africa, sitting in on recording sessions, visiting microphone manufacturers, and making location recordings. He saw Decca classical sessions in London, watched the BBC trying to figure out how to record John Cage at the Roundhouse in Camden Town, and recorded traditional music for anthropologists working in Zambia. Back in Pasadena, he founded the AEA company with Bob Gerbracht. Their first product was a tall microphone stand that was light enough to carry around with you.
In 1976, RCA exited the ribbon microphone business. Dooley had been shown how to re-ribbon a mic by Dick Knoppow, AEA's chief engineer and vintage ribbon aficionado. Knoppow knew Jon Sank, an engineer who had been working at RCA on the classic mic designs from 1960 until the department closed. (Jon's son, Stephen Sank, continues the family tradition with the Cloud ribbon microphones, reviewed in Sound On Sound December 2011.) It became clear that there was a niche business in servicing the needs of ribbon mic users. Demand from the studios meant that AEA began to manufacture new parts so they could service the vintage RCA mics. In the UK, Coles were still making the 4038 studio ribbon and 4104 lip microphone for the BBC, and so AEA began servicing these mics for North American customers.
When AEA began producing their own ribbon designs in the early 1980s, Dooley and his engineers were adamant that they would not compromise on quality. They wanted to mesh art, music and technology, and produce microphones that served all three. Their design approach relied on critical listening, comparing live and control-room sound, before any measurements were made. AEA's first reissue of an RCA microphone, the 44, did not even come with a spec sheet. It was only when Oscar-winning film sound engineer Shawn Murphy said that the reissued mic sounded as good as his original RCA 44 mics that Dooley knew the goal had been achieved. Eddie Van Halen bought a pair of the AEA 44s for stereo recording, having noticed that the original RCA mic sounded the closest to what he heard when standing in front of a drummer. Les Paul told Dooley that the AEA R44 was his favourite mic.
One significant benefit that Wes hears in ribbon mics is a lack of annoying high-end resonances. "We were raised up on Altec 604E monitors, which are like microscopes. They put things a little more forward than they really are. If you can make it sound good on those, it's probably going to sound good on a wide variety of things, but they're not accurate. Same problem with older Tannoys and JBLs, they have that edgy sound, which is the same sort of sound you get on condenser mics. You get high-Q resonances on large-diaphragm mics in the 8-12 kHz range, that 'tizz' which is so noticeable on a U47 or a AKG 414. If you play it loud with that edginess at the top end, either from loudspeakers or microphones, that's the reason you have less hearing sensitivity as the day wears on, and you turn it up. Eventually your ears can't protect themselves, and you become deaf.
"Ribbons don't have any extra high end; ribbons are low-tuned, as opposed to condensers being high-tuned like a drum skin, with a sound of their own. With low-tuned systems you put the ribbon in just tight enough to stay in the magnet gap. A big ribbon like the 44 that we do is very low-tuned. Most ribbons are in the 15-65 Hz range for tuning, ours are 16.5Hz and run down to about 12Hz. By the time you're up to a few hundred Hertz, the resonant structure has pretty much gone away. If it's a thin ribbon, it doesn't store energy. That's why the BBC uses a 0.6 micron ribbon in the Coles 4038. They went to 1.8 micron on the RCA mics, and Beyer went up to the 4-6 micron range where it's treated more like a piston. It's not quite as thick as in ribbon tweeters where you're trying to make it as sturdy as possible.”
Another great advantage of most ribbon designs — especially at low frequencies — is their very well-behaved and consistent figure-8 polar pattern, as compared with multi-pattern capacitor mics. "Ribbons hold pattern down to 20Hz because they're native figure-8. Condenser mics that try to be figure-8s do two things. Below about 400Hz they roll off in level, but they also go omni. The native pattern for a stretched-diaphragm condenser is omni, that's where they want to go. The original RCA 44 held pattern well, and sounded good off-axis, so you could wrap people around it. For nominal omnis, the BBC would tell you to only have people plus or minus 20 degrees [from the axis]. Yes, it's an omni, but it's only a good omni in that area.”
Good figure-8 mics have very deep nulls off-axis, and for Dooley, this is a hugely valuable property when trying to fulfil Wally Heider's principle of achieving as much as possible through mic placement alone. "That's the key to the interaction between the mics and the room, and with the PA system. How does the microphone sound on the dark side, where it has less output, and how does that influence your bleed? How much can you let the musicians hear each other, and how much do you have to block them out and run on headphones? Our rule of thumb is that the more the musicians can hear each other and play with eye contact, the less they have to think about technical stuff, like not liking the headphone mix. Everyone having 24 tracks of headphone mix burns through a huge amount of time, and starts putting technology in the way.”
Ribbon microphones have a reputation for fragility; according to Wes Dooley, this is largely undeserved, though he acknowledges that sudden blasts of air are a hazard. "People say the mics are fragile — but a sneeze can be in the 50 to 100 mile-an-hour range!” And many failures are down to user error. Dooley recalls a conversation with an engineer at United/Western about a particularly egregious example: "The mic setup guys at Western had rolled a mic stand, in the wind and rain, with an RCA 77 on it and no plastic around the microphone, between Western and United, a block away.” The engineer at United told them to roll it right back and explain to the chief engineer at Western what they had done. Another time, a customer enquiring about a repair on a Coles 4038 explained that the weight of the mic meant the stand kept falling over. After the third time it had fallen over, the mic had stopped working. Dooley suggested investing in a gym weight to place on the base of the stand.
In fact, there's a trade-off between transient response (which is best in a ribbon with very low mass) and durability, as newer ribbon designs have shown. Mics such as the Fostex M11RP and M88RP, for instance, featured an aluminium ribbon on a circular plastic substrate. "You can do things like the printed circuit ribbons that Fostex did, which were like neodymium-magnet headphone drivers turned into a microphone. The Crowley & Tripp approach, now bought by Shure, is the same, except that you're holding the ribbon at the ends instead of all the way round, like a moving-coil diaphragm. It weighs more, but when something really bad happens, like when someone unplugs a guitar amplifier and the cone jumps out an inch, you're going to trash pretty much anything other than the Crowley & Tripp/Shure. The thing I love about the Shure is that it's in the same tradition as the SM57 and 58. You can take it anywhere and it's not going to hurt. For years I told people the Shure SM81 was the microphone to use on the junior high school stage. You need a mic which will take repeated drops from four feet.”
On the other hand, Wes Dooley does agree with another widely held belief about ribbon mics: that their performance is quite dependent on the choice of mic preamp and, in particular, that low-impedance inputs don't get the best out of them. "There's a really good 1950's paper that an engineer wrote about how at resonance, a mic's impedance rises dramatically, just like any loudspeaker. A mic with a narrow, high-Gauss gap like the RCA 77 goes up into the 1400-1800Ω range from a nominal 250Ω. If you're going into a 1000Ω input impedance, you have dips in the output of more than 6dB at resonance. A typical resonance for those ribbons would be around 50Hz. As one person said when we loaned them an AEA 18,000+Ω input impedance preamp, 'I didn't know 77s had any bass!' He'd never heard them with the right electronics before.”
He is, however, at pains to point out that capacitor mics can be sensitive to preamp choice too. "Forty-eight Volt phantom power was a wonderful thing for the original Neuman KM-series mics that only needed 0.4mA of current. The P48 power specification requires 10mA to be available per microphone, but many lower-cost or battery powered units don't have that sort of capacity. Tube mics came with bespoke power supplies, but now we have a one-size-fits-all approach, which leads to unintended consequences. Some P48 condenser mics need 10mA of current during start-up but only 4mA while operating. If mics like these are starved for start-up current, they will still deliver audio, but they don't sound quite right.
"A more common P48 problem, rarely diagnosed, occurs when pin two or three shorts to ground. Almost 7mA of current then magnetises the core of your mic's output transformer, which changes its sound. Once the shorted microphone cable has been fixed or the phantom power is turned off, the output transformer core remains magnetised. The transformer will sound different until it is deliberately demagnetised, or used to record a kick drum or a pipe organ.”
Although the operating principle behind the ribbon mic hasn't changed, and AEA's own designs retain a strong RCA influence, the process of improvement and refinement is ongoing. "We designed the R84 to be easier to manufacture today, and to have less stray fields. You put two together and they don't go 'clunk' like the RCA 44s and 88s do.” A paper-clip is enough to cause a major problem for a vintage RCA ribbon mic, due to its huge magnets, whereas the AEA R84 is somewhat more practical. "It doesn't weigh 8lb — we tried to make it light enough that it didn't cause stands to fall over.”
And, like the RCA mics before them, AEA's mics are built to last. "Here we've seen everything from 70-year-old ribbons that ran fine, to Abbey Road where they have 1935 Blumlein ribbons that they use all the time. These microphones don't have an inherent lifetime limit; they're real sturdy, if you don't sneeze into them! Since we work regularly with microphones that are that old, we make decisions. Instead of zinc cast parts, we do bronze and machined brass because we've seen failures at 50, 60 or 70 years — zinc is not a good material to work with! We're making microphones where we're going to be dead and gone, and the guys that buy them are going to be dead and gone, and if we don't have a nuclear meltdown or the asteroid hits, the mic are going to be in service and people will be doing music. We hope that electricity continues, and people are going to be recording!”
According to Wes Dooley, one of Wally Heider's career tips for sound engineers was to leave recording rooms clean and tidy, even if they weren't when you arrived. It increases the chances that you'll be invited back, and the studio owner will be happier to see you. The young Dooley took this on board, noting that "When your mum says it, it doesn't have quite the same impact as when someone like Wally says it!”
Having listened to the same musicians performing in different rooms, Wes Dooley concurs with the late orchestral conductor Erich Leinsdorf's view that the size of the room affects the tempo at which music is played. Since the days of chamber music, the size of the performance room has become progressively larger, which affects how musicians hear each other, and in turn their behaviour. "The main concert hall for the Vienna Philharmonic is articulate in the bass, so you can play faster. A lot of rooms have so much reverberation in the low frequencies that you don't go fast in the bass because it starts sounding smeared.”