Ribbon mics have long been associated with a subdued high-frequency response — but this classy example bucks the trend.
Samar Audio Design are a boutique American company based in Salt Lake City, set up by a Russian-born electronics engineer by the name of Dr Mark Fouxman, who also happens to be a classical concert pianist. He has had an interest in audio electronics from an early age, building tape recorders and valve amplifiers, as well as electrostatic and ribbon loudspeakers, so it’s not really surprising that he went on to become a recording engineer.
However, it is really the convergence of all these interests and skills that lead to his becoming involved in handcrafting bespoke microphones, and it was from these beginnings that Fouxman set up Samar Audio Design. And he doesn’t just make microphones; today, he also makes his own hand-wound toroidal audio transformers which he uses in his own mics, and also sells to several other boutique manufacturers and “enthusiastic mic modifiers”.
Samar Audio’s Design ethos is very much focussed on quality rather than cost, combining modern materials and science with a traditional old-school ‘artisan’ approach. On review here is the VL37 passive ribbon microphone, which is the entry-level model in Samar’s range — although thanks to its in-house CNC-machined metalwork it looks a lot more expensive than it really is.
For the record, the next step up in the company’s portfolio is an active sibling to the VL37 called, logically enough, the VL37A. This version only differs in containing a built-in phantom-powered impedance converter/line driver and costs around $200£250 more. However, sitting above these VL models is the MF65 and its own active sibling counterpart, the MF65A. Interestingly, the core components of both the VL and MF models — the ribbon motor assembly and all the other internal components — are fundamentally identical, tuned in the same way and to the same specifications, and much is directly interchangeable.
There are differences in the overall construction, though, with the motor assembly being screwed into the body in the VL models, while it is glued in the MF design. The other differences that enable a lower cost for the VL models include less expensive and simpler accessories, and shorter warranty terms. Specifically, the MF65 models have a lifetime parts warranty while the VL37 models have five years on parts and a two-year ribbon replacement warranty. Looking at the accessories, the VL37 models are shipped in an attractive US-made plywood, foam-lined box and come with a simple rubber shockmount in which the isolating suspension element is formed by a captive oval rubber band linking the mic holder to the stand adaptor (which is supplied with a 3/8-inch thread adaptor). In contrast, the more expensive MF65 models are shipped in exotic maple/walnut boxes with felt linings, and come with a very elegant, custom-made stainless-steel shockmount.
Focusing now on the VL37, its slim cylindrical body measures 163 x 33 mm (6.42 x 1.3 inches) and, being milled from stainless steel, weighs 230g (8.2oz) so it feels quite substantial. The end caps are machined so precisely that it’s not immediately obvious that they actually are separate components. A lengthy multi-layer mesh grille extends over about 86mm to protect the aluminium ribbon diaphragm, and the outer grille has an attractive and unusual hexagonal design.
Inside, the motor assembly features a fairly traditional long-ribbon diaphragm measuring 50.8 x 6.35 mm (2 x 0.25 inches) and 1.5 micron thick, but the design actually has several innovations intended to improve both performance and production consistency, starting with the frequency response. This is specified as being almost perfectly flat from below 20Hz up to 10kHz, above which a moderate dip in sensitivity reaches about -4dB at 14kHz before recovering to normal sensitivity just above 20kHz and continuing on beyond 25kHz. This is a pretty impressive HF response for a passive long-ribbon mic and is, in part, thanks to a unique mechanical design which was engineered with a very short front-to-back sound path. In fact, Samar claims this is the shortest such path ever seen in a ribbon mic! Samar’s own custom-designed and hand-wound toroidal output transformer, developed specifically to work with this ribbon transducer, also plays a key role in achieving such a wide and flat response.
Other interesting aspects of this ribbon design include a proprietary corrugation process, and a tension-setting system that allows precise fine-tuning of the primary resonance. The corrugation technique is claimed to maintain the ribbon’s integrity without needing special handling or storage — most traditional long-ribbon mics have to be stored vertically, rather than horizontally, to prevent ‘ribbon sag’, but that is not apparently necessary with these Samar products.
The tension fine-tuning system allows both the primary resonance and frequency response of the mic’s capsule to be precisely optimised, and that ensures excellent production consistency. Moreover, since every microphone is matched accurately to the factory’s own production reference model, the manufacturers claim that any VL37 microphone from any batch can be used with any other as part of a stereo array without difficulty. Certainly the two review models (with adjacent serial numbers) that I was supplied with proved to be very closely matched indeed, as per the technique described in the ‘Pairing Up’ box.
Sensitivity of the standard VL37 is given as 2mV/Pa, which is fairly typical for a modern passive ribbon, and will require a quiet preamp with plenty of gain if used in distant placements or with very quiet sources. For the record, the active version has a sensitivity of 8.4mV/Pa — so is around 12.5dB louder in a straight comparison.
In use the VL37 is a great-sounding mic. It’s a little brighter and crisper than many, but not in a way that draws any negative comment or unwanted attention. It has the clarity and detail of a capacitor mic but with a sweeter, smoother top end, and a very full-bodied bass. The polar pattern is a completely symmetrical figure-of-8, which makes it ideal for Mid-Sides applications, as well as in roles where the two sides are being used equally. A lot of modern ribbons are deliberately engineered with slightly different frequency responses for the front and rear lobes, which gives great tonal versatility but makes M-S stereo imaging rather imprecise.
Suitable roles suggested for the VL37 include drum overheads, choirs, piano, violin, orchestra, brass instruments, vocals, acoustic and electric guitars, room microphones, speaker cabinets, and more... I would concur with all those recommendations based on the positive experiences I had with the mic during the review period. Essentially the CL37 can be used on pretty much anything because it is tonally neutral, very transparent, and has a high maximum SPL capability (although like all ribbons, it won’t tolerate strong air currents at all).
Samar Audio have created a remarkably high-quality mic in the VL37, in terms of both its build quality and sound character, comparing favourably to my own Royer SF2 and AEA R92 ribbon mics. In straight comparisons, it sounds more modern than either of those brands and models, meaning a slightly brighter and more obviously shimmery HF, yet still unmistakably a very refined ribbon rather than a capacitor mic.
There is a strong proximity effect, of course, but it’s not excessive even with fairly close placement, and it can be controlled very easily with positioning or EQ. Overall, this is a genuinely impressive ribbon mic, and one which both looks and sounds top-dollar, yet is actually rather more affordable than might be imagined. Well worth auditioning if you require an all-rounder ribbon mic with top-quality engineering.
Extended-bandwidth ribbon mics have become more common over the last decade or so, but have tended to be restricted to relatively costly models from premium manufacturers. However, passive ribbon mics with a comparable HF performance and cost to the Samar VL37 include the Rode NTR and Mesanovic Model 2. Alternative ribbon designs with a more traditional sound character around a similar price include the AEA R84, Audio-Technica AT4080 and 4081, Beyer M130, Coles 4040, and the Royer R101.
I’ve mentioned this procedure several times before, but if you need to check the stereo matching of a pair of microphones there is a very simple technique: place the two mics in a large open studio space, directly above one another, both facing directly forward and with their capsules as close as possible, the mid-point between them being at mouth height of your assistant. Connect each mic to its own separate preamp channel, one feeding the left monitor and the other the right (ie. panned hard left and right).
With your assistant talking a few feet in front of the two mics, set the gain of the two preamps for a sensible level in each channel. Next invert the polarity of one mic preamp, switch the monitoring to mono, and adjust the gain of just one preamp for the deepest null (ie. quietest output) — it will never cancel totally, but you should find a very deep cancellation.
Remove the polarity inversion in the preamp so that the level returns to normal. The assistant’s voice should have a well-defined and completely stable phantom image precisely mid-way between the two speakers. Switching the monitoring back to stereo shouldn’t have any audible effect — the phantom image should still be narrow and stable. If you notice some components of speech (eg. sibilants) flicking out to the sides, then the two mics have mismatched on-axis frequency responses and aren’t ideally suited for stereo applications.
Next ask the assistant to walk and talk slowly in a circle around the mics, maintaining a consistent distance and directing their voice at the two mics. The volume through the monitors will fall (and build) progressively according to the polar patterns of the mics, but the phantom image should remain stable throughout, with no sideways shifts. Again, any significant shifts imply mismatched polar patterns and thus unsuitability for stereo applications — although in reality precise matching is only really critical over a ±45-degree angle relative to the front of the mics for most polar patterns (and both the front and back ±45-degree areas for fig-8s).