Ribbon Microphones On Test

Part 1: About The Mics

Published in SOS November 2007
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Reviews : Microphone

Once the sole province of the professional, ribbon mics are now more plentiful and affordable than ever before, and this two-part feature aims to root out some of the best. But first, some background...

Jon Cotton

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Whenever we start a major production project at Artisan Studios we like to do a shoot-out on a piece of studio gear: it keeps us pushing the envelope, and each record ends up with some unique sonic aspect that we've pulled out specially for that artist. A record I recently worked on featured a female vocalist whose voice I felt would really suit a ribbon mic. I'd intended to try out some high-end ribbons, but in the spirit of equality I decided to look at some of the outrageously cheap newcomers as well — and the idea of a 'David and Goliath' ribbon shoot-out was born.

This isn't a comprehensive review of every ribbon mic on the market: there are brands at each end of the spectrum that we did not have time to include in the shoot-out, notably Oktava (whose M251 was reviewed in SOS December 2001), Electro Harmonix and CAD [there's a full SOS review of their Trion Ribbon mic in the pipeline], all of whom make extremely well-regarded ribbons. But hopefully you'll get a good idea of how mics at opposite ends of the price spectrum bear up.

There's so much to cover that we're taking this article in two parts. This month I'll give a bit of background on ribbon mics generally, and more detail on the manufacturers and the models that feature in the tests. I'll also say a bit about how we approached the studio tests, but I'm afraid you'll have to wait until part two (next month) to find out how they fared when tested on vocals, acoustic and electric guitars, and as both mono and stereo drum overheads.

Ribbon Developments

Ribbon mics are a type of 'velocity' or 'pressure gradient' microphone that is fundamentally fairly simple in design. An extremely thin sheet of metal (imagine a Rizla paper) is suspended within the field of a permanent magnet. When air pressure changes move the ribbon, its motion within the magnetic field causes a current to be induced within the ribbon itself, and this small current is tapped off, sent down a mic cable and amplified.

Ribbon mics were the industry standard for recording and broadcast from about 1920 to 1950 and are one of the defining factors in the recordings from that period. They were the high-performance microphone at that time, and most of the large 'vintage' mics you see in footage of this era are RCA ribbons.

Harry Olson (of RCA) pioneered the development of ribbons, motivated by the arrival of sound in movies. The figure-of-eight directional pattern of ribbon designs allowed film teams to place mechanically noisy movie cameras in the 'null' of the microphone pattern (the sides of a figure-of-eight reject sound), greatly reducing how much of their noise was picked up when recording actors speaking.

Ribbons tend to emphasise the warm low-mids and gradually roll off at the top end, giving them what at first listen can seem a dull sound when compared with modern condensers. However, on repeated listening your ears adjust and you start to find that ribbons seem to extract the musicality from a performance without getting hung up on detail. The subjective experience is rather like listening to vinyl as opposed to CD, or watching the world with rose-tinted spectacles — what you lose in detail you gain in romance. Certainly the fact that you can't hear the saliva on Nat King Cole or Ella Fitzgerald records doesn't detract from their magic.

Other than the gradual treble roll-off, the frequency response of ribbons tends to be very flat — especially in the lower mid-range — due to the lack of resonances within the ribbon elements themselves. By contrast, condenser mics frequently have resonant peaks in their responses, especially at the top end of the frequency spectrum. These resonances are one reason why these mics are popular for vocals, as they tend to emphasise the breathiness of the singer. Ribbons, on the other hand, tend to be superb at bringing out the body and 'size' of voices and instruments. They are particularly suited to sources that sound strident when recorded with condenser mics, which is why they are the number one choice for many engineers when it comes to recording brass and stringed instruments, and are a key component in the 'Hollywood' string sound. The sonic result is all syrup and no scratchiness.

Stereo Ambience

As shown in the chart on this page for the AEA R84, the rear of a ribbon mic's figure-of-eight pattern usually exhibits a frequency response almost identical to the front, enabling it to capture not just the source sound but also the ambience of the space that sound is in, with much less colour than most microphones (this is one of the reasons behind their widespread use as drum overheads and for orchestral work). In 1931, while trying to improve the realism of movie dialogue (which at the time didn't follow actors as they moved around the screen), British engineer Alan Blumlein established two stereo miking techniques using pairs of ribbons: the so-called 'Blumlein technique' (using two mics on top of each other —coincident — at 90 degrees); and the mid/side technique, which uses a front-facing mic with a second mic positioned at 90 degrees to it, to capture stereo information. Both techniques rely on the wide, natural pickup of ribbons to both front and rear, and the large nulls on either side, which make imaging and ambience capture in both cases very accurate.

Handle With Care

Ribbons can be quirky microphones to use and need to be handled carefully to get good results (and not break them). They tend to exhibit a lot of proximity effect due to their being pressure gradient devices, which can be used to great advantage for warmth, but it can be totally overwhelming if care isn't taken. This is why they are often positioned much further from the instrument being recorded than is common practice for condenser or dynamic microphones — some engineers extol the virtues of recording solo acoustic guitar or brass instruments with a ribbon mic seven or eight feet away (in a good room). That said, closer positioning can work if you are careful and are prepared to roll off a bit of the resultant bass boost.

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This frequency-response curve for the AEA R84 is typical of ribbon mics, in that the plots for the front and the rear of the mic are very similar.
This frequency-response curve for the AEA R84 is typical of ribbon mics, in that the plots for the front and the rear of the mic are very similar.
This frequency-response curve for the AEA R84 is typical of ribbon mics, in that the plots for the front and the rear of the mic are very similar.

The overall output level of ribbons is often extremely low compared with condenser (and even dynamic) mics, so they can be very demanding when it comes to the choice of mic preamp they are plugged into: they often need 50dB or more of gain, which is more than some preamps can give on full whack. For this reason, it's not worth trying to record quiet sources with most ribbons, unless you have a pretty decent preamp, as you'll usually end up with a wall of hiss (there are exceptions, though — read on!). Ribbon microphones do not generally require phantom power — in fact, a faulty cable carrying phantom power can do serious damage so, in practice, it's best to think of them in general as being allergic to it.

Other caveats include the fact that the permanent magnet assembly in some ribbon microphones tends to be large, heavy, and a potential danger to any tape recordings or mechanical wrist-watches placed near the microphone. As I found, it's definitely not a good idea to put a Coles 4038 down near any paper clips... Also, to stop the ribbons sagging, the mics should, if possible, be stored upright. In practice it's often easiest to leave them on a mic stand, which is why many of the ribbons reviewed come supplied with a dust cover or soft case, which can be slid on in situ to keep dust, moisture and blasts of air from your Miami beachfront patio door at bay.

Finally, and perhaps most seriously, the ribbon elements themselves are physically pretty fragile beasts (imagine that Rizla paper again). Although they are generally capable of handling impressive SPLs (up to around 165dB without distortion on some of the models we tested), simply blowing into a ribbon, or exposing it to any other burst of wind (for example, by slamming a door, or putting the mic in front of a kick drum) can tear the ribbon (resulting in a recorded sound like the distorted, slightly quiet swearing from the engineer).

With their quirks, their fragility and their 'dull' frequency response, ribbons fell out of favour for several decades, becoming a rarity in studios. In recent years, however (as with valve gear), people have started to realise that they provide an interesting sound compared with that of condenser and dynamic mics, giving the creative engineer an exciting new sonic palette.

Anyway, with the history and education out of the way, l'll move on to tell you a bit about the mics that we chose to test, as well as some background on their manufacturers — some of whom will be well known to many of you, others probably less so.

AEA R84
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The AEA R84.
The AEA R84.

Based in California, Audio Engineering Associates was started by Wes Dooley, a legend in the microphone world. AEA souped up and repaired old ribbons, and for two decades repaired and distributed Coles, Schoeps and Josephson mics in the US. In 1998, responding to Hollywood's hunger for the no-longer-made RCA R44 (the classic 1940s ribbon, on which the film industry relied heavily for strings) he started re-manufacturing the R44 under AEA's own brand — and over half of the movies scored today in Los Angeles have one of Wes's R44s somewhere on the scoring stage. Building on the success of the R44, in 2002 AEA designed a brand-new, original ribbon mic, the AEA R84, using the same ribbon material as the R44 but applying modern manufacturing techniques and components. The R84 is a bit brighter than the R44, has a hotter output (2dB hotter than an SM57 apparently, which is pretty loud for a ribbon), and a reduced bass proximity effect (from 'massive' to 'pretty massive'). It is physically very impressive (it certainly 'gives good client', to use one of my favourite US sound-engineer phrases) but it is also uncannily light to hold.

Although one of the more expensive mics we included, the R84 is still only just over a third of the cost of the reissued R44, which is clearly priced for the Hollywood buyers it is aimed at. The R84 is supplied with a soft storage 'glove', a simple metal microphone mount and a fairly short three-metre captive cable, although AEA say users can custom-order longer cables when they order their mic.

Royer Labs R121
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The Royer R121, mounted in an SE shockmount.
The Royer R121, mounted in an SE shockmount.

Royer labs are a Californian company started by their namesake David Royer in 1998. Originally a sonar engineer, after leaving the US Navy David founded a small company called Mojave Audio, under which name he modified amplifiers and started making his own condenser microphones, mic preamps and compressors. Building gear under the Mojave and DVA names, he created a number of condenser mics that have become somewhat legendary among a small group of high-end audio engineers, including Bob Clearmountain, Mutt Lange and Sean Beaven. In 1997 David designed his first ribbon mic and showed it to his friend Rick Perrotta (who is now president of Royer Labs). That microphone, which David named the R121, led to the opening of Royer Labs in 1998.

The 121 is unique amongst the microphones we compared, not just because of its distinctive looks ­ but also because it has deliberately been voiced to sound completely different when using the reverse side. The ribbon itself is offset from the centre of the capsule, being mounted close to the front (logo) side of the microphone. So, in a way, it is two microphones in one.

Royer claim to have done away with the large, heavy, fragile, 'classic' approach to ribbon microphones and gone in a completely new direction with the R121, in order to capture the attractive characteristics of a ribbon in a compact, lightweight, higher output, tough-as-nails package that can withstand rougher handling than most ribbons. For this reason it has become a favourite for miking guitar amps. Royer even offer a lifetime warranty to the original owner of the mic, as well as a one-year warranty on the ribbon element.

The R121 is supplied in a smart wooden case with a simple protective sock, but without a shockmount or mic clip. We ended up borrowing an SE pencil shockmount, which fitted it perfectly.

Crowley & Tripp
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Crowley & Tripp's Soundstage Image (left) and Studio Vocalist ribbon microphones.
Crowley & Tripp's Soundstage Image (left) and Studio Vocalist ribbon microphones.

Crowley & Tripp microphones are made by SoundWave Research Laboratories, a relative newcomer, being founded in 2004 by Robert Crowley and Hugh Tripp, two former R&D scientists at Boston Scientific Corporation, who make medical sonar devices. The company are unusual in that they don't just make recording microphones — they still make transducers for medical ultrasound applications and other scientific applications. That said, they have quickly gained an admirable reputation Stateside as a specialist in high-end boutique ribbon mics.

Crowley & Tripp Studio Vocalist & Soundstage Image

The two mics we tested were their Studio Vocalist, which they describe as having a high output and "a smooth rising response more like a large-diaphragm condenser, but without the top-end harshness", and the identical-looking Soundstage Image, which they describe as being "a natural response ribbon microphone tailored for radio broadcast, soundstage, orchestral, and other applications requiring an uncoloured sound."

Both mics came in extremely smart wooden boxes which hold the mics upright in storage (the nicest packaging of all the mics we tested), but without cradles or other mounting hardware. [C&T mics are normally shipped with a shockmount cradle.] We used a Sticky Lipz Universal Shockmount to hold them during our tests.

Coles Electroacoustics 4038
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The Coles 4038 with a 4071B XLR/mic-stand adaptor.
The Coles 4038 with a 4071B XLR/mic-stand adaptor.

Other than the RCA 44, the 4038 is arguably the most well-known ribbon mic in the world. It is made and sold by British company Coles, who also make the 'lip' microphones often used for sports commentary. The name Coles comes from the names of the two founders, (Colin and Les), who started the company in 1964. Colin used to work for STC (the gigantic Standard Telephone and Cable), who, in the 1950s, received a subcontract from the BBC to create a new microphone for FM broadcast, which would continue the sonic tradition of the heavy and delicate RCA 44 and 77 mics but in a smaller and more affordable package that would better withstand the rigours of use than its predecessors.

The BBC's intention was to create a new microphone which would become their principal studio microphone — something they evidently achieved, as it is still in use today on programs like Desert Island Discs, despite numerous attempts to replace it with more modern condensers (followed by listener complaints!). STC subcontracted manufacture of the 4038 to Colin's own company, Coles, in 1972, and two years later completely closed down their acoustics division, selling the rights to the microphone to Coles. That is how this small family company come to be manufacturing this famous BBC-designed mic, a favourite for guitar and drum overhead recording the whole world over.

The 4038's heritage clearly shows. Other than nowadays coming in an ABS box rather than the original wooden one, the mic remains completely unchanged since it was first introduced. It weighs a ton and still comes as standard with an extremely unusual Western Electric 4069 connector on the bottom rather than a standard XLR. This uses the same pins as Western Electric's telephone patchbays of the period. Apparently the intention was that the connector could be left in place and also function as a mount for the microphone; this would allow mics to be swapped easily.

There was an adaptor in the box with the review model, which we at first presumed was an XLR adaptor... but this, in fact, lets you convert the connector to a jack. If you want to connect the 4038 to a standard modern preamp or mixing desk then, bizarrely, you need to either specify this at the time of ordering (whereupon Coles say they can supply a 4069 XLR adaptor free of charge) or you can order them afterwards for £15 plus VAT. We instead used the optional (£42 plus VAT) 4071B XLR adaptor with built-in mic-stand adaptor, which gives you a way of attaching the mic to the end of a standard mic stand. Otherwise, as it comes, the only way of mounting the mic is to suspend it from three eye-holes on a swivelling ring on the body of the mic. These are intended for flying or hanging the 4038 from a large studio boom stand, and AEA apparently make an elastic suspension specially for the 4038 which uses all three of these eyelets.

The 4038 is also an absolute monster in terms of weight. It contains a large horseshoe magnet, which uses the same materials as it did in 1969. More recent ribbons tend to use materials such as the neodymium used in Coles' own more modern 4040 (which also features an XLR socket!), enabling them to be significantly lighter. The 4038's magnet is also ferociously strong — I made the mistake of putting one down on top of a metal-topped controller keyboard, and then had significant trouble lifting it off again!

Coles offer a one-year warranty on 4038s (including the ribbon) and can re-ribbon and re-magnetise mics that are out of warranty from around £150.

Sontronics Sigma
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The Sontronics Sigma, boasting retro looks and a novel shockmounting system.
The Sontronics Sigma, boasting retro looks and a novel shockmounting system.

The Sigma, by UK company Sontronics, was launched in January 2004. Sontronics are part of distribution company Omnisonic, run by Trevor Coley (former national sales manager for Soundcraft, Spirit and Amek).

Like Bo from Golden Age Projects (of whom more later), Trevor was initially involved in importing other people's brands of mic from China for Omnisonics, but after hearing users' feedback he was inspired to try to improve on the basic 'generic' starting points he was seeing, and so formed his own company. Sontronics mics differ radically from Golden Age's approach, however, in being completely brand-new designs built specially for the company, rather than modified versions of 'OEM' (generic) microphones, as some of the Golden Age ones are. This is reflected in the originality of the Sigma's design, its novel shock-mounting cradle and, of course, in the price difference between GA's mics and the Sigma (which, I might add, is still extremely cheap for a good mic). Sontronics have quality assurance labs in both the UK and in China, and there has obviously been a lot of love put into the creation of the microphone, as it looks amazing. It arrives beautifully packaged in a custom briefcase (I won't describe the velvety interior in case you get over-excited...) and comes with a novel shock-mounting system, which seems very effective and holds the mic securely in any orientation. In fact, the whole package just screamed retro cool to us — and this was before we even plugged it in...

Trevor claims that the Sigma came about from his desire to create a mic that was capable of reproducing a sonic imprint reminiscent of the smooth jazz tones of the swing era, his priority being to create an ultra-smooth high-frequency roll-off which would capture the feeling of records by people like Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong and other artists from that era. Unusually, the Sigma is phantom-powered and its output is actively balanced, which means, unlike most transformer-based ribbon microphones, that it does not suffer from impedance mismatching problems and low output sensitivity. In other words, it's loud! It has a three-year limited warranty, and Sontronics will replace broken ribbons for £50 a pop (pun intended, sorry...) in the UK.

SE Electronics R1
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SE Electronics' R1.
SE Electronics' R1.

The R1 is a new design and the only ribbon in SE's range of mics, but rather than being a tweaked, rebadged 'generic' Chinese mic, the R1 is built from scratch in SE's own Shanghai factory. The company say all their mics are hand-made, and the visibly high standard of workmanship supports this claim. The mic comes supplied in a smart aluminium flightcase with a long 15m XLR cable. Generously, SE's five-year warranty includes three ribbon replacements. The accompanying cradle, while appreciated, is unusual in that the microphone at first seems to merely sit on top of it, supported at the sides, rather than being clamped or held in any way. At first, we took this to mean that the microphone can't be used upside down as supplied, but close inspection revealed a metal collar at the base of the microphone, which can be unscrewed and then reattached once the mic has been passed through the hole in the suspension, securing it. This isn't at all obvious at first, so you can think of the mic as coming with a bonus built-in 3D puzzle...

If you want to learn more about the R1, you can read a full review by Hugh Robjohns in SOS August 2006.

Blue Woodpecker
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The Blue Woodpecker: bags of 'bling'.
The Blue Woodpecker: bags of 'bling'.

US-based company Blue are unusual, in that they source parts for their microphones from a variety of places, which change according to the model but include the US, the former Soviet Union and, at times, China. They have a manufacturing facility in Riga, Latvia, from where one of the founders (and the technical brains behind the designs) Martins Saulespurens hails, but the microphones are assembled in both Riga and California, where they have their headquarters.

The Woodpecker is Blue's only ribbon, and boy does it make an impression, especially in its gold-coloured cat's cradle. If Mr T started a mic company, I think his products might look something like this...

The mic itself is an active (phantom powered) ribbon featuring class-A electronics, and Blue advertise it as being a good, no-noise all-rounder with "a focused mid-range, ultra-smooth top end and outstanding bass response". Skipper Wise (the company's other founder) told me their goal in making the Woodpecker was to create a ribbon with an extended HF response, making it rather more useful than many of the ribbons he's grown up with. The Woodpecker comes nicely packaged in a fairly restrained wooden box which belies the 'woah' factor you get upon opening it and seeing the mic, accompanied by the aforementioned suspension. Build quality seems superb, and the mic itself has a real wood veneer on its body (although you'll have to don shades to see it).

The Woodpecker comes with a three-year warranty, but this apparently doesn't cover ribbon breakages (other than those originating from manufacturing defects). However, I am assured by Blue that breakages should be rare, especially since the mic is phantom powered, and one of the leading ways of destroying a ribbon — hitting the 48V switch — is therefore inherently avoided in the design. Should a ribbon go for some reason, Blue estimate that replacing it will cost in the order of $150.

Beyerdynamic M160
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Beyerdynamic's M160.
Beyerdynamic's M160.

Dating back to 1924, German firm Beyerdynamic are the oldest company to provide mics for test. Their current ribbon offerings demonstrate this heritage and offer some unusual features. For example, as well as a figure-of-eight ribbon (the M130), Beyer manufacture two end-fire hypercardioid ribbons, the M160 and the broadcast-orientated M260. They suggest the M130 and M160 as a good combination for mid/side recording (in fact, the microphones are designed to work together in this configuration). Secondly, as you will see from the picture these mics are pretty diminutive — the baskets of the M130 and M160 are only 35mm in diameter — and that means the ribbon in them is a lot smaller than anything else on test. Beyer claim that the smaller size helps reduce unwanted acoustic artifacts such as resonances and reflections, and makes the mics easier to position. That they are so small makes the fact that they are still assembled by hand in Germany even more astonishing.

Lastly, both the M130 and M160 feature two ribbon elements, back-to-back. This apparently improves transient response and increases sensitivity, although the mics don't seem any louder than the other passive designs we tried, so presumably this improvement is to some extent compensating for the lower signal-to-noise ratio inherent in a small-diaphragm mic.

The M160 has developed quite a reputation for use as a drum overhead, so this is the mic we chose to test. It comes supplied with a simple mic clip and a padded vinyl bag but no other accessories. All Beyerdynamic microphones are covered by a two-year warranty with proof of purchase.

Groove Tubes Velo 8
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The Groove Tubes Velo 8 comes with a rather natty magnetic pop filter.
The Groove Tubes Velo 8 comes with a rather natty magnetic pop filter.

People in California seem to like starting businesses in their garages, and a few of them have even been moderately successful. Groove Tubes (GT) is one such company. Started in the 1970s by a valve nut called Aspen Pittman (who wrote The Tube Amp Book, reviewed in SOS September 1994), the company has had worldwide distribution deals with Alesis and Midiman, but has remained resolutely independent and is still run and owned by Aspen and his wife. Initially, the company was created just to manufacture vacuum tubes, only later branching into making the microphones and outboard which use the same valves. GT have their own manufacturing facility in San Fernando, California.

It is somewhat ironic, then, that we are testing one of their few products which doesn't feature a tube. The Velo-8 is Groove Tubes' first foray into ribbon mics, and also one of the most fully kitted-out mics on test. It comes as standard with a simple stand mount, as well as a custom elastic cradle, an addictively neat magnetic clip-on pop shield (which everyone present had a play with) and even a spare ribbon PCB. Last, but not least, is a very smart "custom-designed, moisture-resistant aluminum storage case", which will be useful for those of you working in garages...

The other features worth noting are the screwdriver-adjusted low-pass filter and the impedance switch. I've not seen the latter on a microphone before, ribbon or otherwise, and I imagine that, when it's paired with a mic preamp with switchable impedances, hours of fun could be had.

Golden Age Projects

Like AEA and Sontronics, Golden Age Music (GA) started as a pro-audio dealer back in 1993, selling other peoples' equipment in their hometown of Alingsas, 50km northeast of Gothenburg, in Sweden. Having been the Scandinavian distributor for the US microphone company ADK, and selling high-end studio gear from several other manufacturers for 10 years (including several of the other mics we tested here), GA decided to release their own line of microphones in 2004, largely "for the fun of it", according to founder Bo Medin. He told me they had received a lot of end-user feedback from other mics they were selling, and via the contacts with factories they'd made in China, through selling other manufacturers' Eastern microphones, they were inspired to create "products that complement the other brands we sell, with an even greater price/performance ratio". The microphones they sell are a mixture of 'generic' microphones from Chinese production lines, which have been tweaked to taste by GA, and co-designs, where GA had more input from the start. Bo tells me that GA plan to release models that are more and more unique for the Golden Age Project brand, as well as low-cost, vintage-style outboard products.

GA's ribbons are by far the cheapest on test, and Bo is forthright about this — he told me that he would be "gutted" if mics at these prices did sound exactly as good as some of the high-end makes GA themselves sell (like Royer), as the tolerances and components used in the Chinese production lines just aren't in the same league. They do, however, aim to provide an excellent price/performance ratio, and to bring more flexible tools to a wider audience. We were intrigued to see just how close they do manage to get at such amazing prices!

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Golden Age Projects' R1 Mk2.
Golden Age Projects' R1 Mk2.

Golden Age R1 Mk2

This is the second revision of this microphone, which GA describe as offering a unique and natural sound akin to the RCA 44 and 77. Despite the meagre pricing, the mic looks very impressive, albeit without the degree of refinement seen on more expensive mics in this test when viewed close up. A couple of our clients were certainly rather impressed by it — and then we told them what it cost! The mic claims to be capable of coping with SPLs up to 165dB, so if you want to record a Boeing 747 with vintage '40s warmth this would be a good choice! The 2-micron ribbon inside is also shock-mounted (along with the magnet) to reduce susceptibility to knocks and rumble. The R1 comes in a smart metal flight-case which holds the microphone upright, and generously also comes with a windsock/soft case almost identical to that supplied with the AEA R84, a 3m cable and a simple stand bracket. Our only reservation about the design was that the protruding socket for the XLR cable catches on the mounting bracket when you attempt to angle the microphone backwards, requiring you to remove the bracket briefly, then re-attach (GA say this will be corrected in the near future).

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Golden Age Projects' R1 Active Mk2.
Golden Age Projects' R1 Active Mk2.

Golden Age R1 Active Mk2

Visually identical to the R1 Mk2, other than in colour, the R1 Active Mk2 is, like the Sontronics Sigma, unusual in having an active output stage requiring phantom power. The high-ratio step-up transformer that is used lends the R1 Active higher sensitivity than most ribbons, enabling it to drive long cables and be much more forgiving of the choice of preamp used. The R1 Active Mk2 comes with the same accessories as the R1 Mk2, above. However, I should mention that the mic we tested was one of the final pre-production models, which means that those on sale may look (but not sound) slightly different from the pictured mic.

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Another Golden Age mic, the R1 Tube Active.
Another Golden Age mic, the R1 Tube Active.

Golden Age R1 Tube Active

The R1 Tube variant contains a tube output buffer and comes with its own 115/230V AC power supply. As well as obviously imparting a valve sound to the microphone, this results in a higher output level than normal ribbons.

The mic is supplied with a smart PSU to drive the valve output stage and a generous 10m custom cable to connect the mic to the preamp, the whole thing coming in a smart custom flightcase.

Unfortunately on the review model the voltage markings on the plastic 110/240 switch itself contradicted the legend on the metalwork. This led to much confusion and several emergency cups of tea before Bo called to say that the markings on the switch itself are the ones to take seriously. Hopefully this will be fixed before there's an international teabag shortage.

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The R2: a very unusual appearance sets it apart from its siblings in the Golden Age Projects stable.
The R2: a very unusual appearance sets it apart from its siblings in the Golden Age Projects stable.

Golden Age R2

The R2 is a totally different design from the various R1s we tested, looking for all the world like a lollipop! Almost obscenely cheap, it is a fairly traditional ribbon with a passive output stage requiring a decent preamp. It comes in a smart wooden box (which in John Lewis would probably cost the same as the mic does) and is supplied with a little velveteen protective cover, but no shockmount or cable.

About The Tests

We ran two sets of tests on each of the microphones, first recording various sources here at Artisan, then moving over to The Priory Studios in Birmingham, where Greg Chandler — who specialises in recording very loud guitar bands — gave us a rock engineer's perspective and carried out the electric guitar tests. We hadn't, at first, planned to cover all the mics I've described above, and we only later decided to extend the tests to add some additional mics (the Groove Tubes, Beyers and Blue Woodpecker) so a few weeks later we did a second, smaller, session at Artisan.

For both the Artisan sessions, we recorded each of the mics through one channel of a Millennia Media HV3B preamp. The signal was then passed into a Pro Tools Mix system at 24-bit, 44.1kHz, via an RME ADI8 Pro A-D converter, coupled with a Digidesign 24-bit ADAT Bridge. Monitoring was via ATC SCM100s. Meanwhile, over at The Priory, Greg ran the mics variously (depending on the source sound) into a Neve 34128 channel strip, a custom MSE Audio valve preamp or a Tubetech MP1a preamp, followed by either a RME ADI8DS A-D and/or a Soundscape IDEC. Recording was on Soundscape at 24-bit, 44.1kHz, and monitoring was taken care of by Dynaudio M2s.

So how did they fare? Well, as I mentioned earlier, this is where I leave you with a soap-opera-style cliff-hanger! Some mics, obviously, were better than others, and some worked well for some specific applications and less well for others, but the results weren't entirely what we'd expected — in fact, there were some genuine surprises. Next month, I'll run through the results of the tests. You'll get our opinions, of course, but we'll also post some audio files on the SOS web site to help you make up your own minds. So stay tuned and find out how the Davids performed when pitted against the Goliaths! 

Information & Pricing
AEA R84
£858 including VAT.
Affinity Audio +44 (0)1923 265400.
+44 (0)1582 768489.
Royer Labs R121
£822 including VAT.
Funky Junk +44(0)20 7281 4478.
+44(0)207 263 9186.
Coles 4038
£704 including VAT.
HHB +44 (0)208 962 5000.
+44 (0)208 962 5050.
Crowley & Tripp
Studio Vocalist & Soundstage Image £1175 each including VAT.
KMR Audio +44 (0)20 8445 2446.
+44 (0)20 8369 5529.
Sontronics Sigma
£430 including VAT.
Sonic8 +44(0)8701 657456.
+44(0)8701 657458.
SE Electronic R1
£699 including VAT.
Sonic Distribution +44 (0)1582 470260.
+44 (0)1582 470269.
Blue Woodpecker
£699 including VAT.
Sound Control +44(0)870 067 2922.
Beyerdynamic M160
£401 including VAT.
Beyerdynamic +44 (0)1444 258258.
+44 (0)1444 258444.
Groove Tubes Velo 8
£649 including VAT.
Guitar XS +44(0)1227 832 558.
+44(0)1227 832 558.
Golden Age Projects
R1 Mk2 £109; R1 Active Mk2 £169; R1 Tube Active £229; R2 £79. Prices include VAT.
+46 322 66 50 50.
+46 322 66 50 51.

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Audio-Technica AT4047 MP

Multi-pattern Condenser Microphone

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Audio-Technica have added multiple polar patterns to one of their already successful designs, bringing increased versatility in the studio.

Audio-Technica AT4047 MP | Media

Multi-pattern Condenser Microphone

Audio files to accompany the article.

Audio-Technica AT4050 ST

Stereo Condenser Microphone

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There's more to this variation on Audio-Technica's flagship microphone than the simple addition of a second capsule...

Peavey Studio Pro M2

Condenser Microphone

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Paul White explores the capabilities of the understated-yet-powerful Studio Pro M2.

Schoeps VSR5

Microphone Preamp

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Schoeps make some of the most revered mics on the planet, so when they release a commercial version of the mic preamp they use for testing, you have to take it seriously...

Schoeps VSR5 Mic Preamp

Test Measurements

Thumbnail for article: Schoeps VSR5 Mic Preamp

The following charts, made using an Audio Precision Analyser, accompany our review of the Schoeps VSR5 microphone preamplifier.

Blue Encore 300

Handheld Condenser Microphone

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Designed as a hand-held live vocal mic, this mic has a cardioid pickup pattern, and seems very robustly engineered.

Cartec EQP1A

Mono Valve Equaliser

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British 'boutique' outboard manufacturers seem to be rather thin on the ground these days, but if this Pultec clone is anything to go by, newcomers Cartec look set to make a big impression.

Prodipe TT1

Dynamic Microphone

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Prodipe say they wanted to offer a high-quality, live-sound, cardioid-pattern dynamic mic at a very affordable price.

Sontronics Saturn

Multi-pattern Condenser Microphone

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Sontronics mics usually sound as distinctive as they look - and this one looks more distinctive than most!

MXL Revelation

Multi-pattern Valve Microphone

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Hot on the heels of the impressive Genesis cardioid valve mic, MXL have unveiled their flagship multi-pattern model, the Revelation. Does it live up to its name?

MXL Revelation | Audio Examples

Multi-pattern Valve Microphone

These audio files accompany the SOS September 2010 review of the MXL Revelation microphone.

Samson Go Mic

USB Microphone

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USB mics are nothing new, but the Samson Go Mic is probably the smallest and cutest I've seen to date. This metal-bodied mic,...

AKG Perception 820

Valve Microphone

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Does AKGs Chinese-made Perception 820 maintain the Austrian companys impressive reputation?

AKG Perception 820 | Audio

Audio Examples

Hear for yourself how this mic performed during the SOS tests.

Audio-Technica AT4080 & AT4081

Ribbon Microphones

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A-Ts brand-new transducer technology has produced a robust design intended to deliver high signal levels as well as that prized ribbon character...

Earthworks DP25C & DP30C

Snare & Tom Condenser Microphones

Thumbnail for article: Earthworks DP25C & DP30C

Despite the ubiquity of the SM57 for use on snare, there are other options — and Earthworks aim to help you capture a more natural sound.

MXL Genesis

Cardioid Valve Microphone

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We put MXLs Genesis through its paces alongside a much pricier model, to find out just how good a tube mic can be at this price.

MXL Genesis Mic | Audio Files

Hear For Yourself

To accompany our July 2010 Genesis review, we recorded a series of standard tests with the review mic alongside a more established mic (in this case, the AKG C12 VR).

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