Cloud’s stylish RCA‑inspired ribbon microphone has enjoyed a dark reboot.
Designers of ribbon microphones today stand on the shoulders of giants. Two such Titans are Harry Olson and Jon R Sank, both of whom will be forever associated with classic RCA ribbon designs. Olson was the genius behind the original 44 and 77, whilst Sank took up the baton after joining RCA’s acoustical laboratory in 1957. His crowning achievement was the BK11, a mic that managed to improve on the performance of the 44 in several ways, whilst also being smaller and more lightweight.
The legacy of Olson and Sank lives on in practically every modern ribbon mic, and especially at two American manufacturers. When RCA abandoned mic production in the ’70s, Wes Dooley took on responsibility for servicing and re‑ribboning RCA microphones, with the blessing and training of Jon R Sank. Wes founded AEA, who now produce painstaking recreations of the 44 and other timeless RCA designs alongside their original models.
Sank also passed his skills and knowledge to his own son, Stephen Sank; and back in 2009, Stephen teamed up with Rodger Cloud to develop a new line of mics that would build on this RCA design heritage. The first of these was named the JRS‑34 in honour of Jon R Sank, who was born in 1934, and it employs many of the innovations that he built into the BK11, notably the use of rounded edges within the ribbon motor. Cloud subsequently released the 44‑A, which is more of an homage to the RCA 44, albeit one that’s much smaller and lighter than its inspiration.
Both have proved enduringly popular microphones, but their success has arguably been eclipsed by that of another Cloud product. The ubiquitous Cloudlifter was designed as a simple in‑line, fixed‑gain preamp, intended to amplify the output of passive ribbon and moving‑coil mics to a level that’s comfortable for the mic preamps on audio interfaces and small mixers. It has sold by the bucketload, especially to content creators using mics like the Shure SM7B and Electro‑Voice RE20 for speech, and there are now no fewer than six Cloudlifter variants in the range. The same technology is also built into the Cloud 44‑A, the letter ‘A’ signifying that it’s an active, phantom‑powered mic.
The latest mic to enter the Cloud range, and the subject of this review, is the 44 Midnight: a passive version of the 44‑A design, without that mic’s Voice/Music filter switch, but supplied with a Cloudlifter CL‑1 in‑line preamp in place of the 44‑A’s active electronics.
Depending on the design, passive and active versions of the same mic can be more different than you’d expect. Some manufacturers use a different transformer in the active version to derive extra voltage gain, then add active electronics to stabilise and buffer the output. Others retain the same transformer as in the passive version, and use an active gain stage to increase sensitivity. Cloud’s 44‑A belongs in the latter category, so the Midnight version with the supplied CL‑1 should perform exactly like the 44‑A in Music mode.
In effect, then, the Midnight trades the convenience of an all‑in‑one active design for the flexibility that comes with making the active stages optional. To my mind, more is gained than lost by doing this. Most people who are serious about music recording will have good‑quality, high‑gain preamps, and won’t need the Cloudlifter for all applications. The ability to use one gain stage instead of two is theoretically preferable in terms of noise, and having the CL‑1 available as a separate device means you can put it to use with other mics, too. The 44’s maximum SPL is quoted as 138dB, with or without the Cloudlifter — beyond this point the ribbon motor itself begins to distort, not that it’s likely to encounter such levels in real‑world use.
The visual similarities between the Cloud 44 and the RCA mics are obvious from photos, but when you see them side by side, it’s the differences that are more striking. The RCA 44 is an absolute beast of a mic, standing over a foot tall with its yoke and placing a serious burden on any mic stand unfortunate enough to have to bear it. The BK11 is somewhat smaller, but still very large and heavy by modern standards. The 44 Midnight, by contrast, tips the scales at fractionally over a pound, and is barely half the height or depth of the 44. Some of that space and weight saving is achieved by not using a yoke‑style mount; instead, there’s a simple but effective pivoting standmount fixed to the base of the mic, alongside an integrated XLR connector.
Even though it takes many design cues from the RCA models, it’s a surprisingly distinctive‑looking mic.
The 44 Midnight is supplied with a smart cloth bag, but there’s no wooden box or other more robust storage option provided. Build quality is excellent, and the none‑more‑black ‘midnight’ finish gives the whole thing a classy yet understated feel. Even though it takes many design cues from the RCA models, it’s a surprisingly distinctive‑looking mic.
None of the Cloud mics is intended as a slavish recreation of an RCA model. As Rodger Cloud himself says, “The approach that we took while developing the Cloud ribbons was to continually ask ourselves, ‘What would Harry Olson and Jon R Sank design if they were able to utilise today’s innovations, resources and materials?’ The goal was always to update these classic designs, rather than clone them, thus bringing them into the modern era for today’s demanding applications.” So, what you’d expect to get sonically from the 44 Midnight is something that has the same general character as the RCA 44 and BK11, without necessarily measuring the same in every detail — and that’s exactly what you do get.
Like most ribbon mics, the 44 Midnight is a true figure‑8 design, and it has what seems to be a very well‑behaved polar pattern. In terms of frequency response, it follows the RCA 44 pretty closely through the midrange, though it’s hardly unique in doing so — as we saw last month, the tiny Extinct Audio BoRbon also has a very similar character on sources such as vocals. Where it leaves the BoRbon behind is in its extension at either end of the frequency spectrum. Cloud claim a frequency response of “20Hz to above 20kHz”, and although the supplied chart shows that treble response is attenuated beyond 8kHz, it’s clear that the 44 Midnight does capture both deep bass and air frequencies. If the latter aren’t prominent enough for your tastes, a particular strength of the 44 Midnight is its malleability through EQ. Ribbons in general are said to “take EQ well”, and Cloud’s design is an excellent showcase of this property.
In practice, I found I rarely needed to use the 44 Midnight with the Cloudlifter. Its sensitivity of 3.5mV/Pa as a passive mic is perfectly respectable, and within a couple of dB of most modern ribbon mics. With care I was able to use it as a close vocal mic, and although the grille gives the impression of being very open, the fine‑mesh gauze behind it seems to offer decent protection against pops and other minor wind blasts. The ribbon motor is also internally shockmounted, so even though the mic would usually be mounted directly to the stand, stand‑borne vibration isn’t a problem. As with all the best microphones, you can freely vary mic placement to shape the sound of what’s recorded, without having to worry about off‑axis coloration or noise. And like all good ribbons, the 44 Midnight is surprisingly versatile, putting in a good performance on everything from fingerstyle guitar to front‑of‑kick or overhead duties. This is a very classy mic indeed, and is both more affordable and more practical than an original RCA 44 or BK11.
A high‑quality passive ribbon mic supplied with a high‑quality in‑line booster, the 44 Midnight is pure class.