Last month we introduced the mics; this month we put them to the test. Find out which model is the best way of adding ribbon character to your studio.
Last month we ran through the background of a number of ribbon mics and their manufacturers, but left you hanging for the test results. Well, the wait is over, as we reveal how they performed when we put them through their paces on vocals, drums and guitars.
The whole point of these tests for us at Artisan Studios was to audition a wide range of ribbon mics in order to try something new on a project we were about to undertake. We picked a few applications on which we might be likely to use ribbon mics and discussed the results, ranking them in order of preference.
Of course, the results are subjective — they take account of our personal tastes, and the character of the vocalists and instruments that we used in the tests, but there's really no other way to do this. However, to assist you in making your own mind up, we've also placed some audio files on the SOS web site (www.soundonsound.com/sos/dec07/articles/ribbonmicsaudio.htm). Of course, if you're able, it is still a good idea to audition mics before you decide to buy, particularly in the case of vocals, where different singers tend to work better with different mics.
For each test, we've listed the mics in our order of preference, and described what it was we liked and didn't like about them, before drawing some more general conclusions.
We positioned our vocalist six inches from each mic, and used a Steadman pop shield and an SE Reflexion filter. We also recorded her through a Neumann M149 as a 'control' condenser comparison. Later, Greg Chandler, over at The Priory Studio, recorded a different female vocalist with the same mics to give us a second opinion, this time at 12 inches from the mics, also using a Steadman pop shield.
The results from our small listening panel were as follows, in order of preference (bear in mind that to some extent this was swayed by the voice we were recording — another singer might have brought about different favourites).
1. Crowley & Tripp Studio Vocalist
We found this to be generally very clear and detailed with a surprisingly extended top-end compared with the other ribbons on test. Indeed, we felt it was almost a little too hi-fi, bordering on the sound of a condenser mic — certainly not quite as warm as some of the other mics on test. That said, that ribbon smoothness was still in evidence, with none of those nasty high-frequency resonances you get with some condensers (especially at the cheaper end of the market, where high-frequency extension and high-frequency distortion often seem to go hand in hand!). The bottom end was very controlled, verging on small for a ribbon. Our only minor niggle was that two of our panel felt there was 'something missing' in the upper mid-range. It was still our favourite all-rounder, though, and we thought it very classy.
Greg Chandler said he found the mic had a "clear, detailed and even response, with condenser-like qualities. Extended HF response but still very smooth. Had the most 'air' of these ribbon mics and was notably the one tuned most for vocal recording. Used for backing vocals, I was able to get them to sit back in the track very nicely and still cut through. Compared with the main vocal (tracked with a Brauner Valvet), they were round and smooth, but retained a nice presence on high frequencies, giving clarity and detail without any harshness or sibilance."
2. Coles 4038
The 4038 showed a restrained control on vocals which we didn't hear with any of the other microphones — it was really very 'British'. The entire range was neat and contained, and it brought out the musicality of the performance. With a very BBC politeness being evident in the bottom end, it's not the warmest of the mics tested, by any means, nor is it breathy and bright like the Crowley & Tripp. Like the SE (discussed below), the 4038 seems to have quite a dip in the top-end, where the sibilants lie, yet it somehow seems to manage this naturally, so that the overall effect is that the 'esses' just seem to be not noticeable: 'classy' is the only word to describe the result. Our only criticism was that it might be a little too polite for some pop vocal applications, where a more obviously warm sound might be more fitting. Although we didn't test the mics on spoken word, simply communicating with the vocalist over the microphone showed why it is still in use for voice-overs at BBC radio!
3. Golden Age Projects R1 Active Mk2
After initially trying an early active R1 design we were sent (which we found rather too dark and lacking in detail), GA went away and reworked the mic to come up with this model, which is a stunner on vocals. It has much of the same character as the R1 Mk2, but with what feels like an extra layer of euphony, presumably from the transformer. The panel described the Mk2 as "even, smooth and with more presence than many of the mics on test." The overall sound is fairly clean — almost breathy on vocals — and the mic immediately became one of our favourites
4. Groove Tubes Velo 8
The Velo 8 brought instant smiles to our faces, with its lovely, smooth, dark, rolled-off top end. It is perhaps not the mic to choose if you're looking for an all-rounder as, like the Sontronics Sigma, it sounds seriously 'vintage', but it is a lovely character to have available. The panel thought it conjured up exotica jazz (think 'The Girl From Ipanema'), so if this is your bag it would certainly be worth auditioning. The impedance switch was interesting, and made quite a difference: in the 75Ω position the sound was very soft and smooth throughout the range, albeit a little lacking in detail; the 300Ω position brought in quite a lot of extra detail, and seemed to extend the high-frequency response, but at the cost of a little of that smoothness and a little warmth at the bottom. Both positions would be usable on the right voice.
5. Golden Age Projects R1 Mk2
'Robust' and 'musical' were the first adjectives that sprung to mind when listening to the R1 Mk2. It sounded totally different from GA's R2, with a clear, smooth top end, and a lovely warm lower mid-range. "I can hear everything," the vocalist told us, and we later ended up using this microphone above all the others on several of her lead-vocal takes. The revised R1 Active (mentioned earlier) would probably pip it at the post, but if you have the right preamp to drive the passive version it's neck and neck. The results are all the more impressive considering the price.
Opinion was split on the Sontronics Sigma, until we all started to understand where it is coming from — which, really, is a slightly different place from most other mics on test here. At first, we felt it was simply dull (the singer told us that "it sounds like I'm singing under a duvet"), but once we'd put our ears in 1950s mode and donned the studio smoking jackets, we started to appreciate the smoothness in the mids and were charmed by the sheer jazziness of this mic. After a few minutes I couldn't wait to record a jazz singer, a saxophone and a drum kit with it — preferably all in the one room at the same time, with the one mic, while drinking bourbon. This was definitely the most charismatically vintage in character of the mics on test. Nice, Daddy-o...
7. Blue Woodpecker
Blue's intention with the Woodpecker was apparently to create a ribbon with an unusually extended high-frequency response, and our tests bore this out, showing a top-end response in the same ball park as the Crowley & Tripp Studio Vocalist. However, the character of this top end caused some discussion amongst our committee. Initially one person felt they could hear some 'zippy' distortion high up, rather like a valve mic, and another felt that the extreme top was a little lumpy, with some audible resonances. Despite this rather negative first impression, its character grew on us throughout the session. By the end, the singer rather liked it.
8. AEA R84
'Tasteful' was the first word we wanted to use when hearing the R84 on vocals. Also 'even', and 'clear and natural, yet tamed'. We felt 'esses' were a little subdued, and the mic was generally a little dark, but in general it was nicely charismatic, albeit with a fairly hefty proximity effect: classy, and eminently useful. In the Priory tests, Greg found that it had a "large, round sound, with good HF detail and transient response, and a big proximity effect. It gave the best feeling of 'being there' for the singer."
9. Golden Age Projects R1 Tube
The Tube version of GA's R1 sounded extremely 'valvey', with an exaggerated high-frequency sizzle which just threw clarity at us, and in some ways reminded us of the Rode Classic, even down to the tubiness being a little grainy at the very top. The vocalist liked how she could 'hear everything'. We felt it would make a great first tube/ribbon mic for someone seeking some tube character, with the advantage of having that big, warm ribbon lower mid-range. It could be a good foil for a low/mid-range condenser. The only down side was that it was a little noisy, and therefore not the best mic for recording quiet sources. Greg found the tube qualities a little more frustrating: "The top end was very sizzly and spiky, with too much top-end distortion on vocals. This may be said to be a tube characteristic, but it was excessive, and the result was a nasal sound that didn't suit this particular voice at all."
We thought the R121 sounded very musical, though also quite coloured: it generally pushed up the upper mids more than any other mic on test, and we felt the sound was therefore quite spiky, though we also thought this might also help some vocals to cut through a mix more easily. The rear of the mic gave a sound that was more breathy and clear in general, which was not a surprise given the more extended high-frequency response.
Greg's impression was favourable: "The front gave a smooth sound, with good detail and emphasised mids; the rear, a smooth, silky sound, with good detail, but without being bright."
11. Beyerdynamic M160
The Beyer's hypercardioid pattern, predictably enough, led it to give us a tighter sound, with less room than any other mic on test. That said, the sound was impressively uncoloured. The M160's on-axis response has much in common with the Royer R121, in exhibiting quite a 'lump' at around 4kHz, which, although unpleasant on this particular vocalist, is actually very smooth, and we felt would help some singers' voices cut through a mix. Although perhaps not the first choice as a general-purpose vocal mic, its character is very smooth and classy and I can imagine a rock vocalist with sibilance problems would suit this mic well.
12. SE Electronics R1
The SE R1 came across as muffled but musical. We liked some of the high notes, and the soft, smooth character it displayed generally. However, we also felt it 'swallowed' sibilants, rather as though we'd over-applied a de-esser — the result being that it almost gave our singer a lisp in places. This led to the strange and apparently paradoxical conclusion that the mic is breathy yet dark. We generally felt that, 'ess' strangeness aside, it was competent but a little lacking in ribbon magic when compared with some of the other mics on test. Greg agreed, telling us that he found it gave "reasonable detail, but was lacking in character. The high-frequency transients were unclear and rather subdued."
We found that the R2 sounded quite muffled but was not particularly charismatic-sounding either. It was also a touch sibilant and boxy-sounding, as if it lacked headroom. That said, we also felt it was able to cut through the mix in a similar way to the Royer, which, given the price difference, was quite a surprise. As it was so dark, we also felt it shared some of its character with the Sontronics Sigma, and might make a good alternative for those seeking a very dark vintage-sounding ribbon on a very tight budget. Greg's comments were a little more to the point: "Quite a dark, indistinct sound — coarse in its response and lacking detail."
14. Crowley & Tripp Soundstage Image
We thought the Soundstage Image sounded quite odd on vocals. The sound was very coloured ("retro", said one of our panel, who quite liked it at first) and, like the SE R1, the esses were swallowed, as though someone had caught the de-esser threshold control on the edge of their sleeve as they passed — not at all flattering of our vocalist. In its defence, though, this isn't advertised as a vocal microphone but as "tailored for radio broadcast, soundstage, orchestral, and other applications requiring an uncoloured sound", which explains why the same company's Studio Vocalist performed so much better in this particular test. Greg observed that it gave a "nasal sound — not much information in the top and bottom frequencies. It was detailed to some degree, but I found myself asking what sources this microphone would work well for."
Jon Cotton is a producer, composer and string arranger based in Birmingham. He runs Poseidon, a music-production company creating records and music for picture (www.poseidonmusic.com) and works with a small team from the studio he owns, Artisan (www.artisanaudio.com). Jon produced and engineered Scott Matthews' Ivor-Novello award-winning album Passing Stranger, and, as well as producing several other records, has recently co-written the music for a number of BBC television series.
We positioned each microphone 12 inches from an acoustic guitar. Although we discovered that some of the mics would have suited use at greater distances, we thought a constant distance would enable us to compare the proximity effect in each microphone. We also recorded the guitar via an Oktava MK012 with cardioid capsule as a 'control' condenser comparison. You can hear some of the resulting recordings at www.soundonsound.com/sos/dec07/articles/ribbonmicsaudio.htm.
1. Royer R121
The Royer was lovely on acoustic: intensely clear, yet full. Using the front side, it almost made the guitar sound like a Fender Strat by pulling up the body so much. It was eminently useable, and a very nice contrast to the Oktava which, by comparison, offered all detail and no body. The reverse side of the mic, on the other hand, resulted in a tightly-controlled, brighter version of the same character, which we felt should sit fantastically in a pop mix.
2. Coles 4038
The Coles was smooth, with controlled mids, and the top end wasn't phasey. It had a very nice body, with a lovely, solid mid-range. Its only arguable flaws in relation to the Royer were that it wasn't as detailed at the top end, and it gave a slightly smaller, more retro sound, which may prove problematic in the context of a mix — but for exposed parts it sounds very cool.
3. Blue Woodpecker
The Woodpecker's extended top end was again in evidence on acoustic guitar, giving lots of detail and capturing the plectrum of the player with great clarity, but without the annoying extreme HF clicks of the Oktava condenser. Like the Beyer, it exhibited a little bit of a nasal pinch in the upper registers, but this was made up for by the overall tone, which was really nicely balanced. In this application the mic also has a notably lower proximity effect than some of the others on test, which lead to one of the committee proclaiming it as sounding 'like a record that has been mastered already' — make of that what you will! The overall impression was one of providing an instantly-useable off-the-shelf sound, which would hold its own nicely as the only mic in a singer-songwriter acoustic guitar/vocals combo. The top-end extension would mean that supplementing the warmth with a condenser wouldn't be necessary. That said, this wouldn't be first choice if you were looking for out-and-out character.
4. Golden Age Projects R1 Tube
We loved this mic on acoustic. It was lovely and balanced and, thanks to the tube, gave a scratchy top ("but in a good way"), that we felt would help the guitar to work really well in the wider context of a mix. Again, the results seem very good for the price.
5. Sontronics Sigma
Easy baby... the Sigma turned our guitar into an instant bit of imaginary 1950s vinyl history — all mid-range cool, with no pretence at trying to be zingy at the top. It was all sassy desert-island midriff, with a little bit of overhang on the bass end, which could easily be tidied up by pulling the mic back. We all donned our shades and Tiki shirts and sipped our pina coladas as we soaked up the sound of early Motown jazz-funk guitar (well, Motown didn't make jazz-funk, but you get the idea). It lacks versatility in that it only does one sound, but boy, does it do that sound well!
6. Groove Tubes Velo 8
Hearing this microphone on acoustic guitar brought a grin to my face every time. "Seriously cool vintage vibes" was the verdict — like a less extreme version of the Sigma, and incredibly smooth in the treble roll-off. As on vocals, we found the impedance switch acted as an 'HF and detail' control, giving useful variation to a fundamentally lovely smooth tone.
7. AEA R84
The R84 had a nice, clear, sparkly top and a fairly resonant and flabby bottom end. It would probably sound great pulled back a couple of feet and, like the GA R2, would make a good general-purpose 'warmer' for condenser recordings.
8. Golden Age Projects R1 Active Mk2
See our comments for the R1 Mk2, below. The active version is a touch more flattering at both ends of the frequency spectrum, and isn't so fussy about the choice of preamp, but in other respects the two are very similar.
9. Golden Age Projects R1 Mk2
The R1 Mk2 was very nice and balanced, with a more recessed mid-range than the Royers or the Coles. It sounded a touch more distant — less detailed and not as controlled as some of the others — but with careful treatment, especially on the bass end, could be very useful as a warming addition to a condenser.
10. Beyerdynamic M160
Oddly, despite it feeling similar to the Royer in some applications, on acoustic we thought the M160's aggressive middle (so useful on drums — see below) was a bit much on acoustic guitar. That said, it is hard to generalise, and when you need the acoustic to cut through in a really chunky way it could really fit the bill (Billy Bragg might like it!). As with the lead vocal tests, we found the hypercardioid pattern to be helpful in minimising room sound as well and, of course, the mic was very easy to position.
11. Crowley & Tripp Studio Vocalist
We liked the top of this microphone on acoustic guitar, and felt that it would sit rather nicely in a mix. However, the balance was a bit wrong lower down for solo work, and it suffered from a severe proximity effect, which brought out the 150-200Hz boom from the guitar's sound-hole quite dramatically.
12. Golden Age Projects R2
We rather liked the sound of the R2 on acoustic guitar. It fell somewhere between the mid-range punch of the Royer and the vintage edge of the Sigma, but without having the detail of either. Great for those wanting that sort of very vintage (dark) sound on a tight budget.
13. SE R1
The R1 had lots of upper-mids and brought out the strumming/plectrum sound nicely, but it lacked a touch of crispness, didn't offer much charisma, and had a rather uncontrolled bottom end. Though not particularly inspiring, it nonetheless put in a decent performance.
14. Crowley & Tripp Soundstage Image
On acoustic guitar, the Soundstage Image was very odd-sounding, in that the soundstage was detailed but sounded rather like it had a high-pass filter on it. We thought this might be good for James Brown-style or vinyl-sounding cameo parts, but it was too coloured to be a general workhorse in this application.
The drum room here at Artisan is a converted cellar with a fairly low ceiling. Because of its shape, we've damped the acoustic right down and tend to work with convolution reverbs to add airiness where needed, occasionally tracking in other rooms when we need a brighter sound (such as, for example, with a jazz kit). For the purposes of this test, we listened for the part of the room which picked up the most even overall picture of the kit in mono, and positioned our ribbons there. Unlike the acoustic or vocal takes, the exact positioning of the mics was less crucial in this case, so we decided to put them all up at once and record in three batches. The control mic was, again, an Oktava MK012 with cardioid capsule. Because ambient mics like this are commonly compressed hard and used to add punch to a mix, we ran the takes through a UAD1 1176SE compressor plug-in, set fairly aggressively to simulate the sort of treatment this positioning would probably receive. You can hear the recordings (both compressed and natural) at www.soundonsound.com/sos/dec07/articles/ribbonmicsaudio.htm.
1. Coles 4038
Surprisingly bright, the Coles sounded quite 'hi-fi', with a less obviously rolled-off top than some of the others — quite neutral. The mid-range was lovely and the transient response generally was great, with a lovely punchy kick-drum sound.
The Royer gave a cool, classy and fairly coloured sound, the mid-range boost showing its presence and a touch of poke bringing out the snare with a lot of punch. With a nice transient response, we felt, on the whole, that it was quite similar to the AEA R84, but a touch clearer and not as soft — and it would make a great crunch mic, or even work as a pair for overheads (we only had one, so unfortunately weren't able to put this theory to the test). Our only criticism was a tiny bit of harshness that was evident on the cymbals.
3. Beyer M160
It is easy to hear why the Beyers are so well-known for drums. The lovely smooth lift at around 4kHz has the effect of making snare drums jump out of the wider mix and really punch you in the face: the effect is similar to giving your drummer a double vodka and Redbull and then insulting his mother just before a take!
4. Sontronics Sigma
The Sigma prompted immediate 'coools' across the room when we brought it up. Crunchy and controlled, with a lovely tendency to bring out the resonances in the snare, this mic is a break-beat machine: trip-hop fans should take note.
5. Golden Age Projects R1 Mk2
The R1 Mk2 gave a very nice, lively and broad result, with a great kick sound that was bettered only by the Coles. The overall effect was very balanced, tight and controlled, but without quite the top-end or transient response of the Coles. Again, for the price, the performance of this microphone was excellent.
6. Golden Age Projects R1 Active Mk2
Priced slightly higher, we thought the active version brought a touch more flattery to the sound of the R1 Mk2, and it also requires a less beefy preamp.
7. Golden Age Projects R2
We really liked the R2 in this role — it had a lovely kick and snare drum ring, and some of the character of the Sontronics Sigma. Its lower price tag was audible in its lack of transient detail and fairly two-dimensional presentation, but it was eminently usable as a 'crunch mic'. And at this price, if you go off it you can always use it to stir your tea when you run out of spoons...
8. AEA R84
The R84 had a nice character, but was a touch soft and a bit uncontrolled at the bottom, so it wouldn't be one to use for overheads, but it offers a nice, extra-warm flavour if you don't need detail in great quantities. Greg gave a second opinion: "I set [the R84] about four feet back from the drum kit and positioned it at the drummer's waist height. It picked up a nice balance of the kit, and added a great deal of depth to the sound of the kit when blended in with the closer mics and overheads. I found I could add a fair bit of compression without getting too much volume from the cymbals. It gave a huge, round sound, adding some real thickness to the bass drum and the overall kit."
9. Golden Age Projects R1 Tube
The R1 Tube was a little thin compared with the other mics on test here, but it sounded sparkly, with a nice hi-hat sound, and crunched well when used with the compressor.
10. Crowley & Tripp Soundstage Image
The frequency range this mic brought out was biased more towards the higher frequencies than any of the others, with a lot of emphasis on the upper mid-range. Transient response was great and the hi-hats were very much brought to the front. We thought it would be more useful as a main overhead in pairs than as a crunch mic, for which role we felt it would capture too much cymbal information.
11. Crowley & Tripp Studio Vocalist
Despite its great showing on the vocal tests, this mic sounded phasey and too coloured on our drum kit, with splashy, sibilant cymbals. It's a good mic but obviously not meant for this role.
12. SE R1
The SE sounded nice and lively, but was let down by its treble response. As with the vocal 'esses', we found the R1 swallowed cymbals whole. We also felt that the low mids were a bit messy, and the kick sounded quite boxy, with none of the punch of the Coles, the R1 Mk2, or even the little R2.
We were supplied with pairs of four of the microphones, so we positioned them in a fairly traditional overhead position: one mic over the hat side of the kit, one over the ride, and checked phase by measuring the distance from the centre of the snare to each. We applied some comparatively gentle compression to the overhead recordings, care of a UAD1 Fairchild plug-in, and the results can be heard at www.soundonsound.com/sos/dec07/articles/ribbonmicsaudio.htm.
1. Coles 4038 (pair)
It was immediately obvious why these microphones are the de facto standard for drum overheads in many people's books. Punchy yet warm, the kit sounded vibrant and balanced, if a touch dark.
2. Beyer M160 (pair)
Upon hearing these mics as a pair on overheads, one of our committee declared he didn't want to make another rock record without using this configuration... they do something to snare drums that we've never heard any other overhead do, really bringing out the crack and weight equally. The only down side would be our feeling that the high treble is a little recessed, so for sparkle on cymbals it might be worth supplementing with some condensers at times.
3. Sontronics Sigma (pair)
The Sigma is too dark to use as a general-purpose overhead pair; however as soon as we asked the drummer to switch to playing some brushed jazz, their raison d'être became immediately apparent. These would be the perfect mics for creating a Louis Armstrong/Ella Fitzgerald warm retro soundscape.
4. SE R1 (pair)
A nice, clear snare sound is let down by the swallowed cymbals and lack of obvious character, and the detail is mediocre. Greg also tried the SEs as overheads and reported: "I actually took these mics off before recording the takes we were to use, and instead went with a pair of Microtech Gefell M300s, because I did not like the sound much. The cymbals sounded washy and indistinct, and I found it hard to get them to cut through the guitars and bass (mild rock band without much distortion), even when boosting the high frequencies with EQ. Placing them as a spaced pair over the cymbals themselves helped matters, but I still did not like the sound, either soloed or 'in the mix."
For electric guitar, we handed over the mantle to Greg Chandler — not because we don't record electric guitars, but simply because he was due to record them and we weren't at that time. Greg recorded clean and distorted guitar miked six inches from the speaker grille, slightly off-centre from one 12-inch speaker in a 4x12 cab. The Amp was an Engl Powerball, paired with a VR cabinet.
Here are Greg's comments on the seven mics he tested, in order of preference (The second-round mics we received later — Groove Tubes, Blue and Beyer — weren't involved in this test).
1. Royer R121
"Big sound, with strong, clear mids and smooth high frequencies. Accented, but smooth high mids make this a good choice for loud guitar amps. Less proximity effect than some of the other ribbons makes it more suitable for closer miking. Good transient response. The rear side of this mic is brighter, with stronger high-mids, making it a great choice for guitars that need a little more cut in the mix."
2. Coles 4038
"On clean guitar this produced a very nice, balanced sound, with good transient response and clear highs; also clear on distorted guitar. One of the most detailed ribbons on guitar, it seems to pick up less of the room somehow. Punchy on heavy, palm-muted, distorted guitars. Big bottom end, but without being muddy."
3. AEA R84
"Huge sound — almost muddy because it is so big at the bottom! Nice, detailed and smooth mid-range. Best as a room mic when recording guitar, due to the emphasised proximity effect."
4. Crowley & Tripp Studio Vocalist
"Smooth sound. Perhaps not the right kind of character for distorted guitar, though the clean sound was quite nice with this mic."
5. Golden Age Projects R1 Tube
"A biig sound that's quite bright and sharp. Good for some applications. I found that this mic worked better when blended with the Royer R121."
6. Sontronics Sigma
"Nice with clean guitar — detailed and smooth. Nice 'old' sound, but quite boxy on distorted guitar. There are accented mids and it is dark on top, but there's something attractive about it on clean sounds."
7. SE Electronic R1
"Reasonable level of detail in the sound overall, though perhaps a little little lacking in character and transient response with regards to the higher frequencies."
8. Golden Age Projects R2
"Quite a nasal sound on electric guitars. Less focused than other ribbons, and a poor transient response."
Greg summarised his tests by saying: "The Coles 4038 and Royer R121 were my favourites on electric guitar. The Sontronics Sigma was also good for clean sounds, and the R84 also sounded good on both clean and distorted guitars, if a little muddy. The Royer R121 and AEA R84 turned out to be my favourites from this test. The Coles 4038 also had the potential to be a favourite, and I'd like to have spent longer with it and got to hear it on more sources. On guitar, it had a great deal of clarity. The Golden Age Projects ribbons, while not getting the most favoured response in the comparison test, actually performed pretty admirably when you take their price into account. GA's R1 Tube mic, in particular, can make a good character mic, or a good mic to use as part of a multi-mic setup. The Sontronics Sigma had a pleasing, 'old style' ribbon character, and a good level of detail. While it is not so useful for the styles of music I work with, it is an impressive mic for its character alone. The SE ribbon, I'm afraid I found quite uninteresting — it isn't bad, but then there isn't anything inspiring about it either. As an all-rounder, I was continually impressed by the sound of the AEA R84. I have used this mic on acoustic guitar, vocals and electric guitar, and as a drum room mic, and it has never failed to impress, even if it hasn't always been the most suitable choice. The Royer didn't sound bad on anything (I have also used this for drum rooms and in front of kicks, where it served well), but is best suited to guitar amps. As a clue to what impressed me the most and is most suitable for the types of music I record, I bought the Royer R121 and now have the AEA R84 and Coles 4038 on my wish list!"
The mics in our shootout fell into three rough price groups, which equated fairly well with how and where they were made.
At the 'outrageously cheap' end of the scale we have modified standard Far East production-line mics. Golden Age's tweaked versions of generic Chinese microphones are really exceptional value, no matter how you look at it: you'll see similar housings with other peoples' brands on them, but this is no guarantee that they will sound the same. As our tests with the three versions of the GA R1 showed, even within one manufacturer the same microphone body can sound fairly different depending on how the mic is modified internally. If you buy a GA mic, you are buying GA's taste — which we rather liked on the whole, especially given the price.
In the mid-priced bracket, we have SE and Sontronics, who are both combining brand-new, bespoke designs with the cost advantages of using Chinese labour to make them. The results are original, charismatic microphones with higher tolerances than some of the generic mics, yet at very competitive prices. In the same bracket, Groove Tubes have manage to price their Velo 8 extremely competitively, despite it being made in the West.
At the top of the range we have AEA, Beyer, Blue, Coles, Crowley & Tripp and Royer — traditional high-end, Western microphone companies, making premium products with little or no compromise. These mics are pretty uniformly fantastic, and you get perhaps more consistency and finesse than seen in any of the Eastern mics, which is down to the no-compromise attitude towards components and higher tolerances — but then, of course, the price-tags reflect this.
We were surprised to discover that our favourites in a particular application were not necessarily the most expensive. The GA R1 Mk2 and the Active Mk2 particularly stunned us as amazingly good all-rounders for the money. Even some of the mics we weren't so crazy about in general (such as the GA R2) we could imagine finding a use for on a record, and they would certainly represent a very useful introduction to the ribbon sound for those working with small budgets.
In general, the higher-end mics tend to be more consistently useful, but our choices weren't as tied to cost as we had at first expected — and this points to there being ample room in the market to find some real bargains, which will be good news for home and project studio owners.
The other thing that struck us is that the ribbons on test seemed to fall into two sonic categories: those that aspired to being fairly 'hi-fi', with a lot of high-frequency extension (the Crowley & Tripps and the Blue Woodpecker are the extreme examples of this type); and those which purposely went for a 'vintage' sound, with a more distinctive coloration. The Sontronics Sigma and the Groove Tubes Velo 8 tied for that crown (which to choose comes down to how extreme an effect you are looking for), but we felt the little GA R2 would make a good budget alternative.
The Sigma was notable for another reason: being phantom-powered, it required far less gain than most of the other mics on test. The other mics that took a similar approach were the GA R1 Active Mk2 and the Blue Woodpecker, and each of these would make good choices for those who don't have the budget for expensive mic preamps (though if you're able to save, or spare the cash, I'd still recommend a good preamp as a worthwhile investment).
One final irony, which we couldn't help but notice, was that the quality and quantity of the accessories supplied with each of the mics were almost perfectly inversely proportional to the cost of the microphones. At the cheapest extreme, for example, the R1 Mk2 comes with a mic-stand mount, a protective wind-glove and a good aluminium flight-case. The AEA R84, on the other hand, at over £900, comes with an almost identical wind-glove as its only protection; the Beyer came in a pencil case, and the Crowley & Tripp and Royer don't even come with a way of attaching them to a mic stand! Perhaps this is one area in which the old guard may need to rethink in light of the emerging competition, even if they do still retain the crown when it comes to sonic consistency.
In addition to the companies who lent us the microphones to try out in this feature, I'd like to say thanks to the following for the help they gave in the microphone auditions: Tom Brookhouse, Rob Blakeney, Rebecca Gilbert, Jan Ticket, Greg Chandler, KMR Audio, and Digital Village, Birmingham.
£858 including VAT.
Affinity Audio +44 (0)1923 265400.
Royer Labs R121
£822 including VAT.
Funky Junk +44(0)20 7281 4478.
£704 including VAT.
HHB +44 (0)208 962 5000.
Crowley & Tripp
Studio Vocalist & Soundstage Image £1175 each including VAT.
KMR Audio +44 (0)20 8445 2446.
£430 including VAT.
Sonic8 +44(0)8701 657456.
SE Electronic R1
£699 including VAT.
Sonic Distribution +44 (0)1582 470260.
£699 including VAT.
Sound Control +44(0)870 067 2922.
£401 including VAT.
Beyerdynamic +44 (0)1444 258258.
Groove Tubes Velo 8
£649 including VAT.
Guitar XS +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.