Ribbon Microphones Make a Full Circle in Audio History

What’s old is new again. An ironic confluence of interrelated events — one that brought ribbon microphones to the front and center of broadcasting in the 1930s and to seemingly lose favor in the 1960s — is back again after 85 years.

It is a story with a rich storyline and a great cast of characters. In the early 1920s, Dr. Walter H. Schottky and others co-invented the first ribbon microphone at Telefunken in Germany. A few years later, Dr. Harry F. Olson of RCA started developing ribbon microphones using field coils and permanent magnets.

The RCA Photophone Type PB-31 was commercially manufactured in 1931, greatly impacting the audio recording and the broadcasting industries. Radio City Music Hall in New York City employed PB-31s in 1932.

The following year, the RCA 44A came on the scene. Its tone and pattern control helped reduce reverberation. RCA kept building improved versions of its ribbons through the 1970s. The RCA 44BX was the first great musical microphone for everything and RCA’s 77DX became the “Voice of God” announcer microphone, used on everything from the main radio networks to local radio and television stations.

Frank Sinatra, 1947.  Photo by William Gottlieb.

Frank Sinatra, 1947. Photo by William Gottlieb.

Ribbons are known for a very musical, natural sound. But, in the 1960s, ribbons fell out of favor — not because of the microphone itself, but due to changes in the way voices and music were recorded.

Ribbon microphones have an inherent, high-frequency roll off that is similar to the way people hear. Between the 1930s and 1990s, the majority of people were recording to tape machines through consoles which both had a high-frequency roll off. Those tapes were then put on vinyl which also had a high-frequency roll off.

Then those vinyls were played on radio, which also had a high-frequency roll off. By the time the original source track hit the home listener, much of the high-frequency content was totally lost.

Until the late 1950s, condenser microphones could not compare to the ribbon’s frequency response. But condensers steadily improved and swept the recording industry. They became the “go to” mic for many recording studios. Because of their high-tuned system, frequencies in condensers in the top-end were exaggerated and hyped.

Sometimes these condensers were so hyped that monitoring vocals directly through the console would sound harsh. But by the time the condenser was recorded to tape and then transferred to vinyl and then played back on radio, the top end was greatly rolled off and sounded smooth.

The difference between a condenser and a ribbon at the end of the chain was pretty drastic with an RCA 44BX sounding muddy next to a condenser sounding crystal clear. By the 1970s, ribbon mics had passed out of style and RCA’s ribbon mic division was closed down. After RCA shutdown, AEA started servicing existing mics during this period.

Then in the 1990s, something dramatic happened. Digital recording started to replace tape machines in the studio. As we know, digital recording is much more transparent and honest with the sound it captures, compared to analog tape machines.

Suddenly, engineers found that the condensers they had been using for years sounded too harsh and brash when going directly to digital converters. Users searched their microphone lockers for old ribbons again, realizing that the unaltered sound of digital recording complemented the natural roll off of their ribbons.

What they found is a warm, mellow and pleasing sound, one that is well suited to digital recording technology. Ribbons make almost any instrument sound good and recordings made with them sit easily in mixes.

Then something very interesting (and ground-shaking) happened. Wes Dooley, the man who had loved the sound of ribbons all his life and began repairing older RCA ribbons mics after RCA shut down, decided to bring them back to life.

In 1998, Dooley’s company, AEA in Pasadena, California, started production on a replica and upgraded version of the RCA R44BX, called the AEA R44C. (This writer reviewed an early prototype of that mic.) Since then, AEA has designed multiple mics based on the techniques that RCA propelled through the first half of 20th century.

AEA Nuvo N22 near-field microphone.

AEA Nuvo N22 near-field microphone.

The current generation of AEA ribbon microphones are far more rugged than earlier models. It’s Nuvo series, featuring a foot-long N22 (near-field model) and the same size N8 (far-field model), are amazing new microphones finding themselves in use in a remarkable number of broadcast and music applications.

Improved construction materials, stronger magnets and updated technology designs makes these ribbon mics exceptional. The Nuvo mics — both active, road-worthy ribbons — can be used without consideration to the type of preamp.

Ribbon mics have made a big comeback and many studios now base their entire mic locker around them. They are the foundation for tons of albums ranging from Hollywood movie scores to Nashville rock records.

Marty Stewart and members of his Fabulous Superlatives recording as a group around a single AEA A440 microphone at M.C. Studio in Nashville.  Photo by Reid Long.

Marty Stewart and members of his Fabulous Superlatives recording as a group around a single AEA A440 microphone at M.C. Studio in Nashville. Photo by Reid Long.

Now on a concert tour in the U.S. to promote their new album, Way Out West, Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives do a television show out of Nashville and regular concert performances throughout the country. In visiting with the band while on a New York City appearance, I learned that the band had impressed the CBS audio honchos at Late Night with Stephen Colbert.

Mick Conley, the road sound engineer with the Stuart band, said CBS was impressed with the N22 near-field mics being used on the drums played by Harry Stimson, and AEA R92 near-field on two guitar cabinets. “Those mics offer a really, really sweet natural sound,” Conley said, and the CBS sound people said it is the sound they were looking for.

Marty Stuart sound check in NYC. Engineer Mick Conley checks levels on an iPad.  Photo by Frank Beacham.

Marty Stuart sound check in NYC. Engineer Mick Conley checks levels on an iPad. Photo by Frank Beacham.

Conley said he has noticed a real groundswell of people rediscovering ribbon microphones and using vintage recording techniques.

“I think people are getting tired of hearing poor sound,” he said. “It is a reaction to the over-production from multi-tracking. You lose something by not having people stand around a microphone to perform. Having ribbons out in a room for a drum kit is like nothing else. You can tailor that sound to anything you want. The beauty of the traditional ribbons too is you can be quite a distance from them and they still sound warm and thick. Ribbons are an amazing tool.”

During the recording of Way Out West, for most vocals Marty Stuart used an AEA A440, the latest active version of Dooley’s RCA 44BX. Other ribbons of other types were also used.

Recorded in Nashville at the M.C. Studio and in Studio A at Capitol Records in Hollywood, Way Out West, produced by Mike Campbell, lead guitarist with Tom Petty and Heartbreakers, was conceived as a love letter by Stuart to the lonely but magical American West. "It is that spirit world of the West that enchants me," Stuart said.

Conley recalled one day using an N22 on Stuart’s electric guitar cabinet, which put out “a blazing loud” sound. Then, Stuart decided to add an acoustic guitar to the track. It was not just any acoustic guitar, but the prewar Martin D-45 model that once belonged to Hank Williams Sr. and is now owned by Stuart.

After Hank Williams passed away, the guitar was given to his son, Hank Williams Jr., who later sold it to Johnny Cash. Marty acquired the instrument from Cash by trading one of Merle Travis' guitars for it.

“I moved the N22 from the electric guitar cabinet to the front of the Hank William’s Martin and it sounded heavenly. It was amazing,” said Conley. “That’s a great microphone when you can do that. You have lots of output for a spectacular acoustic instrument, but it also can handle a very loud guitar.”

Marty Stuart said, “I like the ribbon sound because of the warmth and the grandiosity of it. Older groups like the Sons of the Pioneers, The Glaser Brothers and the Osborne Brothers sang harmony around one microphone. You could not put three microphones on a stage and achieve that sound. You have to walk up to one mic with three hearts and feel that vocal buzz.

“You can do that around any microphone, but when the microphone gives something back, it becomes part of the act...part of the sound,” Stuart continued. “When we walked into Wes Dooley’s AEA microphones, it was kind of like life before and life after. Before using the AEA mics, I had been singing into some of the old vintage mics with tired ribbons in them. With most of the old WSM radio mics, the people didn’t know what to do with them. They sounded dull. But man I saw the concept when we first used AEA’s mics. They became a part of our band.”

Harry Stinson, vocalist and drummer, said when he puts a microphone in front of something — say an acoustic guitar — he wants it to sound like an acoustic guitar.

“Condensers are a little spitty...sometimes big diaphragm mics just don’t get it and it is hard to pull them up in the mix. Mics like the AEA ribbons just make the music sound natural. It’s what I’m hearing from a guitar when I listen with my ears. Condensers sound processed to me. Sometimes you need that, but most of the time you don’t. I like that warm ribbon sound.”

Live in concert, the live sound was so good, I was blown away. It was the first time it hit me that they were onto something. I purchased two AEA mics for myself, a near-field N22 and a mid-field A840 active ribbon. Both mics borrow from the original RCA 44 technology.

Tony Beard, the British drummer, at work. A single AEA A840, over Tony's shoulder, is picking up the entire drum kit.

Tony Beard, the British drummer, at work. A single AEA A840, over Tony's shoulder, is picking up the entire drum kit.

In live recordings, both mics shined. On Marc Shulman’s guitar cab, the N22 was remarkable. It was a vast improvement over any other mic I’ve ever used on a guitar cab. The A840 was so good on British drummer Tony Beard’s kit that only one mic was needed. No kick drum mic was needed or used. Tony had worked with ribbons before in England and the optimal place for the mic, he said, was behind his shoulder. He was right. Set-up took less than one minute!

The same A440 serving as my voiceover mic in the office.

The same A440 serving as my voiceover mic in the office.

If anything, the size of ribbon microphones can be an issue. The original RCA 44BX weighed eight pounds, while the A840 weighs only three pounds and sounds essentially the same. Still, on tight stages, it can be a bit heavy. Though I was impressed with the A840 on stage, I am bringing it back as my voice over microphone, secured to an O.C. White broadcast boom mount. I will replace it with a pair of N8s, in stereo configuration.

From this experience, I have learned a few critical things. Though vintage ribbon mics are still very expensive, mics for real world use now cost under $1000 each and are far better for modern performances, especially acoustic. AEA makes full-sized ribbons mics. Other manufacturers make models with smaller ribbons, which may or may not be as rich and warm. Ribbon size makes a big difference, at least for now.

Zoom F8 mixing recorder and control panel near the stage. Each ribbon plugged right in with no problem

Zoom F8 mixing recorder and control panel near the stage. Each ribbon plugged right in with no problem

Finally, active ribbons — in my books — beat passive mics for one critical reason: preamps. Pairing any passive ribbon mic with a preamp that has a low input impedance can have a negative affect on the low-end, transient response and overall frequency response of the sound. Also, there can be intense noise issues on quiet sources.

To overcome the preamp limitations, AEA created active versions, which includes the same JFET amplifier circuitry that allows the microphone to be used with any modern preamp. It is 48-volt phantom-powered and has about an additional 12dB more output and automatic impedance calculations. Just plug it, turn it on and it just works.

Ribbons have made a remarkable turnaround in the era of digital recording. New developments and research are constantly arriving. Anyone seeking a unique, signature sound — whether for voice or music — should check out ribbons. Ditch your old concerns at the door. It’s a new era — for a very old technology.

Did you know cow hair was used in some of RCA's most popular vintage microphones? Learn why in this article. 

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