Few products in pro audio are as iconic as the RCA44BX ribbon microphone. Instantly recognized both visually and aurally, these mics are still prized today for their warmth and smoothness.
Wes Dooley and Audio Engineering Associates (AEA) have built the R44 – a contemporary RCA duplicate – for some time; now it has been updated as the A440, faithfully reproducing the physical traits of the original 44, right down to its interchangeable parts.
The one significant difference between the A440 and its R44 predecessor is the addition of active electronics. Counterintuitively, they aren’t utilized so much for sonic difference as they are to create stability: The RCAs were known as often temperamental mics. The active stage allows lower gain from the preamp, fewer impedance issues, longer cable runs, and the lowest self-noise of any ribbon mic out there.
For this review, the A440 came accompanied by the AEA RPQ two-channel ribbon microphone preamplifier. This pre is much like AEA’s TRP preamp, but with the addition of phantom power and a variable high-pass shelving filter and high-frequency boost, both there to compensate for typical ribbon characteristics. Although the active electronics of the A440 may not need it, 80 dB of gain may aid your other ribbons, not to mention bandwidth from below 1 Hz to 200 kHz!
The A440 sounds gorgeous, just like a RCA44BX with more top end. I’m oversimplifying on purpose, but the point is that the original 44 had a sound unique even among ribbons, and the A440 captures it. Maybe it’s the NOS RCA ribbon, the magnet design (it’s huge!), the oversized pop-screen (grille), the Lundahl transformer…or it’s all those things that make this the definition of “the ribbon sound.”
Capturing the entire drum kit and its interaction with the room is elementary when using the A440. As you could expect, one hears a nicely congealed sound directly off the kit, but it’s the pleasant handling of the reflections that make using the A440 on drum kit a preferred method to similar approaches with condensers. It’s as if the cymbal reflections are purposefully tamed, the snare maintains its realism and the kick gains size, girth, and “hang time.” With faster tempos, you may need to use a HPF to reduce this “hang time” and “chestiness,” but with slower tempos, you will love the realistic-sounding fullness. The A440 is simply huge as a kick mic; you’ll need to stay outside the drum and add an inside mic for more attack.
The rear lobe of the A440’s figure-eight pattern is voiced differently – a tad thinner and slightly mid-scooped. This is a feature that is designed into many modern ribbons in order to enhance their flexibility (two mic sounds in one package), but it’s the musicality of the rear lobe that won me over. I often double parts with backup vocalists on a figure-eight. I usually find the rear lobe’s response to be peaky or oddly scooped, but not here; I paired the thinner vocalist to the front lobe, with myself on the rear lobe, and got backups so perfectly balanced and realistically intelligible that the tracks (we then doubled) required no EQ in the mix – zilch, no high-end boost required, resulting in a modern sound via “classic” ribbon mic, mind you!
Next, I tried trumpet and trombone with the A440; the tracks were warm, full of roominess, and never the slightest bit harsh, even on the trumpet. The trombone needed a little more “top” and adding it via the RPQ top boost was painless, resulting in no frequency-based nastiness or fatiguing sound. In all fairness, the RPQ preamp, as part of this review, deserves some of the credit given here. It’s expectedly clean and distortion free, but its filters are what make it the A440’s (and really any ribbon’s) essential mate. The variable high-pass Shelf EQ allows a finetuning of the bottom end and allows your compressor to focus, without pumping. The provided high-end shelf is so sweet! Sweepable from 2 to 26 kHz, it allows a boosting of the top end that modern productions may require, without brittleness or excessive phase shift.
Next up, I tried the A440 on acoustic overdubs and expected it to be merely a test, but I was rewarded with keeper tracks. The front lobe was a little too thick, especially around 200 Hz, but the top end was surprisingly open and natural. The rear lobe sounded better to me, with a little less low-mids and more definition. After I tweaked the RPQ (a touch of HPF at 85 Hz and some boost at 9 kHz), I got a heavenly guitar sound (now preferring the front lobe) that was much like what the player would hear himself.
A test on my Yamaha upright piano was quite interesting; the A440 delivered plenty of high-end frequency response and an extended low end that was simply to die for. The only problem was that the A440 revealed my piano’s boxy-sounding 300 Hz range. This wasn’t the sound for pop or rock, but it was a naturally round and pleasant sound that jazz or classical could use.
Electric guitar tones were also excellent with the A440, but careful placement at the speaker cabinet and precision EQ-ing proved to be necessary. With a reasonable distance from the cone (to avoid the A440’s ample proximity effect), some HPF filtering to taste, some top-end work (boosting for chords, flat or slightly attenuated for solos) and a low-mid cut at about 160 Hz, I received what I needed for rock tracks (with obviously a bit more work than was required in my other applications previously described).
To be honest, I was expecting the A440 to be a poor match for one application or another, as ribbons are often limited in their scope. Yet, all things considered, this was the finest mic I’ve ever used that came so close to approximating my own hearing. Its $5,800 list price puts it out of my league – a shame, because I consider this mic to be an essential professional tool. Coles, beyerdynamic, Royer, as well as other ribbon models from AEA, are all fine mics, and some are possibly even better than the A440 for jobs like electric guitar or close-miking. However, for the classic ribbon sound without issues, limitations, or complication, the AEA A440 is the defining microphone. Deservedly, the A440 earned its 2008 PAR Excellence Award with full honors.
Rob Tavaglione owns and operates Catalyst Recording in Charlotte NC. He welcomes your questions and comments email@example.com.
SECOND OPINION: Ribbon Excellence in Stereo
Russ Runs with Two A440s
When the term “classic microphone,” is used, one typically thinks of one of the wonderful mics of yesteryear – the Telefunken 251, Neumann U47 and U67, the AKG C-12, and the RCA 44BX and 77DX being the first to come to my mind. I don’t think there are many mics being manufactured today that will still be “the bomb” in 50 years, but I’m confident that the AEA A440 is one of them.
This active version of the AEA 440 is the quietest ribbon mic in existence. It has a frequency response that rivals many condensers. And I’m the lucky guy that received a pair of these beauties to check out over several weeks. Even with my high expectations, I was totally blown away by their performance.
I put the pair of A440s to work recording drum kit overheads while tracking the McClymonts’ new album [Universal Records Australia], and they sounded fantastic ó smooth, natural, and warm; not edgy or brittle in any way. They also did a fine job of capturing the wonderful sound of the studio’s tracking room.
I used the mics along with a pair of Neumann U67s to capture the Castle Recording Studio’s Yamaha C7 grand piano (pictured here) for Steven Curtis Chapman’s upcoming release. The mics sounded amazing by themselves and blended perfectly with the Neumanns when slightly more attack was needed. I’ve often found Yamaha C7s to be a bit too bright for my taste, especially when played hard, yet the A440s did a wonderful job of capturing the fullness and richness of the instrument without sounding overly bright.
I also had incredible results using the A440s to record acoustic guitar, placing one mic on the neck and another on the body of a Taylor 514-CE acoustic guitar while running through a pair of Gordon mic preamps. The result was a warm, natural tone with an articulate midrange and a crystal-clear top end without any hard edges.
The only downside is that these babies are $5,800 each. Yep, that’s right, over $11K/pair. I could only afford one, but I’ll treasure it forever.
– Russ Long