Anyone who has used ribbon microphones knows how different they sound from condenser mics. Audio Engineering Associates’ new R84 mic ($1,000) – a smaller “close-up” cousin of the classic R44, built with the same large ribbon geometry – sounds like a classic RCA ribbon mic, only better in many applications. Its smooth high end gradually drops about 5 dB from 200 Hz to 20,000 Hz, giving it the typical “mellow” ribbon sound, while its 2-inch long, 2-micron thick aluminum ribbon gives it amazingly accurate transient response.
Product PointsApplications: Studio
Key Features: Ribbon element; figure 8 pattern; handles 165 dB SPL; integral cushion mount/stand adapter; attached star-quad cable; custom soft case
Contact: Audio Engineering Associates at 800-798-9127, Web Site. oduct Points
+ Intimate sound
+ Cool vintage look
– Like all ribbon mics, low output
The Score: If you need a single, all-purpose close-up and spot microphone for everyday studio use, you cannot do much better than this.
The contrast in sound quality between the smoothness of ribbon mics and the aggressiveness of condenser models has a lot to do with how their diaphragms are tensioned. A ribbon is clamped at each end and tensioned lightly – producing a resonant frequency at 50 Hz or below, while condenser mic diaphragms are tensioned and clamped all around the perimeter, which typically results in a series of high-Q resonances between 8 kHz and 12 kHz. Condenser mic designers exploit these peaks to produce the “airiness” and “aggressiveness” typical of the genre, while ribbon mic designers focus on their genre’s smooth and natural high and low ends, and excellent transient response.
This mic looks unlike anything else built in the last 40 years, industrial design-wise. Round black end pieces surround an 8-inch long silvery cylinder, producing the effect of an 11-inch bullet, or a huge art deco pharmaceutical capsule. It rotates easily in its supplied yoke; its 3-meter star-quad output cable is permanently attached. Adjusting it while listening is a breeze, and there is practically no handling noise evident when doing so – in direct contrast with my vacuum tube condenser mics. The R84 weighs 1.75 lb., and fits neatly into its nifty maroon custom soft case, which gives the ensemble the effect of a piece of gym gear – if it were not for the cable, which fastens with a Snap Fastener to the side of the case.
Like other standard ribbon mics, its output is on the low side. I set my Apogee Trak2 preamp for 70 dB of gain, which is about 30 dB higher than needed by a typical condenser mic (such as the Brauner Valvet Voice, also in for review) with which I compared it. This translates into a higher hiss level from the preamp; luckily, with typical close miking scenarios, you never hear it.
Over the review period, I had the opportunity to use the AEA R84 on many different instruments, and smiled just about every time I brought up its channel. It gives a very different sound on vocals from my typical Neumann and AKG condenser mics, and I quickly starting loving that difference. Since its frequency response is so smooth, it is very easy to EQ in any extra “air” needed. You do not get the mouth noises condenser mics seems to cast into etched relief, nor do you hear exaggerated instrument noises (woodwind key clicks, guitar fret noises, etc.). What you do hear is an uncanny replica of what your ear hears in the studio.
I compared it with my Royer SF12A stereo ribbon mic, one of my beyer M500 hypercardioid handheld vocal mics, and a collection of large-diaphragm condenser mics I usually use for close-ups and vocals (Neumann M 249, U 47, AKG/Manley C24, Gefell M 930, etc.) and usually picked its “big, chocolate, live” sound over the others. My flat-response active Royer mic is definitely brighter and clearer, and as such, is more of a “record the hall with whatever instruments happen to be there” mic than a “record the instrument, close up” mic – which is exactly what the R84 is. I would not use a pair of R84s to record an orchestra, but I would definitely use one on just about any section of an orchestra as a spot mic.
My condenser mics sounded substantially similar to each other (in this context), and definitely from a different “sound family” than the AEA or Royer. My relatively low-priced beyer hypercardioid ribbon M500 surprised me; it had very little proximity effect, and sounded at least as bright as the condenser mics, though not as “aggressive.” It also needed 4 dB more gain than the R84 did. I should not have been surprised that the R84 sounded the closest to my Royer SF12A, although its larger ribbon produces a “bigger” sound than does the Royer’s smaller ribbon. I would say the Royer was more “accurate” while the AEA sounded “larger and more euphonic.”
The comparison with my 3-micron Stephen Paul Neumann M 249 was also interesting. Whether used in cardioid or figure 8 mode, the Neumann was bright, etched, airy – all good and typical qualities of a condenser mic – while the AEA sounded big, bold, mellow and much more “alive.” What’s more, the Neumann (in either pattern) had a rather narrow “sweet spot”: when the singer moved away from that, the sound quickly became anemic. The R84, on the other hand, had a much wider angle of acceptability, and actually sounded great at least one foot on either side! The R84 needed only 20 dB more gain than did my Neumann.
I should also point out that AEA has built the R84 with two different sorts of grill cloth arrangements on its “front” and “back” – which sound different from each other – so it’s it is not merely a matter of the + polarity vs. the – polarity. I actually preferred the “back” (- polarity) side – the one where the cable comes out of the mic – as it sounded brighter and more “in your face” to me than the other side. One can also “adjust” the treble response slightly by changing the vertical angle of the microphone relative to the sound source.
I am really impressed by this microphone. I have not had the opportunity to try it on my favorite singer, but if it works on her the way it flattered everything else I put in front of it, I don’t think I’ll be returning it to Wes Dooley and his crew of ribbon mic fanatics any day soon. Wow!