Within the last few years, active electronics, new ribbon materials, and innovative build processes have notably broadened the variety of ribbon microphones in the pro audio marketplace, with the full, ear-friendly soundscapes they typically deliver. These modern ribbon characteristics are in full evidence in Audio-Technica’s entries into the ribbon mic market, the AT4080 and AT4081: two hand-built active models that promise improvement over traditional designs and offer lots of value for the money.
The AT4080 ($1,245 list) is shaped like a side address, large diaphragm condenser featuring an output transformer and complete with shockmount. The AT4081 ($895 list) is shaped and sized like a side address small diaphragm condenser but with no transformer or shockmount (a sturdy mic clip is included).
However, in this -- A-T’s first ribbon offerings -- the big deal is the ribbons themselves: a dual ribbon design with 18 patents pending and A-T’s own MicroLinear ribbon imprint that reduces lateral flexing (and therefore distortion according to A-T). This imprinting and improved rigidity should allow these A-T ribbons to be durable enough for stage use (150 dB max. SPL handling) and should also prove durable in the long term whether in the studio or on stage.
High output, greater stability and extended frequency response (to 18 kHz) are enabled through active electronics (with about 22 dB of self-noise). The 4080 reaches down to 20 Hz; the 4081 is spec’d to 30 Hz.
Without trying to reinvent the wheel (at least at first), I ran both of the A-T ribbons through their paces in my studio's work over a period of months. I started out experimenting with gruff male vocals for a bluesy rock song, and ended up using the AT4080’s tracks as keepers. The bottom was pleasantly thick and chesty, with the top slightly smoothed out and rolled off, as would be expected for a ribbon. I seemed to lose a little detail of my vocalist’s grainy growl, so a bit of high-end EQ boost got my presence and detail where I needed them. The AT4081 sounded pretty much the same, especially up top, but it didn't have the round, plump qualities we preferred from the AT4080.
Our blues song had a brief trumpet outro and we received similar results as we did with our vocal; both A-T ribbons handled the trumpet's top end way more gracefully than a condenser and offered just a touch of tasteful compression on peaks. Eventually I chose the AT4080 for my keeper tracks (over a Sennheiser MD421) for its more musical low end. About then I started thinking it was all about the 4080's transformer and its warming/beefy qualities.
The rear lobe of the AT4080’s figure-8 pickup pattern provides some contrast to the front lobe, but not much at all; it isn't quite as deep or extended, with only a small change in midrange character. And the AT4081 is nearly identical front to back, with no discernible difference at all on voices that are out of proximity effect range. The dual ribbon design must make the two polar patterns more uniform in response than typical, although null rejection doesn't seem quite as deep as I expected at 90 and 270 degrees. Compared to the exaggerated contrast of many ribbons, this front/back uniformity may reduce sonic options, but provides better imaging and balance when used as the side of a mid-side mic configuration and should also be helpful in live applications with lots of spill.
I tried both A-T ribbons on electric guitar amps and got mixed results. These mics have hot (condenser-like) outputs, so a pad on your preamp may be required and close placement can be tricky, with woofiness and distortion as a result. Backed off the speaker a bit and angled towards cone-center, some very nice clean and jazzy tones can be captured. For such apps, both the AT4080 and AT4081 seem equally useful; it’s a matter of taste concerning the size of the bottom end. Modern high-gain tones can be captured with some additional processing; using a (tunable) high pass filter and both a high EQ (boost) and a low shelf (cut) will help. Solos and single note guitar lines with the AT4081 (with the processing described above) were perfect when paired with an SM57: defined, clear and musical with no harshness, no flab, and no honk.
Acoustic guitar was a similar venture. These A-T ribbons grab plenty of low stuff, but you will probably need more crispness up top unless you're recording a bright instrument or percussive playing. I liked the way the bottom end was more musical on the AT4080, but still paired it up with two AKG C451s for a big, L-C-R, “finger-picked intro into strumming with whole band” guitar presentation.
The AT4080 with its beefy transformer was a natural for drum ambience. I like my drum room mics to be as much “kick-snare” as possible and as little “cymbals-hat” as I can; the AT4080 got me that “chunk” I wanted and a little added hang-time to my kick's decay that was excellent. The only ribbon I like for this app more is the AEA A440, which is a very expensive, top-shelf mic [see both Rob’s and PAR Senior Contributor Russ Long’s thoughts on the AEA A440 in its full review here: proaudioreview.com/article/24428 - Ed]. Meanwhile, the AT4081 is pretty good in this app, too (better than using a condenser), but not quite beefy enough for my biased tastes.
Ever since 1993, when an engineer told me “Wait ‘til you hear this ribbon mic on snare,” I have been craving such a tasty sonic signature again for snare drum. That engineer's Beyerdynamic M 160 ribbon blew up halfway into the first chorus, but sounded absolutely wonderful until then. So, with the blessing of A-T engineers, I sneaked the little AT4081 in really tight on a snare drum top; I placed my usual dynamic in close as well -- in the spot between high rack tom and high hat -- and placed the AT4081 nestled between high rack and middle rack. The snare was a thin piccolo, mind you, so I hoped for some found low end punch without sacrificing a perfectly good transducer. The AT4081 easily took the SPL and did, in fact, find some useful deep fundamental tones. This placement got excellent high hat rejection, with hat right in the 4081's 90 degree null point. Then I tried the AT4081 again with a big, deep snare and got even better results. There really is plenty of bottom there, enough to get some nice thumpy 80 Hz if you're still living with the deep, dry, disco thwacks of the 70s. More modern sounds will definitely need some top end sweetening and gating/editing (the back of the figure 8 pattern is right between rack toms, after all), but the AT4081 takes top boost gracefully without the typical “high hat from hell” leakage issue going on either.
Compared to the new ribbons from Shure -- which also spotlight increased durability and SPL handling -- the A-T's sound more normal and traditional. The Shure ribbons are far more unusual, having a “woody” signature and a unique take on transients. Compared to the SE Electronics RNR1 (the “Rupert Neve” ribbon), the A-T's aren't as open and condenser-like, nor as ideal for electric guitar, orchestral tracks or piano. For drums, the A-T's don't quite achieve the girth and depth of the AEA A440 or the attitude of a Coles 4038.
Here’s what the AT4080 and AT4081 do very well: they capture a drum room very nicely, they do a great job on guitars, they grab horns just right and they offer a full palette of desirable options for vocals. Their active electronics provide the consistency, high output and impedance stability that modern recordists expect. And, most importantly, these ribbons aren't sissies! Grab one and mic a 4x12 guitar cabinet cranked; mic a snare drum close in, like a dynamic mic; mic guitar cabs and horns live on-stage; and so on: these ribbons will rock and take sonic abuse, opening up a new world of appropriate ribbon mic applications.
The prices of the AT4080 and AT4081 may seem to define them as mid-level ribbons, but their performances clearly have them nipping at the heels of all the top-shelf ribbons referenced above. Indeed, the price-to-performance ratio of ribbon mics is improving, thanks to products like the AT4080 and AT4081.
Rob Tavaglione has owned and operated Catalyst Recording in Charlotte NC since 1995.