September 1, 2010 was a date for celebration, marking the release of the new Royer Labs R-101 ribbon microphone. Following in the footsteps of the R-121, the R-101 is a mono, bi-directional (figure-eight), passive velocity-type ribbon microphone that utilizes Royer’s patented offset-ribbon transducer and a 2.5-micron ribbon element. (Royer’s offset-ribbon technique allows a brighter sound from the backside of the mic, albeit with decreased SPL handling on the rear.)
Like the R-121, the R-101 is suited for handling high SPLs (>135 dB SPL @ 30 Hz), making it a great tool for capturing electric guitar, drums and horns. [Note that all ribbon specs are not “created equal.” Other ribbon mics routinely claim 150-165 dB SPL power handling, but only at frequencies of 1 kHz and above. Royer’s 135 dB SPL claim is at 30 Hz, where there is much more energy. — Ed.]. Its crystal-clear, highly accurate sound assures that it will work well with acoustic guitar, strings, piano and vocals.
Almost as long as an R-122, the beautiful, matte-black, 17-ounce R-101 is 7.9 inches long with a diameter of 1.4 inches. The mic is crafted to the same high standard as the rest of the Royer product line, utilizing a high-grade Neodymium magnet assembly with a 2.5-micron ribbon element that is 1.5 inches long and 3/16 of an inch wide. This assembly is built into Royer’s patented Flux-Frame transducer whose design incorporates a new multi-layer windscreen. The windscreen does a wonderful job of protecting the ribbon element from wind damage and plosives by minimizing air blasts.
The R-101’s ribbon element is unaffected by temperature or humidity, and it has very low residual noise, making it perfectly suited for recording quiet sound sources. It has a frequency response of 30 Hz-15 kHz, +/-3 dB, and a sensitivity of -48 dBv Ref 1 v/pa. The mic has a 300-ohm output impedance with a 1,500-ohm or greater rated load impedance. The mic includes a shock mount, aluminum carrying case and protective mic sock. Like all Royer microphones, the R-101 comes with a lifetime warranty to the original owner and the first re-ribbon is free.
The R-101 User Manual is well written and highly informative. In addition to providing essential technical and operational details regarding the R-101, it includes an array of helpful guidelines, precautions and techniques that apply to the use of any ribbon microphone: one of the rare occasions when a user manual is worth reading cover to cover.
When Royer Labs announced a new, more affordable ribbon mic (street price around $799), my initial thought was ”Are they releasing a dumbed-down, compromised version of the R-121, one to make it easier for engineers and musicians to get into the high-end ribbon mic game?” How wrong I was! Yes, the R-101 is by far the most affordable mic that Royer has released to date, but it is not compromised in any way. If you already own an R-121 or R-122, you’ll still want to add the R-101 to your collection and if the R-121 and R-122 are beyond your current financial grasp, the R-101 is the perfect entry into the high-end ribbon market. While not as aggressive as the R-121/122, it seems more natural, putting it midway between the 121 and the sound of the Royer SF-1.
As is the case with most ribbons (active versions being the exception), pairing the R-101 with the right mic pre is critical. The R-101 is amazingly detailed and extremely quiet, but its output gain is relatively low (by comparison, the output level of the R-101 is 8 dB higher than an SM57, -56 dBV/Pa vs. -48 dBV/Pa for the R-101). So, when recording quiet sound sources (finger-picked guitar, soft vocals, etc.), a quiet mic pre is a necessity. I used the Gordon mic pre (up to 70 dB of gain) with the R-101 and had fantastic results. The mic pre’s input impedance is also crucial, as a preamp without the proper loading characteristics will lose low-frequency response and sensitivity. Royer’s rule of thumb is that the mic pre should have an input impedance at least five times the microphone’s output impedance. My first opportunity to use a pair of R-101s was recording Omni Sound Studio’s Yamaha C-7 Concert Grand, and the results were fantastic. I placed the mics roughly 18 inches apart, about 10 inches from the hammers and recorded through the console (an API Legacy) with a slight top-end boost and minimal compression through an Alan Smart stereo compressor. It sounded wonderful.
Since the Royer name is synonymous with killer guitar tones, I couldn’t wait to put the mic to work recording electric guitar. As with the R-121 and R-122, when I record guitars with the R-101, I can’t imagine anything else doing it better. From a chime-like Jerry Jones 12-string through a VOX AC30 to a heavily distorted Marshall JCM 900, the recorded tone was natural and real with a clear, smooth top end and a tight, defined bottom that was still larger than life. I typically found that the mic worked best 6-8 inches off the grille and aimed directly at the speaker halfway between the rim and the center. That said, varying the placement yields many different tonal qualities and spending some time experimenting is definitely worth the time.
I used the R-101 to capture a bass through an SVT rig and had wonderful results. The amp was screaming loud, and the air movement from the bass cabinet was significant enough to stress the ribbon and create sonic issues. Rotating the mic roughly 45 degrees off-axis provided enough rejection to eliminate the problem, protect the mic element, and yield a fantastic bass tone full of girth, character and plenty of subharmonic information. On another occasion, I used a pop filter between the cabinet and the mic to effectively eliminate the same problem.
The mic lends itself perfectly to capturing drums and percussion. I recorded drum ambience with the R-101 through my Hardy M-1, squashed with the Empirical Labs Distressor; the results were wonderful, easily transforming the perception of a small room into a giant one. This mic is equally good at capturing drum overheads, and I actually had good results using it on kick drum. Obviously, care needs to be taken so the mic isn’t damaged due to the volume and air movement created by the kick drum, but I found that placing the mic about 15 inches in front of the kick about 6 inches off the floor and angled forward about 30 degrees yielded a fantastic sound. The mic is also adept at recording tambourine, shaker and other percussion, providing a smooth, natural sound that is much easier to place in a mix than when recorded by a condenser.
The mic is perfect for capturing brass instruments. While recording trumpet, I placed the mic about 18 inches away from the bell and the result was wonderful. I placed the mic 24 inches from the bell of a trombone with pleasing results. I unfortunately didn’t have the opportunity to use the mic on strings or woodwinds but based on its performance in other areas, I’m confident that it would excel for these applications. The mic does a nice job capturing vocals and is especially good when recording a vocalist with sibilance issues as it virtually eliminates the problem. Even with the built-in multi-layer windscreen, an additional windscreen was a necessity when recording vocals. This was no surprise, though, as I’ve never used a ribbon mic where this wasn’t the case.
The R-101 has a smooth, natural, detailed sound and an impressive frequency response, making it an excellent choice for recording virtually any instrument as well as dialog and vocals. While it is not cheap, it is affordable and in the same sonic class as other high-end ribbon mics costing twice as much. Now, for the first time, Royer ribbon microphones are within the financial grasp of nearly everyone serious about audio.
Russ Long is a producer, engineer and mixer. He owns the Carport studio in Nashville and is a senior contributor to PAR.