Review: Royer SF-12 Stereo Ribbon Microphone

At the AES Convention in September 1999, the Royer booth happened to be located right next to Pro Audio Review's booth, so I spoke to the folks at Royer more often than others. By the end of the show, I left with a promise that samples of their currently available models -- two R-121 mono ribbon mics and a single SF-12 stereo mic -- would be sent to my recording session in Denver the following week
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At the AES Convention in September 1999, the Royer booth happened to be located right next to Pro Audio Review's booth, so I spoke to the folks at Royer more often than others. By the end of the show, I left with a promise that samples of their currently available models -- two R-121 mono ribbon mics and a single SF-12 stereo mic -- would be sent to my recording session in Denver the following week.

Product PointsApplications: Acoustic recording; live and studio

Key Features: 1.8 micron aluminum ribbons; -53 dBV output level; very low residual noise; high SPL handling capability

Price: $2,150

Contact: Royer Labs at 818-760-8472

Plus

+ Sound quality

Minus

- Distant classical miking applications require an extremely quiet preamp

The Score: A well-designed ribbon microphone sure to please the most discerning recordist.

I requested these microphones not with any intention of purchasing them, but merely to hear what a modern ribbon mic sounds like; I'm a pretty exclusive user of souped-up vintage condenser mics. John Jennings, the mild-mannered, low-key Royer sales guy, just smiled when I left his booth. He knew what I didn't -- no one who has ever auditioned a Royer mic has ever returned it.

Features/In use

The Royer SF-12 ($2,150), with the exception of some upgrades, is virtually the same microphone originally sold as the Speiden stereo model. Presently manufactured by the folks at Royer Labs, it uses a pair of 1.8-micron aluminum ribbons similar to Speiden's. This is different from the new Royer R-121 mics, which use 2.5 micron ribbons. Its output level, at -53 dBV, is roughly comparable to that of a dynamic microphone and thus requires at least a 60 dB preamp rather than the 40 dB preamps usually used with condenser mics. It's about 8" long and 1" in diameter and available in matte-black chrome or a silvery finish. Other upgrades include matched, high-output 300-ohm torroidal transformers, redesigned ribbon transducer and nickel-plated neodymium magnets.

At that Denver Cathedral organ recording session, in which I used many mics simultaneously -- mixing most of them down to four 88.2 kHz tracks -- I simply set up the SF-12 on a very tall AEA mic stand right next to my 0.9-micron tweaked-out Stephen Paul/Neumann SM-69 -- my best microphone. When I listened back at the mixer, my mouth fell open; the stereo image from the Royer was much more spacious than the Neumann's, although I had adjusted the latter to what I believed was an appropriate angle and polar pattern (hypercardioids at about 110 degrees). Furthermore, the Royer's sound was unbelievable; not as bright as the condenser microphone's, to be sure, but warm, clear and incredibly lush.

I still hadn't decided to use the Royer in place of the Neumann, but I did have my second engineer David Rick collapse the AEA mic stand for me so I could re-adjust the condenser microphone's capsules' angles in an attempt to match the superior imaging I heard from the Royer, which is a fixed, 90-degree figure eight stereo microphone. I eventually got the Neumann's sound closer to the Royer's, but never all the way there. I had learned my lesson, however; this is a world class mic, worthy of being compared with any other microphone I own.

A few weeks later, on my next recording, I was taping a dual-piano piece of contemporary music in NYC's acoustically uninteresting Abraham Goodman Hall. I planned from the start to use all three Royer microphones -- the two mono R-121s as well as the SF-12. I still set up, however, and recorded my typical SM-69 and a pair of newly modified 0.9-micron Neumann/Manley M 50s on four other tracks.

I found I could put the Royer microphones considerably closer to the piano than a condenser microphone would permit, and still get a smooth, relaxed sound. I used a mono Royer a few feet over the long strings on each piano (the keyboards were set up in a V arrangement, allowing the players to be next to each other, while keeping the harp ends of the pianos far apart). I put the stereo microphone between and right behind the two piano benches, and located the condenser microphones out in the hall using the Dr. Fred version of the Decca tree (a stereo microphone and two M 50s.)

When it came to mixdown time, the final result comprised about 80 percent Royer ribbon microphone tracks and only 20 percent condensers, mainly to give a little ambient zip to the sound and to drive my Lexicon 300L. But what one hears on the finished master is predominantly the smooth sound of those three Royer mics.

The third session was the charm -- an eight-track solo violin recording done right in my studio. Through a fatal mistake made by yours truly (too embarrassing to go into here) I was unable to conveniently use the tracks picked up by either my Manley C24 or that SM-69. What was left to mix were the more distant tracks recorded by the Royer SF-12 and those new super-bright M 50s. Believe it or not, I was able to EQ the Royer digitally within my 03D (using four separate EQ bands/channel) to match the sound of my C24!

The Royer is such a smooth microphone that even with nearly 10 dB of treble boost the sound simply came into focus -- with no noticeable noise or grit. In fact, I actually preferred the highly equalized Royer sound to that of the flat C24. Go figure!

I was a bit upset when the Royer folks subsequently requested to borrow back one of the mics for an accommodation loan to Shawn Murphy. While it was gone, I decided that, once I got it back, it would never leave my sight again.

Summary

I purchased all three Royer microphones. The fact that I chose to use them on my last three commercial recordings speaks for the fact that they are, without doubt, in the same league as my considerably more expensive Stephen Paul-modified Neumanns. They certainly sound different, but that difference is a good difference. Brightness and razor-sharp resolution are not everything, I've learned. Warmth, smoothness and precise imaging are equally important. David Hancock must have known this all along.

Second Opinion

Early last year, the Royer R-121 changed the way I record music. The R-121 combines the smoothness and accuracy for which ribbon microphones are famous, with the ability to accept extremely high levels of volume — something ribbon mics are not, historically, known for being able to do.

Since purchasing a pair of R-121s more than a year ago, I have put them to work at every tracking session I've done. When the opportunity arose to give a second opinion on the Royer SF-12 stereo ribbon microphone, I jumped at the chance.

The Royer SF-12 is essentially two matched-ribbon microphones mounted in a single casing (one above the other). The two ribbons' pick-up patterns are 90 degrees off axis from each other; the 1" diameter microphone is 8" long.

It is important to note that the Royer SF-12 is not a stereo R-121. It is, rather, a stereo pair of microphones that are similar, yet still unique, from the R-121. The SF-12 can handle approximately 130 dB SPL (5 dB less than the R-121) and it includes a lifetime warranty to the original owner (repair or replace at Royer's option). Warranties of this caliber have become nearly extinct in the audio industry and only appear when a company truly stands behind their product. The microphone is cased in a beautiful wood box and includes an 18' cable that splits the microphone's output into two M-XLR connectors.

In the studio

The day after the SF-12 arrived, I put it to work as the drum overhead microphone while working on a Steven Curtis Chapman/Michael W. Smith duet. The microphone sounded stellar without any EQ or compression. The imaging was perfect and the microphone captured a fantastic kit sound rather than just a cymbal sound.

When the drummer came into the control room to listen to the kit, he loved it and was truly surprised when he discovered that the entire sound was the SF-12 and the kick mic. In other recording situations, I have achieved good results using the SF-12 as the drum room microphone, especially using the M/S (mid/side) technique.

Percussion is another strength of the SF-12. I found myself recording a lot more in stereo than I usually do. This is due to the fact that stereo recording is so much quicker and easier with the SF-12 than it is using two independent microphones.

I had great results recording chimes and tambourine. I had positive results recording vibes and glockenspiel as well, but in both of these cases I found myself having to boost the gain to the point where preamplifier noise became audible (though not to the point where it was unusable) because of the low output of the SF-12.

Ribbon microphones typically are 20 dB less sensitive than condenser microphones, which have a built-in head-amplifier (ribbon mics have no built-in amplification). Royer recommends a mic preamp with 68 to 70 dB of clean gain for making very soft, ambient recordings. Otherwise, any quality mic preamp will do the job.

The SF-12 also works well with acoustic guitar. Depending on the song, I found myself using it in both mono and stereo. For mono recording, I found that using only one of the SF-12's mics yielded the best results. Occasionally, though, I achieved better results using both outputs and bussing them to a single track. This resulted in a fuller and thicker sound that still didn't take up too much audio space.

I tried using the SF-12 on lead vocals, but found it wasn't right for the particular circumstance. While it sounded quite nice — and I wouldn't consider lead vocals its strength — I would expect to find it recording lead vocals from time to time.

The manual includes a diagram that demonstrates the use of the SF-12 to simultaneously record an acoustic guitar and vocal (the same person) to two tracks with minimal leakage between tracks. Although I was not able to do a lot of recording using this method, I did have positive results and it seems as though it could solve the age-old problem of recording acoustic guitar and vocals simultaneously without any phase problems.

I had fantastic results using the SF-12 on my Steinway grand. The piano sounds full, wide and warm. My Steinway has the tendency to get a bit piercing when played loud in the upper register and the SF-12 eliminates that problem completely. It never sounds brittle or harsh yet it retains its top-end and sparkle.

In most circumstances, I found the SF-12 required little or no EQ. Almost always if I did use EQ it was to add top, cut bottom or both. The short and simple manual is well written and should prove especially helpful to engineers who aren't as familiar with ribbon microphones. The manual also includes an extremely helpful tutorial on M/S recording.

The only real problem I had with the SF-12 was using the shockmount, which has difficulty supporting the weight of the microphone in a horizontal position. I ended up using a heavy clip to support the mic when using it horizontally. Royer promises a new shockmount for the SF-12 will be ready shortly. In the meantime, pulling on the elastic bands of the current shockmount temporarily corrects the problem of positioning the mic horizontally.

Summary

The SF-12 is a well-made stereo microphone that sounds excellent. Though it may be beyond the price range of many project studios, it should be a welcome addition to studio mic vaults and engineers equipment cases worldwide.

— Russ Long