(click thumbnail)It’s only natural that today’s largely digital production environment has welcomed, and probably intensified, the resurgence of the ribbon mic. Now, an abundance of affordable ribbon models offer various degrees of sound quality, but most all budget models are saddled with the burden of requiring a very clean, high-gain mic preamp. Samson’s new VR88 attacks this problem with an active output stage and throws in a number of unexpected accessories to boot.
The VR88 represents a sizable investment from Samson; with five years of R&D in the making, the VR88 is handcrafted and available for only limited production. This production run is accompanied by a complete set of accessories including an aluminum carrying case, yoke mount, elastic-spider suspension mount, protective sock and a premium 90-degree right-angle XLR cable.
The VR88 is an active velocity ribbon mic, featuring a 2.5-inch long, 2-micron thick, pure aluminum ribbon suspended in a neodymium-created magnetic field. The active output stage requires 48-volt phantom power and a bit of memory (as you will probably forget to engage it at first). The bidirectional VR88 handles SPL of 135 dB, has frequency response from 30Hz – 16kHz, a self-noise level of 17dB and an impedance of 200 ohms.
The VR88 lists for $750 with the complete mic kit, but is available for $400 - $500 street.
The first thing that grabbed my attention was Samson’s thorough, yet brief, owner’s manual. Not only did the manual provide a number of helpful mic technique suggestions, it also included a primer of sorts on the proper care and handling of ribbon mics. Studio veterans may skip this chapter, but many a first-time ribbon owner will be (and should be) intrigued by how careful we engineers have to be with such sensitive equipment.
Studio, project studio
Active velocity ribbon mic, requires 48V power; 2.5-inch long, 2-micron thick, pure aluminum ribbon suspended in a neodymium-created magnetic field; 30Hz – 16kHz frequency response, a self-noise level of 17dB, impedance of 200 ohms; comes with aluminum carrying case, yoke mount, elastic-spider suspension mount, protective sock and a premium 90-degree right-angle XLR cable; handcrafted, limited production.
Samson Technologies Corp. | 631-784-2200 | www.samsontech.comThe VR88 fit nicely into its yoke mount, with the help of a threaded retainer ring that more than securely held the mic. However, this yoke has parts made of plastic, so I’m a little concerned with its long-term durability. I instead opted to use the included spider-shock mount, which also used the retainer ring to amply secure the mic to the basket, but also employed some plastic parts. The shock mount may not be stellar, but it’s adequate and a welcome accessory for this low price point.
I can’t live without my AEA and Beyer ribbons on drum rooms, so naturally I started there. Clearly a creature of habit, the VR88’s active output made me quickly reduce my preamp gain by about 20dB. The sound was unmistakably ribbon, with a delightfully emphasized bottom, an overall (compressed) smoothness dynamically and an understated, rolled off top end. Side by side with the AEA R92 (a modern, passive ribbon mic), the VR88 was a little darker, a little slower with transients and a little less “real” sounding in its soundstage. There was a certain irregularity in the mids (I suspect a bump at 350Hz-ish and a dip around 2kHz?) that, in this case, was particularly interesting! This midrange dip made the VR88 sound a little further back, but after some EQing (I inserted a HPF and my usual corrective room EQ dip at 400Hz) and extreme limiting (about 12dB) the resulting sound was nicely “in my face” and attention-grabbing without nasty condenser mic transients. I ended up using both ribbon mics across the whole project, blending them to taste on each song. More room “air” means less artificial reverb required ... nice.
Rather than throw the VR88 at unusual applications, I chose to apply it where a ribbon would be a typical choice and got expected results. Tambourine found the VR88 emphasizing the “thwank” of palm hits on 2 and 4 and de-emphasizing the metallic rattle of the jingles. Even if you’re looking for the opposite tambo sound (bright with rattle) the VR88 can still step up; just aggressively apply a HPF around 250Hz and push up a high-end shelf at about 8k ‘til it’s bright enough. It may take hefty amounts of boost, but don’t worry because ribbons take EQ with grace (their cushioned transients accept such boost very pleasantly).
The manual recommended apps with jazz guitar and drop-tuned, heavy-metal guitar, so I dutifully gave them a shot. The VR88 had the right tone for jazz guitar, but it just wasn’t clean enough, with distortion present unless the amp was unreasonably quiet or the mic was pushed too far back into the room. The heavy guitar actually worked much better with the VR88 about a foot back, angled in and down. Chords were all thick and chewy like wads of taffy, but the piercing high notes of solos were clearly defined and musical — no harshness here, no EQ needed.
Some acoustic guitar overdubs showed the VR88 to be picky about placement; it was just too boxy if used for miking the guitar’s body behind the bridge, too woofy and windy at the soundhole, but pretty nice at the 15th fret. Good dynamics were found at lower and medium levels, but if really chunking into it, slightly audible compression and distortion edged in.
No test would be complete without an attempt at vocals, and I got some unexpected results. My first reaction was “This is going to be way too dark” as I had a male rock vocalist warming up. Fortunately, my Manley TNT preamp (the solid-state side) has selectable impedance and a 300-ohm “purist” setting that was perfect for the VR88 as the top end opened up. Next I got aggressive with my tape monitor signal path by applying a HPF, rolling off bottom end and adding a whopping 8-9dB of top-end shelving boost. I only compressed to tape, but applied the EQ and filters in the monitor path and final mix. After a little additional limiting I got a nice, almost creamy sound (with just a touch of room air on the loud notes) for such aggressive rock vocals. The VR88 accepted the boosting without fuss, as the transients and phase response still sounded good and the noise floor did not become too apparent. Interestingly, the VR88 handled plosives really well, barely even needing a pop filter.
In a crowded field of affordable ribbon mics, it was wise for Samson to add a full complement of accessories where their competitors sometimes include nothing more than a stand mount. For many rising engineers who desire their first ribbon transducer, the VR88 represents a great choice if only for its active electronics, which will mostly free up users from preamp related issues like headroom and impedance (although I am recommending a low-impedance preamp for best results, 600-ohm max). Flatter response would make the VR88 more flexibly useful, but even with its obvious character, the mic can be great for drum rooms or vocals where some interesting coloration can be downright desirable.
The VR88 is a great choice to begin your travels with a ribbon mic or to increase the diversity of your mic closet. Just be careful with those accessories, have your HPFs ready to go, then go get creative with that rear lobe of the figure-8 pattern (yes, it’s decidedly different with a nice, low-mid scoop). After all, a little room ambience is good for you.