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Innovations: NUVO N22 Near-Field Ribbon Microphone

To celebrate our 50th year, we at AEA created something special for our musical friends.

To celebrate our 50th year, we at AEA created something special for our musical friends. The NUVO N22 Near-Field brings AEA’s Big Ribbon technology to the NUVO series. It is a compact and reliable high-performance microphone that is equally comfortable recording music at home or doing network television shows. Its origin dates to 2006 when I was working on a small, TV-friendly microphone with the same ribbon and tuning as the R44. After several iterations, other projects intervened.

Six years later, I was talking with one of Soundcraft’s founders about how to make AEA’s 50th anniversary in 2014 special. He challenged me to design an affordable and groundbreaking Big Ribbon mic for the musician as end-user. This mic needed to be sturdy and easy to use in both the studio and live venues. I revisited and revised the compact 2006 prototype and asked AEA associate, Andy Georges, to try it.

Andy is an excellent composer/songwriter/musician and a project studio engineer. He installs, tunes and tests all the AEA KU4 supercardioid ribbons and provides customer support. At home, he records music for film with a variety of instruments, with acoustic guitar as his main focus.

The prototype was DIY minimalist: The ribbon transducer (motor) was protected by a cylindrical perforated metal screen with some fabric on the outside. The ribbon was soldered via a short cable to a transformer, then wired to a male XLR. The whole thing was a zip-tie-and-hot-glue project, using an Atlas LO-2 for the stand adapter.

Andy reported that this prototype had a unique combination of virtues. He has a good collection of ribbons, condensers and dynamics he uses daily, but this microphone combined many individual qualities he liked in his other mics. It had the fat, rich bass response of a ribbon, with some of the top end of a condenser. It was smooth, bright and articulate without being harsh.

This compact, passive design, however, was not suitable for softer instruments, so we built a number of alternate motors using higher output magnets. Andy tried them on vocals, as well as a variety of acoustic instruments: bouzouki, mandolin and mandola. I built an experimenter’s kit with various metal screen and fabric options, so Andy could tune the bass response to his liking and tweak the overall sound. The final version retained the original’s sonic character. As with all directional microphones that have a bass rise with closer proximity, there is a sweet spot where the bass and treble balance well. For the N22, this is at 6 to 8 inches.

With our focus on the musician as end-user, this new mic needed to work well with as many microphone preamps and interfaces as possible. We sped up development of our custom high-ratio transformer and phantom-powered buffer amplifier project. Andy’s tuning and the new phantom-powered interface worked well together. The N22 handles high SPL sources such as electric guitar, as well as close-up vocals and acoustical instruments. The buffer amp also protects the ribbon from damage by phantom power.

We then tested these N22 prototypes on a variety of Firewire and USB audio interfaces. The new transformer and buffer amp provided excellent performance with a wide variety of preamps. Its low source impedance and high output level improved the signal-to-noise and frequency response when long cables and/or low-input impedance preamps were used.

An aside: We did uncover one industry problem along the way; not all battery- and USB-powered two-channel interfaces provide full IEC specification phantom power, which is 10 mA per input. The N22 uses 7 mA. Some two-channel interfaces only provide 8 mA for both channels.

Beta testing was critical to developing the N22’s sound, feel and look. In parallel to user trials, the N22’s design was reviewed by our production and design team. We wanted a sturdy, high-performance and cost-effective microphone. Achieving that goal became a company-wide effort. Our production team had to set and work within a number of manufacturing and fiscal boundaries.

We wanted a street price under $1,000 without going to offshore production. We choose to exclusively use machined parts so as to make assembly easier, faster and more consistent. Parts were designed to be shared with future NUVO microphones. This has the potential to speed up product development and achieve future economies of scale.

The entire project was rendered with 3D drafting to verify form and fit, reducing development time and prototype costs. We used a third-party shock-mount, which defined part of our microphone’s geometry. For quicker setup and teardown, we eliminated the captive cable found on most other AEA mics. We developed a PCB ribbon mount early in the prototype stages; like many such details, it worked in 3D, but had to be tweaked several times for production.

With most details sorted out, we built production prototypes. Over a period of months, musicians, engineers and producers evaluated them, provided us with audio samples and discussed the microphone’s performance, versatility, reliability and features with us.

After a review of our beta testers’ experiences, and more in-house testing, we did a final production prototype run. We shared these mics with our beta testers and asked if the mic met their expectations for technical performance, build quality and ease of use.

To mark our 50th anniversary, we released AEA’s first NUVO Big Ribbon: the N22 Near-Field. Development of more NUVO microphones and accessories continues. There is now a more traditional N8 far-field model, and an excellent Windtech-designed pop-screen for the N22 and N8.

Enjoy the Music!

Wes Dooley is president of AeA, Paul Pegas serves as production manager and Andy Georges is a customer support specialist.