PAR Session Trial: Ribbon Microphones featuring AEA, Coles, Royer, sE & Shure

Here, we take these five buzzed-about ribbon microphones and employ them in a variety of recording applications to find substantive differences in performance within professional, real world applications.
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(L to R): AEA R92, Shure KSM313, Coles 4040, SE RNR1, Royer R121. Photo by Rob Tavaglione.

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By Rob Tavaglione

Growing legions of ribbon mic aficionados know that recent developments have brought some very interesting new ribbon mics to the pro audio market. Within the past year, living legend Rupert Neve threw his formidable hat into the ring by co-designing the RNR1 active ribbon mic, with Siwei Zou of SE Electronics; and Shure Brothers acquired Crowley and Tripp’s ribbon microphone technology, rebranding two of their previous mics which feature Roswellite ribbons including the lauded Naked Eye which is now the new KSM313. Meanwhile, curious engineers would surely love to directly compare such upstarts to “industry standard” ribbons such as the ubiquitous Royer R121, the highly praised AEA R92, or what must be the most rugged ribbon mic on the planet, the gold-plated 8 lb. Coles 4040.

Thus, Pro Audio Review’s fourth installment in our Session Trial review series ensues. Here, we take these five buzzed-about ribbon microphones and employ them in a variety of recording applications to find substantive differences in performance within professional, real world applications. Already proven performers, each of these five contenders has been notably endorsed by PAR reviewers.

Piano

With the help of classical pianist Alex Mauldin, we first placed a stereo pair of condensers as our “baseline” sound, compared and complimented with a dominant dose of ribbon mic signal panned right up the middle (I would have chosen to go Blumlein if two ribbon mics had been available for each model). We chose JZ Microphones’ BT-201 small diaphragm condenser for our baseline; they have interchangeable capsules (not limiting placement options) and great stereo imaging with a slightly understated bottom end that would leave plenty of room for our ribbons’ ample lows to substantially contribute.

We tried the BT-201 pair in X/Y and ORTF (cardioids and soft cardioids), yet settled on a spaced pair (each at a third of the way into the soundboard using omni caps), for the best imaging, fullness and realism on an open-top Yamaha upright piano. We used an AMS Neve 4081 preamp (comprised of four modern-day 1081s) on both the condensers and the ribbons, selected for its transparency, lack of distortion, and an available “ribbon mic” low impedance mode. I used the lower impedance setting on every ribbon; sometimes I clearly preferred the fullness and depth, other times I just thought I might have heard the slightest of positive difference in the setting.

On piano, our top pick, after much deliberation, was the Royer R121. The R121 may not have been flashy, but it sure was truthful with the most musical low end, a top end that was quite present but always pleasant and delightfully accurate transient response through the mids, even on brutal crescendos. From there, we could not easily agree, but the SE Electronics RNR1 was second and the Coles 4040 was third; compared to the R121, both sounded a little bit forward in the high mids, lean throughout the bottom end, and neither had any difficulty with harsh transients or SPL. The AEA R92 was our fourth pick, but don't be misled — we loved this mic for the best low frequency extension of the group, a pleasantly plump roundness and extremely musical transient response. With the R92, the only “issue” was a bump around 300 Hz that needed subtractive EQ.

On piano, our only disappointment was the Shure KSM-313, which had very little bottom end and a boxy sound, even if it handled transients in a way that was clearly “not aluminum.” We were intrigued by the sound of this Roswellite ribbon, and noticed that it picked up the quiet squeak of my piano's pedals more noticeably than any of the others (perhaps a testament to detailed accuracy). In fact, after we added six dB of low shelving boost to the KSM313, we got a unique and useful blend between it and the BT-201 pair that was right up there (albeit differently) with the others. Therefore, all five mics tested produced a usable, desirable and “organic” piano sound after a little processing help.

Vocal

Vocalist Bryan Bielanski (a crisp tenor with edgy, hard consonants and wide dynamic range) was in for a session; he had been happily using the new Avantone BV-1 large diaphragm tube condenser for its superb clarity and presence (he appreciates the extra top end boost too). For our tests, Bryan laid down a complete vocal take on each ribbon. Each mic ran through a signal path consisting of a Manley TNT preamp (employing the “Tube” side) and a Chandler Germanium compressor (using the Germanium’s “soft mode”). A Steadman ProScreen pop filter was placed six-inches from each mic; he sang approximately at that distance, per ribbon, during the eval.

Bryan and I could not agree on our top pick, so we deemed it a tie between the SE Electronics RNR1 and the Shure KSM313. Bryan preferred the increased “chestiness” of these two ribbons over his BV-1, with the slightly forward upper-mid qualities of the RNR1 and its defined consonants; I agreed but thought it sounded a little too compressed with a bit too much in the 250 Hz range. Neither of us liked the front side of the KSM313, but ( just as Shure recommends) the back side was very nice on vocal; the top end opened up, the mids became less papery, and the distortionless clarity was great. A touch more bottom and some subtractive “anti-boxiness” EQ yielded a fine track via the KSM313, with a distinctive handling of hard consonants.

At first, Bryan loved our third pick the Coles 4040, but gravitated elsewhere after repeated listens. I too was a bit confused by the 4040, which at times seemed tubby and, at other moments, much more realistic and transparent. We both liked the naturalness of the Royer R121 for our fourth pick, but it was just a little too “vanilla” for us overall.

I loved the smoothed-out transients of the AEA R92 and its absolutely perfect top end; Bryan thought it was a little too soft overall (preferring a crisper rear lobe). The R92 may not be the choice for “in your face” vocals, but I happen to know that it is ideal on sopranos, many altos and really aggressive heavy metal abuse.

In the end, for our keeper tracks, we switched back to our normal condenser on lead vocal and used both the RNR1 and the KSM313 tracks as doubles throughout the song.

In the Drum Room

On a rock tracking session, I placed all five mics about eight feet behind a drum kit, about six feet off the ground and angled slightly downward. I needed five accurate and identical preamps, so I chose my True Systems Precision 8. After testing, we ended up using the tracks from both the Royer R121 and the Shure KSM313 on our whole band (drums, bass, guitar, keys) tracking session.

The Royer was our favorite for a great top to bottom balance, transient response that had the perfect amount of sensitivity and depth in imaging. The second-pick Shure translated way more bottom end here than it did on piano, with that noticeable transient response of the Roswellite that is nothing short of “crisply real” without brittleness or breakup. The third pick AEA had the smoothest response of the lot, response that sounded more real and clear after a little low-mid scooping and a touch of HPF. Both the Coles and the SE Electronics offered really clean and surprisingly extended high-end response, with overly detailed transients (for my tastes). These wonderfully “condenser-like” qualities would probably invert these subjective rankings if our distance was extended to 20 feet, or if we were miking an orchestra (which we unfortunately did not have the opportunity to do).

Electric Guitar

In my opinion, the combination of a Shure SM57 and a great ribbon can capture just about whatever tones are coming out of a guitar amp cabinet — from jazz to metal, from jangly chords to piercing solos. I've reviewed many ribbon mics and have found that a number of otherwise-excellent mics can't handle the SPL of close miking alongside an SM57, although they're fantastic a few feet off. However, all five of our Session Trial contenders could handle the SPL and did sound great with a SM57; at a nearly-coincient positioning, the SM57 and each ribbon were placed on the same Celestion G12T-75 speaker — splitting the difference between the edge and cone — just off the grille cloth of Marshall cabinet/Rivera amp combination.

Here, I declare a five-way tie! However, my job is to be a little pickier so I'll pick the SE Electronics RNR1 as my top choice. As I switched from jazzy clean chording and picking, to bluesy “brown sound” rhythms and licks, to a punishing wall of high SPL heavy rock distortion, the RNR1 never faltered, translating this huge variety of tones without personality, color or a hint of alteration. No other ribbon offered such universal transparency and all this sonic delight was without use of the RNR1s built in high pass filter, which is good to have and would have been useful on the other ribbons tested

For second pick, I can't decide between the AEA R92 and the Royer R121. Both picked up phenomenal low end — low end that was more effective and mix-worthy after some high pass filtering and/or low-shelving EQ. Both picked up clean tones that were wonderfully warm and smoothly clear. Both mics flattered solos (especially the R92) with a desired rounding and smoothing of piercing high notes. Further, both mics translated the power and force of heavy guitar with out any strain, although each needed some serious HPF filtering to overcome excessive rumble.

The Shure KSM313 was a little dark and lacking in harmonic overtones for me, especially on really dirty sounds, but was far more interesting and focused using its rear lobe. With the rear lobe, the clean tones were more lively and sparkly, but still neutral and unhindered. The dirty stuff benefited even more with a nice absence of scratchiness when picking and great low-mid focus when chording. Again, the KSM313 did pick up much more of the background noise and hiss of my amp (such attention to non-musical detail, but I digress). Overall, what a fresh and new guitar sound — the KSM313 made me curious to try much more.

The previously trusty Coles 4040 didn't fare that well on electric guitar, with a bit too much “woofiness” and sculpting through its lows/low mids. I found that brighter guitar sounds, like Stratocaster stuff, translated best through the 4040. Sure enough, the 4040 got some of the best solo sounds of the test subjects with the requisite smoothness, but with additional clarity and musicality comparatively.

Summary

There was not an underperformer in this bunch. Each of these mics actually excelled in all our tests, even if favorites were ultimately selected. They all satisfied my own picky standards for build quality and could be counted on for a slew of other ribbon-transducer friendly tasks — tasks that could affect these rankings if truly all things were considered.

The top pick overall was the Royer R121 ($1,395 list), which isn’t very flashy or fancy; it was the most consistent, handling transients with incredible grace, delivering deep and extended lows, and offering the most honesty in the top end across the various sources. The SE Electronics RNR1 ($2,595 list) almost stole the number one position with its superlative performance on electric guitar and vocals, plus the many benefits of active electronics (the only active ribbon of our five ST contenders). If one considers the high-end detail, transient handling and high output found in the RNR1 (and the use of those qualities in classical recording, bluegrass, and/or largely acoustic recording as well as Foley work), then the RNR1 would have likely been my top pick with more divergent testing.

The Shure KSM313 ($1,560 list) deserves the third pick with the merits of its uniqueness and interesting transient character. This ribbon material does indeed capture the leading edge of the waveform with a lack of restraint, color or distortion. Even though this tone may not suit every source, when it works it really works in a way that tickles the ear with freshness. I didn't dare put all the ribbons tested into a kick drum for fear of sabotaging the whole Session Trial by damaging the sensitive ribbons, but — suffice it to say — the KSM313 sounds fantastically big in one, the front lobe especially, even if the unique “monocle” mic mount (the supplied mount which holds the mic on a swiveling arm) is downright terrible for this app (it was simply too big to fit in a typical front head “hole”).

The affordable-yet-trusty AEA R92 ($900 list) deserves more than the fourth pick, with the most “classic” ribbon sound and the finest, roundest, most musical bottom end of the pack. The R92 emphasizes the smooth and pleasant in direct comparison to its ultra-modern counterparts, even if it is considered “bright” by older ribbon mic standards.

Finally, I was left conflicted on performance of the Coles 4040 ($1,340 list). There's no question that its build quality, design, and sturdiness are top notch; I rarely see audio equipment that feels so dense and “military grade.” With that said, the 4040 sounded a bit dark and “thuddy” at times, but also too brash and forward in other applications. When paired properly — as it was on piano — it will satisfy; thus, I think I was on a learning curve with the 4040, perhaps needing more time to investigate uses and placement of this fine mic.

BIO: Rob Tavaglione has owned and operated Catalyst Recording since 1995. He welcomes your questions or comments at rob@catalystrecording.com or
http://www.facebook.com/pages/Catalyst-Recording/105832375765.

Test Equipment

Manley TNT, AMS Neve 4081, and True Systems Precision 8 microphone preamplifiers; Chandler Germanium compressor; Soundcraft Ghost console; JZ Microphones BT-201 stereo microphone kit; Shure SM57; Avantone BV-1; MOTU Digital Performer 6.12 DAW; JBL 4328 monitoring with subwoofer.