Ribbons on the Road

Jul 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Steve La Cerra

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GET OFF MY AXIS
Ribbon mics possess very natural off-axis pickup. This is easily demonstrated with David Royer’s “hiss test”: Hiss at a condenser mic while moving around the microphone. The result is stunning: It sounds like someone is sweeping a parametric midrange EQ. (Listen to Web Clip 1.) This is due to changes in the mic’s frequency and phase response as the sound is moved off-axis. Now try the same test with a ribbon. (Listen to Web Clip 2.) As you move around the mic, the hissing drops in the nulls at 90 and 180 degrees, but you don’t hear the drastic change in timbre that you do when you try this with a condenser mic. This is a testament to the smooth off-axis response characteristic of most ribbons. The point? You may get more leakage with a figure-8 ribbon than you might with a cardioid condenser, but who cares as long as the leakage sounds good? Many experienced engineers have learned that bleed can pull a mix together, as long as the bleed doesn’t sound bad, and an experienced engineer who understands the strong side-rejection of a figure-8 pattern can use it to great advantage, facing the nulls at sounds approaching the mic off-axis.

Front-of-house engineer Bryan Allinsmith

Front-of-house engineer Bryan Allinsmith

There are a few ribbon characteristics worth mentioning. They tend to have a very fast transient response due to the low mass of the diaphragm (the ribbon), resulting in enhanced detail. Good ribbon mics tend to not “overshoot” transients, a characteristic that can make HF sounds brittle. (You can easily hear this by A/B’ing a ribbon vs. a condenser on a tambourine.) Because ribbons can exhibit an exaggerated proximity effect, I recommend careful placement and judicious use of a highpass filter.

Front-of-house engineer Jim Ebdon

Front-of-house engineer Jim Ebdon

The mythological danger from phantom power is somewhat real but requires a perfect storm. Most modern ribbon mics are phantom power–protected while many require phantom power for onboard preamps. Phantom can become an issue when cables are mis-wired (for example, pin 2 on one side of the cable is mistakenly wired to pin 1 on the other side of the cable) or where patch panels are involved. Visualize in slow motion a connector being inserted into a TT or TRS patchbay. As that connector is inserted into the jack, there is a very brief moment when the tip touches the ground and phantom flows onto the ground wire. This can fry a ribbon, so complete all patching and then turn on phantom power.

However, ribbons for the most part have just as long a life expectancy on the road as condensers. Cam Beachley, currently mixing monitors for the New Kids on the Block/Backstreet Boys tour, is using Audio-Technica AT4081s for overheads and guitars, and he’s “close-miking as you would with any dynamic mic. Our drummer on this tour has a sea of cymbals so I opted for left-center-right overheads. They are approximately 18 inches in front of and four to six inches above the cymbals. I’ve found them to be very transparent, requiring zero EQ. On windy days I’ll use a windscreen, but these mics are built like tanks.”

Consummate trumpet player Arturo Sandoval reveals that he first used a ribbon on his trumpet “when I recorded Trumpet Evolution. We used a Royer R-122 and I loved the way it sounded. Since then, I have used it every day of my life. My road manager/sound engineer has been carrying it on the road with us for years now. Some ribbon mics can be sensitive, but we don’t really give it any special treatment. The thing I like about it is that through that microphone, it sounds like me in the monitors. Trumpet is not an easy instrument to capture. There are a lot of subtleties and complex timbres that some mics have difficulty translating, but the Royer gets it all. I am working on a new album and we recently compared it with some serious vintage microphones. The R-122 was the winner. That’s my sound.”



Steve La Cerra is Mix’s sound reinforcement editor and FOH engineer for Blue Öyster Cult.






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