What is a Ribbon Microphone?

(Last Updated On: April 10, 2021)
Different types and models of ribbon mic.

There was once a time when the most popular mics were the ribbon microphones. The ribbon mic, of course, was the first directional commercial microphone that was successful. During the radio’s golden age, this mic lorded it over other mics. Yet, the ribbon mics during those times were too fragile. They were easy to break when hit by a gust of wind and voltage spikes. Moreover, they would even break when you stored them sideways.   

The ribbon microphone is also referred to as the “ribbon velocity microphone.” It is a microphone type that utilizes an electric conductive ribbon. This conductive ribbon is made of thin aluminum. It can also be wrought in duraluminum or nanofilm. 

This conductive ribbon is then positioned between magnetic poles to create a voltage. Electromagnet induction, of course, creates this voltage. Moreover, this microphone is bidirectional. This means it picks up sounds well from either side of the mic. 

Development of The Contemporary Ribbon Microphones

Things, of course, are different nowadays with ribbon microphones. They are no longer fragile and too sensitive to voltage spikes and gusts of air. Their designs have been modernized to eliminate their limitations during their heyday. 

Contemporary ribbon mics can now handle the needed workload and contemporary situations. At present, they are commonly used for reinforcing sounds of acoustic guitars, horns, violins, and other acoustic instruments. Guitarists specifically pointed out that they work better using ribbon microphones than when they are using onboard pickups.

How Does a Ribbon Microphone Work?

Different types of microphones have different ways of capturing sound. The condenser and dynamic mics, for example, capture sound by reacting to SPL (sound pressure level). Ribbon microphones, however, respond to the air velocity changes. 

This is because, in a ribbon microphone, a very thin metal ribbon hangs suspended between the two magnetic poles. Once this metal ribbon vibrates, a voltage is created. This voltage corresponds to the variations of the sound source’s velocity. 

In the previous models of this microphone, it required a step-up transformer to boost the low output to a useful level. This problem, however, has been resolved nowadays with the use of more powerful magnets and smaller transformers. Thus, contemporary ribbon mics have better output levels that could level up or exceed those of the dynamic microphones

Ribbon Microphone’s Polar Pattern

Ribbon mic's pick up pattern.

The ribbon microphone is differentiated from other microphones because of its bi-directional polar pattern. This polar pattern is characterized by a figure 8 pattern. Mics with this polar pattern pick up sound on both the front and back, being insensitive to the sounds from the sides. Some contemporary ribbon mics, however, could be configured to have hyper-cardioid, cardioid, omnidirectional, and other polar patterns.  

Different Applications and Uses of Ribbon Microphones

The ribbon microphone is made to capture any sound of a voice, instrument, or the ambient sound of a room. It exhibits a figure of 8 polar pattern that allows for a balance capture of sounds from both sides. It also has a massive low-end pickup. Moreover, it has a natural high-frequency roll-off. It picks up sounds just like an ear would do. 

If you want to capture the sound of your instrument, for example, you should try the ribbon mic. This mic is ideal for use by those who want a faithful recording of the natural sound of their instrument. This mic also allows for the warmest and most natural-sounding recording of mics. 

The most significant advantage of using the ribbon microphone is that it captures sound with high dynamism and high fidelity. You will find this mic capable of recording accurate details, clear highs, and accurate lows. It is almost matchless when it comes to accuracy and high fidelity. Some experts, however, feel that it tends to add a bit of dark presence to the recording. 

Its bidirectional polar pattern enables it to capture recordings that exhibit a natural and vibrant feel. Its recordings also show a great spatial sound level. This mic is a highly flexible microphone for creating the right setup. It is also great for mixing versatile miking techniques. 

Although the ribbon microphones already had its heyday, these microphones have already made its headway in the contemporary stage.

The contemporary ribbon microphones have different applications. Here are some of the common applications and usages of the ribbon microphones:

1) Drum Overhead Recording

Capturing or recording the drum overhead sounds can be very problematic. This is because the sounds of drum overheads can become strident and harsh. If you want to mitigate the strident and harsh sounds of the drum overheads, you can use darker ribbon microphones. Of course, the polar pattern of the ribbon mics is also useful for stereo recording. Thus, with the use of ribbon mics, the stereo field could be sculpted to tailor-fit your needs.

2) Capturing Electric Guitar Sound

Many guitarists favor the use of ribbon mics to capture and record the sound of their guitars. Ribbon mics, of course, capture the sound of electric guitars in such a pleasing way. It can tame the higher ends of the amplifiers, and thus, create a better recording. This mic is ideal for use by those who want a faithful recording of the natural sound of their instruments. Sound engineers also experiment by blending the ribbon and dynamic mics to find the sweet spot during recordings.

3) Brass Sound Capturing and Recording

The brass instruments, of course, are sometimes unamplified in a big band setup because they are already loud. The loud brass can easily cut through the mix even if unamplified. But if you are going to use mics to record their sounds, you should be very careful in choosing the mics. The ribbon mic, of course, is best for capturing and recording the sounds of brass instruments. Ribbon mics can bring out the woodier and warmer character of the brass instruments. 

4) Recording Vocals

The large-diaphragm condenser mics had been used since the 1960s for recording vocals. Yet, you can also use the ribbon mics for vocals if you want your vocal recording to sound more unconventional. You can use the ribbon mics for some instances and applications. 

5) As Room Microphones

If you want to enhance the realism of your recording, you can utilize a room microphone. However, if the room wherein you are recording is not acoustically treated, you may find it not a good idea to add a room microphone in your recording. Moreover, you may end up frustrated with the use of a room microphone. Your recording may end up unflattering and overly bright. 

Yet, if you decide to add a room microphone to your recording, you can use a ribbon microphone. Its use can smoothen out even the most distracting sound reflections. It can also offer a warmer and more natural tone to your recording. 

Many ribbon microphones are designed to pick up transients in a gratifying way. Thus, ribbon mics can add a satisfying representation of the quick hits of toms and snares. 

6) For Stereo Capture

If you are going to employ the Blumlein technique when recording, the ribbon mic is perfect for use. Blumlein technique creates a sense of realism. It is like you are in the acoustic sound field with the Blumlein technique. The polar pattern of the ribbon mics makes them a perfect choice for the Blumlein technique. 

This technique, of course, offers a nice stereo separation and control even over the room ambient. To set up this setup, you need to employ two similar microphones with figure-8 polar patterns. Their elements should intertwine at the right angles. They should also be as near each other as possible. 

The figure-8 polar pattern provides a complete off-axis rejection. The two mics, therefore, pick up almost totally isolated coincident stereo field. Your Blumlein setup can capture room ambiance. It is advisable to position your setup near the source of your sounds and distant enough from the rear wall. You will achieve a pure stereo with no ambiance. 

You can also employ the Mid-side stereo technique. In this technique, one cardioid mic and one figure-8 mic are needed. This stereo technique lets you achieve mono compatibility and phase coherence. 

The Evolution of the Ribbon Mics

The first ribbon microphone was invented in the early 1920s by Dr. Walter H. Shottky, along with Erwin Gerlach. They invented the ribbon loudspeaker likewise. Later, Dr. Harry F. Olson made an innovation on the previous ribbon mics. He included the use of permanent magnets and field coils. He developed the RCA Photophone Type PB-31. 

Afterward, the PB-31 then became commercially available in 1931. In 1932, the RCA ribbon mics were utilized in New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. Thus, this microphone greatly impacted the broadcasting and audio recording industries during those times. 

The condenser mics, of course, of these times were incomparable to the condenser microphones of that time. In 1933, the 44A entered the scene. The 44A aided in reducing echoes. The use of ribbon mics, of course, lasted until the 1970s.

In 2002, inexpensive ribbon mics from China became available. The RCA-44 inspired these ribbon mics. Moreover, the Soviet Oktava ribbon microphones also became available.

Better Technology and Materials

Ribbon microphones further improved with the availability and inclusion of strong nanomaterials. The use of these materials further improved the output level. It also enhanced the signal purity of the ribbon microphones. The Ribbon microphones, thus, made a more convincing comeback with these contemporary technologies. 

Many studios, nowadays, make use of ribbon mics. Moreover, many new generation preamps are already ribbon mic friendly. All these contributing factors make the ribbon mic a staple mic in most recordings and Hollywood movie scores.

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