3 Unsung-Hero Ribbon Microphones

While invented by West German physicists Walter Schottky and Erwin Gerlach in the 1920s, the ribbon microphone is undoubtedly as American as baseball and the American National Anthem at the start of a baseball game. RCA engineers took the beginnings of this brilliant idea and ran with it instantly, having the Photophone PB-31 ribbon mic put into production in 1931 just after they could figure out how to efficiently make it (thank you, permanent magnets) and before they even knew they had a market outside of RCA’s own internal needs.

Fast-forward a few decades and a significant number of now-classic ribbon designs (ahem: damn near every RCA microphone, Western Electric 639, STC/Coles 4038) and you’ll watch the ribbon microphone tumble dramatically out of fashion in favor of groundbreaking, technically more impressive German condenser microphones. These tube-driven monoliths have a history all their own, of course, but truly played a significant role in the downfall of the ribbon microphone all the way to the threat of the Y2K bug.

Thankfully, recording and broadcast studios that owned these “technologically antiquated” and “sonically inferior” ribbon microphones in 1947 didn’t immediately chuck them all into the nearest rubbish bin when they got their first batch of U 47s. The ribbons always had their place, even if it wasn’t in front of the marquis vocalist for a photoshoot.

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Fast-forward again: the late 1990s and “The Dawn of the New Millennium!” brought the wildly unexpected resurgence of the ribbon microphone with a vengeance, though not through desirable vintage mics which hadn’t seen routine maintenance since the Reagan administration. Instead, true pioneers like David Royer of Royer Labs and Wes Dooley of AEA decided that the ribbon microphone had something to offer to modern recordists struggling through the harsh sound of mid-period digital audio, and brand new ribbon mics were put into production in two separate manufacturing facilities in California. These mics could and did produce a sound that would casually entrance the listener rather than forcing them to the front of a cold 16-bit wall.

But while those two companies sold tens of thousands of microphones around the world, a string of largely unsung heroes helped carry the ribbon microphone’s magnetic torch into the modern world while rarely getting the credit they deserve. And really, if we’re not going to give them the credit, who will? So here’s a short list of the three absolute best modern ribbon microphones.

Crowley & Tripp El Diablo

Crowley & Tripp El Diablo

Crowley & Tripp El Diablo

Tucked into an indistinct shop in Ashland, MA, a Boston Scientific-bred certifiable genius and a master machinist came together for an all-too-brief period in the 2000s to build the first forward-thinking ribbon microphones in 50 years. Bob Crowley and Hugh Tripp’s microphones combined intensely tight tolerances, stunning build quality and finely tailored sonic qualities with their line of ribbon microphones to break every single rule in the book. Ribbon mics don’t have top-end, you say? Get your mitts on a C&T Studio Vocalist and rethink your entire life. Too low in output? Nope. Plug in a Naked Eye and get more average output than every single standard moving-coil dynamic ever made.

But what about fragility? These itty-bitty, remarkably thin pieces of corrugated aluminum will surely break if you sneeze within 10 feet of them, right?

Enter “Roswellite,” Crowley & Tripp’s most important innovation and the heart of the Crowley & Tripp El Diablo. This patented nano-scale ribbon material replaced the conventional aluminum typically used in a ribbon and is capable of taking on absurd amounts of SPL only to return to its original shape. As a matter of fact, El Diablo was developed almost exclusively for recording the inside of a kick drum -- it just turned out by sheer luck that it sounded amazing on pretty much everything else that produces sound.

After Shure bought and swallowed up the Roswellite technology in 2009 with fewer than 50 El Diablo mics produced, Crowley & Tripp contractually closed up shop to found other ventures in a number of different fields, audio and elsewhere. Shure continues to manufacture El Diablo and the smaller, more affordable Naked Eye Roswellite as models KSM353/ED and KSM313/NE, respectively, but the Crowley & Tripp versions, as with the rest of their microphones, continue to command significantly higher prices on the used market for collectors and working engineers.

Coles 4040

Coles 4040

Coles 4040

You’d think that a company with what is probably the best continuously-selling ribbon microphone ever produced (ahem again: the 4038) would be content with never making anything else, but Hertfordshire, England’s Coles Electroacoustics silently raised the bar with the 2003 release of their model 4040. A completely redesigned housing and headbasket paired with modern neodymium magnets (designed in the 1980s and as of today, the world’s most powerful permanent magnet) around the ribbon allowed for an appreciably wider frequency response, higher output, and truer figure-of-eight polar pattern than the legendary 4038.

The 4040 is nothing short of magical. And yeah, all microphones are magic. They turn sound into electricity. That’s magic. But the 4040 has a sonic quality that is rarely heard in a ribbon, and it’s something that not even the best EQ can mimic in its wildest dreams. Pure, untouched and beautiful, the high frequency extension of the 4040 must be heard to be believed. Vocal recordings shine bright with the 4040. By deflecting harsh plosives away from the center of the ribbon, the slanted headbasket allows for closer vocal recording than its predecessor.

All the better -- if a single channel isn’t enough, Coles also makes the 4050, a dual-mono/stereo version of the 4040 with a smaller housing and different headbasket more suited to distant pickup. The two halves of the mic are cleverly joined and disconnected magnetically, and when tied together can be rotated for different stereo widths or the classic Blumlein array.

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Stager Microphones SR-2N

Stager Microphones SR-2N

Stager Microphones SR-2N

We’ll end this by mining extremely virgin territory. Nashville’s Stager Microphones is, at the time of this article’s publishing, a very new company. Matt Stager is a recording engineer and studio owner who is extraordinarily obsessed with the sound and function of classic ribbons. This one-man operation makes just two products: the two-fisted SR-1A and the single-palm SR-2N. While physically very different, both are based on a single vintage prototype that was never commercially realized -- until now.

The larger, rightfully more expensive (and worth every single penny) SR-1A uses enormous alnico magnets and a complex housing to produce a very unique sound, simultaneously shooting forth jaw-dropping bass at any distance with a hypnotizing high-end response. Simply put, the SR-1A makes classic RCA mics sound like they need a tuneup even if they don’t.

The real star of the Stager show, however, is the smaller SR-2N. The “N” stands for “neodymium” -- a magnet which allows for a much smaller overall size and higher overall output. The simplified design of the housing aides in bringing this hidden gem in at just $499, a price not previously seen for a 100% American-built ribbon mic.

The ribbon and house-wound toroidal transformer are identical in both mics, but their sonic character is slightly different. The SR-2N, thanks to the smaller side supports and shorter distance between the ribbon and the grill, actually has a more predictable, traditional figure-of-eight pattern and bigger bass boost thanks to proximity effect. Cramming the SR-2N against a guitar amp speaker will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up in a way that can only be described as “the good way that the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.”

And yes, the larger SR-1A is definitely the “better” mic at a distance, but in the modern age of smaller recording spaces and placing microphones closer to the source, the SR-2N can actually be more effective on a wider range of sources and is certainly the best value in modern ribbon microphones.

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The Epilogue

Hey, we didn’t want this article to be over, either. I very easily could have gone on a 20,000-word tirade about a deep, unfathomable sea of looked-over ribbon mics that frequently outperform both the standard top-shelf models and the budget mics which come from one of two or three factories in China. It wouldn’t even take me very long to write -- couple’a hours at most.

But with brevity in mind, we’ll cut it off here for the time being. Could this become a recurring series of articles? Is there a “Part II” on the horizon? Can bears run downhill?

No, really -- can they?

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