Before the days of condenser mics, ribbon were the standard. Many of the vintage recordings we know and love partly get their sound from iconic ribbon mics used back then like the RCA 44A.
Producers love them for their warmth and present mid-tones and low range. And some even consider them to be the purest types of transducers. Ribbon mics have been used to record just about every instrument around, and the resulting sound is often smooth and natural.
Technically, ribbons fall into the dynamic microphone category, with a thin strip of conductive material, like aluminum, (the ribbon) in between two magnets. Sound waves vibrate the conductive strip and disrupt the field between the two magnets to produce a signal. Typically they require a preamp to produce a strong, clean signal, but some modern models are phantom powered to help with that.
Some of the more popular applications for ribbon mics include drums overheads, guitar cabinets and brass. Some swear by them for vocals and classical guitar, too. They almost always have a figure eight pickup pattern which does a great job of getting a mix of the source and a bit of the space of the room.
While traditional models of ribbon mics are pretty fragile -- drops, phantom power, improper storage or even wind can damage the delicate ribbon -- modern models tend to be more rugged, allowing them to be used even in live settings.
We often say that the key to producing an excellent mix and master is to start by creating a great recording. Oftentimes, the key to producing a great recording is using the right mic. Ribbon mics can be an essential tool for capturing a warm, smooth and natural sound. In our next post, we’ll look at some of the top models worth looking into.