Inhabiting the desks of late night talk show hosts, and lowering from the ceiling on a pulley during boxing matches, the ribbon microphone has an iconic look and a rich legacy throughout the history of recorded sound.
Yet, a ribbon microphone can be a temperamental little bugger, and it requires more care and higher quality connected equipment to do its thing. Because of the difficulty of getting it to sound right, not many DIY recordists are willing to deal with the hassle.
What a ribbon does when the conditions are right, however, is so good it will make a believer out of you when you hear it.
The basic gist of a ribbon microphone is instead of sound waves pushing a mini-speaker back and forth as is done in a dynamic microphone, a very thin and often corrugated strip of metal is suspended between magnets, and when it moves, electricity is generated.
The metal of the ribbon passes the signal on to a transformer, which is a little coil of wire that changes the signal so it can more easily travel down the microphone cable and be fed into the preamplifier.
The simplicity of the ribbon design, and its incredibly small mass compared to a dynamic mic, allows for very quick sound changes to be captured, making it a very accurate microphone when placed correctly and amplified appropriately.
Where ribbons tend to get a bad rap is when they’re criticized as being too “warm” (translation: bass-heavy) and not having a high enough reach in the very highest frequencies we can hear. They’re capable of producing speaker-destroying bass, and they’re also delicate.
Well as we say in all things audio, there is always a trade-off. Having a very thin moving part that is more sensitive than other microphone designs means it’s capable of big output in the bass region if the mic is bumped, and it means the ribbon could break if a big enough puff of wind hits it.
And because it’s a very simple microphone — just a strip of metal hanging between magnets and running through a coil — the signal it makes is also extremely small and weak.
I think most of the complaints about ribbons are actually complaints about the connected preamplifiers. A ribbon preamplifier needs to offer more “gain,” or amplification to the signal, and more gain usually means a higher tendency for noise getting added to the sound.
The bass issue can be solved with some kind of filter down the line, or with careful placement and wind protection in the studio. But getting great sound from a ribbon at the source requires a high quality preamplifier with tons of gain, plain and simple.
A few ribbon mic designs out there boast naturally high output levels, and dynamic-like durability, remember what we say? The trade-off is the ease of use can come at the expense of some of the natural quickness and accurate sound ribbons are known for. So really, what’s the point?
Ribbons are magnificent recording tools, when you can handle their quirks and use them correctly. Don’t be afraid of the ribbon — the results are surprisingly good, and usually well worth the effort.