Ribbons on the RoadAsk an engineer if they’ve used a ribbon microphone in a live setting, and you’re likely to get a reaction that goes something like “Are you out of your mind? ! ?” Old school. “Too delicate 7/01/2011 5:00 AM Eastern
Ask an engineer if they’ve used a ribbon microphone in a live setting, and you’re likely to get a reaction that goes something like “Are you out of your mind? ! ?” Old school. “Too delicate!” Hogwash. “Figure-8 patterns are impossible to deal with on a stage with loud instruments!” Poppycock. “Phantom power will blow it up!” Um, maybe if your cables aren’t up to spec. It was only a matter of time until the studio ribbon revival that started in the late 1990s would reach the stage. But is it really possible to use ribbons on a tour? Can they survive? Is their meek output level a problem? Read on.
BACK TO SCHOOL
Remember when you were bored in class, and you separated the foil from the wax paper of a gum wrapper? That foil is roughly 10 times thicker than a ribbon. It may not be as robust as a kick drum head, but show a little respect. SPL per sé is not as much an issue as wind, which can stretch a ribbon and compromise the frequency response; wind is, in a manner of speaking, a low-frequency sound wave. No ribbon mics in the kick drum (especially my RCA 44BX, thank you very much).
The same qualities that endear ribbon mics to studio engineers make them a great choice onstage. According to Jim Ebdon—front-of-house engineer for Aerosmith, Matchbox Twenty and Maroon 5—“Joe Perry from Aerosmith had been using Royer R-121s in his studio and decided to take them on the road. We used a mixture of the Royers, [Shure] 57s and [Audio-Technica] AT4050s. His guitar sounded phenomenal. I didn’t realize how good the 121s actually were until I started working with Matchbox Twenty. We did some critical listening with various guitars, amps and combinations of mics. After a few days, we came to realize that the best guitar sounds featured an R-121, whether it was mixed with another mic or on its own.”
LET IT BLEED
Ribbon mics naturally produce a figure-8 pickup pattern, but don’t worry about leakage from the rear lobe. Wayne Trevisani mixes FOH for Maxwell and uses sE Electronics RNR1s for overheads. “We were multitracking in [Pro Tools] HD using the VENUE,” says Wayne. “We put up the RNR1 as an overhead, about three feet above the snare drum, picking up the cymbals but EQ’d to be more of a snare mic. We had the front of the RNR1 pointing straight at the snare, with the back facing the ceiling, one on each side of the kit. I time-aligned the close snare mics [57s] to the overheads to complete the snare sound. The ribbons sound great on the snare from three or four feet away: smooth and fat, and the cymbals don’t get in the way. The backs of the mics don’t create leakage problems in arenas, but if you are in a small room with a low concrete or metal ceiling, there could be issues.”
Jimbo Neal, who has been mixing the Brian Setzer Orchestra and Stray Cats, was “sold on the Royer SF-24 for overheads. I have never felt so comfortable pushing overheads where they should be into a live mix. Sometimes when you bring up the overheads you get this sort of white noise, but I think there’s two reasons that doesn’t happen with the SF-24. First is the fact that it is a ribbon and second is the fact that since it is a stereo microphone, the two mics are phased correctly.”
What about situations when the rear lobe of a ribbon is capturing leakage from other instruments? Meticulous engineers strive to reduce leakage for two main reasons: control over the mix and off-axis pickup anomalies. Before we discuss the latter, let’s check out how FOH mixer Bryan Allinsmith mikes the Gin Blossoms guitarists Jesse Valenzuela’s and Scotty Johnson’s guitar amps. “John [Richardson, drums] liked the sE Electronics VR1s in his studio and brought them out on the road for me to use,” says Allinsmith. “They changed my concept of miking and mixing the Gin Blossoms. Each guitarist uses two amps: Jesse uses a Marshall and a [Roland] JC120, Scotty uses a [Fender] ’65 Reissue Twin and a Vox AC30. What I want to hear in the house mix is mostly the Marshall and the AC30. In the past, I’d put a little of each player’s secondary amp into the mix, then bring the guitars up and down for solos using VCAs to control both mics [for the respective player].
“A great deal of their signature sound is the vocals and that jangly ‘harkening back to the ’60s’ guitar tone. The VR1 made that happen,” he continues. “They sound huge partially due to the complimentary leakage from the back of the mic, but you also hear the definition of every note. Now I double-mike each amp with a 57 and a VR1. I place the VR1 about three-quarters of the way to the edge of the cone, face-on, and place a 57 next to it. I set my rhythm sound using the VR1 and pretty much leave it there, then use the 57 to bring out the guitar solos. I rarely even put the secondary amps into the mix anymore.”
Miking guitar amps is a big strength for ribbon mics, complementing the somewhat bright nature of the typical P.A. system. Engineer Marc Carolan was sold six years ago on using ribbons for Muse guitarist Matt Bellamy: “I’ve used Royer and only Royer for Muse’s guitars going on six years now. For Matt’s guitar sound—which everyone raves about and wants to know how we get—I have to explain it’s a Royer 122 and flat channel.”
“Brian [Setzer] plays through early 1960s Bassman amps, and initially I used mics that had been spec’d previously,” explains Neal. “I’d listen to his amp, then listen to what I was getting in the P.A. system, then listen to the headphones, and I thought, ‘How am I going to fix this?’ I tried the Royer R-121 on Brian’s amp, and it was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ This is what I wanted. I have the R-121 a quarter-inch from the grille, roughly half-inch off the dome angled toward the paper cone about 30 degrees. Lately, I have been mixing that with a Mojave Audio MA-201 FET condenser, and I am getting really good results.
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.
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.
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.