Audio-Technica AT4080 Active Ribbon Microphone ReviewHIGH-TECH DESIGN OFFERS SMOOTHNESS, EXTENDED TOP END 8/18/2010 9:13 AM Eastern
In just more than a decade, the migration of ribbon mics into manufacturers’ product lines has rapidly increased, Audio-Technica unveiled its first ribbon mics—the AT4080 and AT4081—last year. The AT4080 (reviewed here) is a bidirectional, side-address, phantom-powered ribbon model that delivers the natural sound and warmth of a classic ribbon design with the extended top-end response and gain typically attributed to a condenser.
While ribbon models have a smooth, warm sound unequaled in the world of dynamic and condenser mics, they traditionally have had two serious flaws. First, they are intrinsically fragile; second, they have low output levels. With some significant research in its R&D department, Audio-Technica has resolved both of these issues, resulting in 18 pending patents.
The heart of the dual-ribbon 4080 is a pair of 1-micron-thick aluminum ribbons placed back to back with a small gap between, and folded several times to create an element capable of accurately handling SPL levels up to 150 dB. The company’s MicroLinear™ ribbon imprint minimizes ribbon distortion, yielding accurate sound source reproduction and durable performance. This process increases ribbon strength to the extent that Audio-Technica offers a five-year ribbon warranty, something not typically encountered in the ribbon microphone market. Lightweight, yet powerful N50 rare-earth neodymium magnets and the dual-ribbon design are responsible for the 4080’s high output. The two ribbons are arranged back-to-back, working to provide an additional 3 dB of sensitivity without adding noise. Stated frequency response is 20 to 18k Hz, and the 4080 has a nominal open-circuit output voltage of 11.2 mV at 1V, 1 Pascal. The 16.7-ounce body is seven inches long with a 2.1-inch diameter and a balanced, low-impedance (100-ohm) output.
Not unlike several new-school ribbon designs, the AT4080 requires 48-volt phantom power to supply the mic’s active electronics, which bring its output to near-condenser mic levels. The stable impedance and high output of the 4080’s active circuitry make it easy to integrate with a wide variety of microphone preamplifiers. The microphone’s housing is sturdy and robust, and it ships with a dust cover, protective carrying case and the AT8449/SV shock-mount.
The AT4080 is an extremely versatile mic, and Audio-Technica recommends it for use on vocals, horns, strings, acoustic instruments, drum overheads, orchestras, ensembles and guitar cabs. Its robust design makes it a contender for road applications, as well as in the studio. As an obsessed ribbon microphone fan, I couldn’t wait to put the mic to the test and was pleased with its performance. I received the pair of AT4080s in time to put them to work on the final stages of the Kopecky Family Band project I was producing and engineering with Nashville top-knob Chris Grainger. We used the mics to record acoustic guitar, vocals and xylophone, and loved every minute of it. The first noticeable characteristic of the 4080 is its top end. While still sounding like a ribbon, the mic has an extended HF response with wonderful detail and sheen reminiscent of a condenser microphone and a solid, tight—yet massive—low end.
Recording vocals and acoustic guitars, the 4080 has a smooth, natural sound with a balanced response across the entire frequency spectrum. I initially had some reservation about the dual-ribbon design, as I’ve heard compromised results from other dual-ribbon microphones that I’ve used in the past. This was not the case with the 4080, which has no noticeable artifacts resulting from the dual ribbon. In addition to a prominent proximity effect, the mic is very forgiving about placement, and in every instance it truly captured the intimacy of being in the room with instrument or voice being recorded.
I put the mics to work as drum overheads while tracking Knoxville rockers After Elvis and the result was astounding. The mic’s clear and sparkling top end and natural, warm midrange wonderfully captured the sound of the cymbals, as well as provided the backbone to the basic sound of the drum kit.
I used the 4080 with the Hardy M-1 mic pre and Empirical Labs Distressor to record electric guitars and was equally pleased with the results. Across the spectrum, from sparkling clean to beefy distorted, the 4080 is perfectly suited to recording electric guitars. Due to the proximity effect, I found that I had the best outcome when placing the mic six to eight inches from the cabinet (further than the 1 to 3-inch distance I typically adhere to when using a ribbon mic).
The performance of most ribbon models is extremely varied, depending on the impedance and gain of the microphone preamp used. The active circuit in the 4080 ensures that the mic’s performance will not be compromised by a lesser mic pre. Using the mic to record acoustic guitar and vocals with a stock preamp in my Mackie 1604, I was amazed that the result was still of acceptable quality.
I used a pair of 4080s routed into a pair of Hardy M-1 mic pre’s to record a jazz quartet comprising Charlie Peacock on Rhodes, Chester Thompson on drums, Jeff Coffin on sax and Calvin Turner on bass on the small stage in Nashville’s Bluebird Café. Placing a mic on either side of the stage about seven feet in the air with each mic focused toward the center of the stage yielded a wonderful recording with amazing separation, detail and clarity, and a rich, full bottom end.
The 4080’s shock-mount leaves a bit to be desired. While it does a wonderful job of isolating the mic from vibrations, it’s quite the pain to put on/take off—the same complaint I’ve had about the 4033, 4047, 4050 and other A-T mics with a similar body style. Users who keep the mic at their studio can simply leave it in the shock-mount, but I lug my mics from studio to studio so I have to deal with this every day.
The 4080 is a marvelous microphone that is easily adaptable to a wide variety of situations. Users in the market for a ribbon microphone or anyone simply wanting to expand their sonic palette should give the AT4080 top consideration.
Russ Long is a Nashville-based engineer who’s worked with Wilco, Allison Moorer and Dolly Parton, among others.