Recording

AEA R84 Ribbon Microphone, October 2003

WES DOOLEY'S NEW BABY 5/13/2004 8:00 AM Eastern

AEA's slick, retro-looking R84 ($1,000) is the newest mic in designer Wes Dooley's product line. Sensitivity of the R84 is -52 dBV/Pa, and unlike its big (and much heavier) brother, the R44, the R84 exhibits an impressive frequency response that gets up to 20 kHz (±3 dB). What it does share with the R44 is a 0.185x2.35 inches by 1.8-micron, pure-aluminum, low-tension ribbon capable of handling better than 165dB SPL above 1 kHz. The R84 comes in a durable and functional foam-lined case and includes an integral shock-mount and 10-foot cable that terminates to an XLR. The mic is a svelte performer that weighs in at less than two pounds and measures 8 inches tall and 2.7 inches in diameter. The mic's weight and compact nature, along with the fact that the shock-mount allows it to swing freely on two axes, make it a breeze to set up and tuck into relatively tight spots.

IN THE STUDIO
Right out of the box, the mic is a looker. At first, the heavily padded zippered “sock” that houses the mic seems a little odd, but on further inspection, its usefulness becomes apparent. It comes with a carrying strap, a small pouch and a fastenable loop to keep the cable in order. The case sports blatant reminders to keep phantom power and dust as far away from the mic as possible. The mic itself is solid, and its bullet-like styling garnered “oohs” and “aahs” in the studio. The screw adjustments for the shock-mount and cable attachment are of high quality and are sure to stand up to years of use.

I used the mic on a number of acoustic instruments with great results. First call was on a dobro overdub at 96k using a Pro Tools|HD system. The song was heavily layered with guitars, mandolin, fiddle and vocals, and I was wondering where the dobro would fit in the mix. It was immediately clear that the R84 would make my job easier. The dobro cut through the mix without EQ and sounded, for lack of a more appropriate word, perfect.

Next, I tried the mic on a Martin acoustic guitar. This particular guitar is fitted with the Buzz Feiten tuning system and sounds fantastic. The R84 captured the Martin beautifully, rounding out the transients and presenting a balanced track that only needed a bit of the low end tucked in.

The most revealing test for the mic was when I used it to record a less-than-inspiring 6-foot grand piano. I was concerned about using the instrument because it was going to support a lead vocal with only a synth pad as a companion. The instrument was tuned just before the session, and I placed the R84 right at the middle of the soundboard, pointing straight down at the hammers. The R84 offered the perfect combination of frequency and transient response to tone down the inconsistencies in the piano, producing a track that was more than usable.

Next, I had the R84 at moderately close quarters with a guitar amp at blazing levels. It was shut in a small bathroom about two feet back from the twin 12-inch speaker cabinet. I guessed on the best position and then threw my hands up when I got back to the console. It sounded wonderful.

I thought the mic sounded so good on-axis that I never tried recording using the back end of the mic, but after talking to Wes Dooley, I will certainly do so at the next opportunity. Dooley revealed that the internal screen is doubled up on the off-axis side of the mic. Because of this, the rear of the mic exhibits its own particular personality. In addition, this protection would also be a “safer” way to use the mic for more plosive, ribbon-killing situations like vocals.

CONCLUSION
I'm always wary of market-speak that surrounds a product of any kind, audio or otherwise. But when AEA states that the R84 produces “a pure, natural sound, just as you hear it when you're placing your mic in the studio,” the company is absolutely right. The one caveat is true of all ribbons: Make sure your preamp is the correct recording companion. You'll need plenty of clean gain, especially if you're using the mic on quiet acoustic instruments.

At this price, you should have at least one R84 in your locker, especially if you're looking to put some life into your digital signal chain. When using even high-quality condensers with a DAW, you forget how good things can sound and end up settling for “really good” instead of “excellent.” A quality ribbon like the R84 can take a production to the next level, injecting some butter into a margarine world.

AEA Microphones, www.wesdooley.com

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