For those of us engaged in professional recording on a daily basis, the availability of “classic” microphones is often more a necessity than a luxury. Even with the development of ultra-quiet and linear microphones, engineers often look to the tried-and-true for the character of sound that is most appropriate to the task. We have seen a resurgence of tube microphone designs in recent years; there have been re-creations of classic designs such as the AKG C-12 (C-12 VR) and D-12 (D-112), along with the Neumann U67 and M49 (M149). I’ll leave it to the reader to judge the success of each of these designs.
Now, Audio Engineering Associates (AEA) offers the R44C, a re-creation of the RCA 44BX classic ribbon design from the 1930s. This microphone was originally released in 1936 as the 44B and revised to its current basic design as the 44BX in 1938. In the ensuing years, RCA became an industry leader in the design and manufacture of ribbon microphones, including the 77C/ 77DC/BK-5/KU3A, among others.
From the outset, the 44BX was used for music and dialog recording. The bidirectional pattern was useful for recording ensembles using both sides of the microphone for balance while preserving visual contact between musicians. The 44BX soon became a standard for voice reproduction in the broadcast industry. With its generous proximity response (effective within two meters), it gave most voices a warm and appealing presence without accentuating sibilance. Various modifications to the basic 44BX design over the years provided for a response dip in the 9kHz range, as well as physical modification to the connectors, casing and mounts.
The RCA ribbon mic line was-and remains-well-known to the film industry. Most scoring stages acquired large stocks of ribbons directly from RCA during the 1930s and ’40s. Although many of these microphones are now in the hands of collectors, there are still a number in use to this day on scoring stages and by scoring mixers in the film industry. While at Disney Studios in the 1980s, I was pleased and surprised to see more than 30 RCA KU3A microphones in the locker, with 18 in perfect working order. The Todd-AO scoring stage (with which I am now associated) possesses several KI-3A microphones. Though the Coles 4038 and Beyer M160/M130 have somewhat supplanted the older RCA units as current workhorses, most engineers would gladly use a good 44BS/77DX/KU3A for the appropriate recording task.
AEA has been a supporter and supplier of ribbon microphones to the audio/film industries for a number of years. The company imports the classic and still-produced Coles 4038 and provides mounts/connector modifications and service support. Now, AEA has undertaken the daunting task of re-creating the RCA 44BX exactly, as the AEA R44C ($2,000). Unlike some re-creations that sound alike, but do not look alike-or vice versa-this microphone looks, feels and sounds like the original. I had the opportunity to try this unit and compare it with two of my original 44s.
My first project was re-recording the classic Bernard Herrmann score for Psycho; the score was produced by Danny Elfman. The intent was to create a sound picture that was at once modern and classic through the use of high-quality overall treatment, along with spot microphones that would give the score a more “traditional” feel. We decided to use a normal M50 Decca Tree plus outriggers for the main pickup, but then we’d use only ribbons for close of spot pickup and to balance these elements roughly 50/50. We chose the Coles 4038 for violins, Beyer M130 for violas, Beyer M160 for cellos and RCA 44BX for basses. I was able to compare the AEA R44C directly to my two older 44s and found the sonic character to be identical. The level match was very close: Less than 2 dB separated the three units. We also did some quick listening tests with the 44BX on violins, which were very favorable. (We would have needed at least one more to actually record the score using these microphones in this position.)
My next project was recording John Williams’ score for Stepmom. We used the R44C on trumpet, a standard microphone choice for many scoring mixers. In this application, the microphone performed flawlessly. Its smooth ribbon character and overall warm sound were perfect for this application. In fact, I would unhesitatingly use these microphones for most brass applications.
I should note that microphone preamps lend a great deal of character to the sound of ribbon microphones. The classic Neve 1073 and 1081 have always performed well, along with the more contemporary Boulder/Hensen 990 and Grace units. All of the above preamps have been designed with ribbon microphones in mind and with the high gain settings vs. noise and stability as important criteria. Note that it is always best to disable the phantom power well before connecting a ribbon microphone to a preamp input.
The availability of a new/old 44BX is most appealing. Even though the Coles 4038 has served well as a substitute, there is a sweetness and beautiful authority to the 44 sound that has not been re-created until now. As so many of the original units are in disrepair or out of service, the availability of a new microphone with these characteristics is very welcome. In all, the AES R44C is a very successful re-creation, one of the best in current memory.
Audio Engineering Associates, 1029 N. Allen Drive, Pasadena, CA 91104; 626/798-9128; fax 626/798-2378. Web site: www.wesdooley.com.