Tone junkies rejoice! There is a wonderful new way to get your fix and it's called the AEA R88. Looking like something from a '50s sci-fi film, this stealth-black microphone is a full 14 inches long, 2.5 inches in diameter and houses twin 2-inch ribbons oriented at 90 degrees. The outside of the mic is stamped with the AEA logo marking zero degrees, and a locator of the on-axis point for each capsule is laser-engraved at the top and bottom. The windscreen is made of acoustic material that is heat-shrinked over a wire frame, giving it a look all its own. The mic also includes a sturdy padded case, locking angle adapter, an integrated shockmount and attached 12-foot cable that terminates to two male XLRs.
The mic starts to gradually roll off starting at 200 Hz, ending up about 5dB down at 8k and 10dB down at 18k. As you will read below, this is a good thing. Output impedance is set at 270 ohms, and the mic will take a whopping 165 dB at 1k.
AROUND THE STUDIO
I used the mic in stereo and Blumlein arrays on a variety of instruments. The setup for either is very easy due to the unique mounting system and excellent notation on the outside of the mic.
Because of the size and weight of the R88, your mic stand absolutely must be up to the task. When fully extended, especially for horizontal applications, the R88 can be unstable on a shaky stand.
Over a drum kit, I tried the mic in both stereo and M/S configurations with excellent results. Cymbals sounded smooth and transient, and drum hits had that wonderfully round, slightly compressed sound. I also used it in front of the kit at varying heights with equally good results.
The R88 sounded absolutely delicious on upright bass, delivering a round, warm, fat bottom without being tubby. The roll-off on the top of the R88 fit perfectly with this instrument, making it sit nicely in the mix. The mic nicely rounds the attack consistently up the neck, providing great definition. On playback, the upright player was astonished at the sound.
Next, I used the mic on a Yamaha C5 grand piano. I mounted it vertically on a stand and pulled it back from the high-sticked lid about four feet. It sounded beautiful, capturing the slightest nuance and hardest attack with ease. Once again, the realism was unparalleled.
The mic shined when used to record a brass ensemble comprising a tuba, three trombones, a french horn, two soprano saxes and two trumpets. This group was placed in two rows in a medium-sized studio, with the R88 placed about six feet high, facing the center of the ensemble. The stereo picture was huge and rendered the group wonderfully. This, recorded in two passes with a few spot mics for soloists, was enough to carry the mix.
Speaking of sax, the R88 on soprano is a beautiful thing. An instrument that can be annoying was turned to butter in the hands of this mic. It smoothed out the tone and sat it nicely in the mix. Another nice use for the mic was on a wooden Leslie cabinet. Pulled back in the room, it gave a complete picture of the complex phase and tone info without having to use a third mic.
SO WAS IT GOOD FOR YOU?
There's no other ribbon that duplicates what the R88 ($1,895) does for bass, drums, percussion, brass and mallet instruments. It imparts warmth, has an appealing way of dealing with transients and, most importantly, has a knack for making things sound incredibly “real.” At this price, it's a no-brainer.
The only stipulation is that you need lots of clean gain to boost it up to acceptable recording levels. In addition, the input impedance of your preamp should be high enough to handle the wildly fluctuating output impedance that ribbons produce. (Wes Dooley and David Royer agree that 5x the output impedance of the mic is nominal.)
Other than that, the R88 easily captures whatever you want in glorious ribbon-y stereo. If you don't have one of these in your locker, you're missing out on one of the best transducers that audio has to offer.
Audio Engineering Associates, 800/798-9127, www.wesdooley.com.
Kevin Becka is Mix's technical editor.
Ribbon Mystique Revealed
In doing research for this review, I learned some very interesting things about ribbon mics from AEA's Matthew Ashman:
“Transient peaks contain lots of broadband energy. So when a microphone has high-Q resonances in highly audible frequency regions (in the case of some condensers, around 10 to 12 kHz), then a transient will start the mic ringing at that frequency. The ‘roundness’ that is perceived in a ribbon microphone is the sound of a truly clean and very well damped impulse response. The primary resonance of a ribbon mic is centered at a very low frequency and this seems to be less offensive to our ears.
“At high volumes the non-uniformity of the magnetic field in the ribbon gap applies a kind of natural compression effect. Basically, the field strength of any ribbon motor decreases away from the neutral point of the ribbon. With a large enough deflection, this could cause a kind of soft-knee compression on the transient, while still keeping the well-damped and neutral overall tone of the microphone. Keep in mind that this ‘compression’ would have attack and release times of zero, something that is tough to do with VCAs.”
— Kevin Becka
Click here to read an in-depth take on ribbon mics from Wes Dooley.