Ribbons were employed extensively in the early days of broadcasting and studio recording because they delivered a relatively flat response across the entire audio range. The bummer was that the ribbon capturing the sound was so fragile that a plosive or cough would shred it like a werewolf mauling a goat. Today’s ribbon mics are much, much stronger, and now they can be used to document raging guitar tones without fear. The only drag for the home-recording set was that the prices of modern ribbons were aimed at big-studio budgets. Things are different now.
The first “affordable” ribbon I used was the Royer Labs R-121 ($1,395 retail/$1,295 street)—a marvelously natural-sounding microphone that really opened my ears to some of the sonic nuances I was missing with my usual mic choices. But if a grand-plus is still a bit rich for you, prices have been dropping even further. Samson introduced its $499 (street price—the retail is a baffling $1,499) limited-edition VR88 at Summer NAMM. Nady Systems offers a whole line of affordable ribbons: the RSM-1 ($199 retail/$139 street), RSM-2 ($249 retail/$189 street), RSM-3 ($359 retail/$239 street), RSM-4 ($399 retail/$249 street), RSM-5 ($379 retail/$229 street), and the tube-powered TRM-6 ($499 retail/$299 street). Other budget ribbons include the Electro-Harmonix EH-R1 ($398 retail/$299 street), SE Electronics’ R1 ($999 retail/$849 street), Apex’s 205 ($179 retail/$99 street) and 210 ($329 retail/$199 street), CAD’s Trion 7000 ($459 retail/$259 street), and Beyerdynamic’s M 260 ($489 retail/$349 street), M 160 ($839 retail/$599), and M 130 ($839 retail/$599 street).
Because most ribbon microphones capture sound in a figure-8 pattern—basically, they “hear” sounds well from the front and back, and are less sensitive to sounds appearing at the sides of the mic—they are naturals (excuse the pun) for recording organic, guitar-in-a-room tones. I like to get an amp rockin’ in a nice-sounding environment, and position the mic approximately six feet from the speaker cabinet at a height of about five feet. The overall sound will be determined by the relative liveness or deadness of the recording space, but this is a great way to achieve a warm and ballsy electric guitar tone with a natural ambience.
Thanks to stronger ribbons, you can also close-mic a speaker cabinet to attain a bit more impact. I recommend starting out by positioning the mic about eight inches from the speaker at a 45-degree angle. This option usually captures a nice roar with a beautiful high-end sheen.
Ribbons can also document organic acoustic tones that would be right at home on a ’50s bluegrass record—albeit with a bit more shimmer. As I usually only have one ribbon to work with, I typically position it about a foot away from the guitar, pointing at the 12th fret. You should hear a smooth attack followed by the sense of the guitar sound blossoming in the room. Yummy.
Of course, the options for using ribbon mics in your studio far exceed the fundamental ideas presented here. And as affordable ribbons are readily available, there’s little rationale for home recordists to snub these magnificent little sonic collectors. At worst, they’ll expand your studio’s tonal palette. At best, they’ll open up a whole new world of creativity.