Sound Tip #7 – Ribbon Microphone Care

If you are reading these tips and taking notes (what you’re not taking notes???? Why do I even bother?), then you already know about the two most common types of microphones (dynamic and condenser)… Buuuuut do you recall the most famous¬†fragile reindeer¬†microphone of aaaaall??? The ribbon microphone…

The amazingly delicate and warm sounding ribbon microphone! This design is like the Faberge egg of the microphone family. It sounds amazingly warm and gives you that awesome Motown vocal recording sound, but I swear if you even sneeze near it, you’ll break the thing. I was recently talking with a studio engineer buddy of mine that teaches sound design at a local university. I was meeting with him and got there early, he was still teaching his class so I just sat in. He thought it would be fun to include my experience with the class and we started talking about something almost every 1st year sound student had never worked with… no, not analog tape… the ribbon mic. With artists like Cee Lo Green, Amy Winehouse, and Adele becoming ever more pop relevant, I hope that we start seeing more use of the ribbon microphone in recording sessions. However, if you are going to attempt to tame these tempered tools of sound design, be weary and knowledgeable of their weaknesses and how to take care of them!

 

A ribbon microphone has a very basic design. There is a magnet on either side of the capsule and between the magnets, there lies a thin, wavy (corrugated), ribbon of metal (aluminum, duraluminum, or nano film). When you send your vocal into the mic, this ribbon vibrates and generates your signal. These microphones do have an amazing sound texture to them, but due to the construction of the thin ribbon, they are as fragile as tin foil.

 

 

 

So here are a few rules about taking care of your ribbon microphone:

1) This is likely the most important rule, NEVER EVER EVER EVER plug your ribbon microphone into phantom power!

If you do, you will find that a ribbon microphone also makes for an excellent desk ornament for your studio, because that is all it will ever be. Simply put, phantom power has the potential to destroy your ribbon microphone and completely fry the enclosed ribbon. Am I just saying this to scare you? YES! Be afraid! My parents told me scary stories about people putting razor blades in apples at halloween and you know what? I never took an apple at halloween, therefore I never ate a razor blade! (ok maybe that was a little extreme, but you get the point)

2) Store your ribbon microphone in a plastic cover.

I’ll admit that this sound random, but if your ribbon microphone didn’t come with a sleeve, just get a little sandwich baggy and put it over your microphone. Why? Remember the magnet that I told you about in the capsule design? Well, there are metal particles in the air and over time, if your ribbon microphone is stored with out a cover, it can attract those particles to the inside of the mic and those shavings will cover the microphones ribbon element. This will greatly hinder its performance. I’ll admit, I never really thought about this much until talking with my friend (who I previously mentioned). He put it eloquently like this; “metal particles are to your ribbon microphones as mucus is to your vocal cords.” As lovely as a picture this is, it does drive home an accurate description as to why a person should cover their ribbon microphone when not in use.

3) Store your ribbon microphone upright.

This is fairly simple, if you store your mic horizontally, the ribbon element can sag over time and once its shape is distorted… so will be your sound . Keep your ribbon microphone upright and vertical and your mic will last you much longer.

4) You don’t have to yell! In fact, don’t even cough or sneeze.

Remember how I said these mics are fragile? Well, they are REALLY fragile. If you cause the ribbon to vibrate too hard, you may accidentally cause the ribbon to split or break. That isn’t to say that you can’t use these mics on a strong vocal like Adele or Aretha Franklin, just don’t try to mic a kick drum with a ribbon microphone! Strong bursts of sound like a close up cough or sneeze may weaken the ribbons structure. Where as a bass hit from a kick drum, will all but promise to turn your pricey mic into a hipsters paper weight.

5) Don’t drop it!

Let common sense control this one. You can drop a condenser microphone and will likely be ok, you can drop kick a dynamic microphone and will likely break your foot before you damage the mic, but if you drop a ribbon microphone… just go home, your session is done.

If you keep these 5 rules in mind, you’ll get a long life out of your awesome sounding ribbon microphone. If you break any one of the five rules… let’s just hope you can find a good effect plug-in to fake the sound you were going for.

-Lee Kebler

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