Ribbon microphones first emerged in the 1920s. In 1931, RCA began commercially manufacturing the PB-31, which had a huge impact on the recording and broadcast industries. Ribbon mics remained popular throughout the ’50s, though gradually started to see less use in favor of condensers. However, a few models managed to continue to have consistent play in studios, and some of the classics are still used today. These days, the best modern ribbon mic has advantages over the older ones — particularly in output level, signal-to-noise ratio, and sturdiness.
What Is a Ribbon Mic & How Do They Work?
A ribbon microphone is actually a simple device in terms of electronics. It utilizes a thin strip of metal suspended between two magnetized poles to generate an electric charge in response to acoustic energy. Early ribbons had a bidirectional, or figure-8, polar pattern, in that they pick up equally well from either side of the diaphragm. When they were first introduced, ribbon mics also had a phenomenal frequency response of about 20 Hz to 20 kHz, which is what we come to expect from mics nowadays — the entire spectrum of human hearing. Pretty impressive for 100-year-old technology!
For many years, ribbon microphones were fragile. The ultra-thin corrugated metal “ribbon” could easily be damaged in response to high SPLs or rough handling. They’re significantly stronger today than they used to be, thanks to innovations in material that makes the ribbon a whole lot more durable. As you’ll see in the list below, some ribbons are even go-to mics for recording electric guitar — not a quiet instrument by any means.
What Are Ribbon Mics Best For?
As painful as it is to utter industry cliches, ribbon microphones tend to have a warm and vintage-y sound compared to condensers and dynamic mics. For many years they were favorites on brass because of their ability to smooth out and mellow harsh frequencies and instruments.
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Ribbons definitely have a unique character that’s best defined in practice. Thankfully modern ribbon mics are more viable than ever, in that they aren’t such delicate pieces of equipment anymore. If you want to hear one in action, consider any of the nine best ribbon mics listed here.
The 9 Best Ribbon Mics for Your Studio in 2023
The M 160 by Beyerdynamic is a premium dual-ribbon microphone well suited to acoustic instruments. It sounds great on all types of strings, and even percussive instruments like hi-hat and overheads. The 160 has impressive SPL-handling, so you rarely have to worry about overloading it. Also handy is its hypercardioid polar pattern for maximum off-axis rejection, making it an excellent stage microphone.
In both looks and sound, the AEA R84 is every bit a classic ribbon microphone with that unmistakable sound. One key aspect of ribbon mics is how accurately and naturally they’re able to reproduce transients, due to the actual ribbon’s sensitivity and response to acoustic energy. The AEA R84 is a lovely vocal mic, but also works well on piano, brass, strings, and percussion.
Royer singlehandedly brought the ribbon microphone into the 21st century with the inimitable R-121. It sounds very “alive,” as if you’re in the room with the instrument, so it’s great for natural and intimate recordings. Interestingly, the R-121 is popular on guitar amps/cabinets since it handles high SPLs easily, and it’s a super sturdy ribbon mic overall.
The Voodoo VR1 is a favorite when it comes to affordable ribbon mics. Nothing about it feels too cheap, and it even rivals some of the much more expensive options out there. If you want to experiment with a ribbon mic but keep things relatively inexpensive, this would be a great microphone to try.
AEA’s A440 is an ultra high-end microphone based on the iconic RCA 44. Not only that, it’s actually one of the quietest ribbon microphones ever made, with some of the most natural sound you can get out of a recording. Put this on any source and what you hear is almost precisely what you get, with just enough sweetness to flatter just about anything.
We love the Voodoo VR1 mentioned above, but if you want truly the best budget ribbon mic, Avantone has it beat. This could easily be a home studio workhorse ribbon — and you don’t hear the term “workhorse” typically attributed to a ribbon. But it has all the modern accoutrements to make it a sturdy and reliable ribbon microphone for any locker.
7. Coles 4038
Here’s another famous ribbon microphone that sees use in professional studios all the time. It epitomizes all of the best characteristics of a quality ribbon, such as excellent transient response, wide, flat frequency response, and natural, three-dimensional sonics. It’s incredible on vocals, drums, brass, and just about anything else.
If you’re looking for true versatility, the KSM313 is where it’s at. This is a dual-voice microphone; on one side of the mic you have a brighter sound that excels on vocals, and the other you have a richer, fuller voice that works great on instruments. It isn’t the cheapest microphone, but essentially having two mics in one with their own unique character is a fantastic feature.
The Groove Tubes Velo 8 is another awesome and affordable ribbon microphone, so long as you can get your hands on a used one. Like most modern ribbons, it’s quite versatile on a range of sources, and you don’t have to worry about damaging it on a loud guitar amp.