Tag Archives: gold coast recorders

Low-Budget Ribbon Mic Listening Session

In several of my previous posts I have expressed my love for the humble Ribbon Microphone.  Ribbon mics were invented in the early 1920s and they have remained pretty much the same in the majority of cases.  They remain one of the simplest ways that sound pressure can be reliably changed to an electrical signal.  When I started recording music in the early 90s, ribbon mics were not very popular.  Classic models like the RCA 44 and RCA 77 were still often used in major studios, but home recordists and smaller studios with some budget were much more likely to use Neumann and AKG condensers and the classic Shure and Sennheiser dynamic mics.   Aside from the Beyerdynamic ribbons (and the elusive Fostex ribbons) there just weren’t any new ribbon mics readily available.  At some point in the early 2000s this situation changed dramatically and there are now a good variety of new ribbon mics available at all points in the pricing spectrum, from $60 up to several thousands dollars.  I regularly use a variety of mid-and-upper-range ribbons in the studio, and I have also found myself in possession of a few of the cheap ‘budget’ ribbons currently on the market.  In this previous post, I went so far as to replace the output transformer in the $69 MXL R40 with a better ($23) transformer and the results seemed promising.  Anyways…  seemed like it might be a good idea to do a quick test and find out just how the el-cheapo ribbon mics compare with a thousand-dollar unit.  Cos you never know until you try…

In the image above, you can see (CW from upper left): the $1,300 Royer 121, the $59 Nady RSM-4 (n.b.: now $79), the $92 MXL R40 ($69+ $23 for an EDCOR output transformer) and the $220 Shinybox 2.   We set up all four mics on shockmounts in a cluster about 8 feet in front of a drum kit at Gold Coast Recorders.  The kit was a sixites Ludwig 22/16/12 with a 14×5 wood snare; cymbals are dark sixties Zildjians and the heads on the drums were all fresh.

Above: preamp gains required to deliver equal levels off each of the four mics:  Royer is at 6.5, Fathead II is at 7, MXL is at 6, and Nady is at 7.

Each mic went direct into an identical Sytek mic preamp and then right into the Lynx Aurora convertor.  No other processing was used.  Mic preamp gains were set to show the same level in pro tools.  Tim Walsh, a fine drummer and recordist, delivered a compelling drum performance and then we listened to the results.   This is obviously not a scientific test, and you might not even be personally inclined to use a mono ribbon mic as a front mic on a drum kit; that being said, a drum kit produces the most dynamic range and the greatest range of frequencies of any instrument, so it seems like a good way to get a quick handle on what one mic sounds like versus another mic.

Here are the audio files.  They are MP3s, but you can still get a pretty good sense of the sound.  Try to listen with good headphones or a system with real low-end; you will hear tremendous differences.

Royer 121: Royer_121

Fathead II:Fathead_II

MXL R40 with EDCOR Transformer: MXL_R40_w_edcorTrans

Nady RSM4: Nady_RSM4

Out thoughts were as follows:

Royer 121: Sound is tight.  Low end seems understated.  The kick drum barely activated the sub in the GCR control room.  Seems like some low end is not being reproduced.  On the plus side, this mic brought out the body of the snare best.  The snare felt much more three-dimensional.  There was a good overall balance of kick, snare and hat.  The noise floor was very low, barely over the noise floor of the (very quiet) preamp and convertor.

Fathead II: HUGE sub-bass.  Exaggerated, in fact.  The low end that you hear here was not present in the room when we made this recording. That being said, it sounded good.   Somehow this mic is adding a ton of very low end.  The high end is also slightly hyped – the cymbals have more shimmer.  The snare seems to have no body – the snares themselves are prominent but the tone of the shell is missing.  The toms sound much more prominent and present with this mic.  Noise-wise, it is pretty quiet, although there is a very very slight hum – sounds like 60hz.

MXL R40 w/ EDCOR transformer: Much more bass response than the Royer, although this sub-bass is deeper in pitch and less prominent in level than the Fathead II produced.  The kick feels very present and in-your-face; the rest of the kit feels like it’s on a slightly different plane further back.  Noise-wise this mic was the best: it is absolutely dead quiet.

Nady RSM4: This seemed to split the difference between the Royer and the MXL.  The Nady puts the cymbals much more forward then the other mics.  Noise-wise this mic was by far the worst, with a prominent 180 hz hum present.

Listen closely and draw your own conclusions.  My takeaway: the modded MXL R40 is gaining a permanent place in the studio mic locker, along side ribbons costing as much as 20x its modest price.  And I am not going to be putting the Royer on any source that needs to deliver real low-end in a mix.

You can buy all of these mics online at a variety of retailers.  I purchased my Royer at Vintage King, the Fathead II came from Sonic Circus, the Nady and the MXL were both purchased from Musician’s Friend.  FYI I have no idea if these places offer the lowest price or not.

Magnecord PT6 c.1950 used in contemporary music production

It never ceases to amaze me how many people navigate to this website as a result of searching for Magnecord tape-machine information.  Until I bought a pair of PT6 machines last year, I had no awareness of them; since then, I am continually discovering more and more evidence of the role that Magnecord played in mid-twentieth century broadcasting and recording in the United States.  Moreover, my two machines (previously owned by the University of Connecticut; purchased by me last year for $25/each) now work great after I performed some restoration work.  This is no mean feat for sixty-year-old tape recorders which were subjected to the harsh treatment of student-recordists for untold decades.  Anyhow, you can hear some early test-recordings that I made with the PT6 shortly after I restored them:  listen here and here.    Since I recorded that version of “Hallelujah,”  my two PT6’s  have been parked in the entryway of our studio Gold Coast Recorders.    Clients often inquire about them, surprised to learn that they are in fact functional; but it was not until last week that they actually got used on a session.   Take a listen to the track below and you can hear some of the wonderful music of Keith Restaurant.  Keith’s been a frequent visitor to Gold Coast since we opened our doors in April and he makes music that you might call minimalist, or noise music, or process music;  it’s inherently impossible to categorize.  With this sort of ‘organized sound,’ every listener needs to find his/her own way in.  The following piece is from a set he recorded called ‘computer music.’  You are hearing a single live take of several performers manipulating the harddrives and power supplies of live laptop computers, amplified with induction mics and guitar amplifiers.  The Magnecord PT6 is the primary recording medium, and several generations of re-amping and re-tracking (via our UREI 809 studio playback monitors) in the big live room at Gold Coast were layered to create the overall piece.

LISTEN: KR_CmptrMx_Track2.mp3

Since the sounds that composer Keith Restaurant organize in this music have essentially no reference point (I.E., none of them are sounds that you or I would have heard before), every element of the production process is incredibly important in creating meaning.  In this way, the Magnecord PT6, with it’s peculiar frequency response, distortions, and flutter, is being used in a very significant way; it is a primary component of the sound, rather than an ‘effect.’  This contribution is intensified by the multiple-generations of recording and re-recording via the PT6.  It is also interesting to note than even in the longer (4:00) piece, the PT6 deviated less than 250ms over 4:00 relative to the Pro Tools safety copy.  This is great news for anyone who wants to fold one of these into their working process.

You can learn more about Keith Restaurant at his blog.


In The Studio

Another day of live tracking at Gold Coast Recorders.  Vocal chain working great:  Neumann U47 fet into Neve console pre into (gentle) distessor; vocalist needs to be pretty tight on the mic due to the drums, Hammond, and Super Reverb live in the room with her.  Behind the U47 is a Turner U99 dynamic amplified by one of my Altec 1566 -based mic preamps.  The perfect pairing of hi-fi & pristine / dirty and lowdown.  If you have ever thought about building your own vacuum-tube mic preamp, the Altec 1566 is a great place to start.  Here’s where I first learned about them. The 1566 is not a very clean preamp, but wow they sound great for drum fronts, toughening up acoustic gtr, etc.  We have 3 of them at GCR and they get a lot of use.  I recommend Edcor transformers for the output and power; Jensen 115 for input.

In The Studio

Preservation Sound dot com will be less active this week because I have 7 days of back-to-back sessions booked at Gold Coast Recorders.  The first 5 days are live full-ensemble tracking and editing.  Electric string player (gtr/bass/sitar), Hammond organist, two percussionists, and one vocalist.

The Fender Super Reverb, circa 1969; perhaps the best guitar amplifier ever made; also used for bass on many of the greatest hits of the 1960s via C. Kaye.  Mic’d with the can’t-fail combination of a close SM57 and a ribbon mic a few feet off; in this case, a Shinybox 46MXL, IMO one of the best values in a current-production microphone. 

Gold Coast Recorders has a circa 1960 Hammond L-101 (at right), which sonically splits the difference between a classic Hammond tonewheel sound and a voltage-divider organ (e.g., a Farfisa).  What it lacks in sonic heft it more-than-makes up for with the amazing psychedelic effects-option board you see installed at the lower right.  On the Left is GCR’s new Hammond A100, which is the same thing as a B3 except that it has built-in speakers and a reverb section.  We’re using it with a Leslie 51.

Percussion via several Sennhesier 441s and an AKG 414 overhead.  Room is mic’d with an XY pair of Neuman TLM 103s, a great choice for room mics owing to their incredibly low self-noise and very high output.

RCA OP-6/BA-2 Hybrid Mic Pre Amp: Listening Test/Shootout

Alright!  So earlier this week I described the successful completion of the RCA OP-6/BA-2 microphone preamp.  Check out this previous post for all the construction and technical details.   The short story is: the RCA OP-6 is one of the most fetishized vintage mic preamps out there; I have always wanted to try one out; the easiest/cheapest way for me to do this was to build one (or at least as close as I could get).  The problem is that the input stage requires a special attenuator device, exact values unknown; therefore I had to substitute an input stage from another device.  I chose the input stage from the RCA BA-2, as I have built many of these and they always work great.  The result: a hybrid of the OP-6 and the BA-2.

OK so there it is.  Anyway, the very helpful+generous TW came by to help me out on this one.  I wanted to try the OP-6/BA-2 Hybrid (hf. OBH) on a couple of different sources with a couple different types of mics. We a/b’d the OBH with an API 512.  I use the API 512 as a benchmark for mic-pre shootouts because it’s a high-quality unit that many people own and use regularly.  What you are about to hear are identical mics tracked through the two different preamps, direct to Pro Tools via a Lynx Aurora.  Levels were matched. No other processing, level adjustment, or manipulation was done.  You are hearing exactly what came out of the preamps.  To appreciate the differences between the units, you will need to listen to these files on good headphones or a full-range speaker system.   If you listen on a system with a subwoofer (we used the Blue Sky system at Gold Cost Recorders), you will hear some dramatic differences.

OK.  So first up: let’s listen to the drum kit above.  These are vintage ludwig drums, 30″ kick, 12″ and 14″ toms, 14×5 wood snare.  Cymbals are fairly dark old Zildjans.    You are hearing two identical Shure SM-81s placed right next to each other, approx 8 feet in front of the kit, pointed directly at the kit.  The 10db pads on the SM81s are engaged.  The SM81 is not the prettiest sounding mic, but they have a very flat frequency response.

First: here’s the API 512:


…and here’s the OBH:

LISTEN: Drums_RCA_hybrid

Our impressions were as follows: the OBH has more low end extension.  On the Blue Sky system, the kick drum in the OBH signal moved the room in a way that the API simply could not.  The API seemed to move the kit a little closer to the plane of the speakers, but at the same time the top end was not as in-focus.  There is a definite low-midrange boost going on with the API.  I can say this with relative confidence because I measured the frequency response of the OBH and it is totally flat from 15Hz – 10K, with only a very slight raise above 10K.  In terms of operation: the API gain control was at 3 o’clock; the OBH was at 9 o’clock.  WOW that is a lot of gain.

Next, let’s listen to some acoustic guitar.  TW played an old Martin D-19 (same as a D-18) that i mic’d with a well-matched old pair of Beyer M260s ribbon mics. The M260 has a built-in gentle roll off that starts at around 200hz

Alright so take a listen.  First, the API 512:


…and now the OBH:

LISTEN: AcGtr_RCA_Hybrid

Our impressions were that the OBH had more low bass but less low mids; it had a more ‘mellow’ feeling.  The OBH also had better high-end extension.   This also resulted in slightly more HVAC (air conditioning) room noise in the OBH.  Although I like the sound of the OBH again here, it is less of a clear-cut choice.  The mid-boost that API seems to deliver is very welcome in this particular setup.

In summary: TW put it this way: ‘(the OBH) is like a pair of gentle shelves (shelving EQs) on the very highs a lows.’  I think this is very accurate.  The OBH seems to give what I think of as an English sound: that sort of larger-than-life, hyper-real sound that UK records have always aspired to.  I highly encourage your DIY’ers out there to give this project a shot; you will find it to be a very useful tool.

Thanks again to TW for his help with this listening test; T’s band THE STEPKIDS is just back from LA where they did a direct-to-vinyl (!) live set in front of a studio audience (!!!) at Capsule Mastering Labs.  Check out the details of this very cool endeavor here and here.