Ask the Experts: Using Ribbon Microphones
In spite of all the advances made in ribbon technology it’s hard to overcome the impression that these microphones are divas. We asked four sound engineers who record and tour with the likes of the Pretenders, Susan Tedeschi, Frank Sinatra and Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander about their on stage and in studio experiences. Here’s what they had to say.
In this issue, we’re talking about ribbon mics. How are you using them?
Roger Lindsay: “Lead and pedal steel guitars.”
Julian King: “I frequently use them on guitar amps, drum room mics and acoustic instruments like guitar and dobro.”
Eric Schilling: “I use ribbon mics in lots of applications, drums, horn sections, guitar amps, pianos. I often will choose a ribbon mic when I want a smoother top end and a more rounded bottom. If I am recording and find the sound too bright, I will often switch to a ribbon. I have also found that using a ribbon on an electric guitar will give me a very natural sound.”
Mike Sponarski: “Besides being in front of a high SPL guitar amp, I’ve experimented with ribbons in a kick drum and on the bass amp. There hasn’t been any clipping, distortion or damage. These ribbons have been able to handle anything I’ve thrown at them so far. I’m very happy with them.”
What can you achieve with a ribbon mic that you can’t with another type of dynamic mic?
Roger Lindsay: “In both cases, the ribbon mics offer more weight and authority to the overall instrument sounds compared with either conventional dynamic or condenser models. They offer a richer, more full-bodied sound, particularly in the lower and low-mid frequencies which often suffer with conventional mics at higher sound pressure levels.”
Julian King: “I like the ambient nature of the mics. The ‘figure-eight’ design provides a lot of nice room texture that comes to the back side of the mic and that lessens the need to set up a separate “room mic” for close mic sources like electric guitar amps, acoustic guitars, dobros, mandolins and those kinds of instruments.
I also like using ribbons on drum overhead and drum room mics. They help soften the edgy tone of the cymbals that’s frequently hard to control.”
Eric Schilling: “I will often use a stereo ribbon mic for drum overheads. Particularly on jazz sessions. I have never been able to find a condenser or dynamic that will give me such a smooth and natural sound for drum overheads.”
Roger Lindsay: “Not really, despite the bi-directional characteristics of the mics, the level of ambient pick-up from the rear of both units on a fairly loud stage was inconsequential. I’m still experimenting with different mic placements to see how this may affect the overall sound, but so far exact placement seems to be less critical than with some other models.”
Julian King: “I have actually found that in a few instances, one of my normally favorite attributes was a problem. In very ambient recording environments, the returning reflectivity to the back of the mic can be overpowering. In some cases, I have placed a small pad or gobo behind the mic to help limit some of the returning sound pressure.”
Eric Schilling: “The fact that most ribbon mics are bidirectional can sometimes be a bit problematic if I have a lot a unwanted information coming in the rear of the microphone.”
Mike Sponarski: “The only real challenge I’ve found has been due to venue acoustics. I’ve used the mic on Susan Tedeschi’s sax player and usually it works well, but if the venue is extremely live, such as a classical performance hall or a reverberant or middy room, then the bi-directional pattern can be a bit problematic. In those cases, if trying a few different placements doesn’t help, I’ll go back to the SM7 or maybe a KSM32. Other than that, it’s been an easy piece of gear to use.”
Some people might say they’re too fragile for live performance. What do you think?
Roger Lindsay: “The first mic I ever used was a Reslo ribbon in the 60s and this sounded good but was notoriously fragile.
With the new materials used on the KSM353 and KSM313, Shure has two ribbon mics that combine exceptional performance with rugged construction and components. That’s a Shure trademark. These should dispel the myths that ribbon mics are unreliable and too delicate for live applications.”
Julian King: “I don’t do much live stuff, but the modern ribbons that I have used seem quite sturdy. I am guilty of treating them with my usual ‘blacksmith-like’ touch. So far they have held up great. I don’t hesitate to put them close to a high level source like guitar amps.”
Eric Schilling: “This would be true if you where trying to use many of the vintage ribbons of the 30′s and 40′s but I find modern ribbons to much more rugged in terms of the level they will take.”
Mike Sponarski: “I’ve been using ribbons for the past three months of constant touring in North America and throughout Europe in all types of conditions: indoors, outdoors, with different weather conditions and at various altitudes.
The ribbons travel in the regular mic case along with the other mics. The case is a proper padded road case but the ribbons receive the same treatment as the Beta 57s and ’58s that are also in the case. There have not been any performance or damage issues at all. The only incident that has occurred was once when an over-exuberant stagehand over-tightened the thumb screw on the shock mount and snapped it. I just rigged the shock mount to fit into another clip and carried on.”
Which ribbon mics are you using?
Roger Lindsay: “I’m using the ’353 on lead guitar and ’313 on pedal steel, a combination that’s produced exceptional results for both players.”
Julian King: “With regard to the modern ribbons, I have used the El Diablo (now KSM353) quite a bit. I have also used the Royer and AEA ribbons as well as the Cascade Fat Head. None of these are the “perfect” mic for everything and frankly, it is my experience that such an animal does not exist.”
Eric Schilling: “I am using KSM313 mics on brass and KSM353s on electric guitar.”
Any tips you can offer our readers?
Roger Lindsay: “These new ribbon mics are such a leap forward and offer such outstanding performance that I would advise anyone who is truly serious about their guitar sound to beg, borrow, or if it’s the last resort…steal them! They’re that good.” (Editor’s note: We appreciate Roger’s enthusiasm for the new KSM mics, but suggest you beg, borrow or buy.)
Julian King: “I like to use the ribbons in conjunction with a ’57 and blend the two to fine-tune the texture of the source. I have also found that the ribbons are very directional and a slight misalignment or movement of the source can cause problems in clarity.”
Eric Schilling: “Try using ribbons in places you might normally go for a condenser. You will be pleasantly surprised to find you will get the same detail you get from a condenser but with a overall warmers sound.”
Find out more about:
Our Panel of Rock-Solid Engineers
Since 1968, professional recording engineer and producer.
He’s worked with SugarLand, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Kellie Pickler, Toby Keith, Willie Nelson, Robin Zander and many others.
Since 1969, professional audio consultant, live sound engineer, event audio coordinator. Currently touring with the Pretenders, he’s worked with Prince, James Taylor, Pink Floyd, Van Morrison, Deep Purple, Ringo Starr and more “great artists than I can remember.”
Eric got his start in audio at the age of 15 in 1977. He is a recording and sound engineer for television and the music industry. He has lent his mixing talents to projects for Gloria Estefan, Natalie Cole, Madonna, Frank Sinatra, David Bowie and Elton John.
FOH engineer, production manager and tour manager since 1989. Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks, Norah Jones, Cowboy Junkies, Esperanza Spalding, The Chieftains, Julio Iglesias, A Fine Frenzy, Over The Rhine, and Rik Emmett are among his clients.