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Classic broadcast ribbon microphone technology makes a comeback at AES

Walking the floor at AES in New York City, you cold see that most new audio production gear has gone digital, runs on computers and is operated from a graphic user interface (even some mixing consoles). However, there was one glaring exception: vintage RCA ribbon microphones, first manufactured in the 1930s, were all over the floor.

Walter H. Schottky and Erwin Gerlach co-invented the first ribbon microphone in the 1920s. A few years later, Dr. Harry F. Olson of RCA started developing ribbon microphones using field coils and permanent magnets. The RCA Photophone Type PB-31 was commercially manufactured in 1931 greatly impacting the audio recording and broadcasting industries. The technology’s effect is still felt in production studios throughout the industry.

Condenser microphones at the time could not compare to a ribbon mic’s frequency response. Radio City Music Hall used PB-31s in 1932. The following year, the RCA 44A came on the scene. It’s tone and pattern control helped reduce reverberation.

So why has the old RCA technology survived so long. Many say that can largely be traced to one man, Wes Dooley, owner of Audio Engineering Associates (AEA, based in Pasadena, Calif.). Before ribbons were widely manufactured by other companies, Dooley marketed Coles ribbons made in the UK and repaired RCA ribbons for customers with vintage microphones.

Then, realizing that RCA ribbons were beginning to get scarce, he built a replica of the RCA 44 in 1998. That microphone, a classic of the big ribbon sound, launched the movement to reinterpret ribbon mics. Now Shure, Audio-Technica and many other manufacturers make their own version of modern ribbon microphones.

However, traditional ribbon replicas are very expensive to build. Prices range from $2,800 to $5,800. These mics are essential built by hand.

At this AES, Dooley reduced the cost significantly with his new N22 Nuvo series ribbon microphone. This is no cheap Chinese ribbon knock-off. According to Dooley, it has the vintage “big ribbon” sound at a street price of $899.

With phantom-powered JFET electronics and a custom German transformer, the N22 achieves optimal performance with a wide range of preamps designed for condenser mics. The days of the delicate, low-level ribbon microphones are over.

“A friend of mine that uses our mics in the studio said to me, ‘you make wonderful mics, but you’ve never learned anything about cost-effective engineering,’” Dooley said at AES. So we decided to go back to RCA-style design, look at the cost and build a mic that works anywhere today.”

Primarily designed for low-budget singer-songwriters, Dooley said the N22 is ideal also for broadcasting—the same as the original RCA mics. “It has very little proximity effect. This mic was designed for close-up work and the ribbon is very protected. It’s a voice mic...a very articulate mic. It’s basically an FM radio mic.”

The NUVO series, Dooley said, will include a stereo microphone and the first newly designed ENG ribbon microphone since the famous Coles “lip mic” designed in the 1950s. “It might be a short ribbon for those who like to hold a mic close,” Dooley mused. “I’m looking at having it ready for the 2016 Olympics.”

Also introducing a new vintage ribbon mic was Cloud Microphones, based in Tucson, Arizona. Roger Cloud, the company’s founder, didn’t start out to become a microphone manufacturer. Five years ago, he was a recording engineer and musician looking for a better microphone for his own use.

He met the son of Jon R. Sank, a RCA engineer who designed the RCA BK-11, the microphone that followed the 44. Jon Sank taught his son, Stephen, his skills and technology before he died in 1998.

“Roger basically wanted to create a mic with Stephen Sank that could do what they wanted for their own recordings,” said Jordan Prather, a Cloud company spokesman at AES. “That’s how it started five years ago. When they tried to build the best mic they ended up building a version of the old mic.”

Today, Stephen Sank and his wife Cynthia continue the family tradition of developing quality hand crafted ribbon microphones in collaboration with Cloud Microphones. The Cloud JRS-34, with modern appointments such as neodymium magnets and Cinemag transformers takes the next evolutionary step in the BK-11 and 44 series microphone design line.

At AES, Cloud resurrected the spirit of the classic RCA ribbon mics with the Cloud 44-A active ribbon microphone, priced at $1899. Within the mic, the ribbon remains true to the original 44, handcrafted to the exact specifications first prescribed in the 1930s by RCA.

However, everything else has been upgraded using state of the art materials, manufacturing processes and technology. Powered by Cloud’s ultra-clean Cloudlifter circuitry, the 44-A is an active ribbon mic with personality from the past plus all the robustness and clarity required for even the most demanding recording tasks. 

The Cloud 44-A microphone has switchable voice/music response curves, allowing fine control over proximity effect. The full range “Music” setting is the default for most applications, capturing nuanced source material with precise detail.

Voice-over artists can use the “Voice” setting to instantly tame plosives and undesirable low end associated with being close to the microphone, or for reducing intense low frequencies when using the mic to capture an instrument at close range where rumble or vibration noise may be present.

Some vocalists and instrumentalists with higher ranges may prefer the fuller response that getting right up to the mic delivers, having the option of the proximity filter provides two distinct voicings, inviting the natural sound of a ribbon microphone to be used on a wide variety of new sources.

While there were many new microphones introduced at AES, ribbon technology continues its remarkable rebound. Ribbons have a quality that Wes Dooley reminds us are on thousands of our favorite vintage recordings. They gave birth to American radio and television and continue to live on today.