When I was reviewing the ribbon-centric RPQ 500 microphone preamp from AEA (Audio Engineering Associates) for our August 2012 issue, the folks at AEA were also kind enough to send me one of their R84 ribbon microphones with which to test it.
Reviewer Scott Dorsey previously gave us a detailed look at the R84 many moons ago in our November 2003 issue, and my own brief summary is that -- short of using a true restored RCA 44 or one of AEA's current recreations -- to my ears the R84 is one of the few ways to get that classic 1920s/1940s big ribbon sound a la Bing Crosby and early Sinatra.
The R84 has a warm, even sound with a wonderfully smooth top end. As with most ribbons, the high end is fairly rolled off and is the antithesis of many of today's bright and forward condenser mics. However, the R84 is not an excessively thick, dull or muddy mic either; it balances a natural openness with its warmth, and sounds great on darn near everything from vocals to drum overheads and beyond.
So short of a full-on RCA/AEA 44, what could possibly be better than an R84 for your classic ribbon needs? Two R84s perhaps? How about a stereo R84? Well, that is essentially the new and improved AEA R88 mk2.
Big and bold in more ways than one
The R88 mk2 is essentially a pair of R84 elements in one extended housing. Inside are two AEA Big Ribbons (the same as a vintage RCA 44) offset at 90 degrees from one another, mounted between a slightly modified R84 motor.
The enclosure measures 13" with a 2.5" diameter and is held in an offset suspension on top of a 1 3/4" by 2 1/4" mount. It is dressed in powder-coated black with a nylon-wrapped steel ribbing and cage.
There are three things to note here:
~ One, the nylon technical wrap is mostly decorative and made to protect the ribbon elements and magnets from dust and metallic contaminants. It is not a pop screen and will not protect the ribbons from vocal plosives, or bursts of air like from kick drums. You still have to use a good pop screen/blast filter!
~ Two, R88 mk2 is big, bulky, and heavy. It will require a serious mic stand with a robust and well counterweighted boom arm, especially if you want to position it horizontally, inside of a piano or as a drum overhead -- which, trust me, you will!
~ Three, pay attention to the microphone's markings. Each ribbon is marked A or B along with + and - symbols to let you know which are the front positive and rear negative lobes of the mic elements. In Blumlein stereo, use the AEA logo and large silver lines as reference for the front of the mic.
What's new in mk2?
Internally the R88 mk2 is not very different from its mk1 predecessor, the changes are solely mechanical and cosmetic.
Most obvious is the suspension mount. On the original it affixed to the mic body on its very top and bottom, whereas on the new version it is attached on the sides of the end caps. This is both more sturdy and makes the mic slightly easier to place. While it may look like it is attached with simple screws and washers, they are part of a rubberized shock mount system and not rigid. On both mic versions the bracing is in an S shape, an offsetting that wisely keeps the metal suspension out from behind each ribbon's rear lobe.
Also different on the mk2 is a smaller and more functional detachable swivel mount. On the original this was simply a tooth-and-groove mount which allowed you to angle the mic up and down. The new version uses a dual ball-and-socket compression clamp that allows the mic to be precisely placed at a variety of angles.
The last change is the microphone's cable. On the original, as with most AEA models, the mic cable was attached. Now the mk2 version makes use of a 5-pin mic socket and a detached cable. This stereo cable is included in the kit along with a protective dust pouch and an AEA nylon carry case designed to house the mic vertically when stored, to avoid ribbon sag.
Ribbons and specs
Each 2.35" x 0.185" element is a corrugated native pressure-gradient ribbon transducer that is 1.8 micron thick... or better yet, thin. Each one is tuned to 16.5 Hz and each ribbon, as mentioned, is offset by 90 degrees from the other.
AEA calls the R88 mk2 a Pure Ribbon design. That means there's as little as possible acoustically between the ribbons and the outside world (as mentioned above), and there's very little circuitry between the ribbon motor and the output to a preamp. Passive ribbon mics are by nature much simpler than your average condenser or even dynamic design, and the R88 is minimalist even for ribbons.
Further specs of the R88 mk2, as supplied by the manufacturer, include a 20 Hz to 20 kHz frequency response, a max SPL of 165 dB above 1 kHz for 1% third harmonic distortion, output sensitivity of -52 dBv/Pa, and an output impedance 270 ohms nominal. AEA also recommends a 1.2 kilohm load or greater.
If you look at the R88 mk2's frequency plot you will see it's darn near identical to that of an R88, with a strong low end that remains even until 2 kHz, where frequency dips comfortably to 10 kHz, whereupon it then rolls off significantly down from there. This is its only real difference from the R84, in that it dips down about 5 dB more around 18 kHz than the R84 does. [Wes Dooley of AEA notes, "What these curves don't show is their usable output to 40 kHz. The R88 mk2 rolloff rate is the same all the way out to 40 kHz; the R84's more complex ribbon protection means less rolloff to 20 kHz and a steeper rolloff thereafter." -- Ed.]
How does the R88 mk2 sound? Like a pair of impeccably matched R84 units, of course! It's big and warm, yet natural and open like the R84, but because you get a pair of them that are perfectly aligned and balanced, there are some subtle differences.
First, despite this microphone's size, the physical space it occupies compared to placing two actual R84s in a similar over/under Blumlein setup is smaller and as such benefits from a tighter, more precise off-axis rejection. When you position the mic, you will notice that the left and right image will pan quickly and tightly the closer you get to the mic.
Speaking of closer, I also found the R88 mk2 to have a slightly more pronounced proximity effect than the R84. I am not sure if this is due to intentional tuning or if it is a doubling effect of the two elements and their own proximity to each other. To my ears it is these two factors that make the R88 mk2 unique and different from just using a pair of R84s.
Also, I found the R88 mk2 to have a slightly higher output than the R84, which kept me from pushing my Millennia HV3-D mic pre as much, giving my tracks a much cleaner noise floor.
I used the R88 mk2 in three setups: traditional Blumlein, Mid/Side, and as two mono mics, on drums, room, acoustic guitar, piano, percussion and vocals.
In Blumlein the R88 mk2 is very wide, smooth and open. Due to its center not being directly into either ribbon element it is not as rich and forward as a single R84. Instead it gives an airier and more open sound with a greater depth that still retains its natural smoothness.
One thing that surprised me was how focused it is in regard to the placement of sources in its stereo field. For this reason alone I can see why its predecessor has become a favorite room mic and drum overhead in many studios, as its smoothness coupled with its attention to detail make it stellar in both situations.
In M/S mode the R88 mk2 gains back the solid and chesty tone of the R84, but with the added dimensionality of the side channels. I really liked this technique on auxiliary percussion and acoustic guitar, and it can also yield a cool dimensionality to vocals.
Setting up for Mid/Side requires two things. First you need to be aware of which mic you choose for the Mid or center, and which one is the Side. As the manual notes, "The positive polarity of the S mic is typically aimed soundstage left."
Next you will need a way to play back/decode an M/S recording. There are many plug-ins and programs which do this, as well as DIY tricks to do it simply in your DAW by copying and pasting the side channel to a duplicate track and reversing the polarity.
The last setup I tried with this mic was as a pair of mono mics with a singer-songwriter playing acoustic guitar and singing at the same time. This required me to position the mic horizontally and play with the angle until I had the best blend of guitar and voice.
While there will be bleed in each mic, it still yields a very full and natural tone that is very coherent and allows you to still tweak the blend by a few dBs during mixdown for the best balance.
This mic will also work in a similar fashion with two vocalists tracking together, singing into each mic element.
I should note that each mic element is a true separate individual microphone with its own signal path, so you can also use one side of the R88 mk2 as a mono mic should you wish. Just remember Mic One is the upper element and Two is the lower.
On drum overheads, room duties and more, this mic just kills! The way it images a room and the sources in it so naturally and smoothly makes it one of the best stereo mics around -- ribbon or otherwise. This is one of those mics that makes you rethink how stereo miking is supposed to sound...
Price: $1795 (street)
More from: Audio Engineering Associates (AEA), www.ribbonmic.com