Audio Engineering Associates (AEA) is famous and well-respected for its Big Ribbon mic designs, handmade in Pasadena, CA, which mimic -- or, more often these days, modernize and revitalize -- vintage microphone construction methods used by RCA. So when AEA announces an entirely new mic design, heads are going to turn. I was eager to try the N22, the first mic in AEA's Nuvo ("nouveau", French for "new") mic line.
Nuvo style, old soul
The most obvious "nouveau" trait of the N22 is its appearance. Its champagne-silver finished body is just shy of 9" tall and a tad more than 1 1/2" diameter; it is the smallest microphone to ever grace AEA's lineup, looking nothing like AEA's R series mics.
The N22's ribbon is surrounded by an internal steel spring cage with multiple layers of specialized blast protection fabric similar to that found on the R92 (reviewed February 2006). Unlike the rest of the AEA family, it features no built-in mic mount or shock mounting. Instead it comes with a rubber shockmounted mic clip. The package also includes a plastic foam-lined case and a felt mic bag.
While the N22 is visually new, it has a an old soul -- it makes use of the same classic large ribbon pressure gradient transducer found in AEA's other figure-8 mics. The N22 is a phantom-powered ribbon mic; instead of using an amplifier circuit for stable impedance and makeup gain, it uses a custom made step-up transformer similar to the one found in AEA's phantom-powered R840, only more compact.
The N22 has a < 20 Hz to 20 kHz frequency range, a 141 dB SPL (1% third harmonic at 1 kHz), a sensitivity of 6.2 mV/Pa (at 1 kHz, no load), a rated impedance of 92 ohms broadband and a rated load impedance of 1.0 kilohm or greater. While more or less flat from 1 kHz to 5 kHz with occasional peaks and valleys, its low end rolls off gently from 900 Hz slowly on down, and its high end dips much more quickly around 6 kHz.
Where the N22 differs not only from its siblings -- but from almost every other ribbon mic on the market -- is in its sound!
AEA's tag line for the N22 is that it is "specifically designed for singer-songwriters, musicians and home studios." One of the sonic aims of the N22 was to have a ribbon mic that was as easy to use and place as a typical condenser mic. As such, it offers a very restrained low end proximity effect and a slightly tweaked upper-mid presence.
Challenges and solutions
The N22 was designed to tackle a number of ribbon-related issues. For example, traditional ribbons are sensitive to air blasts and have to be placed carefully to protect them from damage. Like most figure-8 mics, ribbons have a huge proximity effect. Put those together and you get a mic that likes its space, one that is often used at a healthy distance from sources, used on drum overheads, on vocals and horns, or used as a room mic.
Passive ribbons tend to have a very low output and a sensitivity to impedance matching; they need a mic preamp with lots of clean gain and appropriate impedance, like AEA's own TRP (reviewed March 2007) and RPQ 500 (reviewed August 2012).
Last but not least, the flat, natural, and honest sound of a good ribbon mic is often called warm, smoky, smooth, or whatever we think "vintage" is supposed to sound like. This is because decades of exposure to the open airy sound of condenser mics that typically offer pushed midranges and significantly hyped top ends has conditioned us to think of this openness and crispness as "real and honest".
The N22 went through a long period of testing to tweak out the proper voicing with a very subdued proximity effect that, as with many condenser mics, only becomes noticeable when it is very close up on a source. Its screening was chosen to allow the mic to be used on vocals without a pop shield; this screening also contributes greatly to the mic's overall sound.
When the N22 arrived, I put it to work on drum overhead, kick drum, cajon, tambourines, shakers, electric guitar cabinet, cello, violin, piano, male and female vocals, steel-string acoustic guitar, and even a male opera singer!
I tried it with my Millennia Media and Chandler Limited mic preamps, as well as the built-in preamps on a couple of lower-end RireWire and USB boxes; I found its performance to be reliably consistent rather than preamp-finicky.
My first session with the N22 was on a string duet of violin and cello. It performed well on both, but I liked it best on cello, just a few inches away from the f-hole and sound post just out of the throw of the bowing.
Often on cello when I use a ribbon mic I will need to run a variable high pass filter to control the low bloom of the instrument. Here, thanks to the N22's subdued proximity effect, I was able to get a clear intimate sound right off the bat that was a great balance of full lows and smooth highs.
I also had no complaint with the N22 on violin with the mic about 1' above the instrument. My best adjective here would be "natural". Ribbons work great on strings; their high end rolloff does a great job of controlling string squeak and bow drag. The N22 is no exception.
Show tunes and opera
Next was a session with piano and male tenor singing "Empty Chairs And Empty Tables" from Les Misérables, Handel's "Si Tra I Ceppi" and "It's Hard To Speak My Heart" from the musical Parade. Since this was a video shoot, I needed the mic to be about 2-3 feet in front of the singer, and more importantly out of the camera frame.
Two things impressed me here. First it captured less of the room sound (a medium theater space) than I am used to when using ribbon mics, especially compared to AEA's own R84 and R88. Second, I was initially worried that it might be too bass shy at that distance, but since this style of singing is quite loud, the distance was never a problem and the resulting recording was excellent. It also helps that the N22 is much more focused and tighter sounding than many ribbons and I was also able to place it nicely off-axis to the piano with minimal bleed.
At the end of session I took the opportunity to try the N22 on piano, where again it was natural and well balanced... see a pattern yet? I do wish I'd had a pair, to get a get a better spread and have better control of the high end and the low string presence.
On electric guitar I placed the N22 right in the grille of a Vox AC30, on axis with the speaker, and paired it with a Coles 4038 about 4 feet back in the room. Simply put... amazing!
Again the N22 provides a nice balance of the low end heft, even full mids and a clear top end that is not overly sizzly like many condensers. Since the N22's low end is so controlled, lessening the low rumble of the amp was as simple as moving the mic back a few inches to zero in on the desired tone.
In my studio, ribbon mics see the most use on drums, most commonly as a single mono mic in front of the drum kit. Here the N22 initially disappointed me with a thin, almost anemic sound, the complete opposite of the R84 or the R88, which capture a kit in a very huge, larger-than-life way.
Luckily I gave it one more shot as an overhead in a Glyn Johns style setup, and learned that it works best if you place it as you would a typical large diaphragm condenser as an overhead. Usually when I put up condenser mics as overheads in a multi-mic setup, I end up filtering out most of the lows and low mids, and have the overhead mic just focus on cymbals. In this placement the N22 works well without any EQ, as its low end is naturally tame, and it still has the nice smooth high end that works well on cymbals. So while the N22 is not the best choice for a minimal 1-4 mic kit setup, it is excellent as an overhead in modern multi-mic recordings.
The N22 does make a nice kick drum mic about 4-6" from the front drum head, with a sound that's more full and controlled than boomy. It also works well on cajon, but I found it sounded best with a pop shield and angled slightly to avoid direct blasts of air out of the sound hole.
Voice and acoustic guitar
I tested the N22 on acoustic guitar and voice in the studio, as well as in a non-treated small office space to see how it would fare in simple home setups.
On acoustic guitar the N22 is capable of a wide variety of sounds. Just out of the sound hole it gives a very large deep tone, bassy but not boomy. Moving to the common 12th fret position gives a more narrow and focused sound that is well suited for rhythm guitars in a pop mix.
On voice, this is that rare ribbon that encourages you to get right up on the mic. I was even able to use it for voiceover work with no plosives or breakup. The N22 does quite well on voice, both with and surprisingly without a pop filter. In fact I only found one male singer whose low-end plosives caused any issues, solved with a few inches of distance and a pop screen.
If you've read my past mic reviews, you'll remember that one test I always perform is to track an entire song with just the one mic, to see how well it "stacks" with itself. I place the reviewed mic in a circular array with several other mics, and track the song through all at once, moving instruments and vocals for placement while leaving the mics stationary.
I placed the N22 alongside six other ribbon mics of varying styles from Royer Labs, Sandhill, Cascade, sE Electronics, and Coles. Each of the comparison mics, while having tonal differences, still exhibited the classic ribbon traits of varying degrees of big bottom end, smooth highs, and a figure-8 pattern that picked up much of the depth of the room. But not the N22 -- I was initially disappointed by how thin and bright it sounded. Distance is not its thing!
Rather than give up, I tracked the song one more time. This time I found each source's sweet spot and placed the N22 as close to the source as possible... and the results were wonderful! Essentially, if most ribbons make you think in terms of feet, the N22 should is best thought of in terms of inches.
The N22 is not made to be a distance mic, it is meant to be used up close and personal. This is a ribbon that likes to get intimate with a source, and it is not picky if it's in a bedroom, basement, or big dollar facility. This is easily the most forgiving and intimate ribbon mic I have used. Its sound is equal parts beautiful, natural and well balanced. In more good news for songwriters wanting "one great mic", it's AEA's most affordable ribbon mic yet.
If you think you don't like ribbon mics, if you've ever struggled with placing or getting the best sound from a ribbon when you're used to condensers... or if you're just plain in the market for a great mic that can tackle most vocal and guitar situations, strings, drum overheads, even voiceovers... please check out the N22. AEA are onto a great new (-vo) direction here.
Price: $999 ($899 street)
More from: Audio Engineering Associates, www.ribbonmics.com