The so-called “big five” vocal mics—the Telefunken ELA M251, Neumann M49, U67, and U47, and AKG C12—will set you back $6K to $15K or more. As far as I’m concerned, dynamic and ribbon mics also can offer world-class performance on vocals, though they’re often overlooked in favor of condenser mics like the “big five”.
For many engineers and producers, the use of a dynamic or ribbon mic on a lead vocal is somewhat of an acquired taste—I’m a fan of this approach but even I will tend to choose a condenser first. However, whenever I can diversify my mic locker for comparatively little money, especially when I can add the best example of a particular type of mic technology in so doing, I’m all over it!
While dynamic mics traditionally aren’t as high-fidelity or sensitive as condensers, and ribbons lack the high-end sheen of a condenser and can be very fragile (a puff of breath can damage the ribbon!), there are great examples of each mic type that are perfect for vocals, given the right singer and the right music.
When American Music Club recorded its first major-label album Mercury, I remember being taken aback when engineer Tchad Blake and producer Mitchell Froom took down Froom’s Telefunken ELA M251 (the first vocal mic choice) and replaced it with an Electro-Voice RE20, eventually for all of the vocals on that album! Bottom line was that for the sound of the album, the RE20 just fit. It was kind of harsh and totally in your face—just what the doctor ordered to deliver music that was kind of harsh and in your face. On the other hand, you wouldn’t think of Dolly Parton’s music as harsh and in your face, yet all of Dolly’s early work for RCA was recorded using an RE15, a dynamic similar in some tonal respects to the RE20!
Both the RE20 and the Shure SM7 are regular fixtures in the world of broadcast radio and television announcer mics; both offer larger-than-life vocal presence and are available for under $400. They’ve been around for longer than Recording has, so I can’t refer you to a back issue for a review, but my fellow contributor Paul J. Stamler had this to say in his excellent article “The Well-Balanced Mic Closet”: “The Electro-Voice RE20 is another classic radio mic, but it has found a home in many recording studios as well, on vocals, kick drum, amplifiers, close-miking snares and toms, and even on the occasional acoustic guitar. A hypercardioid mic, it has little proximity effect, and [a] broad high-frequency bump...its frequency response on- and off-axis is similar.”
Of the SM7B, the currently shipping version of the SM7, Stamler says, “Shure’s SM7B is so suave, it ought to be wearing a velvet smoking jacket. This mic, popular among FM announcers for decades, is just the thing to take the edge off a nasal vocalist or too-edgy drum.”
The under-$100 Shure SM57 and SM58, seen everywhere on stage but far less prevalent in the vocal booth, can sometimes be exactly right—especially for a singer who performs better when holding the mic. While the SM58 is more commonly hand-held for vocals, the SM57 is also incredibly useful on all manner of instruments from electric guitar amps to drums, and will pay for itself in no time.
When I want a vocal to have a forceful effect on a track, a sound that sort of crowds out other sounds, I consider using a dynamic mic. From this description, you’re probably thinking that using dynamic mics for vocals would be mostly limited to heavy rock production. Not so. Recently I engineered an upcoming release for The Crooked Jades, an all-acoustic band coming out of the “old-timey” music tradition. Even in the context of all-acoustic instrumentation, we chose an RE20 for the lead vocal to “Never Let Them Blur”—the sonic fit was better than any other mic we auditioned for that song.
Let’s face it: the mic closet can be a money pit. You can never have too many mics, in quantity or diversity of sound and application. A world-class dynamic mic like an RE20 or SM7B is a no-brainer for a studio with $400 to spend. If you’re more limited in your funds, start with an SM57 or SM58. (There are of course many other dynamic mic choices, from a variety of excellent makers, but these are the ones with which I have had the most experience.)
For many years, ribbon mics have been relatively unknown in small studios. Until very recently, choices were limited to vintage RCA mics, two or three models by Coles, and a couple of relatively affordable beyerdynamic mics—“relatively affordable” meaning only hundreds of dollars, not thousands.
Ribbons were considered old-fashioned and somewhat finicky, best replaced by more modern designs for most applications. The transducer element in a ribbon mic is in fact a ribbon: a tiny ribbon of corrugated metal that floats in a magnetic field. It can be very fragile, prone to bending out of shape if hit with too much air. Even a puff of breath into an unshielded ribbon can ruin it, and re-ribboning a mic can be costly. Most old ribbon mics put out very low-level signals, requiring preamplifiers with a lot of clean gain and the right sort of input impedance. Also, with very few exceptions all ribbons are figure-8 mics; that’s an unusual polar pattern that many recordists aren’t sure how to make use of in regular tracking sessions.
So why use a ribbon at all? Its sound. The sound of a ribbon mic is mellow and rounded, warm, with a gently rolled off top end that contrasts dramatically with the forward sound of most dynamics and the crystalline, trebly sound of condensers. Nothing sounds quite like a ribbon, and for some engineers and applications nothing else will do.
Royer Labs helped launch a huge renaissance for ribbon mics with the R-121, which debunked some “known facts” about ribbons. At roughly $1100, the R-121 wasn’t fantastically expensive, and in practice it proved quite sturdy, even working well on guitar amps. Royer followed up with more designs based on the R-121, including stereo ribbons for room recording and active models that were far less choosy about preamplification than other ribbons.
AEA, known for repairing old RCA mics, launched its own lineup of ribbon mic designs, starting with the R84 and most recently the R92. AEA’s new designs also sit around the $1000 mark, with the R92 down near $800.
Not to be left out, Coles came out with its first new design in almost thirty years, the 4040. The original Coles lineup, including the unusually shaped 4038, is still being made. Prices for these mics sit in the $1200–$1600 range. The beyerdynamic ribbon mics are also still in production; the hypercardioid M160 and figure-8 M130 sell for about $600 each, and the hypercardioid M260 for somewhat less.
Needless to say, once a market was re-established for high-quality ribbons, other manufacturers got into the act at lower and lower prices. I have not used any of these mics, however. As a rule, these mics won’t have as smooth a response or as tight and controlled a polar pattern as more expensive ribbons, but their prices are in a range where anyone can afford them: often well under $200.
Using a ribbon mic isn’t quite like using any other mic, but you’ll get good results if you remember a few basic tips. First, always picture in the back of your mind that fragile little ribbon floating in its magnetic field, vibrating at the barest touch of moving air—if anyone walks up to an unprotected ribbon mic and blows into it (“Is this thing on? puff, puff”) you may need a new mic.
A pop filter is essential, and if possible you should consider an air-deflecting metal-mesh design like the ones made by Stedman and Royer for maximum safety. The hypercardioid beyerdynamics will have some wind protection built in, but don’t rely on that to save your mic from a vocalist who’s used to handling the more rugged dynamics and condensers!
Second, remember that most ribbons have figure-8 polar patterns, and even the hypercardioid beyerdynamic mics have a hefty rear lobe in their polar response. That means that anything directly behind the mic will be just as loud as the vocalist singing into the front! Use these mics either in a very dead booth where reflections into the rear of the mic will be minimal, or even better, in a nice-sounding room where reflections from the rear walls can add character to the vocal signal.
Third, remember that figure-8 mics display the strongest proximity effect of any polar pattern. You’ll be able to widely vary the bass content of your vocalist’s performance by having him adjust his distance from the mic. Experiment with turning the mic slightly, too: as off-axis response changes, the tone of the recorded vocal will change, maybe in a way you can use.
A good ribbon mic will have lots of other uses in your studio: they’re wonderful on acoustic instruments like guitars, the newer models are designed to withstand the sonic onslaught of a guitar amp, and a figure-8 ribbon can excel as the Side mic in a Mid-Side stereo arrangement.
Two out of three is pretty darn good
The moral of our story? For around $2000, you can outfit your studio with world-class examples of two of the three microphone technologies. Sure, completely covering the last of the three—condenser mics—may end up requiring a sizable investment, but no one said outfitting a studio was inexpensive, right?
Bruce Kaphan (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a recording engineer, producer, and pedal steel guitarist in California. Learn more at www.brucekaphan.com.