At some point, ribbon microphones have been used on virtually every instrument to record music since their inception in the 1920s. There are some instruments where musicians and engineers almost always reach for a ribbon, but ribbons go far beyond the tried and true instruments. They are also excellent for kick drums, toms, electric bass amps and, yes, loud, screaming vocals! Let’s take a look at places where you may not have considered using ribbon mics.
Four Places You Never Thought of Using A Ribbon
Think You Can’t Use A Ribbon — Think Again!
1. Kick Drum
Ribbon mics have captured some of the greatest kick drum sounds ever recorded. From its opening in 1956, the main mic on kick drum at Capitol Records in Hollywood was the venerable RCA R44. Many engineers love miking their kick drums with ribbon mics. Even today, ribbon mics are a secret among many of the world’s best engineers.
Back when kick drums were called “bass drums,” the standard setup for recording was to take off the resonant head and place a sandbag inside of the kick. Because sand has small pieces of metal, a towel was placed over the sandbag to protect any sand from shooting upwards. Then an RCA 44 was placed laying down on top of the towel. The wind blast from the kick drum would pass over the ribbon instead of going directly into it. The pure tone of the kick was captured by the R44.
AEA’s modern ribbon mics have such a low resonant frequency that virtually no other ribbon microphone can capture as much low end. Our mics are perfect for kick drums. In addition, the proximity effect on some mics is so large that it can make the kick drum sound huge.
On kick drum, big ribbons have been described as sounding pillowy, soft and natural. For country music, folk, jazz or even rock, a ribbon mic can be the perfect choice to capture the low kick drum sound many desire. The only thing to remember is to never put the mic directly in front of the porthole of the kick drum and always do the Hand Test to avoid blasts of air directly on the ribbon element!
Toms are often miked with ribbons, made popular in Nashville by Grammy-winning engineer, mixer, and producer, Vance Powell. Like kick drums, the low end in toms are almost too perfect for a ribbon. The most difficult part when using a ribbon on toms is positioning it in a way where the backside of the mic won’t pick up the ride cymbal and crashes.
A popular technique on floor tom is to place the mic about an inch away from the tom, under the ride cymbal with the top null pointing up at the cymbal. Position the mic slightly angled at 45 degrees with the ribbon pointing toward the tom.
The low end can sound huge, the top end is smooth and, most importantly, the small amount of bleed when positioned properly is very pleasing. Some dynamic microphones pick up bleed from the hi-hat and cymbals that can sound very harsh and bright, forcing the engineer to have to unnaturally gate the tom mics. When a ribbon is positioned correctly, the bleed can add depth to the sound of the drums.
3. Electric Bass Amp
Like kick drum and toms, electric bass has a ton of low end and one of our ribbons can be the perfect fit. As bass player and producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen (Beck, Air, Nine Inch Nails) says about his AEA N22 on his Ampeg B-15N amp: “My N22 has turned out to be an incredible bass amp mic…to such an extent that I won’t record bass without it.”
The N22, a compact near-field ribbon, is the perfect mic for electric bass when recording bass up close because of its balanced sound from only two inches (5 cm) away. It captures a perfect image of both the low-end and the top-end of the bass, helping it fit right into the mix. Its secret is balanced proximity effect from up close.
4. Yelling, Screaming, and Loud Vocals
It is understandable that many musicians and engineers hesitate to put a ribbon microphone in front of a screaming, yelling singer. Because of deeply seated myths, they often believe all the screaming will somehow hurt the ribbon. Of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth!
A ribbon on a screaming singer is often the exact microphone to use because it will help tame their harshness and sibilance. AEA ribbon mics have a higher SPL than most condensers, so there is no worry about how loud or how close the singer is to the ribbon. Many near-fields like the N22 and R92 can take a singer eating the mic and sound just fine.
The only thing to watch out for is wind blasts. With most of AEA ribbons, we recommend using a pop-filter for vocalists. This will also protect the ribbon from sudden blasts of wind.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is ribbon microphones sound good on ANYTHING. Don’t be afraid to try one in an unusual way. You might be pleasantly surprised with the result.