What is a Ribbon Microphone? How does it work? Features? Advantages, Disadvantages, and Usage

There are various types of microphones such as Condenser Microphone, Dynamic Microphone, USB Microphone, etc. Ribbon Microphone is also one of the microphones which many people prefer for instrumentals or high sound pressure recordings.

The ribbon microphone was first invented in the early 1930s, and the original design was so successful that it has barely been changed in the ensuing decades.

In this post, I am sharing everything you should know about the microphone with a ribbon microphone, how it works, and much more.

sE Electronics X1R Passive Ribbon Microphone

What is a Ribbon Microphone?

A ribbon microphone is a type of microphone that uses a thin ribbon (or strips) of aluminum foil suspended in the magnetic field to transduce the vibrations in the air (sound) into an electrical signal.

The aluminum ribbon microphone is the most common type of ribbon microphone, and it’s the only kind of ribbon microphone that you will see in professional studios.

They are the oldest type of microphone in common usage, predating the invention of the dynamic microphone by nearly twenty years. Still, they are rarely used in modern music because their high cost and fragility make them impractical for most applications.

What are the features of a Ribbon Microphone?

Ribbon microphones are a very popular microphone for recording due to their extended frequency response, low noise characteristics, and their above-average transient response.

Ribbon microphones have a wider frequency response than most other types (which means they can pick up more detail in the sounds you record), they’re built to handle high sound pressure levels (which makes them ideal for use in loud environments, like recording live music), and they’re generally easier to maintain than other microphones (since they don’t have delicate moving parts).

Despite the fact that ribbon microphones are generally considered to have a vintage sound, they require more care when operating than a typical microphone.

With ribbons, the frequency response is dependent upon the ribbon width and spacing, usually given as a ratio of ribbon width to ribbon spacing. A ribbon microphone is characterized by excellent frequency response and transient response.

Additionally, a ribbon can also be used for the passive pickup of acoustic instruments, as they have a very high output compared to condenser microphones.

A ribbon microphone produces a very thin sound, so it translates well to the recording of instruments such as cymbals, which would otherwise be too harsh sounding.

How does Ribbon Microphone work?

The ribbon microphone has been around for a long time. In fact, it was invented even before the first moving coil microphone. It is a type of microphone in which a ribbon, which is a thin metallic strip, is suspended in a magnetic field of a permanent magnet. It comes in two varieties: single ribbon and dual ribbon.

Bidirectional Polar Pattern of Ribbon Microphone (image by wikipedia)
Bidirectional Polar Pattern of Ribbon Microphone (image by Wikipedia)

The basic principle behind ribbon microphones is that the ribbon is in the middle of the magnetic field. The single ribbon microphone has just one ribbon suspended in the center of the magnetic field, while the dual ribbon microphone has two ribbons suspended in the center of the magnetic field.

You should look for the following things in Ribbon Microphone when you are getting yourself one:

  • Sensitivity
  • Output Impedance
  • Frequency Response Range
  • Polar Pattern
  • Max SPL
  • Pricing
Principle-of-Operation-Ribbon-Microphone
Principle-of-Operation-Ribbon-Microphone

Advantages & Disadvantages of Ribbon Microphone

Advantages of Ribbon Microphone

  • Ribbon Microphones are very sensitive and accurate
  • Ribbon microphones have a very low noise
  • Ribbon microphones tend not to pick up lots of background noise
  • Ribbon microphones can be very expensive
  • Ribbon microphones are good to produce a thin and tinny sound

Disadvantages of Ribbon Microphone

  • Ribbon microphones can be very large and heavy
  • Ribbon microphones are very sensitive to air movements
  • It is very difficult to achieve a tight polar pattern
  • The ribbon is fragile and susceptible to damage
  • Ribbon microphones are not as popular as dynamic microphones
  • Ribbon microphones require more maintenance

What is Ribbon Microphones best for?

Ribbon microphones are often described as the most natural-sounding microphones available, and for good reason: they condenser microphones that use a thin ribbon of aluminum foil to pick up sound (instead of a solid diaphragm).

This results in a more open sound due to a wider frequency range, and less susceptibility to plosives (popping Ps).

Ribbon Microphones are best for:

  • Vocals
  • Instruments
  • Drums
  • Voice Over
  • Kick Drums
  • Acoustic Instruments
  • Toms
  • Harps
  • Acoustic Pianos
  • Overheads
  • Snare Drums
  • Ambient Recordings

Who invented Ribbon Microphone?

Invented in 1927 by Chester W. Rice and Edward W. Kellogg, the ribbon microphone was created for the Bell System.

They were used for telephone applications. The original units were hand-wound by Kellogg and Rice.

One of the first commercially manufactured ribbon microphones was the RCA 77-A. It was used in 1939 for the radio show “Amos ‘n’ Andy.” The RCA 77-A was set up opposite from the stage and off to one side. This allowed the voice of the performer to cross the sound-on-disc pickup, which was mounted on a separate stand. The radio show was recorded in the NBC studios in Chicago.

The largest ribbon microphone ever made was played by a man who was a member of the Grateful Dead. His name was Phil Lesh.

Do Ribbon Microphones need phantom power?

Phantom power is a means to power condenser microphones, but some ribbon microphones require it while others do not. This is due to the nature of the ribbon microphone and how it works.

Phantom power is a supply of 48 volts of DC current from a condenser microphone that stabilizes the charge on the microphone’s capacitors and is used in most condenser microphones.

Phantom power is supplied to the microphone via pin 2 on XLR connectors. Some ribbon microphones do not take advantage of this phantom power. However, many ribbon microphones have a switch known as a “serpentine” switch that can be used.

The disadvantages are that they are more fragile, and require phantom power to operate.

Best Ribbon Microphones in 2021

Conclusion

This is it! I have covered everything about the Ribbon Microphone. If you are interested then you can also check out more information on other types of microphones which are condenser microphone and dynamic microphone.

I will update this article with some of the best ribbon microphones by testing them out by myself. If you still want to know anything else about the Ribbon Microphone then do let me know in the comments below. Until then, check out:
What Does a Shock Mount Do for a Mic?
How to Connect Multiple Microphones to a Computer?
Top 5 Best Microphone Under $200 in 2021
Top 5 Best Microphones for Acoustic Guitars in 2021
How to Make Your Voice Deeper On the Mic?

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