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The search for new ribbon microphone angle

28 Mar 2016  | Tim McCune

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Custom tape-wound toroidal transformers also improved the design, Perrotta said. And the final piece for some designs was the addition of a phantom-powered FET stage. Originally Royer Labs used another FET manufacturer, but switched to Linear Systems' parts. "We obtained some samples of the LSK series FETs from Linear Systems, and we made a comparison between LIS's FETs and the other company's FETs, and LIS's FETs were quieter, at about a tenth of the price," Perrotta said.

Royer Labs uses Linear Systems JFETs on their phantom-powered microphones, the R-122, the SF-2, and the SF-24. (The R-122V is a vacuum tube powered version.)

Royer said adding an active capability addresses a feature of ribbon microphones – low sensitivity – that's often a drawback. "If you're trying to record a smaller group, and you have the microphones back away from the sound source, so that the microphones are hearing the entire group rather than being used really close, you're liable to run into noise problems."

"With traditional passive ribbon microphones, you had better have very quiet preamplifiers if you're going to use them for distant miking," Royer said. "Otherwise, the deficiencies of the preamplifiers you're using will bite you on the nose. Since we couldn't control the preamplifiers that people have, the active microphone does a nice end run around that problem."

Diversity of microphone preamps on the market

Another issue addressed by adding the active JFET element was the diversity of microphone preamps on the market with wildly varying input impedances, Royer said. "Ribbon microphones can be finicky about the load impedance of the following preamplifier," he said. "If the impedance goes too low, you risk losing low-frequency response with the mics."

"The point of all of this is that with the diversity of microphone preamp designs, you can end up with a certain make and model of a ribbon microphone sounding downright thin with one make of preamplifier, and it sounding right with another," Royer said. "With the active electronics, you can design the electronics so the ribbon sees a load that is pre-determined, and that is unchanging. Then, the output circuit of the electronics are arranged so that with any reasonable following preamplifier, the performance of the microphone's internal electronics will not be upset to the point that it'll make for obvious differences in the frequency response of the mic."

Patents and design advancements don't always translate into user satisfaction, and for artists it's the sound they hear when recordings are played back that matters. Perrotta was a Los Angeles studio owner/engineer (Golden Sound in Hollywood and Baby'O Recorders) who along with fellow music-scene veterans John Jennings and Rafael Villafane added depth to the artists' perspective at Royer Labs.

Royer said working with artists to help them discover how best to use a microphone can be tricky. "Basically, I think the best way to boil that down is to set a microphone up and have the artist listen to the playback," he said. "Like it or not, I think when it comes to sound quality, we still are sort of in a position of it being at least as much of an art as it is a science."

"My take on it is that when it comes to setting microphones up to make a recording, you almost have to approach it as if you were a photographer doing a photograph," Royer said. "My question for you is that, if you were going to take a photo of the Grand Canyon, can you boil that down to a really nice, tidy formula? I don't believe so."

"You pretty much have to go to a spot that you want to take a photo from, and you have to make value judgements about the interplay of the light and shadow, and perhaps take several photos with different aperture settings and different focal length lenses," Royer said. "See which one flies. You have to do a similar thing when it comes to setting microphones up to make a recording of anything."


About the author
Tim McCune is the President and Member of the Board of Directors of Linear Integrated Systems.


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