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The 7 Best Ribbon Microphones For Home Studio Recording (Under $1,000)

by | Microphones | 4 comments

Ribbon microphones are known in the industry as being the “elite” class of mics.

When the ribbon mic was first introduced in the early 1930s, it offered the highest resolution and fidelity of any recording or broadcast microphone available at the time.

Its reputation as the warmest and most natural sounding mic was created by countless recordings (Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, etc.) from the 1940s to 1960s that are now classics.

Today, producers and engineers use ribbon mics to record acoustic instruments, drums, wind instruments, harp, vocals and more.  They value ribbon mics as a good counterpoint to the “coldness” of digital recording technology by adding their characteristic sonic warmth.

Today’s ribbon mics are sturdier and more reliable than the ribbon mics of past decades, which has led to a resurgence in their use in both professional and home studios.

Ribbon mics are known for bringing a velvety smoothness to a recorded vocal or instrumental track, evening out the lows and softening the highs.

The sound is often described as silky yet modern.  They don’t sound as bright as condensers, or as punchy as dynamic mics.  They’re useful for taming harsh sounding instruments that don’t sound good on condenser mics.

If you are looking for a warm old-school 50s, 60s, or 70s vibe, especially on vocals, a ribbon is just the mic for you.

Best Uses For Ribbon Mics

Ribbon mics are popular choices for:

  • vocals
  • acoustic guitar
  • violins
  • woodwinds
  • electric guitar amps
  • harp
  • drum kit overheads

Although ribbons mics are quite fragile, counterintuitively they are frequently used on loud sound sources like electric guitar amps or close mics for trumpet or other loud brass instruments, or with screamer vocalists.

Today’s Ribbon Mics

In decades past, ribbons were quite expensive and really only available to professional studios with large microphone budgets.

Today, however, manufacturers have been able to produce studio quality microphones at an affordable price.

Review Criteria

In this article, I’ve chosen the 6 best ribbon microphones for home recording that range from $250 up to $1,000.

All mics included in my reviews were chosen based on their widespread use and reputation in the professional music community.

I’ve also added my insights gained from 25+ years of experience running a very successful music production company, creating Audio Addiction Music Library, a production music library with global distribution, and recording in major studios.

Beginner’s Guide To Buying Microphones

First off, if you are new to buying microphones, please check out my Beginner’s Guide to Buying Microphones For Your Home Recording Studio.  You’ll learn exactly what a dynamic mic is, how mics work, mic polar patterns, when to use them, and much more.

The 6 Best Ribbon Microphones For
Home Studio Recording Under $1,000

Avantone Audio CR-14

Ribbon mics are usually pretty expensive – most of the mics I review here are over $500 each.

But Avantone figured out a way to produce a studio quality ribbon microphone for half that price, and it’s received very positive reviews for its sound.

If you want a ribbon mic and only have $300 to spend, then this is your best choice.  You’ll get a mic that delivers the warm and silky old-school vibe that ribbons are known for.

It shines on vocals, brass, and guitar amps, but it could be the perfect mic for other instruments like acoustic guitar, depending on the sound you are looking for.

Avantone Audio CR-14

Check price:
Amazon | Guitar Center

Avantone CR-14 Specs:

  • Figure-8 pickup pattern
  • 30 Hz – 15 kHz frequency response
  • Max SPL: 145dB
  • Includes shock mount, wooden mix box and metal case

Beyerdynamic M160

6 Best Ribbon Microphones For Home Studio Recording - Beyer M160 on hit recordsBeyerdynamic, also known as Beyer, is a well-known German manufacturer of microphones and headphones that are best known for their first-class ribbon microphones.

The M160 is a legendary ribbon mic used in countless records and audio productions since its introduction in 1952.

What makes this mic so special?  The M160 utilizes a double ribbon design that produces a warm and natural transparent sound with extended frequency response.

It is also the only ribbon I know of that is a hyper cardioid mic as opposed to the normal figure-8 polar pattern.  This enables it to be used in different recording situations than a standard ribbon mic.

The M160 is a very versatile mic.  On its website, Beyer recommends its use for violins, violas, cellos, saxes and piano.

But producers and engineers have made it a first-call mic on two different instruments that Beyer didn’t include: drum kits and electric guitars.

The classic John Bonham/ Led Zeppelin drum sound made famous on hits like “When The Levee Breaks” and “Stairway To Heaven” were recorded with just two M-160s as overhead mics!

When The Levee Breaks

But as you can see from the Hit Records box, top producers and engineers love its sound on electric guitars too.  Grammy –award winning producer Eddie Kramer used the M160 as the mic of choice on Hendrix’s vocals and guitar tracks.

With a heritage like this, you can’t go wrong with this classic mic!

Beyerdynamic M160

Check price:
AmazonGuitar Center

Beyer M160 Specs:

  • Hypercardioid pattern pickup pattern
  • 40 Hz – 18 kHz frequency response
  • Includes swivel adapter, foam windscreen and carrying case

Frequency response chart:
Click image for larger popup

Audio Technica AT4081

The Audio Technica AT4081 is another classic ribbon mic that provides the smooth and natural sound you expect from a ribbon.

Like the Beyer M160, the AT4081 utilizes a double ribbon design that adds a smooth, warm, and natural sound to recordings.

Its low-profile side-address stick design allows users to place the mic in tight spots.

It has found widespread use on a wide range of instruments, including horns, strings, drum overheads, orchestras and more.

The AT4081 is an active ribbon mic that, unlike most ribbons mics, requires phantom power.  The active design has the benefits of a higher output level than traditional ribbon mics, which means less preamp gain in required which results in quieter recordings.

But for you studio beginners, don’t worry!  Just about all mixing boards or mic preamps can provide the 48-volt power required, so this will not be a problem. (The XLR mic cable carries the power as well as the audio signal).

And because it can handle high SPLs, the AT4081 is also commonly used on and guitar cabinets in recording studios and live-sound settings.

Audio Technica AT4081

Check price:
Amazon

Audio-Technica AT4081 Specs:

  • Figure-8 pickup pattern pickup pattern
  • 30 Hz – 18 kHz frequency response
  • Max SPL: 150 dB
  • Includes stand clamp, adapter, windscreen and carrying case

Frequency response chart:
Click image for larger popup

Blue Microphones Woodpecker

The Woodpecker is Blue Microphones’ first ribbon mic and uses their many years of microphone design savvy to create a ribbon mic that rivals the Beyer M160 and Audio Technica AT4081.

Typical of Blue Mic’s products, the Woodpecker has a very stylish look, with a retro wood finish and gold components.

The Woodpecker has a highly focused mid-range, ultra-smooth top end, and outstanding bass response.  It also excels at ambient recording, capturing room tone with very fine detail.

Like the Audio-Technica AT4081, the Woodpecker is an active ribbon mic that requires phantom power.  Again, just about all mixing boards or mic preamps can output the 48-volt power required, so this should not be a problem. (The XLR mic cable carries the power as well as the audio signal).

The active design has the benefits of a higher output level than regular ribbon mics, so you’ll use less preamp gain for quieter recordings with a better signal-to-noise ratio.

The Woodpecker is at the top of our price range, but it delivers a ton of value for the money!

Blue Microphones Woodpecker

Check price:
Amazon

Blue Mics Woodpecker Specs:

  • Figure-8 pickup pattern pickup pattern
  • 20 Hz – 20 kHz frequency response
  • Max SPL: 136dB
  • Includes shock mount and wood box

Frequency response chart:
Click image for larger popup

Royer Labs R-101

Royer Labs is known for one thing: ribbon mics.  Even today, they are hand-built in Burbank, CA using the highest-quality materials and top-notch engineering and design.

In fact, Royer won a Technical Grammy Award in 2013 for its contributions to the recording arts.

The R-101 is a less expensive version of their classic R-121.  Despite the price difference, this mic delivers that classic ribbon sound quality that you expect from Royer.

The R-101 itself has won quite a few awards, including the 2011 and 2012 TEC Awards.

Though ribbon mics are known for being fragile (don’t drop it or blow into it!) it can withstand high sound pressure levels (SPLs), so it’s the perfect choice for miking guitar amps, brass instruments, drums, and percussion.

The R-101 has a unique feature where a different audio quality is accessible by recording from each side of the ribbon element:

  • The front side creates a darker tone than the rear and is good for overly bright sound sources.
  • The rear of the mic is quite a bit brighter than the front and is often preferred on vocals, acoustic guitars, and other stringed instruments. Many users love its sound on female vocals, where it gives a bright open sound without sounding brash or brittle.

Taking advantage of the mic’s figure-8 polar pattern, recordings can benefit nicely from room ambiance that is picked up when miking your subject at a distance.

It has a built-in wind screen and an internal shock mount system.

And like all Royer mics, the R-101 comes with a lifetime warranty to the original owner and the first re-ribbon is free.

Listen to the R-101 here.

Royer Labs R-101

Check price:
AmazonGuitar Center

Royer Labs R-101 Specs:

  • Figure-8 pickup pattern
  • 30 Hz – 15 kHz frequency response
  • Includes shock mount, carrying case and mic sock

Frequency response chart:
Click image for larger popup

Royer Labs R-121

royer-r-121-hitsYes, I know that this mic is beyond our $1,000 limit, but no review of ribbon mics would be complete without including the Royer R-121.

First released in 1998, the R-121 is the flagship in Royer’s ribbon mic line. It was the winner of the 2008 TEC Awards.

Since its release, it has become the go-to mic for recording electric guitars and brass.  It also works beautifully for drums and percussion, woodwinds, acoustic piano, acoustic guitar, strings, choirs, and orchestras.

For vocals, it provides the classic warm natural tone and flat frequency response that ribbons are known for.

Like the R-101, the R-121 can capture different audio qualities by recording from each side of the ribbon element.

At distances of three feet and closer, the back side of the R-121 has a slightly brighter response than the front side. It’s a subtle difference, but very useful when recording acoustic instruments, vocals and other sound sources that might require a little more top end.

Like all Royer mics, the R-101 comes with a lifetime warranty to the original owner and the first re-ribbon is free.

It’s available in both nickel and black finishes.

Listen to the R-121 here.

Royer Labs R-121

Check price:
AmazonGuitar Center

Royer Labs R-121 Specs:

  • Figure-8 pickup pattern
  • 30 Hz – 15 kHz frequency response
  • Max SPL: 135dB
  • Includes swivel adapter, foam windscreen and carrying case

Frequency response chart:
Click image for larger popup

There is also a newer active version of the R-121, the Royer R-122.  Check it out!

AEA R84

aea-r84-hitsAEA is probably one of the least-known manufacturers of mics to the hobbyist and semi-pro studio owner.  However, they have been in the ribbon mic business for decades and are well-known to pro users.

AEA began as a company in 1976 after GE closed its RCA mic division.  At first, they focused on servicing the classic RCA 44 ribbon mics that had been staples of radio and TV broadcasts and professional studios since the 1930s.

They eventually moved into making their own version of the RCA 44, the AEA R44C.  Unfortunately, the R44C is out of the price range of most studio owners as it retails for around $3,700.

The good news is that the R84 is a lower-priced model that shares many of the unique sound characteristics of the R44C.

AEA calls it, “the R44 for us married guys.”  It is well-suited for both close-up recording and ambient mic applications in medium-sized rooms.

The R84 is known for that “AEA big ribbon” sound, with a smooth natural sound with rich mids and lows and a smooth top end.

It is a workhorse mic ideal for a wide range of instruments including brass, strings, percussion, electric guitar and bass.

The mic does fall slightly above our $1,000 price ceiling, but what the heck, it’s worth it!

AEA R84

Check price:
Amazon

AEA R84 Specs:

  • Figure-8 pickup pattern pickup pattern
  • 20 Hz – 20 kHz frequency response
  • Max SPL: 165 dB
  • Includes shock mount, 10-foot mic cable, and case

Frequency response chart:
Click image for larger popup

Conclusion

Ribbon microphones definitely have a place in the mic lockers of serious studio owners, producers, and engineers.  Their “old-school” sound definitely helps warm up digital recordings, and their unique sonic capabilities help to create fantastic sounding tracks.

These 7 ribbon mics should cover your ribbon mic needs for many years to come!

One final thing: Don’t forget a high-quality mic preamp to get the best sound from your new mic!

 

 

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