Saturday, August 05, 2017

DIY Ribbon Microphones

     It's totally a thing.  People build their own ribbon mikes.  It seems to have started with an influx of inexpensive, Chinese-made ribbon mikes, which could be improved with better transformers, thinner foil for the ribbon, changes in internal lead dress and so on.  Eventually, some of the people making mods decided the ribbon pickup itself, the "motor," was simple enough that they might as well build their own.

     Modern materials and methods -- rare-earth magnets, 3-D printing, strong glues -- have made the construction process  far easier than it once was and tiny, powerful magnets give good output in a small package.

     Why do I care?  You see, I own a couple of the most affordable of the classic ribbon microphones: the Electro-Voice V-2.  Well, almost two; at some point after they'd stopped making ribbon mikes and run out of replacement parts, E-V began "repairing" them by removing the motor, hacking at the supports, and bolting in a simple dynamic microphone pickup!  Fraud, you say?  It was an inexpensive mic in its day; users sent in a dead mic and received back a working microphone, more rugged than the one they'd sent in. I'm sure they and E-V at the time saw it as okay.

     One of my V-2s (a V-2A, with a multi-impedance output connector) is one of those "repaired" mikes.  The years have not been kind to the old dynamic element and it doesn't sound all that great.  I'd like to make it a ribbon mike again -- and if the kit I found this morning will fit, it looks as if I can!  Otherwise, I'm in for some finicky bench work; but either way, it's possible.


Sean D Sorrentino said...

As a guy who spends a lot of time on a mic for the podcast, do you have any advice for me in mic upgrades? I've always liked the look of the classic ribbon mic, but I have zero idea if it would be anything remotely good for what I do. One day when I have the random disposable cash for a $500 mic, I assume I'll pass up buying a backup gun for my carry gun and buy an EV RE20, as that seems to be the broadcast standard.

But what makes ribbon mics good, and in what situations do they work well?

Current mic is a $60 AT2005USB that I'm using as an XLR mic into my Zoom H6. I <3 my H6.

Roberta X said...

You can get into a decent ribbon mic for around $150 these days -- certainly something good enough to decide if it is a mic you want. (MXL's R144 gets good reviews and lists under $100!) They are generally worked at slightly greater distances and have somewhat lower output, so you need a quiet room with decent acoustics. The latter is easy in most homes: we don't like to spend our time in places that sound bad. As for the former, alas, our central heating and cooling plants are usually as noisy as hell. Close the duct and close the door, and that's as good as you'll easily get. Your walls are not soundproof, either, and you'll probably get to hear passing traffic and barking dogs unless you choose recording times carefully.

Search on Amazon for "ribbon microphone;" arrange the results by price and read the reviews. There are sleepers out there (and a few lemons) but it's very close to the "Hey, let's find out" level these days. The typical weaknesses are poor transformers (replaceable but you'll drop another $150 for a good one) and poor-quality ribbons (don't even, unless you have a steady hand, a lot of time and a bit of luck); avoid those. "Modern classic" ribbon mics, like the RCA clones-and-better built by AEA, start at over 10X this and go up and up and up -- and they sell.

Care and feeding: they do not go outdoors (without some very special hardware anyway, which you don't want to have to mess with) and you never, ever, ever blow into them at close range. Modern ribbons are quite robust compared to the old ones but they're still not usable as hammer the way an E-V 635 dynamic mic is. Be sure to get a shockmount/vibration isolator -- usually a "spider" of tiny bungee-cords.

Sean D Sorrentino said...