Best Cheap Ribbon Mic Choices
In this guide, you’ll learn about ribbon mics and be presented with a list of the best cheap ribbon mics around. Buying a decent ribbon mic used to be a very expensive endeavor, but in the age of bedroom recording, the number of cheap options available to you is growing every day.
Ribbon mics are unique in their principal of operation, which is quite different from condenser mics. Their typical bidirectional polar pattern is tricky to work with, but once mastered can prove to be extremely useful in capturing ambient room acoustics along with the main sound source. If you’re in a hurry, check out our top picks. And don’t forget to listen to some audio samples to get an idea of how each one sounds!
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Last Updated: January 30th, 2020
In a Hurry? Here’s Our Top 3
8 of the Best Cheap Ribbon Mic Choices
sE Electronics X1R
Avantone Pro CR-14
MXL R144 (Best Cheap Ribbon Mic – Top Pick)
Nady RSM-5 (Best Cheap Ribbon Mic – Top Pick)
Cascade Fat Head BE (Best Cheap Ribbon Mic – Top Pick)
Sterling Audio ST170
How To Pick The Best Cheap Ribbon Mic
A list of the best cheap ribbon mics wouldn’t be complete without some tips on how to pick one. We want to make sure you choose the best cheap ribbon mic for your budget and situation. Here’s some additional advice and things to consider before you make a choice.
Treat Your Room First!
Before jumping in to a purchase, make sure your room is properly treated to cut back on excessive or undesirable noise. With the ability to record the back and front of the stereo field, you’re also recording the spatial environment in which source is located. That’s why it’s so important to make sure that your recording space is well-treated.
If you’re building a home studio, there are acoustic treatment kits available online that have everything you’ll need to reduce room reflections and noise. These kits are pretty expensive.
If you’re tight on cash, spot treatment with foam bass traps and panels will make a smaller difference. Make sure you go with at least 2″ thick on the foam panels. You can use spray adhesive to glue them to a cardboard panel, and then mount the entire thing to your walls with nails.
Pay Attention to Character
Modern ribbon microphones are generally built to provide a vintage sound, and to reproduce the harmonics and spatial nuances of their ancestors. Manufacturers focus on character.
When you’re choosing the best cheap ribbon mic that’s best suited for your goals, make sure you´re focusing on the mic’s personality rather than general fidelity. Unlike some condenser mics, where the goal is a completely flat response, the ribbon mic can be used to color your sound and add warmth when mixed in with other microphones on the same source.
Search for Sounds
The best way to get a feel for a mic’s character is by using it yourself. This isn’t always practical, but thanks to the internet, you can get pretty good idea by listening to recordings and comparisons done by others. We advise that you look for samples that are related to your goal.
If you’re an electric guitar player, make sure you’re listening to amped guitar samples. If you’re looking for a ribbon mic to record vocals, start by trying to find samples that are within your vocal range and register.
Active vs. Passive
One of the most important considerations lies in the circuitry of your ribbon mic. Active ribbons are a new development and have internal amplifiers that make them more versatile. You can plug an active ribbon mic into an audio interface without causing issues. They do require phantom power, but most modern interfaces, even the budget and entry-level models, have that capability already. Active ribbon mics are also cheaper overall when you factor in the cost of an amp.
Passive ribbon mics do not have an internal amplifier, and they require a dedicated, impedance-matched preamp in order to achieve a workable signal level. If you’re not ready to spend extra money on a preamp and you desire versatility, active ribbons are the better choice.
Choosing a Preamp for Your Passive Ribbon Mic
Passive ribbon mics have a very low sensitivity, and therefore low signal output levels. To get the most out of your passive ribbon mic, we suggest using a preamp to boost the signal levels. Pay attention to the following parameters when searching for a mic preamp:
- Gain: Your preamp should have at least 60 dB of clean gain. If you’re recording very quiet sounds, 70 dB or more is recommended.
- Preamp input impedance: Your preamp needs a high enough impedance as to not restrict the movement of the ribbon. Restricted movement will make the mic even quieter, requiring even more gain and opening up the potential for added noise. On top of this, your bass response will be effected and the mic will sound weak and dull.In the list of mic specs, you’ll see “recommended load impedance” or “rated load impedance.” It’s typically 5 to 10 times the mic output impedance, and this is the number you should shoot for for your preamp input impedance.
Again, if you’re using an active ribbon mic, a dedicated and matched preamp is not a requirement. Active ribbon mics were designed to work well on a variety of preamps, making them good for touring bands and musicians.
Why Use a Ribbon Mic?
Even the best cheap ribbon mics have a unique design that allows for an even more unique signature sound. They’re great for stereo recording, they’re extremely versatile, and they’re often described as the most “natural” sounding microphones out there.
Smooth high-end, warm darkness, & excellent transient response
The treble roll-off in most ribbon mics can help tame even the shrillest of sounds. Great applications in this sense are miking drum overheads and harsh guitar cabinets.
Ribbons tuned to lower resonant frequencies are excellent at capturing low-frequency sources like bass strings, kick drums, or bass guitar.
The ultra-low mass of the ribbon makes it great for capturing transients, again adding to the power the ribbon mic has when capturing drum overheads.
Natural stereo sound
The bidirectional nature of the ribbon mic makes many of them ideal for stereo work. A ribbon mic will add to your stereo recordings by providing a natural feel with a smooth and tempered high-end. Ribbon mics work well when recording in stereo using the Blumlein pair arrangement.The bidirectional pattern also makes your best cheap ribbon mic choice wonderful for capturing room acoustics and reverberation that may not be nearly as pronounced with a unidirectional microphone.
How do Ribbon Mics Work?
An understanding of how the ribbon mic works and how to care for your ribbon mic is essential knowledge for any recording engineer. The ribbon mic was made popular by the broadcasting and television industry ever since it was invented by an RCA engineer in the 1920s, but it’s still used today by audio professionals and musicians. In comparison to condenser mics and moving-coil dynamic mics, ribbon mics work differently to capture audio.
A ribbon microphone uses an extremely thin electric conductor (the ribbon), placed between the two poles of a magnet. The ribbon is sensitive to air velocity, and is usually made of corrugated aluminum less than 10 microns thick. For perspective, the human hair is only 50 microns thick. Even the best cheap ribbon mics have a ribbon that is extremely thin with a very low mass that enables it to move easily as sound pressure waves pass over it.
As the ribbon moves with the sound waves, it interacts with the magnetic field and induces a current in the ribbon and in the wires. This current is fed into a transformer and then usually an amplifier before eventually making it to your monitors or headphones.
Keep in mind that the electrical signal generated by the ribbon mic is an analog signal that needs to be converted to a digital signal by an audio interface or a converter for your computer or DAW to be able to understand.
Ribbon Tension & Corrugation
There are different physical properties of the ribbon itself that can drastically change the way the mic sounds. The ribbon is corrugated to make it springier and to allow for a wider range of tensions. Furthermore, the way the ribbon is corrugated and the corrugation density can actually change the range of allowable tensions.
The tension of the ribbon is extremely important. Tension determines the resonant frequency of the ribbon, which in turn will effect the frequency response of the mic. The best ribbon mics are tuned to a low enough resonant frequency to allow for a linear output at frequencies above that.
Tuning to slightly below 20 Hz is common as it will cover the entire audible range (20 Hz to 20 kHz) and allows for excellent bass response. But too low of a tension will result in excessive sub-sonic frequencies in the signal.
Some ribbon mics are tuned higher, with resonant frequencies in the 60 Hz to 70 Hz range. This results in a bass roll-off below this range and a much less-pronounced bass response. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it really depends on what you’re after. Just be aware that higher tension usually means less low-end. Even the best cheap ribbon mic can lose tension over time. It’s good practice to tune and retension your ribbon mic every so often to ensure reliable operation.
Ribbon Length, Width, & Thickness
With the importance of resonant frequency, it only makes sense from a physical standpoint that the length of the ribbon itself plays a big role. The longer the ribbon, the lower the potential resonant frequency can be, and this allows for an extended bass response.
A longer ribbon also allows for a further displacement from the equilibrium position, and therefor makes longer ribbons capable of handling higher sound pressure levels (SPL).
The ribbon width, on the other hand, is directly tied to the signal output level of the motor assembly. Wider ribbons create lower signal output levels, and vice versa. Halving the width of the ribbon will effectively double the signal output level.
The ribbon thickness is usually under 10 microns, and it’s tied directly to the transient response of the microphone. A thicker ribbon is heavier and therefore moves slower. This means thicker ribbons exhibit a less precise transient response. Thinner is better in this sense, and the best cheap ribbon mics all have very thin ribbons.
Best Cheap Ribbon Mic: Wrapping it Up
If you’re a musician looking to add something special to your recorded sounds, a brand-new ribbon mic can be just what you need. These microphones look great, add character to your voice or instrument, and are cheap enough nowadays that hobbyists and semi-pro producers can get their hands on them.
Don’t forget to keep in mind the following before pulling the trigger on a purchase:
- Active vs. Passive – Active ribbon mics are more versatile, don’t require a dedicated preamp, and are the cheaper option overall. A passive ribbon mic requires a preamp with an input impedance specifically rated for the mic. This incurs additional costs.
- Character – What does the frequency response curve look like? Listen to some sampled audio to get an idea of the sonic personality of your mic.
- Application – Will you be recording guitar? Drums? Vocals? Again, sampled audio of the instrument or sound you want to record will help.
- Room treatment – Before getting a mic, it’s really important to make sure you have a relatively dry recording environment.
That’s it! We hope this guide helps you make the best choice for your cheap ribbon mic purchase. Leave a comment below and let us know which one you went with.