Ribbon Microphone vs Condenser

The crown jewel of every modern recording studio is it’s mic cabinet. Inside, you’ll commonly find dozens of microphones of all shapes, sizes, and types, each used for a specific situation or application. Using the right mic for the job is a fusion between both science and art, as is the case with many other aspects of audio production. In this ribbon microphone vs condenser comparison, we’ll investigate the inner workings of the two and look at major differences in design, function, and utility. Let’s dig in.

What is a Ribbon Microphone?

In order to compare a ribbon microphone vs a condenser, we need to know what they are, exactly. First up to the plate is the ribbon mic. A ribbon microphone, like all other microphones, is simply an electromechanical device that converts pressure oscillations in the air (otherwise known as sound) into an electrical signal. The principles of operation vary from type to type, and ribbon microphones have their own unique design, too.

How It Works

Ribbon microphones are dynamic mics that have history that dates back to the 1920s. They contain a thin sheet of highly conductive metal – the ribbon. The ribbon is commonly made of aluminum and suspended between the poles of a permanent magnet. The ribbon is very sensitive to pressure oscillations in the air since it has a very low mass. When sound waves hit the ribbon, they induce a voltage that is then transmitted through wires connected to the top and bottom of the ribbon. Finally, the signal is sent to a transformer that increases the voltage.

Ribbon microphone

The ribbon is suspended between the North and South poles of a strong permanent magnet.

Ribbon mics are sometimes called velocity mics because the induced voltage is proportional to the velocity of the ribbon. This is in contrast to the condenser microphone, which we’ll look at in a bit.

Resilient Materials Enhance Reliability

The aluminum ribbon is extremely thin and can be much thinner than a human air. Therefore, the ribbon itself used to be susceptible to physical damage. However, modern advancements in materials science and technology have allowed for more resilient models to appear in the market. In the present day, ribbon mics are much more rugged and can even stand up to stage use during extremely loud live performances.

Polar Pattern

A mic’s polar pattern is it’s sensitivity as a function of the position of the sound source. This means the perceived loudness or volume of the signal varies as either:

  1. we move the mic in relation to the sound source
  2. we move the sound source in relation to the mic
Polar pattern figure eight

A typical figure-8 polar pattern. The front and back of a mic with this polar pattern would be facing 0 and 180 degrees, while the sides would be facing 90 and 270 degrees.

Ribbon mics usually have a bidirectional figure-8 polar pattern. This means they are sensitive to sound coming from two opposing directions, and they reject sound coming from the other two directions. However, they can also be designed to have other polar patterns such as omnidirectional, cardioid and cardioid variants, and even variable patterns, although this is less common.

King of Darkness

A microphone’s frequency response, in simple terms, is how the mic changes the sound. Due to the nature of their operation, ribbon mics are usually considered to be darker mics. “Dark” and “bright” are just words used to describe the presence or absence of high-frequency energy in the frequency spectrum. A bright mic will have more presence in the treble end of the spectrum, while a dark mic will have less presence there.

The ribbon microphone’s darker nature is due to the difference in way the ribbon interacts with high frequency sounds in comparison to low frequency sounds. The ribbon moves faster when exposed to lows and mids than when exposed to highs, and therefore produces a frequency response with a slight roll-off in the high-end. This roll-off creates a frequency response similar to the human ear, and is responsible for the ribbon mic’s reputation as the most natural-sounding microphone around.

Uses & Applications

Given the warmth and darker nature of the ribbon microphone, it would seem as if it would be a poor choice to capture sounds that have high-frequency spectral content. While they do a fantastic job of capturing the rich lows and mids of instruments like the electric guitar, an assortment of brass instruments, and woodwind instruments, we should not exclude them as a choice for recording sounds that contain higher tones. In fact, they capture the high-end with accuracy that rivals the condenser mic, and their lack of brightness can be quickly and easily fixed by some equalization in the mix.

Due to their bidirectional nature and their ability to almost completely block noise from the sides, ribbon mics are excellent choices for recording in stereo. A common technique used to record using ribbon microphones in stereo is called the Blumlein pair. Here, the ribbon mics are placed head on, end-to-end, and at 90° angles to one another as shown below.

fathead blumlein pair

A Blumlein pair of Cascade Fat Head ribbon mics used for stereo recording.

Another strength the ribbon mic has over condensers is it’s sensitivity to sound sources in close proximity. This makes the ribbon mic great for recording in less-than-ideal environments, as they will be less prone to picking up ambient room noise from further away.

What is a Condenser Microphone?

Up next, let’s talk about the condenser microphone. Like the ribbon, the condenser simply converts sound into electricity. However, the way it does this is quite different. The word “condenser” carries the same meaning as “capacitor” in this context. If you remember from high school physics, a capacitor is the circuit element we use to store electrical charge. Herein lies a fundamental difference in the ribbon microphone vs condenser microphone. The ribbon mic doesn’t use variations in capacitance to generate an electrical signal.

How It Works

The condenser microphone has two main components that interact with each other to generate an electrical signal. We call them the diaphragm, and the backplate. We refer to these two components together as the capsule.

The diaphragm is a very thin sheet of conductive material, commonly gold-sputtered Mylar. It’s mounted in close proximity to the back plate.

The back plate is simply a piece of metal that is electrically charged. Unless they utilize an electret design, condenser mics require phantom power in order to charge the back plate and create capacitance. Herein lies another key difference in ribbon microphones vs condenser microphones – ribbon mics do not require phantom power.

As sound waves pass over the diaphragm, they cause the diaphragm to vibrate and move. As the diaphragm moves relative to the back plate, it changes the capacitance between the two and sends current through the wires connected to them. The output signal then gets fed to a preamp.

Polar Pattern

Condenser mics can have a wide variety of polar patterns. The most common is the cardioid pattern. Cardioid mics are sensitive to sound from the front and reject sound from the back. This pattern works well for single sound sources like a singer, rapper, or a single instrumentalist. Condensers can also have bidirectional figure-8 patterns, omnidirectional patterns, and even variable patterns. More advanced patterns usually need two diaphragms to get the job done. Ultimately, the pattern used will depend on the situation at hand.

Polar pattern cardioid

A typical cardioid polar pattern. A mic with this polar pattern is most sensitive from the front, facing 0 degrees. The rear at 180 degrees rejects sound coming from that direction.

Frequency Response

Condensers have a wide array of frequency responses, too. This gives each mic its own character. Some are bright, some are warm, and some are neutral. The only way to determine the character of a condenser mic without actually hearing it in person or listening to a recording is to look at the frequency response curve. Many manufacturers provide this data, but a fair amount do not. This can make buying a condenser mic online a bit of a challenge.

A big part of the way a condenser sounds is subjective, too. There are slight differences in the frequency response of the human ear. This means everyone hears a bit differently. One person’s bright may be another’s neutral.

Uses & Applications

We can further break condenser mics down into two sub-categories: large-diaphragm and small-diaphragm condensers. As the names imply, this has to do with the size of the diaphragm. Each type has different applications and specialties.

  • Large-diaphragm condensers are better suited for recording lower-frequency sounds. These include kick drums, guitar, and deep vocals. The larger diaphragm is better at picking up lower frequencies due to the higher mass of the diaphragm.
  • Small-diaphragm condenser mics are great for recording the fast transients found in drum kits. This is due to the fact that the smaller diaphragm has less mass and is more sensitive to higher frequencies and quick decay times. SDCs are also known to be more neutral in general, possibly due to their raw accuracy when it comes to recording audio.

Overall, condensers are versatile microphones. We can use them to record almost anything. Some will be better at recording certain things than others, though. This is where frequency response, polar pattern, and diaphragm size will come into play.

Ribbon Microphone vs Condenser Microphone Summary

Condenser Ribbon
Polar patterns Usually cardioid, can be omni, figure-8, supercardioid, hypercardioid Usually figure-8, can be omni, cardioid, supercardioid, hypercardioid
Frequency response Varies, some are warm, some are bright, and some are neutral Characteristically dark or warm
Uses Record a wide variety of sounds. Cardioid condensers are popular for vocals. Great for podcasts with two people, recording brass, woodwinds, and electric guitar. Low sensitivity to ambient noise.
Principle of operation Variation in capacitance Electromagnetic induction
Phantom power required? Yes No
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