AEA NUVO N22 RIBBON MICROPHONE — AudioTechnology
AEA’s new phantom-powered ribbon mic sees the company continue to move away from strictly retro designs, and closer to the source.
Review: Greg Walker
Ribbon microphone technology has come a long way in the last few years, with new models targeted at specific applications. It’s no longer just ‘getting a ribbon’; there’s higher SPL-capable models for getting right up on guitar cabinets, all the way down to phantom-powered models with higher outputs for those distant-miked mouse squeaks.
AEA has been at the forefront of this evolution with the introduction of phantom-powered models like the A440 and A840. While the company’s roots are firmly planted in the fertile compost of old RCA designs — which was still evident in their newer phantom-powered models — with it’s Nuvo range, AEA has completely dispensed with the old RCA-style yokes, bodies and grills.
The N22 active ribbon mic is the first cab off the rank, and offers a contemporary looking silver body with a broad silver ‘belt’ and a funky black cloth, cutaway ribbon enclosure. Looking like a cross between an art deco ray gun and a high-end Italian coffee-making accessory, the AEA N22 definitely has presence on the end of a boom stand. The subtly embossed silver Nuvo logo on the front is a nice touch and complements the more traditional red AEA logo on top of the mic. The twin logos are a great metaphor for where a company like AEA finds itself in the second decade of the 21st century — the N22 is a thoroughly modern mic made by people who love vintage gear.
The N22 is aimed squarely at the home-studio-owning recording musician. In a Tony Abbott-like act of hard sell, the manual even describes its ideal target market singer-songwriter as ‘hard-working’. Outside of references to James Brown this is perhaps the first time I have ever seen the words ‘musician’ and ‘hard-working’ together in one sentence. On a more practical level, the N22 has been optimised for close-up miking of sources such as vocals, electric guitar cabs, piano and drum overheads while retaining enough gain to cope with more ambient room positions, and lower quality audio interfaces. The mic is built by hand in Pasadena, USA and utilises JFETs and a custom-wound German transformer. The N22 ships in a nifty black plastic case with an adequate but somewhat uninspiring mini-shockmount and an extended three-year warranty. AEA has thoughtfully enclosed a small cloth microphone sock that will protect the mic when not in use — these are particularly handy for ribbon mics whose large magnets attract small particles of all sorts. Over time these particles can build up and degrade the ribbon element, so ‘socking up’ the mic after hours is a good long-term maintenance policy.
FROWN TURNS TO SMILE
Firing up the N22 for the first time on an acoustic guitar I was pleased to hear full-bodied tone with plenty of life in the upper frequencies. The supplied chart shows a characteristically flat frequency response up to around 5kHz where the mic smoothly dips down to -10dB at 16kHz. Down low there is a gradual roll-off from around 300Hz. As is the case with all other ribbon mics, this classic ‘frowny face’ frequency emphasis means that the mic must do all its best work in the midrange, and the quality therein will decide whether it becomes a much used and loved studio tool or an occasional flavour in a recordist’s wider arsenal.
My acoustic guitar recordings revealed a sweet round midrange flavour while there was clarity in the higher frequencies and an absence of ‘mud’ down low where many cheaper ribbons start to lose definition.
In a much sterner test of the N22’s mettle I put it up alongside a Zigma C-Lol-47 condenser and a Shure SM58 on a vocal session with Richard Morrison (The Night Party). Richard is one of the louder singers going around with a lot of heat in the 1-4kHz range, and while both the other mics started to colour in a less than pleasing way on the louder passages, the N22 stayed sweet and strong all the way. I ended up using mainly the N22 with a little of the SM58 going through an amp and we got the right amount of smoothness and grit to carry the track perfectly.
On another session I used the N22 for close miking a Fender Tremolux amp running pretty hot and again the N22 didn’t break a sweat and gave a nice blend of direct signal and (much quieter) room reflections through the two poles of the mic. Again the tone was super useable and sat well in the track with a minimum of fuss.
Having earned a big thumbs up in close miking and louder applications, it was time to try the AEA in some more ambient positions on a choir recording in a large church as well as on various ensemble studio vocals where it was used as a room mic. In the church at a distance of 20m from a group of six singers I was happy with the tone but a little disappointed at the high noise floor despite trying several different preamps. There’s no published signal-to-noise spec in the otherwise excellent and informative manual. In every other application the S/N ratio wasn’t a problem but I would not recommend the N22 if you are going to do a lot of deep room miking or tracking of very quiet sources. For that, AEA offers another new ribbon (the N8 model) which is optimised for distant miking situations.
On a more positive note, the N22 did great things on strings and percussion recordings as well as delivering great room tone on drum and guitar recordings. Close up on strings it gives a lovely warm, thick and vivid picture of complex violin and cello tones while there’s no shortage of guts and weight on double bass. On percussion it dodges the most strident upper frequencies that often require taming EQ using condenser mics, while delivering more useful midrange information than most.
Since I first flicked the phantom power switch on the N22’s preamp it has made its way onto pretty much every recording I have done over the last two months — either as the main close source or as a secondary room capture where it has blended well with dynamic and condensers closer in.
ANNIE GET YOUR 22
My verdict on the AEA N22 is a very positive one. The mic is solid under pressure and performs a lot of standard recording duties with aplomb. Being optimised for close miking means it can shine in poor or limiting acoustic situations where other more sensitive ribbons might reveal too much at greater distances from the source. It also means a more controlled proximity effect than most other ribbons on the market. It has a notably even polar response and takes EQ very well allowing the user to bring all that lovely smooth top end into focus. I’ve yet to hear a bad microphone from AEA and the N22 lives up to the company’s considerable reputation for quality and vibe. While condenser microphones may be the ultimate studio all-rounders, quality active ribbons like the N22 come a surprisingly close second in terms of functionality and versatility. If you’re looking for a significant other in the ribbon microphone market, the N22 is definitely worth spending some time with.