AEA R92 - AudioTechnology
Ribbon microphone technology is celebrating a renaissance. Calum Orr paints a glowing portrait of AEA’s latest transducer offering.
AEA (Audio Engineering Associates) may be a relative newcomer to the world of ribbon mic manufacturing, but its chief designer and company founder, Wes Dooley, is an old hand at it. Mr Dooley has a long list of credits both academically and in the field. From white papers on stereo recording techniques delivered to the Audio Engineering Society (AES), to using and servicing RCA and Coles ribbon mics (both well known and historical ribbon manufacturers), Dooley has spent his life in the audio business.
AEA already has two other ribbon mics on the market: the R84 and R88, both of which have received high praise in serious audio circles in recent times, including previous issues of AT (see Issue 37 for Greg Simmons’ review of the R88). The R84 in particular has already developed a solid reputation, which has seen the mic grow rapidly into a virtual industry standard. The third and latest microphone to be added to the company’s small but well-credentialed inventory is the R92.
Sum & Deference
Different to the other models both visually and sonically (although still unmistakably an AEA), the R92 ribbon is oval shaped, with a matte aluminum finish on both ends. The central body of the mic, which houses the all-important two-inch, 1.8-micron-thick aluminum ribbon element, has a strong steel mesh covered by a black satin material to protect it from wind blasts and plosives from the outside world. To that end, the R92 has been specifically designed to cater to close miking duties, from vocals to electric guitar amps, and is able to cope with a maximum SPL of 135dB.
It seems a distant memory now to think back to a time (not so long ago) when ribbons were deemed too fragile to be placed in front of loud sound sources like guitar amps. But things have turned around for ribbon mics generally, no longer the fragile and virtually forgotten microphone design they had unjustly become. AEA has contributed a great deal to this renaissance, becoming rapidly renowned for its beautifully solid and powerful representation of guitar amps, brass and other loud and strident instruments. Moreover, this rebirth has in some ways been given a leg up by the widespread, almost ubiquitous acceptance of modern digital recording formats. As people search for ways and methods around the tonal and transient response of digital recorders, and tape becomes a distant memory, so more people are discovering that ribbons can offer a response that treats some of the digital ‘symptoms’ without necessarily providing a ‘cure’.
The R92 has an unusual top-to-bottom mounting system with elasticised rubber shocks at both ends, which, combined with its light weight (less than a kilo), makes it easy to position. It’s unlike many other ribbons I’ve had to contend with over the years, some of which have behaved more like recalcitrant bricks than mics. Like its stable mates, the R92 also has a permanently fixed cable that protrudes from the bottom of its pill-like shape, and which terminates in a female XLR. The whole box and dice comes wrapped in a black carry case complete with instructions for use and care of the mic.
A Mic of Two Halves
Perhaps the most unusual thing about the R92 is its ‘dual’ tone. Like most ribbons, the R92 has a figure-eight polar pattern, with the ‘rear’ lobe being out-of-phase with the ‘front’ of the mic. What’s unusual is that the two lobes of the polar pattern offer distinctly different tonal responses. Its ‘bright’ side, which is easily distinguishable by the AEA logo emblazoned on it, has been tailored to sound more accurate and ‘modern’ than the rear of the mic, which has a noticeably smoother, warmer, almost ‘classical ribbon’ sound to it. This ‘duality’ is great because it feels like a bit of a ‘two-for-one deal’ – classic or modern tone… the choice is yours. The added advantage of this design (in fact, it’s hard to tell which of these comes first) is that the somewhat rounder (and subjectively ‘duller’) tone of the R92’s rear lobe means the mic is less susceptible to picking up too much room sound (figure-eight naturally meaning that the mic faces towards a sound source as well as directly away from it).
This tailored dual-response makes it a somewhat unconventional bi-directional mic, and great fun to experiment with. When I first started using it, it quickly yielded interesting results, particularly on guitar amps. The R92’s high SPL capability is ideal for a fully-cranked amp, and this is where the AEA really comes into its own.
Cut to Ribbon
From the moment I plugged the R92 into a preamp and turned up the monitors I could immediately tell this was no ordinary ribbon. The noise floor was very, very low, unlike some ribbons of old that often combine the unwelcome combination of both dull and noisy. On further testing the AEA also sounded great through a variety of preamps of different impedances. It really made a difference to the depth of the sound when I used it on cello, bringing out subtle nuances in the performance. Furthermore, the R92 managed to spruce up the el cheapo cello I was recording, giving me less of an annoying ‘rosin tone’ and more of an easy-on-the-ear lush sweep. During the extended time I had the R92 several vocalists passed through it, and nearly all of them enjoyed hearing a different articulation to their voice than what’s typically recorded via a large diaphragm condenser. Of course, it wasn’t always ‘right’ for every vocalist, but what mic ever is? For instance, it didn’t really flatter one singer who we’ve dubbed ‘motorcycle voice dude’ – he only sounds right when using a hand-held Neumann.
There’s plenty to like about ribbon mics, the R92 especially. They soften the signal in such a way that there is a subtle low-pass filter effect, ignoring the hype within sounds in such a way that the human ear can listen past the mayhem and into the body of the signal. Some of my clients inevitably dubbed the sound of the R92 ‘retro’, but to pin this cliché on it is grossly unfair and simplistic. The beauty of this high-input ribbon is that, although the design inevitably has that unmistakable sonic signature, it’s an altogether modern mic, with noise and SPL specifications commensurate with modern demands. It really delivers on big rock guitars, cymbals, horns and acoustic guitar, without the compromises that have traditionally gone hand-in-hand with ribbon mic recordings: the need for extreme high-gain preamps and sometimes unworkably high noise floors. Sure, you can easily get that ‘retro,’ rolled-off warm tone out of this mic but you can also get the big, bold, up-front and rocking ‘sound of now’.
I particularly found the AEA excellent for electric guitars, making them ‘ring true’. I was amazed at how accurately it captured my Fender Deluxe or my scratchy old Eston combo. The R92 also sounded great in front of a drum kit at navel height or simply shoved in a reflective corner of the room with the gain turned up.
If you’re recording in the digital domain, a ribbon mic of the calibre of the AEA R92 is highly recommended. In a world where too many cheap condensers are often placed indiscriminately in front of every instrument on a recording, it pays to have the contrast of a ribbon mic to provide solid bottom end and smooth, understated treble frequencies. On instruments like horns, electric guitar amps and drums, the alternative ‘view’ the R92 provides is a real eye-opener. If your mic kit is bereft of ribbons and you’re serious about recording, do yourself a favour and check out the R92. It’s everything your $600 condenser ain’t!
• Mixmasters Productions
Phone: (08) 8278 8506
Web: www.mixmasters.com.au or www.wesdooley.com