MODERN CLASSICS: ROYER R-121 RIBBON MICROPHONE
In 1998, building your business around ribbon mics was definitely a left-of-centre choice. But 15 years on, Royer Labs’ off-centre ribbon is a modern classic.
Story: Mark Davie
Mic Images: Corey Sleap
It’s an audience you never expect to end up fronting. You can hope, dream, even. But giving an acceptance speech to your peers at The Grammys would have been unthinkable for David Royer and John Jennings in 1997. Back then, they were owners of a one-year-old boutique audio company, DVA, that was barely showing signs of life, and their great hope for the future was a piece of technology everyone considered old hat — a ribbon mic. It was dire straits for the pair, and naturally, doubt had crept in for Jennings. Royer was the genius, slightly autistic, inventor of the two, Jennings played more of an advocate role. And while Royer had become convinced ribbons were the perfect foil for the harsher realities of digital recording, Jennings wasn’t so sure it was a safe bet. Royer kept complaining that nobody ever liked or wanted to know anything about ribbons mics. His pitch to Jennings remained constant, “Look, ribbons have a really great signature, and they’re the most natural of all the microphone types. Everybody’s talking natural, but nobody is really making a natural-sounding mic.” But he was right, no one wanted to hear it. The overriding sentiment was that ribbons went out eons ago. Old technology for a bygone era.
Eventually, it took a ‘road to Damascus’-type epiphany to turn Jennings onto the benefits of ribbon mics. One day, Jennings was reading a magazine article about Eddie Kramer’s technique for recording Jimi Hendrix’s guitar. “He said he always had a ribbon on Hendrix’s cabinet in the studio,” recalled Jennings. “He had combinations of mics but they were always ribbons. That same day, on the way home, a Hendrix song came on the radio, Third Stone From The Sun, which has a beautiful melody and thick sounding guitars and it hit me. I had a religious conversion right there.” From that point, the pair started talking about ribbons in earnest. And the very first ribbon mic Dave developed, the R-121, has since become a modern classic. In 2014, Royer Labs not only celebrated its 15th anniversary, but was awarded a 2013 Technical Grammy for its contribution to the recording industry, for designing a piece of gear that perfectly complemented the modern digital method. Some 15 years after the R-121’s invention, Royer’s instinct has held true. “At the time [in 1998],” said Jennings, “digital recording was really taking off and crispy microphones used to sound somewhat tamed by tape machines. Take tape out and put converters into the chain, and suddenly the distortion artefacts and crispy highs, typically dulled a little by the recording medium, were sat right in front of your face. You were hearing a harshness from microphones that was uncomfortable, whereas ribbons recorded to digital systems beautifully. When we started Royer Labs a lot of engineers said they felt like they were working in an analogue world again.”
“The first thing this no-name mic ever heard was this band’s guitars. The mic became the Royer R-121, and the band became Queens of the Stone Age.”
BUILDING UP ROYER
Developing a microphone that wasn’t just an evergreen idea, but would also have a long lifespan, didn’t come easy. DVA was a lesson in what not to do, with production problems grinding the business to a standstill. Jennings and Royer were both converted, but they knew they needed to secure a bit of help to rectify past issues. In stepped Rick Perrotta. He not only had a long history in the recording business (he owned Golden Sound Studios), but co-founded Matchless guitar amplifiers, renowned for kicking off the boutique amplifier boom with its peerless attention to detail. Perrotta was not only the co-founder, but also the production chief of Matchless. He was the perfect person to help Jennings and Royer develop Royer Labs’ production process and quash any reliability niggles. Perrotta was duly named President and the team moved from Royer’s garage in Fullerton, California, to a large building behind Perrotta’s garage, which became the Royer Labs base for the next six years. Rounding out the founding four is Rafael Villafane, a chart-topping musician and producer, and partner with Perrotta in Baby’O Recorders (a hit studio in the ’80s). But more than that, Villafane also founded a number of live venues, where he performs regularly, along with the likes of Slash, Radiohead, and plenty more. He’s Royer Lab’s live guru.
LEFT OF CENTRE
The R-121’s most distinguishing characteristic, and how it became not just a vintage reissue but a modern workhorse, is its patented offset ribbon (Patent #6,434,252) — that is, it’s not dead-centre between the magnets. It’s the main reason the R-121 can handle high SPLs, unlike a lot of previous ribbon designs. It also had an unanticipated, yet welcome, side effect. The R-121 now had two sonic signatures at close range. Jennings explains the principle behind it: “If you drive a ribbon fairly hard you can literally start to move it a little outside the prime magnetic field, which is where the greater concentration of magnetic energy is. So by having the ribbon towards the front of the transducer, you can drive it with high SPLs like electric guitars and get some pretty major excursions without pushing it outside of that prime magnetic field. And it also gives it a little bit more room to move inside the transducer. “The other thing that really helps the mics is the way we corrugate the ribbons. Typically, when you corrugate ribbons to give them flexibility, you generally run them between a pair of gears with glassing paper on each side. The glassing paper protects the ribbon from the gears and keeps it from getting shredded because it’s so thin. Because of that extra padding they take on a sort of wavy appearance. “Except in our case we run them through very expensive, hyper-precise corrugators — about six-grand apiece, with each gear costing a couple of grand. They’re so precise you can put the ribbons through the gears without glassing paper. That way they take the shape of the gears and a really hard corrugation. The gears are kept under lights to maintain a precise temperature when the ribbons go through so you can run a hundred ribbons through and they’ll all turn out perfect. We have a patent on the direct corrugation too, and the method of corrugating actually toughens up the ribbon a little bit more.”
In his acceptance speech, Royer credited Bill Hayes from Altec, Charlie Gant from RCA and Bob Speiden for helping shape his development. But credit for stoking the Royer ribbon fire must go to Speiden. It was Speiden’s stereo ribbon recordings using his own mics that really got Royer hooked on their sound from the get-go. And the two soon struck up a friendship.
Like Royer, Speiden was the best kind of inventor. A guy who made things for the love of it. His inventions never hit the mainstream, but they were well loved. His CD-to-vinyl lathe was a hit with the local hip hop community, and his SF12 stereo ribbon mics were similarly prized, though he only made 110 over eight years prior to handing the design over to Royer.
An insight into Speiden’s mind is the SF12’s model name – a seemingly innocuous product label that would appear to be derived from vanilla engineering characteristics. ‘SF’ could easily stand for stereo field, and ‘12’, the two ribbon transducers stacked one on top of the other. But Speiden wasn’t that dull. He called his inventions ‘Speiden’s Follies’, hence the ‘SF’. The ribbon just happened to be his twelfth invention. It was just fortuitous it seemed to line up so well.
Speiden passed away six years ago, but he’s remembered fondly by the Royer crew. “I spent some time with Bob at his place,” recounted Jennings. “The guy made the strongest martinis on earth. He’d give them to you in a water glass and you’d just go blind on the one drink. During those binges, he would tell me all about Speiden’s Follies. I loved the way the guy approached life. He had a real sense of humour, but very gentlemanly, a very smart guy and one of the nicest people I think I’ve ever met. We still have a tribute to him on our website, I think it will always stay there.
“Bob wasn’t involved with the R-121, but they talked for a couple of years before Dave actually jumped onto designing his own ribbon and those conversations helped Dave solidify some of his design ideas.
“When Dave sent him one of our R-121s to look at, Bob basically said, ‘Hey, what you’re doing here is really good. If you want my design, you can have it.’ So we paid him a royalty for his design. On the outside they looked fairly similar, but on the inside they were built very differently.
“Bob’s were wonderful sounding microphones but if you took them apart after a few years to re-ribbon them, the ribbon transducers would usually all collapse on each other, so you’d have to rebuild. Royers are not built like that, they have a lifetime warranty for a good reason.”
Mark Davie: Was the offset ribbon a happy accident, or carefully designed? John Jennings: It was a bit of both. It was a nice way to produce but also a design idea. The happy accident part was not the offset ribbon so much, but the effect it ended up having on the backside of the mic. We put the 121 in the anechoic chamber and got the specs for the microphone. But all those specs were based on the microphone’s front side. About a year after we opened the company, a friend of mine called me and said, ‘Hey, I just did some recording with this thing and the backside is brighter than the front. It’s actually better on vocals and acoustic guitars!’ I thought he was nuts. So I went down to his studio to listen to some recordings and the back side was definitely brighter. Not so much if you got more than three feet away from the mic, but if the sound source was closer it was brighter. Because the ribbon sat off-centre inside the microphone, it changed the way it would hear things. It’s a better sounding side for acoustic instruments and vocals. You can’t hit that side very hard because it’s already at the edge of the prime magnetic field and it’s going to be driven into a stamping screen it’s fairly close to. But for vocals, acoustic instruments, drum overheads, it’s really nice with it facing backwards. That part of it was a happy accident. We had no clue until a year in, we had to rewrite all the materials!
THE ORIGINAL 121
The very first 121 Dave made in his garage wasn’t a Royer at all. It was built in 1997, a year before Royer Labs became official. Dave had a little modification company called Mojave Audio, and the first microphone had a Mojave Audio sticker on it. They’ve since rebirthed Mojave as a sister company to Royer, dealing in condenser microphones.
John Jennings recalls the original 121’s first proper outing: “This mic’s first trip out was with the great rock engineer Joe Barresi. He put this weird mic with no name on the guitars of a new band he was working with that didn’t have a name either. The first thing this no-name mic ever heard was this band’s guitars. Those R-121 recorded tracks made it on to the record. The mic became the Royer R-121, and the band became Queens of the Stone Age.”
STICKING TO IT
MD: “Does Dave ever mess with the R-121 design, or is it as good as you can get?” JJ: “We mess with it a little. The magnets in those microphones are neodymium. They’re very small, and very, very powerful. As the technology gets better we put stronger magnets in the microphones, which gives them more sensitivity, but they still sound exactly the same. And the magnets are the same shape which gives the mic the same look. “We’re using the same transformer in that mic that we’ve used pretty much since the start. The first 200 mics had 200Ω transformers and after that we switched to 300Ω transformers. That’s many, many thousands of microphones now. The more recent mics are more sensitive because of the magnets, but otherwise it’s such a well-cooked cake we’re just not messing with it. “We have made a couple of special edition models this year. Our 15th anniversary model had the black logo we used on the first couple of hundred mics, and it comes with a certificate signed by Dave Royer. We also won a Technical Grammy in February, which was platinum plated. So we released a platinum-plated Grammy edition with a signed certificate by Dave too. But those are just cosmetic changes to the microphone. Otherwise I don’t see any reason to change anything else.”
B&O? NOT SO
Early on, Royer endured a bit of criticism for looking similar to an early B&O ribbon design. But calling it a copy is to judge how something sounds by the way it looks. Something we do far too often.
Jennings: “As far as referencing the B&O design, Dave calls it a very elegant design. He really liked it, but it had some real issues. It wasn’t all that great sounding a mic, but he loved the mid range. He did quite a bit of studying as to why that mic had the mid range it had, the dimensions it had, and made considerable improvements with a lot of his own design work. That ribbon transducer, with the motor being the size it is, we had to cut flaps in the side of the microphone to fit it in there with the body cavity we needed. It gave it those distinctive rings, and that’s very much like the B&O design.
“That mid range has a lot to do with the dimensions of the mic and the way the internal parts are arranged, because the acoustical reflections inside the microphone have a lot to do with how the microphone picks up sounds. And you’ll notice, at the business end of the microphone — the pick-up end — all Royer microphones, except one, have similarly-sized bodies. And that interior dimension is really nice for mid range. You’ve got true low end and high end too, but a lot of music lives in the mids so it’s nice to treat it well.”
STRING OF HITS
While Royer has stopped short of messing with a good thing, the R-121 has spawned a number of spinoffs. Which, along with the Speiden-inspired SF range, round out Royer’s ribbon offerings. You can now get the phantom-powered R-122, which is 15dB hotter and “a little brighter because it has a faster transient response due to the active electronics,” said Jennings. The cut-price R-101 has the same transducer, ribbon element, and transformer in a different, less expensive body. Then there’s the valve version, and 121s and 122s tailored for live use. They’re all designs based on the 121, but like the classic mics before it, Jennings doesn’t see the R-121 changing for another 15-20 years at least. It is what it is: a modern classic. A well-designed ribbon mic that balances with digital recording perfectly. And I doubt we’re going to see either of those going away any time soon.