SE ELECTRONICS R1
Times certainly are interesting when a microphone from China forces a perceptual realignment…
Text: Greg Simmons
When Andy Stewart asked me to review a ribbon microphone from China, I heard the key words ‘ribbon’ and ‘China’ and my thoughts immediately turned to Zhang Ziyi’s mesmerising ribbon dance from House of Flying Daggers [as you do – Ed.]. Superbly staged, performed, shot and directed, it’s one of the great moments of cinema. It’s also a stunning example of the craftsmanship that Chinese artisans are capable of; which is more than I’ve been able to say for their microphones.
The market is infested with cheap Chinese condenser microphones, most hiding behind Western names and classic European styling. I’ve auditioned many while helping project studio owners choose the best equipment for their budgets, and, frankly, I haven’t had a kind word to say about them. I’ve even exercised a personal policy of not reviewing any Chinese condenser microphones because there’s no point in promoting poorly designed and manufactured goods. However, I hadn’t auditioned anything from SE Electronics and so I approached the R1 with a mixture of open-minded curiosity and cynical apprehension.
The R1 initially piqued my interest for two reasons. Firstly, being a passive device meant it wouldn’t contain any electronic circuitry beyond a transformer. Secondly, a ribbon microphone doesn’t have the condenser microphone’s inherent high frequency capsule resonance. In other words, the two things that characterise the bright and harsh sound of Chinese condenser mics – tin-eared electronic circuit design and poorly-managed capsule resonance – would not apply to the R1. Hmmm… was I about to undergo a perceptual re-alignment? There was only one way to find out. Ordering my cynicism to sit and stay, I opened the box…
Inside was an aluminium case with a footprint of almost identical size to the page you’re reading now, containing the microphone and shockmount. The first thing that struck me about both components was the reassuring quality of construction – no protruding lopsided screw heads, no mismatched joints, and no blemishes in the finish.
If you look at the picture of the R1 accompanying this review, you’ll notice the mic has a cylindrical design, reminiscent of Bang & Olufsen’s BM-series ribbon microphones (which also influenced Royer’s designs), rather than the chunkier RCA and Coles designs. It is heavier than it looks, suggesting a powerful magnet and/or a rather large transformer mounted in the base. The shockmount is also very good; all-metal construction with decent elastic suspension instead of the throwaway rubber bands found on cheaper products – just what you’d expect for a mic of this weight. The bottom half of the R1 slips snugly into the felt-lined receptacle and, after screwing on the locking ring, is held firm and secure. Very reassuring, but what does it sound like?
RIBBONS IN YOUR AIR
I believe that the most helpful reviews compare the product in question against known industry standards and also against established competitors. So for the first test I put the R1 against the industry-standard Neumann U87 condenser mic (in bi-directional polar response), running both into my Nagra V and gain-matching them as closely as possible. Then I gave them quite a thrashing in the service of some challenging metallic and organic instruments from Tibet, including harmonically-matched singing bowls, pure and delicate tingsha bells, rowdy and nasally double-reed shawms, deep bellowing ceremonial horns, the wailing kangling (made from a human thighbone… it doesn’t get more organic than that!), and the angry neighbour banging on the wall (whom I’ve granted Tibetan citizenship for the purposes of this review). In all cases the R1’s sound was duller and had less air than the U87 (as expected from a ribbon), but was more natural and warm overall, and preferable throughout the low and mid ranges. A touch of high frequency Baxandall (shelving) EQ, courtesy of a linear phase EQ plug-in, took care of the dullness, bringing back the missing air and resulting in some very appealing and ‘finished’ sounds from these challenging instruments.
For the comparative test I put the R1 against an established competitor: Royer’s R121. Both are passive ribbon microphones and, judging by their physical dimensions, I assume they share similar ribbons and magnetic circuits (notwithstanding any proprietary tricks the manufacturers may have up their sleeve). For these tests I used some traditional Western instruments including a DW drumkit, a vintage Les Paul through a Marshall head and quad box, and a decrepit and toothless baby grand piano that has yet again prolonged its miserable life by proving its worth for microphone reviews.
I positioned the microphones side by side on a stereo bar, placing them as close together as possible without touching. Being of relatively small-diameter tubular construction and with bi-directional polar responses (meaning each microphone was placed in the other’s side null), I doubt there were any significant interference problems due to reflections off one mic’s body into the other.
Both microphones required approximately the same gain to match levels, meaning the R1 has similar sensitivity to the R121. Some reviewers may disagree with the following, but in this gain-matched and position-matched situation I found the two microphones to sound remarkably similar. The SE ribbon had more high and low frequency extension than the Royer, but with a less prominent and slightly muddled upper midrange reminiscent of a big old vintage Beyer ribbon I used to own. (In my experience, most ribbon mics have a ‘muddled’ bandwidth somewhere in their audible frequency response, which I believe is predominantly due to the internal transformer and its interaction with the input impedance of the microphone preamplifier in use. Therefore it is possible that another reviewer, using a different type of preamp to the solid-state type found in my Nagra V, may hear something different. I’d be keen to hear the R1 through AEA’s TRP, which is specifically built for ribbon microphones.)
The R1’s extended response gave it a bigger and fuller sound than the R121 when close-miking power chords through a quad box or capturing a drumkit from 1.5m, but the R121’s upper midrange prominence and clarity was preferable for complex detailed work such as grand piano and plucked electric guitar.
CUT TO THE RIBBON
The R1 is an overall good performer that can add a touch of vintage ribbon ‘bigness’ to a recording. I would happily use it for recording power chords from an electric guitar, for a room mic or overhead on a drum kit, for close-miking percussion and brass, or even to tame a shrill vocalist. I’d be hesitant to use it for tonally complex sounds that require a lot of resolution to avoid sounding like mush, such as woodwinds, grand pianos, string quartets or choral ensembles. Each of these can sound wonderful when recorded with ribbon microphones, but there are more appropriate products on the market; the R1 will be more at home in the multitrack rock/pop studio than in the scoring stage or concert hall.
As with all ribbon microphones, the R1 may be perceived as being dull in comparison to a condenser mic (especially if thoughtlessly compared with one of the many budget condenser mics on the market that are too bright and harsh anyway). But, like all ribbon microphones, the R1’s resonant frequency sits at the bottom of its frequency response, meaning you can apply considerable amounts of EQ to brighten it up without running into any harshness or glare. Furthermore, with linear phase algorithms the old purist dictum ‘EQ is evil’ becomes less relevant – it is always best to get the sound you want through microphone choice and positioning, but with linear phase EQ at hand I would never let the relative dullness of a ribbon microphone prevent me from taking advantage of its sweet midrange and lush bottom end.
The R1 is well built, feels solid and reassuring, and offers all the sonic characteristics of a ribbon microphone at an affordable price. Perhaps I’m a particularly dim Simmons, but I really can’t find cause to be critical of this ribbon microphone from China. Maybe it’s time for some perceptual Feng Shui?