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What's the deal with Ribbon Mics?

Written by: Sammy Rothman



Time to read min

Over the years, I’ve heard more extreme opinions about ribbon microphones than almost any other topic you can imagine including politics. People have crazy notions of what a ribbon is, where it should be used, and how they sound. The funny thing is that sometimes these opinions are so wildly different and on opposite sides of the spectrum. And growing up, I was no different with my ribbon extremism. 

I worked at a company for 7 years that was known for making some of the best ribbon microphones in the world. While I worked there, I drank the Kool-Aid. There was a period of my life where I would only record with ribbons and I thought that they were the only good microphone in existence. 

I still feel shame about how indoctrinated and evangelical I became about them. It’s like that friend who won’t stop talking about how their pizza place is the best and most authentic pizza… Bonellos on Gaffey is the best pizza place in the entire world and you’re wrong if you say otherwise…

I was obsessed with ribbons… and I still am. And I’ve also had my obsessions over the years with condensers and capsules. But there is a special place in my heart and in my recording world with ribbons. My time working with ribbons and only with ribbons changed my life in such a profound way.

Ribbons are an enigma. We’ve all heard that “they’re fragile and they’re easy to break. They’re noisy and have low output. They’re dark and they should only be used on brass." (this is a dead giveaway that your hey-day was the 1980s).

Yeah, there’s a half truth to many of these ideas, but it’s not the whole story.

Ribbons are Natural and They Have Character

I like to think of ribbons as capturing instruments in a way that aligns with how our ears naturally want them to sound, producing a subtly colored and authentic tone.

Ribbons are some of the oldest microphones in the world. They were invented in the 1930s. There is a nostalgia to their sound that I think is inherent in our DNA. We’ve been listening to albums recorded with ribbons for close to 100 years!

It's interesting that there exists a dichotomy in people's perceptions of ribbons. Some describe them as natural while others emphasize their character. This paradoxical coexistence within the same microphone is a concept that I have come to appreciate in recent years, particularly in my exploration of mindfulness. Artists in the ribbon world frequently express this duality. 

I like to think of ribbons as capturing instruments in a way that aligns with how our ears naturally want them to sound, producing a subtly colored and authentic tone. 

A good ribbon can emulate what your ears hear. They’re natively bi-directional (gotta love those who are bi and proud). 

They have a high frequency roll-off, like your ears. If you put it close to an instrument, it can pick up the direct sound of the source on one side and the natural room tone on the other side. Or you can place it in the middle of the room to capture the sound of an instrument within the context of a space.

And then on the flip side, our ribbons also have a transformer in them which adds some color and character to your source. It’s the reason that a single ribbon over a drum kit can sound so detailed and vibey at the same time.

Ribbons Have a Massive Low End

We playfully describe our ribbons as having a substantial "booty" due to their impressive low-frequency response.

Ribbons have a remarkable ability to maintain a robust low end. Whether positioned at the back of a room to capture a powerful drum sound or a delicate orchestra, they excel at capturing the full range of frequencies, from the deep lows of a kick drum to the highs of a violin bow. 

Moreover, ribbons tend to offer a smooth and non-harsh sound, particularly the larger ribbons like the one found in the Ohma Ribbon. In fact, we playfully describe our ribbons as having a substantial "booty" due to their impressive low-frequency response. 

They have a beautiful proximity effect which can even beef up the sound of your instrument if you place it very close which can be amazing on guitar amps and vocals.

Did you know that you can even mic your kick drum with a ribbon mic? SAY WHAT??

Yeah it’s true. I wouldn’t put it in front of the port hole, but place it off to the side like a FET condenser and you’ll be amazed at how pillowy and thick your bass drum will sound. 

Ribbons are Durable!

Ribbons are actually some of the most durable microphones. I know I know. You’ve been told that if you fart in the general direction of your ribbon that it’s going to blow up.

Ribbons actually have some of the highest SPL of any microphone in existence. Ohma ribbons can take up to 141 SPL. They do struggle with direct blasts of air, but we pre-tension our ribbons so that if they take a few hits, they’ll be fine. And in our years of working with ribbons, I’ve actually never seen a big ribbon, like ours, break from a direct blast of air.

We actually slap our ribbons with a piece of cardboard and blow on them when we’re tuning them. Don’t worry, they love it- it’s consensual and we would never kink shame our ribbons. Our safe word is “impedance.”

Ohma Ribbons Have Great Output

Ohma Ribbons require +48v phantom-power because they have active electronics! This means that you can use your ribbon with anything from a cheapo interface to a nice expensive preamp and your ribbon will sound consistent. And what's even more exciting is that Ohma Ribbons outshine many other ribbons in the world when it comes to output. How, you ask? Well, it's all thanks to these amazing electronics!

Ohma Screens are made for Ohma Ribbons

Our screens are made for ribbons. Because you can position a ribbon almost anywhere in a room, there are so many options and ways you can implement your screens when recording.

Up close against an amp, Stripes will help give a mid-forward push and focus the sound.

Out in a room, Windows captures the room in a natural, open, and honest way.

On a drum overhead, Motif will give you a more colored and finished sound.

On a vocalist, Scales will give you a top end bump to help it cut through your mix.

Ribbons are the best

Okay okay okay. Ribbons really are the best. They are beautiful microphones that often elicit the same love from musicians as a handcrafted instrument. For soloists and intimate recordings, they’re almost always my first choice because of how they capture the instrument within the context of the room. They’re super versatile and are almost always a great option.

So I guess what I’m saying is that I’m just as passionate as ever about ribbons, and especially the Ohma Ribbon. Truly, there has never been an easier ribbon to use. 

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