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Ribbon Microphones for Voiceover

Sunday, November 13th, 2011 | by


Over the past few years, ribbon microphones seem to have made a comeback. All I ever hear on audio blogs and podcasts is how awesome ribbon microphones are. Well, thanks to RecordingHacks, Royer, and DIYAC I was given the opportunity to see what this influx of ribbon love was all about.

DIYAC RM-5 and Royer R-101 Ribbon MicrophonesThere are tons of ribbon microphone articles, reviews, and shootouts, but the audio sources are rarely vocals or voiceover. The only one that comes to mind is this site’s Ribbon Voiceover Shootout.

In this review I’ll be covering the Royer R-101 and the DIYAC RM-5 ribbon microphones, and how suitable they are for voiceover.

A quick disclaimer: This review is not intended to be a shootout. It includes the necessary technical details for all you fellow geeks, but don’t expect this to be a super-precise A/B comparison. My goal is to demonstrate is how ribbon microphones, in general, perform when used for voiceover. This review should be useful to both audio engineers and the average (non-engineer-type) voice actor.

With all of that out of the way let’s get our hands (or ears?) dirty! Hopefully not too dirty though…

So how do these mics feel and look? We certainly know it’s not the most important feature of a microphone–but if it’s going to be staring at your face for hours on end good looks can’t hurt. The Royer Labs R-101Royer Labs R-101 has a very classy, sharp, and professional look. It’s not too flashy but certainly not cheap looking either. The black matted finish makes it easy on the eye. Just by holding the mic it doesn’t feel cheap or light.

The DIY Audio Components RM-5DIY Audio Components RM-5 is similarly shaped as the R-101 but still different. The shiny polished body is elegant yet very simple. The mic also feels extremely solid and well built. Let’s just say both mics are sexy enough to hang out in my studio.

This is the signal path used for the tests below:
Microphone→
 Cloudlifter CL-1→
  RME Fireface UFX→
   Computer (44.1kHz / 24-bit)

Both microphone cables (into and out of the Cloudlifter) were Mogami. I used the Cloudlifter to give me an extra 20dB of clean gain. [See our recent Cloudlifter CL-1 review. –Ed.] The preamps and converters on my RME Fireface UFX were designed to be extremely clean and uncolored. A pop filter was also used.

Both of these ribbons have fixed figure-eight polar patterns. The RM-5 I received was a prototype with no discernable way to identify the front or back. However, I found one side to be particularly more open, brighter, and just more suitable for voiceover. The back side of the R-101 was much clearer, brighter, and focused. I exclusively used my “preferred” sides of both microphones for this review.

First, I wanted to demonstrate how both mics sound using the exact same positioning and distance for each take. Sadly, my cell phone camera is better than my old digital camera. So you can reference the very mediocre camera phone photos for placement.

I picked arbitrary working distance of seven inches for this test. Here is a high-energy commercial read. (Note: I had a bad cold during this session, so please excuse the grogginess in my voice.)

DIY Audio Components RM-5DIY Audio Components RM-5 (at 7 inches)

RM5-7inches.mp3

Mic: Royer Labs R-101Royer Labs R-101 (at 7 inches)

R101-7inches.mp3

The R-101 sounds pretty good at this distance. It was warm, present, but just a tad bit boomy for my tastes. At this distance, the RM-5 was very round and thick–but definitely too boomy, with some low-end buildup.

So, as with any microphone you want to find that “sweet spot” for your source. I played around with these mics a lot until I found an ideal distance. Here are samples at working distances that better suited each microphone:

DIY Audio Components RM-5DIY Audio Components RM-5 (at 10.5 inches)

RM5-commercial.mp3

Mic: Royer Labs R-101Royer Labs R-101 (at 8 inches)

R101-commercial.mp3

As you can hear, distance and placement make a huge difference. The R-101’s change is subtle because it already sounded pretty good at one inch closer. The change in the RM-5’s sound was quite drastic. With correct placement both microphones really demonstrate their ability to soften the overall sound without introducing too much low-end and proximity effect. In this high-energy read, these mics really soften the transients and unpleasant mouth noises whereas condensers can typically magnify them.

Now that we’ve found each mic’s sweet spot, let’s see how they handle a softer, less dynamic, narration read.

DIY Audio Components RM-5DIY Audio Components RM-5 (at 10.5 inches)

RM5-narration.mp3

Mic: Royer Labs R-101Royer Labs R-101 (at 8 inches)

R101-narration.mp3

Both mics sound great, yet very different from one another. But they both perform as any ribbon mic should: softening and smoothing out the overall sound. This script has quite a few S’s but both microphones tame them very well. Sibilance can sometimes be a real headache with condenser microphones.

It’s fascinating how different the two mics sound. The R-101 tends to have much more pronounced mids and highs while the RM-5 has quite the opposite. The RM-5 really tames the highs and enhances those lower chest tones. In the end, both microphones still have a characteristic ribbon sound – albeit each with its own character.

Gain, anyone?

Since both of these microphones are passive ribbons they require a lot of gain. Depending on the type of read, I used 55dB–60dB of gain. When using a passive ribbon for voiceover, you will need a preamp to offer at least 60dB of clean gain.

The Cloudlifter CL-1 provides an extra 20dB of gain for any passive dynamic (moving-coil or ribbon) microphone. I found that the CL-1 lowered the noise floor of the preamps in my RME Fireface UFX by several dB.

Unfortunately, when using gain levels this high, preamp noise levels may become more audible. If the noise is loud enough, it can become distracting. This is because the human voice is so dynamic, with pauses between waveforms that “expose” the noise floor. However, with proper mic placement and clean gain staging, you can avoid such problems.

What types of voices would most benefit from using a ribbon microphone?

The first type that comes to mind is a sibilant voice. These ribbons naturally tame those S’s very well. I find that female voices tend to more frequently produce sibilance. So, let’s throw female voices onto the list. Some voices naturally produce more mouth noises (clicks and pops) when speaking. A ribbon microphone will not enhance every lip smack like condensers do. I’m not saying that ribbon microphones are only suitable for these kinds of voices. I’m saying that these kinds of voices can reap benefits from using a ribbon microphone.

What styles of voiceover work are ribbon microphones suitable for?

The answer to this question is entirely subjective. In my humble opinion, ribbon microphones can be suitable for any kind of voiceover work. The gentle and warm sound these ribbons provide make the human voice very pleasant to listen to over long periods of time.

I see myself mostly using ribbons on long-form narration, along with specific animation or commercial projects that require a vintage/warm sound. Due to modern trends in audio technology, our ears have become accustomed to hearing the human voice with crisp, biting detail. Just listen to any commercial you hear today; the voice is extremely enhanced and processed regardless of how pleasing it is to listen to. This is why I don’t, currently, see ribbon microphones being suitable for modern commercial work.

But, most work in the voiceover industry is narration.

Could a ribbon microphone become your all-around workhorse voiceover mic? I’d say no–but it’s certainly very usable for the styles of voiceover work I already mentioned.

Would I want either of these ribbon microphones in my voiceover mic arsenal? Absolutely. The smooth silky sound of a voice recorded through a ribbon microphone is desirable. This is why many of us own more than just one microphone, right? Because all microphones sound different, depending on the source. Thus giving us yet another excuse to blow all of our money collecting microphones.

I’d like to thank Matt McGlynn at recordinghacks.com, Royer Microphones, and DIY Audio Components for giving me the opportunity to review these fantastic ribbon microphones.

matt mcglynn

I will echo Jordan’s gratitude to John Jennings at Royer Labs and Artur Fisher of DIYAC for the loan of these two microphones. Both mics were loaned to us for evaluation purposes.


Jordan Reynolds is a voiceover actor from Denver, Colorado. Years ago, he discovered a new passion for audio engineering after putting together his first recording studio for his voice acting career. He also works as an IT professional, performs improv theater, writes music, and mixes/produces small music projects in his home studio.

Posted in Microphones, Technique, voiceover | 16 Comments »




16 Responses to “Ribbon Microphones for Voiceover”

  1. flowheimer

    November 13th, 2011 at 11:49 pm

    Hi, Jordan,

    Long time listener, first time caller.

    Nice article, thanks!
    Listening to the two VO examples side by side, the R-101 sounded quite a lot more present, or even a bit ‘scooped’ in comparison to the RM-5 and I found myself wishing I could hear a pass recorded using a large-diaphragm condenser for the purpose of establishing a contrast.

    Perhaps when you do the Ribbon VO Mega-Shootout you could include an LDC to that end.

    Best,

    ]-[

  2. Tom Test

    November 14th, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    Thanks for doing this fascinating test, Jordan! I listened to these samples at first through a pair of Klipsch 2.0 speakers, and I preferred the sound of the RM-5. I wonder if my opinion will change when I listen again on my Event monitors? I’ll let you know…

  3. Randy Coppinger

    November 14th, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    Nice review Jordan. And great reads. Another option for increasing gain when you top out on your mic preamp is to add another one. That’s right — plug the line output of your preamp into the mic input of another. I used to think this would end in disaster until an audio electronics colleague suggested it. It works great. A decent mic pre-amp offers a superior amplification power source than phantom for a better sounding recording. And if you already have two channels of pre-amp it doesn’t cost you anything to try it. Hope that helps.

  4. Charles A Martinez

    November 14th, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    “Could a ribbon microphone become your all-around workhorse voiceover mic?”

    I say possibly the Shure KSM353.

    I would like to see another ribbon mic for vocals shootout that compares some of the more recent ribbon microphone designs. There are several ribbons with extended high frequency response that deserve to be heard and compared (The sE RNR1, sE Voodoo VR2, Shure KSM353, AEA R92).

  5. Scott Gentle

    November 14th, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    Jordan:

    Thanks for sharing your talent, and for a cool quickie test!

    I myself have been considering trying a ribbon soon for the exact same symptoms you’ve described when using condensers in my own VO business – mouth noises, clicks/pops, sibilance, etc. are the bane of my existence, recently tamed a bit by a CAD M9 tube mike, and an Avalon 737sm tube preamp in my own studio (a surprisingly good combo for me).

    As with condensers, the relatively low costs nowadays makes such sampling and experimentation a much more realistic proposition for many, so I’d love to see you toss some of the more affordable, proletarian ones such as the Cascade FatHeads, CAD Trion 7000, and Apex 205/210/215 into the mix in your forthcoming shootout with the boutique names.

    I concur with flowheimer that an industry standard condenser or two needs to be in the mix for comparison. Based on what I see here in the booths on both coasts, this means you MUST specifically have at bare minimum a Neumann U87 (the standard in 98% of the studios I work in here in NYC) and possibly the Sennheiser 416, for the specialty Hollywood trailer/promo crowd. I’d also suggest sourcing a more commonly used preamp just to be fair. From what I see here in the Big Apple, that’d be an Avalon, a Millennia (just did my first session with one last month and it KILLED), and/or some of the upper-end dbx (376 and 386) and Focusrite stuff (ISA 430 MKII and Red series).

    Back to your tests – to my ear, the difference between the DIY and the Royer was night and day while listening here on my studio JBLs, which I’d expect elsewhere; in all examples, I found the Royer to the MUCH more boomy one of the two, with a far woofy-er low end that I can see many reaching for the EQ to dial down on, regardless of whether the end content is a dry audiobook narration or a produced broadcast spot with a bed.

    Speaking of which, just for grins, I ganked the MP3s of all these samples and tossed ’em into Logic with a stock mastering preset chain, with no processing whatsoever on the tracks themselves. The DIY was the hands-down winner for clarity on all three examples when doing a quick mix against a simple flatpicked guitar music bed. Even without the mastering stuff, it was the one still fared far better than the more expensive Royer.

    Hardly a scientific test, and YMMV, but exactly what I expected on first hearing the samples….can’t wait to hear what a larger sampling of others in a similar situation will produce.

    Looking forward to the next round!

    – Scott Gentle
    NYC-Based Voice Talent + Multimedia Audio Producer

  6. Tom Test

    November 14th, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    Well, now that I am listening on my Event Project Studio 6 monitors, they sound quite different. ( I wonder how much my listening experience is affected by the streaming audio). Honestly I do not like either very much. The RM-5 sounds muffled, lacking clarity, too bass-y, while the Royer is the opposite – thin, brittle, lacking in warmth. If I had to choose, I’d pick the RM-5.

    For voice-over, I don’t think either would hold a candle to a good condenser in the same price range as these mics.

  7. matthew mcglynn

    November 14th, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    Charles, FYI we did exactly the test you describe, including the Shure KSM353, the sE Voodoo ribbons, the RNR1, and more from AEA, Royer, Beyerdynamic, etc., on character voices. It was not a straight VO read, to be fair, but the actor was Corey Burton. I’d pay to hear him do 4 voices into 30 microphones again. Find the link at the very top of this article.

    The KSM353 is a great voice mic. I like the back side of the KSM313, too. Shure has loaned me one of each twice this year. It’s always hard to send them back.

  8. Charles A Martinez

    November 14th, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    Matthew, I am new to recordinghacks and I thank you for bringing the previous shootout to my attention. Looks like I have some homework to do to get me up to speed.

  9. Jordan Reynolds

    November 15th, 2011 at 11:18 am

    Randy: I totally forgot to mention that! I’ve heard of the trick before but it didn’t cross my mind when writing this article. That is a fantastic tip!

    Charles: In that huge VO ribbon mic shootout, on Corey Burton’s voice, the KSM 313 (backside) was my favorite. I also agree that it sounds very modern, bright, and clear for a ribbon.

    Scott: Thanks for your comments. I agree that having a 416, U87, and a commonly used VO preamp would have been ideal. However, this (and my) equipment was all we had available for this review. Fortunately the preamps in my Fireface UFX are very high quality and very clean – ideal for any microphone listening test.

    Tom: I can respect your conclusions. However, these are just 2 of dozens of ribbon mic’s in the industry :). Not to mention that our ears are very acquainted to hearing VO recorded with mostly condensers. In my opinion it’s kind of similar to how pop culture/media has defined what “beautiful” is. Anything that doesn’t fit that criteria can seem less desirable. I may be getting to philosophical now…

    Everyone: I also agree that having an condenser recording comparison would have been nice. I will be sure to keep in this mind for any future reviews.

    Thanks again everyone!

  10. John

    November 15th, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    Jordan, you’re killin’ me! Using ribbons for narration and V/O work has been one of my secret weapons for years. Now, thanks to you, everyone knows about it. Arghh!

    Well, since my secret is out… I use an RCA 74B into an AEA Ribbon Pre followed by a Millennia Media NSEQ 2 and an Amek 9098 compressor. Possible substitutes include a Royer 122 or SF-1 instead of the 74B and a Cloudlifter in to a John Hardy M-1 instead of the Ribbon Pre.

    As you mentioned, the position of the mic relative to the announcer is crucial. Eye level or higher for boomy voices or closer to the throat and chest for thin voices. No rules here. It all depends on the announcer, their delivery, and the program material. A ribbon doesn’t always work but more than half of the time I find that the slight dynamic compression and smooth tone character of a ribbon can help a voice sit well with music or effects, especially if they were recorded with condensers.

    By the way, has anyone else noticed that editing a spoken voice recording can be far more difficult than editing music? I find that the listener will allow considerable artistic license when listening to music so minor variations in the character of the playing go unnoticed. No such luck with narration. Our minds are acutely tuned to speech patterns so even small variations in tone, inflection, volume, pitch, or tempo can make a technically simple edit in to a nightmare. Be careful during pick ups or re-takes. Make sure everything matches. No microphone can help you out of this problem.

    Finally, as an older guy now well in to his second childhood (according to my wife) I believe I speak with authority when I say there is WAAAAY too much fun going on around here! I love this site. Thanks to one and all.

  11. Scott Gentle

    November 16th, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    Jordan/Matthew –

    No problem on the condenser/mike path – this test was certainly very enlightening in itself.
    Obviously, they’re not the most inexpensive pieces out there, just a suggestion to consider for future shootouts and tests, when possible. Always good to have a familiar point of reference when comparing anything, and the kudos and ubiquitousness of the U87 on so many applications seems to make it the logical choice as a benchmark.

    On further thought, perhaps a lower end options should be considered for this too – something that everyone knows and can afford (a la an SM57/58, though not necessarily those). Hmm…..site poll, anyone?

    BTW, Jordan, not trying to compare or play “name the influence”, but anyone ever tell ya you have a nice sort of a Joe Cipriano-ish thing happening? That was my immediate thought on hearing the narration read. I’ll ‘fess up to having a Cip influence myself among many others, so I hope you’ll read this in the spirit it was meant…

    Thanks again, guys!
    – SG

    P.S: A correction on my earlier assessment – it was the Royer, NOT the DIY that I thought sounded better. The MP3s were titled with only the model numbers, which I loaded into Logic in numerical order, making the R101 the first heard unlike here on the page, and I mixed them up. My bad!

  12. Jordan Reynolds

    November 17th, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    John: Sorry I ruined your secret! That’s a nice long audio chain you’ve got going there. I agree – editing human speech can be very time consuming. Even the average non-audio-engineer ears can pickup on the slightest nuances in the human voice. It’s quite fascinating and sometimes frustrating :). Thanks for your comment!

    Scott:That’s not a bad idea comparing with lower priced microphones. Maybe something like the Audio Technica AT2020 or the MXL 990. And no, I haven’t heard anyone mention that I have a hint of Cip’ in my voice. I can only take that as a compliment. I listened to some of your completed work on Vimeo and you’re extremely versatile! I do also hear a hint of Cip’ but overall I think you have a very unique sound. Super cool! Thanks again for the comments.

    Charles: Good news! I will be reviewing the Shure KSM353 and KSM313 for voice over soon!

  13. Matthew J.

    December 1st, 2011 at 8:53 am

    I don’t know anyone that uses a ribbon for VO. At least no one that has admitted to it. I’ve never concidered it before but would love to play around with one after hearing the results here. Breaking some new ground.

  14. Shure KSM313 KSM353 Ribbons for Voiceover | recording hacks

    January 11th, 2012 at 7:52 am

    […] with voiceover. My previous article addressed the suitability of ribbon microphones for voiceover: Royer R-101 and DIYAC RM-5 Ribbons for Voiceover. This article will lean more towards a shootout and overview of how well these microphones perform […]

  15. Carsten Lave

    March 30th, 2013 at 7:00 pm

    Thanks for great Youtube videos, and mic comparisons here on your website. Who don’t like a good A-B test? 😉

  16. Peter Charles

    February 11th, 2017 at 5:46 am

    I’ve been using the Royer R101 as a single mic for narration for a few months now. I originally bought them for music (as a stereo pair).

    I find it very good for both male and female voices. I go into a clean DAV BG1 preamp and into a solid state Tascam recorder. No problems editing in Reaper. The fig 8 polar pattern reduces side and overhead reflections and I use blanket and duvets for extra sound absorption.

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