Tuesday, September 4th, 2012 | by Marc Mommaas
Finally it is here: the results of the Live Sax Ribbon Mic Shootout. Thank you for your patience and great comments on Part I (The Quest for the Ultimate Live Sax Microphone) and Part II (Quest for the Ultimate Live Sax Mic: Condenser Shootout). For this episode, I was able to bring a variety of ribbon mics on the road, and the feedback that I have gotten from all the sound-engineers involved was crucial for this article.
As in Part I and Part II, the premise of our quest is as follows: the microphone should be small enough to fit in carry-on luggage, and preferably it should fit in the saxophone case. We will stay away from clip-on microphones. The reasoning behind these limitations is explained in Part I.
The microphone should be able to handle a variety of stages: concert halls, festival stages (tents) and small venues (where typically the band has a tight setup). We are looking for a natural and honest sound; the saxophone should be captured without loss of quality in any register.
The ribbon mic has its own claim to fame. Just think of all the great recordings made in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and ’60s of our favorite Jazz heroes on labels such as Blue Note (Rudy van Gelder’s studios), Riverside, Atlantic, Impulse, etc. Coltrane’s favorite mic was an RCA ribbon, which is now in the possession of Systems Two Recording Studios in Brooklyn. [See Marc recording at Systems Two in the video clip at the bottom of this page. -Ed.] Personally I like to record in the studio with a combination of two mics — a ribbon and a condenser — which gives me options during the mixing process. Most of the time I would have 65% of my sound coming from the ribbon and 35% from the condenser, depending on the quality of the mics in the studio. The ribbon microphone gives warmth and a natural vibe to the sound, while the condenser gives detail and clarity.
But this article is not about a studio environment, where one can create an ideal, stable environment. Here, we are talking about live settings: different stages every night, different sound engineers with their own favorite mix of equipment and their own taste (or lack thereof). The ideal live mic must accommodate small stages, where the drums are right behind me, and large stages, possibly in outdoor settings, where there is no natural reverb.
Are ribbons viable for stage use?
One common concern with ribbon microphones is their low sensitivity. Until recently, most ribbons did not use phantom power, and the word on the street is that the ribbon could get seriously damaged if a sound engineer accidentally sends phantom power to your precious ribbon mic [for more information, see phantom power kills ribbon microphones, truth vs. fiction --Ed.]. Plus, a simple blast of air could stretch or damage the ribbon.
Well, it seems that over the last decade, the ribbon mic has benefited from a small revolution in its design. Several companies have designed ribbon mics that can use phantom power. In addition, Shure has introduced a less-fragile ribbon material (Roswellite). These new developments make ribbon mics a much more viable option for live performances.
As in Part II, we were again fortunate to have the support of Charles Martinez and Frank Piazza at Audio Paint recording studios in Manhattan. Thanks to their generosity, we were able to record audio samples through each of these ribbons in a studio setting.
The mic pre was a Vintech 473. The ribbons were tracked at 44.1 kHz, 24-bit. The samples below are clean and dry; no reverb nor EQ has been applied.
I played small improvisations with the intention of covering the whole horn, from its top tone register to the low B♭. Also I attempted to mix it up with slow and fast passages. What we did different this time around is that we put up to four mics together so that we would have the option to compare several mics with the same musical passage. We had a ball, and again it floored me how very different all these mics sound.
[Download the 24-bit WAV files here. --Ed.]
|beyerdynamic M 160
|beyerdynamic M 260
|SE Electronics Voodoo VR2
|Royer Labs R-122
|Cascade Microphones Fat Head
|Cascade Microphones Fat Head II
|Royer Labs R-122 (Back side)
|Shure KSM313 (Back side)
|Shure KSM313 (Front side)
Listening and Tour Notes
sE Voodoo VR2 (Active)
First of all, you can’t beat the name. I brought it with me on a US tour and I couldn’t resist trying this beauty out at the New Orleans Jazz Festival. Where else would you wake up the sE Voodoo VR2? The mic is active, so there is little risk for damage from phantom power. The Voodoo has a beautiful design, and it fits perfectly in the sax case.
It turned out that this mic became a true lifesaver. After hearing the band before us, it became apparent that the sound quality was far below average, and I didn’t like the saxophone sound though the huge PA system at all, due in part to the mic they had set up. I exchanged the mic for the sE Voodoo VR2, which immediately made a positive difference. I got a good sound, and I ended up having a great experience.
I tried this mic again on several other stages, in Detroit at Cliff Bell’s, in Cleveland at the Nighttown and in NYC at the Jazz Standard. In general, it came through very well. I did encounter some feedback issues in Detroit. I am not sure if that had to do with the fact that the mic has high output, or that it was caused by the ineptness of the sound engineer (he was definitely not with it). It might have been a little of both.
In general this mic sounds great, very close to the natural sound of the horn. And it was comfortable to play through although sound did feel a little compressed at times and there was a touch of brightness in the top that didn’t feel as natural as I would like it to be. But it was all in the ballpark, a great mic, well made, suitable for the tenor and easy to travel with.
Beyerdynamic M160 and M260 (Passive)
Both mics have a compact design and therefore are ideal for traveling. But for the saxophone the result was disappointing. The M160 sounded a bit hollow, and over the whole range the tone quality was on the bright side and rather dull. The M260 had more life in it, but it sounded far from natural. It was even brighter than the M160 and the sound felt compressed. From the two I would say that the M160 had the better result. But they are far from ideal for the tenor saxophone.
Audio-Technica AT4081 (Active)
From all the ribbons tested, this one is the smallest in size and I have to say it is a rather impressive little animal. I put it to the test on the second night at the Jazz Standard in NYC, and in the sound check it sounded very good, especially when I played alone. It has a pretty consistent sound over the whole register, although the mid register stood out a little more, and it has more depth and warmth than the Beyerdynamic M160 and M260.
But with the whole band playing, it didn’t feel as comfortable as I expected after my experience during soundcheck. It got drowned out a bit and it felt compressed. We tried giving the mic more gain, but that didn’t really do the trick. I have the feeling that with the right EQ you could get along with this mic. It is definitely a better option than the Beyerdynamics, but not as complete as the sE Voodoo VR2.
Cascade Fathead (Passive)
In the studio, Charles brought the Fathead to my attention. He is in the possession of two versions simply named 1 and 2. Both versions are physically large and therefore not ideal for travel, but they are much more affordable in comparison to the other mics in this article. So, why not, let’s throw them in the mix…
The Fathead 1 had a warmth to it but it felt quite hollow and one-dimensional. But I still had fun playing through the Fathead 1 which I cannot say of the Fathead 2. The Fathead 2 felt hollow, thin and just generally unpleasant. Both mics are not ideal for our circumstances.
Royer R-122 (Active)
I have to be honest in that I had high expectations of the Royer and I got very excited about the news that the Royer would be in the mix. I already had some experience with this mic and did a live recording over a year ago in Firehouse 12 studios. There I used the passive Royer 121 with great results.
The Royer 122 is active, with less risk of sound engineers messing it up via phantom power, and small enough to fit in the sax case. The big question is how it would hold up on the road on all the different stages. Were my expectations too high?
To put it to the test, I brought it with me on a two and a half week tour in Europe, and I can’t tell you how many sound engineers came to me asking for more info on the Royer 122. It just sounded spectacular every single time. I feel that this mic gets right to the essence of the sound of the tenor saxophone. The sound production is natural, very even and you feel a great sense of depth and space. It was truly inspiring to play through this mic, and I felt very fortunate to be able to get the Royer on stage.
The Royer 122 has an asymmetric figure-eight pattern, and therefore we tested both the front and back of the mic. The front sounded the most natural to me, the back didn’t have the same complexity of color that I experience from the front.
I do have a small observation that I would like to bring to your attention. As mentioned in the first article, Part I, my main goal was finding a mic that sounds as natural as possible. In modern times many musicians are looking for the edge, for power and ultimate presence on stage resulting in mic designs that cater to this need. For those musicians, a ribbon mic such as the Royer might not be the right choice. I am happy to say that Royer has been stubborn enough to avoid this trend. It seems to me that they stuck to their guns and believed in honest natural sound production and I thank them for it. The tenor saxophone sounds incredible through this mic.
Shure KSM 313 and KSM 353 (Passive)
Well, as you noticed I was impressed with the Royer. But there are two other kids on the block, the Shure KSM 313 and its bigger brother, the KSM 353. The KSM 313 is more compact than the 353 and would fit in the case, but the 353 is really too big for our quest. Plus, the 353 comes with a beautifully designed spider shockmount that deserves to be transported in the supplied case.
Let’s start with the KSM 313. It has a great look with its red screen and in general it sounded good. We tested it both from the front and back because the rear is voiced differently. From the front, it had a slight edge and nasal quality, plus I was not happy with the upper register which felt thin to me. From the back, the sound felt more complete and a little wider.
In general I missed the sense of space and complexity of sound that I got from the Royer. The KSM 313 is a good mic, and please keep in mind that we are talking here about nuances. I think every horn player would be happy to find a KSM 313 on stage.
I noticed that, generally speaking, the ribbons are more even in sound production than the condensers or the dynamic mics tried in Part II and Part I. For the tenor saxophone, most of the ribbons are at least acceptable, and some of them even extraordinary. The same could not be said about the condensers or the dynamic mics.
The KSM 353 felt like it looked, a step up from the KSM 313. It is a great mic, with more complexity in the sound than most other ribbons tried in this article. But again I couldn’t agree with the top range, which felt too bright for my taste. The mids and lows came out great, though, and the KSM353 would definitely be a contender if not for its size. Including the shockmount, it will not fit in your sax case, and you need to consider how much you can take with you on a plane. Do not check this baby in, because it will get stolen. If you are touring with a band that packs its gear in containers, then the KSM 353 would be a great option, specifically because the ribbon seems to be very robust due to its revolutionary ribbon material.
From all the ribbons that we put through the test, the Royer R-122 stood out the most. With its sleek design (ideal for traveling), its active electronics (protecting the ribbon from phantom power), and above all its natural and complex sound reproduction, this mic was a real find. In my option, the R-122 comes closest to the natural sound of my horn, with great result in all registers. It is truly a fantastic microphone.
In second place, I would bid for the sE Voodoo VR2 (come on, it’s a great name!). I had great results with the Voodoo, plus it is also small enough to fit in the sax case, and it has active output. But I did miss the complexity of sound quality that I got from the Royer.
If space is not an issue, then I would put the KSM 353 as a second choice. The sound has more complexity than the Voodoo, although it is still not as natural sounding as the Royer.
Well, we did it. Part III is live. What is left is a comparison of the results found in all three articles.
In Part IV I will reveal my choice of the Ultimate mic for tenor saxophone for live performances and I will also respond to all the remarks and suggestions made in response to the articles. I welcome any constructive opinions, remarks and suggestions; if you would like my take, please fire away. Naturally these articles are far from comprehensive. There are many great mics out there that I didn’t get my hands on, but I feel pretty confident that I found the answer to our quest: a great traveling companion that can possibly save the day. I hope that this research has been of help to my fellow saxophonists and engineers.
Special thanks to Shure, Audio-Technica, Beyerdynamic, and Royer for letting us borrow their microphones for this article.
Also, special thanks to Charlie Martinez and Frank Piazza for their generosity in opening up Audio Paint Studios and for throwing in the Fathead in the mix on an afternoon of sax recording.
Marc Mommaas is a jazz saxophonist based in New York City. He teaches regular classes in improvisation and polyrhythm, and tours frequently, performing at jazz festivals and concerts around the world.
See Marc recording at Systems Two Studios in NYC with the Amina Figarova sextet: