Ribbon Microphone Legends
Sound & Recording is used to testing brand-new products. The microphones presented here have been manufactured for around 40 years–and yet they’re as modern as ever!
Ribbon microphones are a long-standing tradition at beyerdynamic. The first models (M30 and M 31) were presumably created in the 1950s, perhaps even in the 1940s. They were designed to resemble the top studio microphones of the time, the 77 series by RCA. The M 130 was the first contemporary beyerdynamic ribbon microphone introduced, in 1962. A couple of years later — the exact dates are not not known here — the M 160 and M 260 followed. The last “new” ribbon microphone developed by beyerdynamic was the stage ribbon microphone M 500 introduced in 1969. Production of this model was unfortunately stopped a few years ago, although there has since been a special limited edition “Classic” reissue.
The current squad
Despite this tradition reaching back some 40 years, the beyerdynamic ribbon microphones are supplied in quite unspectacular cardboard boxes. Along with a storage pouch and microphone clamp, each box also contains an individually produced test certificate. All of beyerdynamic’s workmanship is a treat for the eyes. The microphones look super neat; all parts fit together perfectly, and the surfaces are equally decorative and robust.
Perhaps even more eye-catching is the size of the microphone: they are really tiny, much smaller than you would believe by looking at the photos without having anything to compare the size to. The baskets of the M 130 and M 160 are only 35 mm in diameter. Microphone users (and singers) love impressive looking microphones. In contrast, real technology fans get excited over small microphones, which immediately show that someone has put some thought into them. In general, small structures offer the advantage of having less of an influence on acoustics. A large microphone has more area for reflecting sound waves and on top of this there is often the problem of resonance from the casing. The design of ribbon microphones in particular plays a further role: the narrower the ribbon element, the better the treble reproduction.
There’s no question that the look of the beyerdynamic microphones is unusual, as they still look like stage microphones. They are actually so robust that they can also be used on stage. M 160 and M 260 have hypercardioid polar patterns and are “end addressed”: that means that you speak, sing or play into the front of the microphone. The M 130 has a figure of eight polar pattern like a classic ribbon microphone and is therefore spoken into in the “classical” way — from the side. The vertical ring that divides the microphone basket into two hemispheres makes side miking visually clear.
The inner workings
In an out of character move I resisted the urge to open up the test microphones. Ribbon elements are fragile in general and their (dis)assembly is very tricky. One false movement or a loose screw can easily destroy a piece of aluminium only a few millimetres thick. However, I successfully dismantled and reassembled my own M 500 — the inner pop shield had come loose and had to be reattached. The quick glimpse I got of the “naked” ribbon whilst doing this was nothing less than awe-inspiring. The aluminum ribbon was inserted with incredible precision. The gap between the ribbon and the magnets was thinner than a sheet of paper!
What is even more amazing about such precision is that the assembly of ribbon elements is carried out by hand. Only very few people have steady enough hands and the patience of a saint to put together such tiny and narrow tolerance ribbon elements. At beyerdynamic, product manager Klaus Kirchhöfer confirms that at present there are only “three” employees able to assemble the ribbon microphones. The majority of beyerdynamic ribbon microphones are presumably made by Mrs Zamfir — supposedly Germany’s steadiest pair of hands.
Ribbon microphones by their very nature have figure of eight polar patterns. In that respect the M 130 is beyerdynamic’s “most classical” ribbon microphone. However, it is not entirely puristic, as it is equipped with a double ribbon system that amongst other things helps it to be slightly more sensitive. Unlike, for example, Oktava microphones, at beyerdynamic both aluminium ribbons are located behind, instead of alongside, each other, which minimizes off-axis colouration.
Even with a double system, the M 130 is no louder than other ribbon microphones, because thanks to its tiny design, very little diaphragm surface comes together, even with two ribbons. The system displays additional effectiveness with its thick soft iron wire around the whole system. On the one hand, this increases the magnetic field (more output), on the other it acts as an HF reflector, which improves treble reproduction.
The M 160 is perhaps beyerdynamic’s most legendary ribbon microphone. With its hypercardioid polar pattern it is slightly more flexible than the common figure of eight ribbon microphones. Particularly under difficult conditions, the M 160 has the advantage of picking up less background noise than a figure of eight microphone. You begin to wonder why more manufacturers do not produce and have not produced ribbon microphones with polar patterns other than the figure of eight. The answer is that it is very difficult to transfer the sonic advantages of the ribbon microphone to other polar patterns. Both the linearity in the middle and the frequency independence of the directivity go down the drain as soon as the reverse side of the ribbon element is dampened. beyerdynamic succeeded in creating this work of art using subtle sound channeling. Acoustic labyrinths like this are a beyerdynamic speciality and are also used to linearise the reproduction characteristics, for example, in the moving coil classic M 88 as well as the brand-new large-diaphragm condenser microphone MC 840.
The M 160 is also a double ribbon system with a similar arrangement to the M 130. Both microphones are intentionally designed as a pair, to provide a particularly balanced sound in M/S stereo arrangement. There is less susceptibility to sound picked up from the rear with the use of the M 160 as a mid-range microphone as there would be with an arrangement of two figure of eight ribbons. Colored points on the ring round the microphone basket mark the center line of the ribbon element, which is not visible from the outside due to the microphone’s round design. Because, as described in the German microphone workshop “Ausser Rand und Bändchen”, the ribbon should be arranged upright in order to enjoy extremely consistent directivity. In terms of orientation, however, the beyerdynamic ribbon mics are relatively uncritical; such a short ribbon produces little off-axis colouration, even lengthways.
The M 260 currently offered is actually the M 260.80 model. These additional numbers, which have over time fallen by the wayside, denote a variety with a fixed 80Hz low cut filter to compensate the proximity effect. The M 260 was often used as an announcer microphone, and its speech intelligibility suffered from a slightly over-heavy bass. The low cut filter is incidentally achieved using a special output transformer, and therefore cannot be easily removed.
Unusually for a ribbon microphone, the M 260 has slight presence accentuation in the upper mid-range, which makes it sound lighter and more assertive than the other two models. Due to the fixed low cut filter the M 260 is designed for close miking. It has hypercardioid polar patterns but unlike the M 130 it is equipped with a single ribbon. Inspite of this, it is even slightly louder — presumably as the M 260 is somewhat larger overall. It is only a little bit smaller than a Shure SM 58 and in principle actually robust enough to be used as a microphone for singing on stage or in the studio.
With microphones that have been available for almost 40 years, there’s no question of their quality. It remains to be seen however, what advantages they offer and how they differ from one another.
Like almost all ribbon microphones, the beyerdynamic mics work well with guitar amplifiers. Microphones with coloration-free mid ranges with no presence accentuation are always a good choice here, and using ribbon microphones to pick up amplifier sounds is all the rage at the moment; Jimi Hendrix actually used a certain ribbon microphone in the 60s in front of his Marshall amps — the beyerdynamic M160! He was also reported to have used it for his vocals.
The beyerdynamic ribbon microphones are certainly versatile then. Unlike many other ribbon mics, they stand out not only because they do not color the mid range, but also thanks to their exceptionally good treble reproduction. They are therefore among the few ribbon mics that are also recommended for use with acoustic guitars. The combination of M 160 and M 130 in M/S stereo arrangement provides an impressive, very natural sound without any hardness.
However, a brilliant condenser sound should not be expected from the “beyers.” They are unspectacular sounding in a pleasant way. M 130 and M 160 possess a heavy bass which is typical for ribbon microphones and which you must learn to live with. Wide spacing between mics is required and/or a preamp with variable low cut. Speaking of preamps: Not even beyer can perform miracles, and like almost all ribbon microphones the M 130, M 160 and M 260 are weak on output. This is least noticeable with the M 260, as it requires closer miking. It only needs a couple of dBs more gain than an SM 58. It’s a different story with the M 130 and M 160, which in the majority of cases are used with slightly greater distance between the microphones. The weaker acoustic signal makes amplification of over 60 dB necessary for low-level instruments. Like almost all ribbon microphones, the full potential of the M 130 and M 160 can only be experienced with a muscular low-noise preamp.
Then again, ribbon mic enthusiasts have never had it as easy as they do today. In analogue times, excess noise and treble loss lurked at every step. In contrast, in today’s digital recording environment there are no such worries, to the extent that it’s sometimes great to hear a slight noise from the preamp, as it gives the sound a little bit of an analogue touch.
beyerdynamic ribbon microphones are superbly constructed devices. There is one simple reason why they have been built in the same way for almost 40 years: there is hardly any way in which they could be improved on. Most users find the M 160 the most interesting model, due to its hypercardioid polar pattern. The M 130 is no less state-of-the-art; its design features are based on classic American ribbon mics, yet it outstrips these in terms of treble reproduction.
The M 260 is slightly less versatile, as it is directed towards short microphone distances due to the forced compensation applied to counter the proximity effect. With its pre-EQed sound and slightly higher output it is particularly suitable for those starting to use microphones, especially as it doesn’t take too much out of their budget. As a vocal microphone, however, it unfortunately can’t really compare with the sadly discontinued M 500 model, particularly in terms of design features.
All that remains is to take a look at the price list. And here’s where you’re in for a surprise: despite the intricate design, highest production quality and well-earned classic status, all three beyerdynamic ribbon microphones together cost about as much as a Royer Labs R-121, which is considered one of the more budget-priced ribbon microphone brands on the market today. Saying that these microphones are value for money is an understatement.
However, if I could wish for one more thing, it would be the re-edition of the good old M 500. Then again, perhaps the current crop of ribbon microphones will inspire the development of a brand-new beyerdynamic ribbon mic for the 21st century.
+ excellent sound characteristics
+ well thought-out design
+ very good workmanship
+ classic status
+ value for money
- low output level (typical for ribbon microphones)