Choosing between a Ribbon microphone vs Condenser microphone is more than just picking one or the other. There are some factors to consider to make an informed decision about which recording vocals type of mic will work best for your needs.
This post of Hooke Audio will help you understand what makes these two different types of recording microphones so that you can choose the right one for your situation.
For recording vocals and guitar, condenser microphones are the most preferred type of microphone. These microphones have the best live performance and highest sensitivity among studio microphones.
To work, a condenser microphone needs electricity (phantom energy, with a charge at +48V). This electric guitar signal is sent through a condenser microphone cable to your studio microphone.
Condensers can capture higher frequencies of sound. They are more sensitive, so the sound waves they produce are richer than dynamic microphones. A singer can capture expressive and emotional performances with greater clarity.
The name ribbon microphones come from the design of their microphones. They have an aluminum foil ribbon, which vibrates when sound waves hit it.
This sound vibration is converted into electric guitar sounds and other percussive instruments. . The crooners of the 1950s and 50s were notable users of ribbon microphones.
Condenser microphones have a rougher, more abrasive top end. Ribbon microphones tend to have a smoother and less abrasive bottom-end.
Ribbon microphones have a more delicate mid-range sound frequency response and roll-off at 15kHz. They have used more often recording drum overheads, electric guitars, or individual sound low-end instruments. They are still used for recording vocal sounds.
The ribbon mic is the most delicate of the three microphone types. A ribbon microphone can be damaged if it is too close to a loud sound, leading to a costly replacement.
Differences Between Ribbon And Condenser Microphones
These two different types of microphones are very common in the sound of studios. However, the differences between them are a lot. Condensers are more popular than the former. The only thing that is common between the two different recording types of microphones is that they are both microphones.
Although most ribbon microphones can be used passively, some active models use active circuitries, such as amplifiers, field-effect transistors sound, and printed circuit boards. These circuitries are similar to the ones found in most mics.
The most significant difference between condenser and ribbon microphones is in the transducer principles. Condenser microphones use electrostatic principles to convert sound waves into audio sounds, while ribbon mics work with electromagnetic induction.
Ribbon microphones use electromagnetic induction.
Electromagnetic induction refers to the voltage generated across an electric conductor when that conductor experiences a changing magnetic field.
Here’s a simple diagram showing a ribbon microphone baffle (transducer component):
A ribbon mic’s ribbon-like diaphragm is made from a conductive material (most commonly thin aluminum). The magnetic baffle holds the ribbon and allows it to move according to the sound pressure.
As the conductive ribbon diaphragm moves in the magnetic field provided by the baffle, it experiences a change. This causes a voltage across the ribbon to be induced.
The ribbon moves back and forth around its resting place, creating an AC voltage (microphone signal).
Condenser microphones operate on electrostatic principles.
This is because a condenser microphone cap acts as a parallel plate capacitor.
Here’s a diagram showing a condenser microphone capsule. (Transducer element).
The capacitor is composed of a diaphragm condenser (movable front plate) and a backplate (fixed). The capacitor is charged with a fixed amount of energy. This can be supplied by an external power supply, electret material, DC bias, phantom voltage, or external power supply.
A fixed charge can cause a change in capacitance that causes an inversely proportional change in voltage. The capacitance of the capsule is affected by the distance between the plates.
As the large-diaphragm condenser is moved according to sound pressure, it changes the distance between plates and capsule capacitance. This alternating capacitance creates an inversely proportional AC voltage across the capacitor (mic signal).
Differences of active/passive: microphone can only function correctly if it is active. Ribbon microphone, however, requires no phantom power and are largely passive.
Condenser microphones remain active.
All condenser microphones need the power to function properly. These are the active components that need powering:
Vacuum tubes: The vacuum tube electronics are impedance converters or pseudo-amplifiers for tube condenser mics. These tubes are often triodes and need to be heated properly with an external power supply.
Non-tube impedance converters: These are non-tube-impedance converters made of solid-state field-effect transistors. However, they require less power than tubes but still need phantom power.
To properly charge their capsules, microphones need external power. Electret condenser mic can place a quasi-permanent charge onto their capsules using electret material.
Printed circuit boards: The main circuitry of a microphone is represented by printed circuit boards (PCBs). Some microphones are equipped with PCBs, while others require power to run their active components (such as amplifiers).
Ribbon microphones tend to be passive.
Ribbon mics operate on electromagnetic induction, which does not require power. The mics often have passive output transformers.
The circuit that consists of the output-coupled transformer and the ribbon baffle is relatively simple. This makes it possible to make a lot of it.
Some mics have active components that boost the mic signal. This includes vacuum tubes, printed circuit boards, and amplifiers.
Ribbon microphones tend to have more natural frequency responses, while condenser mics are very precise but sterile-sounding frequency responses.
Condenser microphones exhibit a relatively flat frequency response, with an extended frequency range and a slight increase of sensitivity in the higher-frequency range.
Condensers have a flat frequency response that spans the entire audible spectrum (20Hz-202,000Hz). They will capture audio with great accuracy.
They with large-diaphragm often exhibit a slight boost at the high-frequency range, followed by a slight roll-off at the very highest-end. This can add some presence to the mic, but it may cause the mic to sound harsh.
The small-diaphragm condensers benefit from extended frequency ranges ( small-diaphragm condensers sometimes far beyond the audible spectrum) and a flatter high-frequency.
Many small and large-diaphragm have a frequency response that is lower than their natural resonance frequencies.
Ribbon microphones are relatively flat in frequency response with natural-sounding high-end roll-offs.
They generally have a flat frequency response, with a gentle roll-off at high frequencies. This is why it’s often called natural-sounding because our ears naturally lose sensitivity to these higher-frequency ranges.
They are suspended loosely in their baffles, so their resonant frequency can be well below that of the human ear.
We can see the evolution of microphone popularity by looking at the history of the microphone. In analog tape recording, ribbon microphones were out of favor, and condensers became popular.
This is because the natural high-end roll-off from them would be combined with the tape’s high-end roll-off. The result was that their sound waves were muffled and monotone.
On the other hand, were bright and offset the tape’s naturally lower high-end.
We see a revival of ribbon microphones in digital recording. In the digital recording of audio, the roll-off of the microphone sounds more natural and fuller.
On the other hand, condenser microphones are often criticized for being too bright or harsh to use a ribbon with digital recording because of their high-end frequency response.
The transient responses of ribbon vs condenser microphones are generally accurate. They would be the best for the transient response.
Condenser microphones provide very fast and precise transient responses.
Condenser microphones’ diaphragms are usually extremely thin and responsive to sound pressure variations. Their transient responses are, therefore, very precise.
There are two condenser microphone types, a large-diaphragm (LDC) and a small diaphragm condenser (SDC) microphone.
Large-diaphragm condenser dialms are usually slower because of their weight and size, while small-diaphragm condenser works faster.
Large-diaphragm condensers can be a bit reactive and may display what’s called overshoot, where they artificially enhance transients. This can be a pro or a con depending upon the application.
Ribbon microphones produce very natural transient responses.
A ribbon mic, which is an extremely thin but loosely suspended diaphragm, reacts to transients naturally.
A typical ribbon microphone has a transient response that closely matches the actual transients of the sound around it. Rarely does there be an overshoot, and the ribbon rarely acts slower than the actual sound transient at the diaphragm.
Condenser microphones can achieve any polar pattern and are often multi-pattern, but ribbon mics can only be used in bidirectional directions.
Condenser microphones can have any polar pattern.
Condenser microphone capsules can be easily designed to depict any polar pattern that the manufacturer requires.
You can design these capsules with only one diaphragm or any acoustic labyrinth to create unidirectional or omnidirectional patterns. A long interference tube can be placed in front of the capsule to create a shotgun/lobar polar pattern.
Dual-diaphragm condenser microphone capsules are also possible be made. This allows for multiple polar patterns and achieves the bidirectional pattern.
Ribbon microphones default to a bidirectional, polar pattern.
Due to their nature, most ribbon mics today will feature bidirectional patterns (figure 8 polar pattern)
A ribbon mic baffle is made with a ribbon suspended at its front and back to produce sound and its sides enclosed in a magnetic structure.
The figure-8 polar pattern of the ribbon means that the microphone captures sound from the front and rear equally while rejecting sound coming from the sides.
Altering the acoustic layer around the diaphragm can create other polar patterns. This polar pattern prevents sound from reaching one end of the ribbon diaphragm or offsets it.
Ribbon mics are the least sensitive of the three different types of microphones: condenser, ribbon, or dynamic mic.
Condenser microphones are extremely sensitive.
As we have discussed, they are equipped with internal components that can either amplify the signal or boost it somehow.
The microphones that are typically condenser will have a higher sensitivity than their passive counterparts.
Ribbon microphones are not sensitive.
They are largely passive. The microphones rely on strong magnetic fields to produce a decent level of mic signal in the diaphragm. A high-quality output transformer is also used to boost the signal’s voltage. These passive electromagnetic devices don’t produce strong mic signals, so ribbon mics have low sensitivity ratings.
However, they can be active and have active components similar to condenser mics.
High sensitivity ratings can be achieved with active microphones. This is often a great advantage, as we don’t have to rely on preamp gain so much to raise high-sensitivity mic signals to line level.
Active microphones have higher self-noise ratings than passive ribbons.
Condenser microphones can self-noise.
All active components, including vacuum tubes, printed circuit boards, and impedance converters, produce some noise. The microphone picks up this noise, however quiet it may seem.
The most important issue regarding self-noise regarding active components is the noise they add to the signal. The noise floor can be increased when the mic signal is amplified.
Active ribbon microphones are self-noisy, but passive mics are not.
Active microphones can also be self-noised for the same reasons as above.
On the other side, passive microphones do not have self-noise ratings as there are no additional devices that can cause noise to the signal.
Maximum Sound Pressure Level
The maximum sound pressure level of a microphone refers to the maximum SPL at its mic diaphragm. This will cause the microphone to produce distorted audio signals.
Condenser microphones have a maximum SPL.
These microphones all have a maximum SPL rating. This is because the condenser mic is easy to determine the point at which their internal circuits are overloaded. This max SPL rating can often determine the sound sources that a microphone may need to capture.
Ribbon microphones typically have a maximum SPL.
Ribbon microphones have a maximum SPL rating. This is the time at which the ribbon diaphragm will behave non-linearly. It is much easier to overload the ribbon microphone’s passive electronics than to overload its thin ribbon diaphragm.
This maximum SPL rating is usually higher than the practical sound pressure levels to which a ribbon microphone would be exposed.
We could achieve a maximum SPL depending on the components and inner circuitry of an active microphone.
Transformer Or Transformerless?
An output transformer balances the audio and adjusts the mic signal voltage before the signal from the microphone is outputted.
Some condenser microphones include transformers.
Condenser microphones used vacuum tube electronics. All these mics once had output transformers. This was done to balance the audio and make final adjustments to the signal before it went out.
These were often step-down transformers used to correct the impedance rather than the voltage (strength).
Transformers were also present in the early solid-state. In the late 1970s, however, many manufacturers started to opt for transformer-free output designs.
These designs were made from solid-state electronics, which could reduce noise and reduce costs. While high-quality transformers are still reasonably priced, transistors and other solid-state components have declined in value over time.
There are many condensers available today, both with and without transformers.
Nearly every ribbon microphone has a transformer.
All passive ribbon mic comes with step-up transformers that boost the low-level signal from the ribbon diaphragm and protect it from DC voltages (like phantom current).
Active ribbons, however, are not designed with transformers but rather balanced transformerless output circuitry.
It is important to note that active tube microphones typically have output transformers like their condenser equivalents.
I mentioned both condenser and ribbon mics being popular in studios at the beginning of the article. Studio microphones don’t have to be the most robust, but it is still important for microphone longevity. They require more care and caution when used and not in use. These mics tend to be very durable.
Condensers are the most durable.
While I wouldn’t recommend any microphone being used for foul play, most are made to last.
This is especially true for solid-state (FET) microphones. The printed circuit boards are durable and stationary; their capsule can be damaged easily, and the whole mic is covered with the grille and mic body.
Multi-pattern condensers are more susceptible to damage because they have more moving parts. My experience is that solid-state condensers last for a long time if they are not exposed to high humidity or other physical damage.
Tube condensers, on the other side, are less durable. The vacuum tubes are made from glass and are very fragile. They are sensitive to temperature and can crack if left too cold for too long. Vacuum tubes will eventually fail, while solid-state electronics will last longer.
Ribbons can be quite fragile.
Ribbon diaphragms can be notoriously fragile.
Passive ribbon mics have the advantage of being extremely resistant to humidity and temperature.
Their diaphragms are susceptible to being twisted or snapped.
Sharp particles of air can cause damage to ribbon diaphragms.
The ribbon can be damaged if the connection is cut to a ribbon microphone when there is any DC bias or phantom current. Avoid hot patching a microphone ribbon.
Both ribbon and condenser microphones have wide price ranges. However, the condenser microphones are easily more affordable than the ribbons.
The price range for condenser microphones.
Prices for mics range from $0.01 (for bulk orders of cheap electret mics) to well over $10,000 for vintage tube condenser mics. These microphones are available at all price points, with some exceptions.
The price range for ribbon microphones
Prices for ribbon mics range from less than $100 for consumer-grade microphones to several thousand dollars for vintage and high-end ribbon mics.
No matter which type of microphone you choose, it’s important to keep in mind that a good mic will not make up for poor technique and vice versa. Depending on the purpose of your use, you may want to consider using one or the other type of mic.
Ribbon mics are the best-suited voice recording. In contrast, condenser microphones work better with low-end instruments like guitar and sound effects because they have a higher frequency response rate and can pick up sound from farther away sound sources due to their ability to handle more high-frequency sounds.
Which type do you think is best suited for your needs?