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Why Ribbon Mics On Electric Guitars?

Brandon Drury —  October 5, 2011 — 1 Comment

We hear lots and lots of people talk about ribbon mics on electric guitars.  I bought my Royer R121 back in 2005 and picked up a pair of Cascade Fathead II’s in 2009.  The Royer is my first choice on electric guitars although the the Fatheads do very nicely as well.

Why Not SM57?

I want to point out that I’m not a ribbon purist and  I certainly don’t just grab the most expensive microphone.  A Shure SM57 is a fine tool for recording electric guitars.  Some of the best guitar tones of all time have been captured with an SM57.  There’s no reason to assume it’s incapable.  In many shootouts it’s clear that the difference between a SM57 and a Royer isn’t going to change a guitar tone that gets a “1” into a guitar tone that gets a “10”.  So expectations need to be held in check.  The Royer R121 is not magical.  It’s just a different tool….like using a PRS instead of a Les Paul or something.
The SM57 does deliver a lot of bite.  Some may call it fizz.  It’s easy to let the top end of a guitar get away from you with an SM57 if you aren’t careful.  Of course, “top end” on an electric guitar is often quite a bit lower in frequency than we intuitively think.  The treble knob of most amps is rarely centered  over 5k or so.

The Too Much Top Problem

Paul999 sent me a mix he’s working on for his new (SUPER BADASS) diary we hope to launch in the not-too-distant future.  (I think this is going to be a really awesome product and can’t wait.)  I thought he had a pretty smokin’ mix.  He also sent the mix to Ronan Chris Murphy (big dog who offers pro critiquing services).  One of the things Mr. Murphy recommended was putting a low pass on the guitars to knock out the extreme top end.

I didn’t find the electric guitars to be overly bright, but I’m definitely not gonna argue with a guy in the league of Ronan Chris Murphy.  (The story goes that Mike Shipley assisted Murphy for some time.  If you haven’t heard his work, you haven’t been on a float trip in a while.)  This is one of those rare opportunities to learn something HUGE.  While I haven’t heard the post-Ronan-Chris-Murphy-critique mix of Paul999, I have done some experimenting on my own.

I recorded a screamo band about a month ago and am FINALLY making my way to get serious about mixing it.  I decided to use SM57s for these guitars mainly just to change things up.  (Lesson #1:  Don’t change things up!)  I was looking for more bite and the “mellow” tendency of ribbons on electrics was something I was trying to avoid.

Note:  I’ve recorded some AGGGRRESSSSSIVE, bitey guitars with the Royer R121.  A ribbon-recorded guitar track only sounds “mellow” if you place it that way.  Much of what the ribbon ignores may be noticeable on hi-hats or overheads (although rocker producers like Michael Wagener and Ross Hogarth use ribbons on overheads all the time), but for electric guitars that stuff is so high in frequency that losing it is not nearly as dreadful as I originally expected.

Anyhow, so I’m mixing this screamo project and I decide to see if we can get more sparkle up top in the cymbals and vocals by putting a low pass on the electric guitars.  I quickly figured out that I can get away with a TON of low-pass filtering.  Yes, the fizz will disappear (and maybe I miss a bit of that), but when doing this I immediately heard those “other kinds of guitar tones” that I frequently hear on big boy records.  I intentionally took it too far and was shocked by how far I had actually gotten in terms of ditching the top end.

There was a point where I had to knock out160Hz because I didn’t have the top end to compensate for the low mid stuff anymore, but even then I could go even further if I was so inclined.  (Lesson #2:  High gain guitars can get away with exceptionally little top end and upper mid if you keep the low end in line.)

About halfway through my little experiment I realized that this didn’t sound too much different than a ribbon on a bad day.  What do I mean?  I mean that using filters always has byproducts.  Usually, if a filter is truly needed, it’s worth it, but there are strange phase thingies going on any time you use a filter or EQ.  That’s why it’s best to avoid the mess if possible.  In short, where I ended up sounded like a cheap emulation of a ribbon mic.  Well, hell.  Why did I use the SM57? I already have  ribbons!

Oh yeah, the trick definitely works.  The top end sparkle of the mix definitely shines when you clean up the offending fizzy tracks a bit.

What Went Wrong With The SM57 Tracks?  Part A

When engineering electric guitars, the worst thing you can do is think.  It’s an engineering instinct to think of EQ as the solution to most of our problems.  In most cases, EQ cuts off the icing when we need to make alterations to the cake.  When a guitar isn’t quite right, you know it.  You know it because you find your hands reaching for knobs or your finger reaching for a plugin.

I teach in Killer Home Recording that you NEVER want to feel the need to EQ a guitar track while tracking.  You know you are on the right track when you feel no urge to tweak.  When you say, “Well shit, I can’t make those better.” or “What would I even do to it if I was forced to tweak?” then you know you’ve got the cake right.  You can always add icing when you mix.

Why You Will Hate Ribbons The First Time

The reason that most guys start out their love affair with ribbons with a huge fight is the same reason these SM57 tracks had problems.  The abundant top end in dynamics, which we’ve already established is optional in guitar land, can mask problems in the bottom end.  Ribbons don’t have such a top end and  will put a microscope on that zit in the low end.

I’ll never forget the first time I used a Royer R121.  I was rocking a modern rock band.  I told them I had a $1,100 ribbon microphone that all the engineers were just ravvvvvving about.  The band, of course, was excited.  I put the mic in the usual place I start with an SM57.  (On the edge of the dustcap about 1” from the grill.)  It was mud, mud, mud, mud, and more mud.

As usual, all the hype from recording land resulted in a lighter wallet and me scratching my head as to what I did wrong.  I let out a sigh and went to work.  Actually, I’m not even sure if the R121 made it onto those guitar tracks.  I may have said, “Screw it!”, and used a mic I was more familiar with.

There were a few mistakes I made that day.

  • Ribbons require different mic placement than dynamics or condenser mics.
  • Ribbons, permanently stuck in Figure 8, have the most intense proximity effect of all microphones.
  • Ribbons inherently have WAY more low end than your usual dynamic.
  • Ribbons inherently roll off that top end that is often unnecessary…..although no one told me that this top end was optional at the time.
  • Get the low end right with a ribbon and you can often call it a day.

 

What Went Wrong With The SM57 Tracks?  Part B

So ultimately what happens is a good ribbon mic on a great sounding guitar cab placed in the right spot is going to automatically get everything above 1k “right”.  (Again, if your tonal preference requires lots of fizz, you may need to figure something out.)

Note:  Another way of wording that statement is if anything above 1k sounds weird, you should be able to ENTIRELY solve the problem with mic placement….assuming the guitar sound is perfect…..good luck on that.

In the exact same situation, the SM57 is going to give us dramatically more fizz and MAYBE more bite.  Again, a well-placed ribbon can get very bitey in a hurry.  All that fizz forces us to make a decision.  Do we like the fizz? Do we want less of it?  How much?  If we decide we want to tame the top end significantly, on a non-exceptional day of work in the studio we will notice  that we’ve got some low end problems, too.

Maybe in this situations, we should have the discipline to deal with the low end issues first, and then go back to the fizz.  Maybe there is something to temporarily killing the fizz, dealing with the low end, and then bring the fizz back in.  Not sure.

All I know is the SM57 on electric guitars forces us to fight a Two-Front War.  We have to think about two sides of the seesaw at once, balance them, make sure one isn’t masking problems in the other, and come out with a kick ass tone.  If we kill too much fizz, the low end gets out-of-whack.  If we kill the low end, the top end gets weird again.  (We are seeing the immediately need to ditch this 2-dimensional oversimplification of sound.)  All the while dealing with some distracting guitar player talking about something he read in Guitar World.  At least he can read.

My experience with ribbons suggest, as mentioned, the top end is gonna be right.  We shouldn’t have to worry about the guitars fighting with the sparkle of cymbals.  They already have that covered in a way I consider to be superior to EQ.  With ribbons, all we have to do is get the low-end right.  You will hear more low end beef/mud than you are used to with a dynamic if using the same mic placement as the dynamic.  So you gotta back it off a bit and move it towards the center of the speaker…something I’ve never gotten right with an SM57.  [url]http://forum.recordingreview.com/f8/guitar-mic-placement-how-does-mike-clink-get-away-42158/[/url]

Note: For the sake of our sanity, I’ve referred to sound in only two dimensions.  (Low end, top end.)  We all know that sound has about 20,000 dimensions.  I needed a breather from reality.

Conclusion

    • Rolling off the top end of high gain electric guitar tracks can definitely give the impression of more sparkle in the mix without actually adding it.
    • You can (optionally) ditch tons and tons of top and upper mid bite in electric guitar tracks and come out with them sounding pretty good. In less extremes, a person could use shelving instead of the low-pass and get similar benefits in mix sparkle by simply taming the top of the guitar tracks just a bit.
    • Well-placed ribbon mics will automatically solve this top end problem and put you on the fast track of already exposing the low end problems that would, most likely, be there in the dynamic mic tracks, too.
    • There’s no reason you can’t knock off all the fizz in you tracks recorded with an SM57, check for mud, deal with it (one the amp or with mic placement), and then bring the fizz back in as you feel inclined. This does add a step in the process which can be tough to pull off when a guitar player is flapping his jaw about how Creed records their guitars.
    • You can avoid all the BS in this article by simply slapping any old mic (dynamic or ribbon) up on a perfect sounding guitar amp.

Saved Comments


PunkGuy – 11-01-2011, 10:18 AM
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In most cases, EQ cuts off the icing when we need to make alterations to the cake.
Best EQ quote ever!

I think the W word is quite applicable when it comes to ribbon mics. I don’t think it is only high end that ribbons roll off, though, I think the sound is also mellowed out, probably because ribbons tend to smooth out transients a bit. This could be a good or bad thing on guitar, depending on the sound one is going for. Of course I’m generalizing microphones now, but whatever…

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solidwalnut – 11-01-2011, 12:56 PM
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…or (and/or), learn multiple mic and mic placements so that they can blend tone and come up with what you want, and choose between certain tones for the mix.

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andresix – 11-01-2011, 03:09 PM
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i’ve gone Ribbon/dynamic (beyerdynamic m160 + sennheiser md421) on a high gain guitar tone lately and shit it sounded sweet. I find the ribbon to be the most straightforward mics to work with, on a acoustic guitar a good ribbon mic (when we’re looking for a big, nice, ballady tone, not a Foo Fighters kra kra) slammed in front of it deals with the thing just perfect. No Eq, no shit, it sounds good. Rarely a case ^^

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vodski – 11-01-2011, 03:10 PM
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First time I tried a ribbon mic it was a cheapo £60 one . After a few minutes of messing around , I found that putting it about 8″ away on the edge of the speaker made the recording sound just like what I could hear in the room. Of course it was picking up a lot of the room being figure 8 pattern, but it sounded good. I’ve always found close mic-ing , with a dynamic, to change the sound and be less natural.

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Danny Danzi – 11-01-2011, 03:24 PM
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On the royer stuff, I think the problem is the 121. If you get a chance, use the R-101 next time. I find it works way better than the 121 because the more fidelity you get from a mic, the worse it sounds for a dirty guitar. Sometimes this fidelity comes by way of mud, other times it comes by way of too much high end.

-Danny

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dudermn – 11-01-2011, 03:46 PM
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Recently worked with a Roland amp and a Fender Tele. I had to get out of tweed to ultra-sonic bright without any distortion while keeping the balls. My first idea was to place a cooking pan behind a mic in-front of the speaker I brought in alot of top end with a few EQs for it, kinda sounds like nylon strings on a steel lap. I hate the sound but, if ze clients izt happi…..

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KINFOLK – 11-01-2011, 05:30 PM
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Hey Danny Its a bummer when you don’t get any thanks for your efforts in helping out, sucks even. Sadly it happens all too often. Seem most of us get caught up in our own bubble, I wouldn’t think in this case that it was anything intentional just maybe an oversight. The only thing that matters is the heart you put into what you do. Seems to me from checking out your website that you are the go to guy when it really matters.Some time ago you took the time to help me out and to get me thinking in the right direction, which I muchly appreciated. When you explain things you say it clearly in an english that is easy to understand, without the hype. When I’m logged in I look forward to reading your stuff. You have earned my respect and I do think you are highly esteemed by other members.n’uff said

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jaystar – 11-01-2011, 08:30 PM
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A great trick I learned as far as getting rid of the “Fizz” is to use a de-esser on the most annoying high frequencies. I also learned a lot from watching the Joe Baressi training DVD for tracking good electric guitar sounds. So it might be worth looking into.

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PeteWojMusic – 11-01-2011, 11:10 PM
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his name is “Ronan Chris Murphy”. i’m not trying to be an over corrective douche or anything. I’m just saying. that would be like me calling you Drury Brandon. ; )

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fHumble fHingaz – 11-02-2011, 08:19 AM
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Brandon, this is a cool piece, made better (for me) by the fact that it parallels with what I’m mixing at the moment, & some small revelations I’ve had about guitars lately… I’ve been remixing a track for a band that a previous mixer (a pro, I think) had kind of turned into a big mushy ball of energy – At first listen, I thought he did a pretty good job, but the band felt the mix lacked definition & clarity. When I got the raw multi-tracks, I realized what they were complaining about – the song had a lot of extra tasty string & piano parts that he simply buried along with a lot of the emotional intent of the song. (the file is up for bashing here, btw: http://forum.recordingreview.com/f76…se-bash-42237/ )As I said, the track has a LOT going on, so clearing away a space for each element was ultra-important. The overheads were a huge culprit in the lack of clarity. The drummer was simultaneously pulverizing & riding the crash during the chorus. This meant that, not only was the high end over-powering, but the high mids were too, because that crash was really lighting up the 3-5k range. Naturally, the guitars, piano & violins were being completely masked. Obviously, the overheads needed some drastic thinning, but the other parts needed attention too…Getting into mixing the track, I had 3 guitar mics to choose from, with both the clean & distorted guitar tones – they were: a 421 dynamic, an un-named ribbon, & an un-named tube condenser. In just about every case, (even clean guitars) the ribbon won the contest.The other thing that I discovered, was that, as Brandon says, the big boys often have a very interesting approach to guitar sounds. The band gave some Muse mixes as references, & listening to them really made me change my eq decisions. This track: Muse – Resistance – YouTube really highlighted to me that the 1.5 – 2k range can give you guitars that are really full, but have a pleasing soft top end that really leaves space in the mix for other elements. My previous tendency had been to give them a little boost with a Pultec @ 3k, but this often resulted in a harsh buildup that extended up higher . If you listen to Green Day’s American Idiot (yes, very different from Muse) you can hear a similar approach frequency-wise on the guitars. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VkmEZs_KcmsThe nett result is that you can leave that higher range open to really give the mix clarity with fatigue setting in.I realize most experienced dudes are probably going “duh!”, but I just thought I’d share my discoveries related to this subject, about which I discover something new every time I do a mix.

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paul999 – 11-02-2011, 09:22 AM
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[QUOTE]
Quote Originally Posted by Danny Danzi View Post
Man this place never ceases to amaze me. I get people asking me to master stuff that just don’t even reply back, gave tips and tried my best to help out around here…sheesh, I was nuts! I wonder if this Chris Ronan-Murphy guy spent 6 hours with Paul going over this mix like I did and dropped what he was doing to accommodate to help in real time on the spot? I helped Paul with all the important stuff on this mix. I disagree with the low-pass on the final mix I heard. Yep, truth be told, Paul and I talked on the phone while I gave my in-depth help in real time to a mix Paul sent me that was in need of work that launched a near 4 hour discussion/question and answer session on how to fix it all. Next, another 2 hour conversation about the final mix and how it had improved and what would happen from there. Surely some of the stuff I helped with remained in the mix and I was at least worthy of a mention somewhere? I guess I probably didn’t know what I was talking about as usual. Balls man…you got balls. It’s all good though…live and learn, and learn I have.
Danny, I love ya man. There is a ton of really exciting stuff going on with this and your help and future help is a critical part of this. Details are in an email I’ve sent you.

On the royer stuff, I think the problem is the 121. If you get a chance, use the R-101 next time. I find it works way better than the 121 because the more fidelity you get from a mic, the worse it sounds for a dirty guitar. Sometimes this fidelity comes by way of mud, other times it comes by way of too much high end. But don’t listen to me…I just talk a good ballgame and don’t have a clue as to what I’m saying anyway.
The funny thing about the guitars in the mix in the upcoming video diary is that one rhythm guitar was recorded with a mesa amp and an Sm57 while the other side was recorded with a Marshall and a ribbon mic. When I listen back I can’t tell which is which and couldn’t tell you right now which side is the ribbon and which is the sm57.

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brandondrury – 11-02-2011, 04:34 PM
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his name is “Ronan Chris Murphy”. i’m not trying to be an over corrective douche or anything. I’m just saying. that would be like me calling you Drury Brandon. ; )
Oops. Fixed. For what it’s worth, people usually remember my name being “Brian”.
I don’t think it is only high end that ribbons roll off, though, I think the sound is also mellowed out, probably because ribbons tend to smooth out transients a bit.
It’s my understanding that ribbons are a bit slower. I’m not sure if that’s the case. The speed of a mic generally refers to the way it handles high frequency transients, which is not something you generally reach for a ribbon for unless you DON’T want that. The one thing that is tricky with the “mellow” word is you can get guitar tracks that are AGGRESSSSSSSSIVE with the Royer R121. I think that’s why it’s so popular actually. So I’m generally with you on the “mellow” word, but guitars are an exception for me….for whatever reason.
A great trick I learned as far as getting rid of the “Fizz” is to use a de-esser on the most annoying high frequencies.
Awesome! I never really thought about that. I guess it’s just kinda sorta acting like a multi-band compressor on that one little band…but that could do the trick.
I also learned a lot from watching the Joe Baressi training DVD for tracking good electric guitar sounds. So it might be worth looking into.
I’ve been meaning to pick this up. It looks great.
This track: Muse – Resistance – YouTube really highlighted to me that the 1.5 – 2k range can give you guitars that are really full, but have a pleasing soft top end that really leaves space in the mix for other elements. My previous tendency had been to give them a little boost with a Pultec @ 3k, but this often resulted in a harsh buildup that extended up higher . If you listen to Green Day’s American Idiot (
I think you did great, Fingaz! You are right, that 2k think does nail the Muse sound pretty well.
The funny thing about the guitars in the mix in the upcoming video diary is that one rhythm guitar was recorded with a mesa amp and an Sm57 while the other side was recorded with a Marshall and a ribbon mic. When I listen back I can’t tell which is which and couldn’t tell you right now which side is the ribbon and which is the sm57.
Well, as I mentioned at the end of the article, none of this matters if you get the damn source right.

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Danny Danzi – 11-03-2011, 04:06 PM
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[QUOTE=paul999;305059]

Danny, I love ya man. There is a ton of really exciting stuff going on with this and your help and future help is a critical part of this. Details are in an email I’ve sent you.

The funny thing about the guitars in the mix in the upcoming video diary is that one rhythm guitar was recorded with a mesa amp and an Sm57 while the other side was recorded with a Marshall and a ribbon mic. When I listen back I can’t tell which is which and couldn’t tell you right now which side is the ribbon and which is the sm57.
No worries….I’m sorry for my reaction to you, Brandon and the site. It’s been a tough few weeks over here…and I opened my mouth when I shouldn’t have. Please accept my apology all.

-Danny

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garww – 11-03-2011, 05:56 PM
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“It’s my understanding that ribbons are a bit slower. I’m not sure if that’s the case. The speed of a mic generally refers to the way it handles high frequency transients, which is not something you generally reach for a ribbon for unless you DON’T want that”.

I think the key is working the multitude of design compromises. A ribbon in both MICs or speakers can be about the quickest dynamic motor available. They like to use those ribbons that look like they were snipped off a quonset hut.

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of RecordingReview.com and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.
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One response to Why Ribbon Mics On Electric Guitars?

  1. Spencer Morgan March 9, 2014 at 9:21 pm

    I use a Marshall sound on the amp I mic, and it has so much natural high-mid “fuzz” that I’ve found a ribbon mic is the best way to capture the great overall sound and low-end “growl” of a Marshall without the high-end fizz. The ribbon just naturall gets you the parts of the sound you want. I mic it about mid-cone, and a little away than the 1″. I can see how with a Mesa the Ribbon would not be nearly as beneficial.

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