When RØDE asked Tape Op if we wanted to review the new NTR active ribbon mic, I briefly thought of doing the review myself. But I quickly decided that with nine ribbons already in my mic cabinet, I wasn't interested in testing another ribbon, and I surely wasn't in the market to buy another one, even if it was relatively affordable. So I had RØDE send an NTR to contributing writer Will Severin. A couple months later, Will sent me his review, and as you'll see, after reading his review, I changed my mind. Read on for the rest of the story. -AH
Will Severin: The RØDE NTR ribbon mic makes a bold statement as soon as you see the box, which you'd expect to hold a rare Scotch. When I opened the box, I found the mic itself to look expensive, belying its modest price. The NTR looks unlike any of the other mics in my collection, and its physical design is both unique and innovative. The outer grille is dramatically shaped and quite large — 5'' high and 2.5'' wide. With more perforations than metal making up the grille, you can clearly see the ribbon motor suspended inside. The ribbon itself is an aluminum element that's only 1.8 microns thick — one of the thinnest made. The element is laser-cut using a proprietary method that not only offers more precision than manual cutting, but presumably increases the life-span of the ribbon too. Shielding the element is a super-thin, low- density internal screen with precise, photo-etched openings. A screw at the top of the mic holds the suspended ribbon motor in place when the mic isn't in use, safeguarding the motor from accidental bumps, etc. All this means that resonance is minimized, transparency is maximized, and an external shockmount is unnecessary.
Below the grille is a hefty cylindrical body, which houses the large, custom-designed transformer, as well as the phantom-powered active circuit. The transformer is low impedance with low noise and high output. Along with the active electronics, this equates to lots of gain! I use an outboard preamp with plenty of gain to get decent levels from passive ribbons, but the NTR pumps out signal more in line with a condenser mic.
Let's talk about the specs of this mic. The polar pattern is bidirectional figure-8 with a frequency response of 20 Hz — 20 kHz. The NTR can handle 130 dB SPL, not quite as high as the popular Royer R-121 [Tape Op #19] can, but enough to track loud rock guitars, and the NTR works well on acoustic guitars, too. The NTR has a little more top end than you would normally associate with ribbons, but I liked having that extension, and the top end sounds nice, not hyped. The NTR takes EQ well, without buildup of unwanted resonance or noise, and it's great to have that kind of flexibility in tailoring your sound. The mic sounds round and has a present bottom that I've missed in some other ribbons, and the low noise floor is pretty impressive. I was able to capture some surprisingly intimate vocal passages with this mic.
Working with engineer Chris Theis <www.theismix.com> on the latest project from prog-metal group Infinite Spectrum <www.infinitespectrum.net>, we put the RØDE NTR through its paces on drums and guitars. The NTR excelled when we tried it as a front-of-kit mic to capture a snapshot of the entire drum set. It exhibited plenty of low end and a fairly complete picture of the player's dynamics, and the mic's extended high end really helped the track shine. We were very happy with the results. We also paired the NTR alongside an SM57 to track some rhythm guitars. With ENGL Fireball and Splawn Quick Rod amps cranked, the NTR had no problem with the levels and captured some great round tones on numerous numbers.
All of the mic's components, including the ribbon motor, transformer, and active circuit, are manufactured in-house at RØDE's state-of-the-art factory, so quality-control is there across the board. Moreover, RØDE is so confident of the mic's durability, that the company offers a 10-year warranty on the mic, along with one free replacement ribbon within the warranty period should you inadvertently damage it — provided you register your mic. Send the mic in, and they'll re- ribbon it for ya. That's an awesome deal! Unfortunately, one aspect of the NTR that isn't awesome is its mic clip. It takes a while to get the mic into the right position, and sometimes I found I had to place the mic upside down. It's a minor gripe, but worth mentioning.
The RØDE NTR is a worthy addition to any mic locker. It's impressively built with some great features, and it captures a sound that few other ribbons can, straight out of the box. Now a question for my editor: Do I really have to send the NTR back?
Andy Hong: After reading Will's review, I had Will send the NTR to me, so I could give it try, despite my original reluctance. It only took a few uses of the mic before I decided that I'm definitely not sending it back. This mic is a keeper, and I'm gladly purchasing it.
I first set up the mic in the middle of my live room, facing the drum kit for a recording session with the Thalia Zedek band. Even before drummer Jonathan Ulman picked up his sticks, I could tell that this mic was special. When I walked into the control room and soloed the NTR, what I heard coming out of the speakers already had clarity and a sense of depth that no other ribbon mic had ever given me. I felt as if I was still standing in the live room listening to everyone get ready to do the take. The "reach" of the mic was similar to what my ears had just heard in the live room, with all frequencies reproduced completely, and the distances of various sounds and noises represented perfectly. Things only got better when the band started playing. Will was right — as a front-of-kit mic, the NTR really excels. The kick and floor tom had tons of bottom-end thud, but weren't boomy. The crack of the snare was powerful and tight. The cymbals were sparkly, but not harsh. And the "air" — wow, I could almost feel the air in the room.
Next I tried the NTR on electric guitar for an overdub, placing the mic about 4'' from the cabinet grille. Woah, I was surprised at how bassy the NTR sounded — huge when soloed, but way too dark and muddy in the mix. So then I pulled the NTR out to about 8'', and the guitar amp sounded more realistic — still big, but now thumpy instead of muddy. At 12'' out, the mic sounded just right — strong, but better balanced in the mix.
A couple weeks later, I pulled out the NTR again, this time for vocals. I knew I wanted some distance between the singer and the mic — not only to avoid plosives hitting the ribbon, but also because of what I had learned mic'ing electric guitar — so I set the mic at forehead height, about 16'' out. Perhaps I should just stop right here and tell you that the NTR is an amazing vocal mic, and for that reason alone, you should go out and try one for yourself. What I captured then and on subsequent vocal sessions was so real sounding, I didn't want to process the vocals any further. (Admittedly, I ended up putting Retro Instruments Sta-Level [Tape Op #55] or 176 [#66] compressors on the various takes to keep the vocals up front in the mix.) I felt that the NTR was representing all frequencies in an honest manner, and unlike many other ribbons, it was capturing plenty of highs without EQ. And importantly, there was no sibilance, crispiness, or other forms of harshness up top.
At distances of 3 ft or greater, the frequency response of the NTR is near flat from 20 Hz — 20 kHz, with no unruly resonances. I measured a smooth -3 dB dip at 13 kHz (with the slope starting at 8 kHz) followed by a smooth rise to a 3 dB peak at 17 kHz, with better extension than any of my other ribbon mics. Moreover, the NTR has less harmonic distortion below 100 Hz and above 5 kHz than my other ribbons, which further explains why this mic sounds so natural at both ends of the spectrum. At 2 ft distance, proximity effect starts to bring up the lows and the lower mids, from 380 Hz on down. At 1 ft, the low-frequency ramp-up is significant, with the response rising 8 dB at 100 Hz, and more at frequencies below. Clearly, this is a mic with loads of proximity effect, so for a neutral sound, you need distance. If you have a good-sounding room, distance becomes a great tool to use with the NTR. Not only can you vary the proximity effect, but you can also control the balance of direct sound versus room ambience, just by moving the mic, without fear that the recording will end up too anemic from lost lows and hushed highs.
I should also mention that the build quality of the NTR is fantastic. All its parts seem perfectly forged and machined, and even the delicate bits of the mic look and feel solid. On the other hand, the box it comes in that reminded Will of rare Scotch — reminds me of unboxing videos of iPhones and such. Granted, the presentation is well thought out, but it's still a cardboard box. Plus, I hate how you can't put the mic back into the box without first separating it from its mic clip. The clip and the included mic sock have to go into their own special cubby behind a hinged flap. It's very swish and all, but personally, I'd much rather have a robust flight case than cleverly folding bits of paper. The aforementioned mic sock isn't padded, but it's made from a nice microfiber cloth. I cover the mic with the sock when I'm moving, handling, or putting away the mic, to shield the ribbon element from blasts of air, and to keep magnetic debris from being drawn into the motor.
All in all, I'm very impressed with the RØDE NTR. I've used it only on a few sessions, so I can't say it works on everything. But given the mic's capabilities in regard to recording vocals, drums, and electric guitars — and capturing "reach" and natural ambience better than any of the other ribbon mics I own — I'm looking forward to trying the NTR on everything!