If there is one brand of ribbon mic you see in almost every well-stocked mic locker, it is Royer. Royer Labs introduced its first product, the R-121 passive ribbon mic [Tape Op #19], in 1998, and a year later, released the SF-12 stereo ribbon [#25]. In the years following, Royer grew its offering of excellent products with models that incorporate FET and tube-based electronics, as well as versions that are road and stage-worthy.
The R-122 MKII is the latest mic from Royer. Like the original R-122, it's a phantom-powered ribbon mic sharing the same ribbon motor as the passive R-121, with a fixed figure-8 pattern, but updates incorporated in the MKII design make this mic more flexible than the original R-122. The new additions are a switchable -15 dB pad and a bass-cut filter. When disengaged, these switches are completely out of the circuit, and the mic is for all intents and purposes an R-122.
The build of this mic is rock solid. Its familiar long body, with a vented and "fin-like" head, is beautifully machined, and it commands immediate appreciation for its design details, as well as its impeccable fit and finish. The mic comes inside its own velvet drawstring pouch and is cradled inside a velvet-lined, cherry wood box with a brass latch. The pouch is handy for protecting the ribbon element from air blasts or magnetic particles when handling or positioning the mic.
The pad, useful when recording loud sound sources, reduces the R-122 MKII's output by -15 dB, to a level that is actually 2 dB lower than that of the passive R-121. The bass-cut, which starts at 100 Hz and slopes down at 6 dB per octave, is a great option for reducing proximity effect or cleaning up mud. Royer recommends the bass-cut for vocals and close mic'd electric guitars, where less low end is often desired. The claimed frequency response is 30 Hz to 15 kHz, and I can verify that the mic does capture the low stuff quite well. So, unless you need it, filter out rumble at the source, and save yourself (or the mix engineer) some work down the road.
One thing that sets the R-122 MKII apart from many ribbon mics is its high output level; this mic is right up there with most condenser mics, and I found no problem pairing it with a variety of preamps, even those with lower gain. According to Royer: "There is no increase in self-noise due to the R-122 MKII's higher sensitivity. All of the mic's additional output level comes from its large, specially wound toroidal transformer — that wonderful thing called 'free gain.' The phantom-powered circuitry provides impedance conversion only, adding no gain and no noise of its own. Moreover, this circuit puts a perfect load on the ribbon motor at all times, allowing the mic to deliver its full sonic potential, regardless of the input impedance of the mic preamp in use. Due to the mic's low-impedance output, the R-122 MKII can be used with extremely long cable runs with minimal signal loss. In addition, the ribbon motor can't be damaged by phantom power or incorrectly wired cables. Moreover, Royer's patented offset ribbon design positions the ribbon element closer to the front side of the mic, affording the ribbon more room to move within the prime magnetic field without damage during high SPL recordings."
For whatever reason, when I think of most ribbon mics, I think of recording acoustic instruments. However, when I think of Royer mics, I think of electric guitars. To be fair, I have used an R-121 on strings and horns with stellar results, but it is the image of a Royer in front of a guitar cabinet that is most burned into my mind's eye. (Maybe it's those Ross Hogarth advertisements?)
I recently produced an EP for local Seattle band Everson Pines. They sound like a southern rock band whose members have lived in the Pacific Northwest their whole lives — a little salty, a little swampy. We tracked the band live at Studio Litho in Seattle, and my friend Sam Hofstedt engineered. It was a great opportunity to use a pair of Royer R-122 MKII mics in a setting I knew they would shine — electric guitars. The two guitar rigs were as follows: The first was a Gibson ES-347 straight into a Vox AC30, with the exception of a Darkglass Vintage Microtubes overdrive pedal in use on a couple of tracks. The other was a PRS paired with a variety of heads and pedals, but primarily Orange and Hovercraft amps.
We put the Royer R-122 MKII and an SM57 on each amp; and each mic was routed to a 1073 preamp on Litho's Neve BCM10 console. Bring the fader up... Boom. Done. Where needed, the SM57 provided a little familiar bite to the warmth and richness of the R-122 MKII. I really dug the sound during tracking, and it was pretty obvious that what we were getting was going to work just fine when mixing. That said, I have in the past gotten things back to my mix room to find that they were not exactly what I thought I was hearing during tracking.
When I started to mix this batch of songs, "roughing" things a bit in terms of general balances, I found myself fighting the tone of one of the guitar takes. It felt a tad small and "pointed." When I changed the balance of the two mics to favor the R-122 MKII, my troubles began to resolve. There was so much more body from the Royer, and that body was married to the upper bass frequencies in a much more beautifully rich and knit-together way. On some of the takes, I ditched the SM57 altogether, and on others, it was nice to bring in a touch of the SM57's bite without the need to grab an EQ. In many ways, as I got further into "finding" the mixes, the natural and slightly mid-forward tone captured by the R-122 MKII began to define the overall direction of each mix; as a baseline for the tonal palette, it kept me from adding too much top to individual elements and had me instead focusing on the crucial midrange. This approach kept things appropriately tilted towards a more, I guess you'd call it, "classic sounding" mix. It was interesting to be "calibrated" by a tonal element, but it certainly informed me in this case.
In the end, both guitars sat nicely in the mix and needed very little to no EQ. But just to hear what would happen, I did crank up the highs. Some condensers, especially budget LDCs, will break down when drastically EQ'ed, due to high-frequency resonances inherent to their design, but the R-122 MKII held up very well to significant upper-midrange and high-frequency boosting, and it maintained its smoothness and character.
In other applications, the R-122 MKII exhibited the same characteristics as noted above; it was smooth, natural, and balanced. Because of its offset ribbon, the front of the mic is a bit darker sounding, and conversely, the back is a little brighter. I noticed this most when close mic'ing an acoustic guitar or when singing into the R-122 MKII. As I moved the mic away from the source, the difference in tone from front to back became far less noticeable.
The bass roll-off switch came in handy during overdubbing of both vocals and acoustic guitars, and the resulting tracks also sat well in the mix, with no fuss. I also had both my acoustic bass and an R-122 MKII sitting there staring at me, and it seemed a disservice to not take the pairing for a spin. All it took were minor positioning adjustments to achieve a wonderfully rich and tonally balanced sound, again without the need for any EQ.
One standout takeaway from using this mic was that the mic maintains its frequency response and tone across the whole gamut of SPLs, from tame acoustic instruments to overdriven electric guitars. I can see myself using the R-122 MKII on just about any source with full confidence that it is going to deliver excellent results.
A new option for this and other 1" (±1/8") diameter mics is a unique shockmount from Royer Labs. The RSM-SS1 Sling-Shock does away with the traditional bungee cord-style shock absorbers and instead uses a system of non-resonant nylon cable and damped steel springs to reduce vibration and noise that may come up through the mic stand. I found that the Sling-Shock did a fine job, and its advantages are more noticeable when recording delicate sounds. It is easy to use, and any device that reduces rumble and unwanted noise is always welcome.
With the R-122 MKII, Royer Labs has taken an already wonderful mic design to another level of flexibility. There is little doubt you could find a place to use the R-122 MKII to achieve stellar results on any session for any style of music. Whether you are or you aren't already in love with ribbon mics, the Royer Labs R-122 MKII will make you swoon.