With its unmistakable visual presence, enormous versatility, and famously silky smooth top end, the original RCA Type 44 (continuously produced from 1932 to 1955) has secured its place as one of the most iconic microphone designs in recording history. AEA founder Wes Dooley [Tape Op #97] began servicing thousands of existing RCA 44s (among a variety of other ribbon mics) back in 1976. By 1998, according to the company's website, he had acquired "100 percent of the interchangeable parts used within the original RCA 44," and that same year began offering his own part-for-part recreation of the 1936-56 era RCA 44-B/BX, called the R44C. Twenty years later, AEA's fleet of RCA 44-inspired microphones has grown to six: their original R44C, the R44CX (offering 6 dB more dynamic range than the "C"), the R44CE (for "cost-effective" – a cosmetically more spartan version of the "C", with the same internal components and sonic signature), the R44CXE (offering 6 dB more dynamic range than the "CE"), the A440 (an active, phantom-powered version with extremely low noise), and the brand new, limited-edition item in celebration of AEA's 20th year of manufacturing R44s R44ACE (an active version of the "CE" model).
In deciding where to jump into this impressive collection for a Tape Op review, I chose to zero in on the "cost-effective" R44CE model. With a $2520 street price, this is by no means an inexpensive microphone – it is, however, the AEA model probably most within the reach of the small studio or home recording enthusiast. According to AEA, the mic is sonically identical to their more expensive R44C model ($3780 street), with only minor cosmetic differences that allow the company to offer the mic at a significantly lower price. Sammy Rothman of AEA says "the R44CE is identical to our R44C on the inside, but the outside has an economy yoke and cushion mount, a satin finish (instead of a shiny one), and the ribs on the transformer case are black instead of silver. Sound-wise, they're the same." I requested a pair of the R44CEs so I could try them out on stereo sources in addition to standard, single mic'ing scenarios.
Weighing in at 8.5 pounds, this is a seriously heavy microphone, so a heavy-duty mic stand is a requirement – preferably one with a substantial counterweighting mechanism. The R44CE ships in a vertical soft case, which helps keep the mic's ribbon element from sagging due to gravity when not in use. The first opportunity I had to use the pair of R44CEs was for an on-location recording of a large chamber group in New York City. I set up the pair as outriggers for my main Schoeps ORTF stereo mic, spaced about 30 feet apart and in line with the Schoeps, while using AEA's TRP2 preamp. The R44CE pair provided spatial dimension, considerable "reach" into the ensemble, and offered incredibly rich low and lo mid information to supplement the more neutral Schoeps stereo mic. The ribbon's figure-8 polar pattern also allowed the AEAs to double as audience/room mics. While the R44CEs are certainly not the most convenient mics to lug around for mobile recording, I was sufficiently impressed with their sound to write their weight off as a small price to pay.
Next, I used the pair in the studio to record a jazz guitarist with a stereo amplifier setup. I set up each R44CE in phase with a Neumann U 67, yielding a ribbon/condenser pair in front of each amp for tonal variation and blending options. Compared with the U 67s, the R44CEs had a much smoother and less "stiff" sounding top end. The ribbon mics had considerably more weight in the low end, but still provided plenty of detail and richness in the midrange. Upon reviewing playback of each mic pair, the guitarist favored the R44CEs so much that we opted to ditch the U 67s completely. The ribbon mics really captured the guitarist's complex low mid voicings with ample detail, while still providing plenty of clarity and punch on single-note lines and occasional overdrive passages. The next day, I had the opportunity to use the R44CE for orchestral overdubs on a rock record. I had great success with the mic on trumpet, trombone, cello, clarinet, bass clarinet, and glockenspiel. The fact that the original RCA 44 was a fixture on scoring stages the world over is no accident; it sounds good on virtually any acoustic source you can throw at it. The R44CE proved to be a worthy heir to the original, providing huge, natural tones with tons of character on brass, strings, winds, and percussion.
My final evaluation of the mics was a shootout that I arranged with my friends at The Bunker Studio in Brooklyn. The Bunker has two original RCA 44s (an RCA 44-B and a modified RCA 44-BX). I figured it might be fun to see how AEA's R44CEs held up against the originals in typical single mic'ing applications like mono drum overhead, upright bass, and vocals. We used The Bunker's Neve 8058 console preamps throughout. On drums, we positioned the AEA mic and the two vintage RCA 44s directly over the drum kit, looking down at a point between the snare and bass drum, while supplementing the ribbon with a Neumann U 47fet on the bass drum. We all agreed that the modified RCA 44-BX was the winner of this particular shootout, providing the most size and "pre-mixed" sound – the AEA R44CE a close second, and the RCA 44-B a distant third. Both the RCA 44-BX and AEA R44CE provided a highly desirable mono drum sound, filled with fatness, dimension, and heaps of vibe. On upright bass, we all preferred the AEA mic over the two originals. Bunker co-owner John Davis compared the difference between the AEA and the BX to the difference between a U 47fet and tube U 47 on upright – the AEA was punchier and less flabby while still providing plenty of size. On male vocals, both the AEA R44CE and RCA 44-BX again stood out as frontrunners – with the RCA sounding slightly more saturated and the AEA a tad cleaner to our ears – both providing a rich sound with considerably smoother and rounder top end than the usual suspect condenser mics.
Of course, such comparisons can never be scientific – who knows what these older mics have been through in the last 75 years? But this session was enough to prove that the R44CE can definitely hold its own by beating out one of the two originals easily while performing neck-and-neck with the other.
My final verdict: if you are looking for a mic that can impart some of the legendary RCA 44 sound into your studio without exposing yourself to the vicissitudes of the used market (and the considerable tonal variations between 75 year old microphones), AEA's R44 series is undoubtedly the first place you should search.