I love the sound of ribbon microphones, and I put one in front of a guitar amp nearly every time I record one. I ran across the Samar Audio Design AL95 online, and after reading about it, I had to check it out. When I first received the box sent for review, it was so light I thought the contents were missing. To my relief, I found a pair of mics and mounting clips inside a lightweight plastic case, perfectly suited for transporting the mics between studios or for storage. The AL95 passive figure-8 ribbon mic is only about the size of a typical small diaphragm condenser, which surprised me, as every other ribbon mic I have is much larger! The included mic clips fit so tightly that I was almost afraid of damaging the mics, but SAMAR claims the tight fit helps to reduce body vibrations – there is an instructional video on the company’s Facebook page. Still, I opted to use a couple of my own generic spring-loaded clips instead, and they worked just fine.
The AL95s are built in the company’s Salt Lake City, Utah, shop, and they look and feel solid! Besides their compact size and light weight, the other thing that stands out about the AL95 is its sleek silver grill against an anodized black body with a white fiber laser engraved logo. The ribbon motor magnets are attached to a nickel-plated frame that is visible along the left and right edges, but there are no “wings” (à la Royer Labs’ R-121 [Tape Op #19]).
Ribbon microphones have a few simple parts. There is typically a very thin, corrugated aluminum foil strip (or ribbon) suspended between two magnets. It picks up vibrations (from sound) and moves within the magnetic field, creating a low-level electrical signal. A step-up transformer is used to bring the signal to typical mic output level (and match the low ribbon impedance with the input impedance of a modern preamp). From there it’s connected to a standard mic preamp (passive ribbons like the AL95 will require more gain than dynamic or condenser mic).
Those who have owned a ribbon mic may be familiar with the term “ribbon sag.” The horizontal corrugations can stretch over time, especially if the ribbon motor is stored horizontally, which can affect the sound. The AL95 is different than many typical designs in that it uses a piston-style construction for its large scale 1/4-inch by 1.5-inch ribbon. This means that the corrugations are mostly vertical, although three horizontal ridges on each side (top and bottom, leaving the middle part stiff and rigid) are still required to allow the ribbon to move correctly. SAMAR Audio Design says the advantages to this style of construction are high SPL handling, lower noise, and more accurate and controlled low end response. Because of SAMAR’s zig-zag corrugation method, the AL95 does not require the mic to be stored vertically to avoid the “sag.”
I first tried an AL95 on shaker and tambourine, and the smooth transients were as I would expect from a quality ribbon mic. Next, I tracked drums and used the pair as overhead mics – they sounded excellent! The toms and snare reproduced naturally, and the cymbals were smooth, even when boosting the high end. The bottom end was tight and not as tubby sounding as some ribbons I’ve tried in this application.
Next, I placed one about four inches in front of a combo guitar amp. Once again, it brought out the lovely midrange tones of the amp without sounding harsh. The top end was smooth, and the bottom end was perfect, even at high volume. I decided to try the AL95s as a stereo pair on acoustic guitar with a singer-songwriter. I had recorded this guitar in the past and found it to be bright. The AL95s tamed that brightness and sounded fantastic! On playback, the player said, “Wow, it’s so clear. It sounds like it does right in the room!” I love discovering excellent new gear, but now I need to check my bank account. I don’t want to send these back!