Using a ribbon microphone can be a tricky bit of business. Unlike dynamics that can take anything thrown at them or condensers that can provide whisper quiet operation, ribbons take a bit more care and thought to use. They don't like it when it's too loud -or it better not be too quiet -and if you get in too close, the proximity effect can lead to overwhelmingly messy bottom end. Picky about which mic preamp it partners with, a ribbon can show off limitations in your choice of signal path as well. Most preamps just don't have enough gain for a ribbon on a quieter sound source, or an impedance mismatch can easily degrade the sound that you're capturing. The kind of preamp that adds a pleasing harmonic distortion to condenser mics can often make ribbons sound too fuzzy and unfocused. Why would anyone bother to use these beastly mics then? The trade-off for all this hassle is a rich and lush sound that can be pleasing in an almost magically familiar way. In my particular experience, ribbons capture how a sound source actually sounds to me in the room, which is invaluable. The strong null point due to their figure-8 pickup pattern can also help immensely when tracking multiple musicians all playing at the same time. I routinely use various ribbons on all the projects that I track, and the decision to pair them with particular preamps becomes a big part of what the recording chain turns out to be. In particular, I like ribbons on acoustic guitar and vocals, but quiet singing or playing can make them impractical choices. It can be a major bummer when you realize that "it sounds great, but it's just a bit too noisy."
The RPQ by AEA (people who definitely know ribbons) is a 1RU-height, 2-channel mic preamp optimized for ribbon mic usage, and it features a stripped-down but powerful EQ. The JFET preamp circuit offers 80 dB of clean gain and a 10k Ohm input impedance that pairs wonderfully with older and newer ribbons. Unlike the TRP, AEA's first foray into mic preamps, the RPQ features phantom power as well, but this is accessed by a completely separate parallel input for each channel and activated by a red front-panel button. Each channel also has a stepped input knob (4 dB increments), continuously-variable output knob, three-segment LED output meter, and polarity reverse. The aforementioned EQ includes an LF filter that sweeps from 18 to 360 Hz and a "Curve Shaper" with a sweepable knee from 2.1 to 26 kHz and adjustable boost. Both bands are defeatable. The build quality is so heavy-duty it makes one wonder if Wes Dooley is planning for the Apocalypse to be recorded with ribbons.
When I first got the unit, I set up a test with a boombox playing quietly and tried out all my ribbons to see what the noise floor was like. I have a Shure 330 with an extremely low output that makes this great sounding mic really hard to use sometimes. The RPQ had so much clean gain that I was easily able to drive a Pro Tools input into the red with usable awesomeness from the Shure. I moved through all the ribbons one by one, marveling at how quiet the preamp was. After the ribbons, I started with dynamics and went through all of them as well, taking note of the characteristics of each. I actually couldn't stop and then went through all of my condensers, and there was so much gain that I felt like I was mic'ing my neighbor's house. I was monitoring through headphones and as I was turning up the gain on a R0DE NT1 across the room in the corner, I scratched my leg and the sound was so loud and unearthly, I nearly jumped out of my skin! For the first time I felt I was able to really objectively evaluate the noise floor of all of my mics. In all other tests like this before, it's always seemed that after a certain amount of gain, all this type of detail was lost in the self noise of whatever preamp I was using. Here that simply didn't happen. The RPQ's appearance in my studio couldn't have been better timed. Working on a new record for folk-rock singer Vashti Bunyan, I had been stressing about low-noise signal paths because Vashti's singing and playing is notoriously quiet. We had been working for a few days when the RPQ arrived. After setting Vashti up for vocals with an AEA R84 ribbon mic (Tape Op #38) and getting into it, she said that it was the easiest vocal tracking she had ever experienced. "The mic seems to be doing all the work for me." I had more than enough gain, Vashti could get in really close on the mic, I was able to tame any proximity effect easily, and the Curve Shaper EQ allowed me to add just the right amount of top end. It sounded great, and I could tell that Vashti could easily find the sweet spot and work it. I had recorded Vashti a bit before, and having this amount of clean gain made setup simple and stress free. She was happy and the track sounded great.
Generally speaking, high-gain clean preamps have always sounded "prissy" to me -too clinical, not musical enough, more documentarian than what I would want to use to make a record. The RPQ doesn't belong with that lot. In use even with dynamics and condensers, the RPQ always managed to sound extremely musical, and I never felt like I was using a laboratory tool, even though it revealed a level of detail in the sound sources that none of my other gear managed to do. I quickly realized that it was a flavor of preamp sorely missing from my setup. The EQ was always just enough and proved its worth even past ribbons when I used the RPQ on tambourine and shaker with a mid-priced LDC that needed a little extra mojo in the midrange. I was sad to return the review unit to AEA -what a great preamp!
The only thing I still can't wrap my head around is that if you're going to bother to have two dedicated inputs just to deal with phantom power concerns, why wouldn't you go the extra step and put an eye-numbingly-bright LED next to the 48V button on the front to let you know it's active? Here's a place where a little blue-LED agony might come in useful. I could also imagine that putting these extra inputs on a patch bay would be a bit of a issue, but as with everything, it's all about finding a workaround.
After returning the review unit, Vashti came back a month or so later to do more work and asked, "Where's that cool mic preamp?" I think I'm in trouble!
($1530 street; www.wesdooley.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.