We’ve published many reviews of Audio-Technica microphones in Tape Op — for good reason. Audio-Technica manufacturers gear that’s consistently high in quality and relatively affordable in price. When the company offered to loan me the new AT4080 and AT4081 active ribbon mics, I jumped at the chance. These mics share the same multi-patented, dual-ribbon capsule and head amplifier, but the AT4080 has a bigger transformer and an acoustic baffle to increase low-end response and dynamic range over its sibling. The AT4080 is also physically bigger; it’s shaped like a large-diaphragm condenser. The AT4081 is thin and long, with a diameter not much greater than that of an XLR connector. Both are side-address.
In general, I love ribbons for their sibilant-free, exceptionally-smooth tone, and I was expecting the same from these new mics. When they arrived, my first test with them was on alto saxophone. Jim Hobbs (Fully Celebrated Orchestra) was in my studio with drummer Trip Gray (Joe Morris, Geoff Farina, Tsunami) and bassist Jacob William (Anthony Braxton, Maynard Ferguson, Rudresh Mahanthappa) for a Jacob William Trio recording. Jim and Trip played in the live room, while Jacob was on acoustic bass in the control room (looking through the glass down into the live room) — all performing together.
In past sessions with Jim, I relied on a Neumann TLM 49 large-diaphragm condenser mic (Tape Op #61); we both really like the Neumann’s smooth upper-mid presence and its not-overly-hyped “air”, as well as its aptitude for keeping the buzziness of the sax at bay. So, I put the two A-T ribbons and the Neumann next to each other, about 2 ft out from the front of the saxophone. Boy, was I surprised! Both A-T mics were extremely harsh in the highs, as if they were resonating and multiplying the most-offensive harmonics of the sax. Neither repositioning the mics nor patching in different outboard mic preamps alleviated the harshness. So I decided to move on.
I pulled the AT4080 and brought it into the control room, setting it up to audition on the acoustic bass, leaving the AT4081 and the TLM 49 on the sax in the live room. An hour passed while I finished soundchecking the drums and sax. When it came time to set up the recording chain for the acoustic bass, I did a bit of listening with my ear in various positions in front of the bass, placing the mic where I thought it might sound best, hitting record while Jacob played representative notes, and then listening together with Jacob to the playback. After several cycles of this, we found the optimal position. The bass sounded perfect through the AT4080; it filled the room, but there was still a lot of definition in each note; and it didn’t “collide” with the kick drum. Jacob agreed. I didn’t even bother with a second mic.
Now here’s where the story gets funny. With soundcheck complete, we started recording actual takes. And guess what. The AT4081 — still in front of the sax — sounded different now. And not just because I was hearing it with the rest of the band playing too. Perhaps it was the change in the atmosphere (temperature or humidity), or perhaps it was the change in room location (we had to reposition Jim and his mics to maximize rejection of the drums for the TLM 49’s cardioid response versus the figure-8 response of the ribbons), or perhaps the AT4081 needed “burn in”? But somehow, it sounded much better on the sax than we initially heard it — significantly better! I still settled on the TLM 49 for the recording, but the AT4081 would’ve been a fine choice too.
Subsequently, I’ve tried the AT4080 and AT4081 on guitar amp, acoustic guitar, drum overhead, piano, handclaps, tambourine, and vocal. Both mics pretty much worked on everything. They weren’t always the top choice when compared to other mics — especially when I needed to accentuate “character” in the track — but they always captured an honest representation of the source.
Comparing the two, the AT4080 definitely has more lows than its smaller sibling. But its low end never gets out of control, and in fact, its proximity response is surprisingly smooth. Unlike the sudden ramp-up of low frequencies that some ribbons, like the Royer R-121 (Tape Op #19), exhibit, the lows seem to increase with more subtlety, and likewise, the lows drop off smoothly as distance increases. Consequently, I found the AT4080 to be a great vocal mic. The AT4081 isn’t as “deep” sounding, with its gentle low-end roll-off as well as its slightly stronger high-frequencies. The AT4081 worked very well as an overhead mic and as a distance mic for percussion. I also loved it for recording backup vocals, for which I prefer more room sound and less lows than in the main vocal. And like its bigger brother, the AT4081 has a very smooth proximity response, so it’s great on both acoustic and electric guitar, allowing you to easily vary the low-end response by changing distance. The A-T ribbons also seem upper-midrange forward to me, so acoustic guitar tracks I recorded with these mics were stronger in the mix when alongside other instruments, although I did feel that the AT4080’s low-frequency emphasis made the acoustic guitar a little too big for dense arrangements. My favorite use of these two mics was in an M-S pair, with the AT4080 capturing the middle and the AT4081 the sides. On piano, drums, and general room sounds, the M-S tracks held a wonderful 3-D picture, with plenty of lows and lots of wonderful, stereo sparkle.
Worth noting is that with the other ribbon mics I own, I can EQ the upper mids and highs without abandon; the result is never strident. Unexpectedly, with the A-T ribbons, cranking up the highs can get you into trouble, in the same manner as heavy-handed EQ’ing of large-diaphragm condensers will. You can get these ribbons to sound shrill and raspy. Some will see this as a valuable feature, while others will consider it a crux. In any case, restraining yourself from over-EQ’ing the A-T ribbon mics is no more difficult than doing the same with condensers. Moreover, given the extended high-frequency response of the AT4080 and AT4081, you may find that any EQ’ing you do will more likely be cutting, not boosting.
I’m loving the AT4080 and AT4081 — enough so that I purchased the review units. They sound great, they’re well manufactured, and they’re affordable. Plus, despite being ribbon mics, they’re very sturdy; they can take lots of SPL, and you can even store them horizontally without fear of the ribbon stretching. I highly recommend them, whether you are purchasing your first ribbon or you already have a mic cabinet full of ribbons. (AT4080 $999 street, AT4081 $699; www.audio-technica.com) –AH
by Adam Kagan
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