When the Royer R-121 ribbon mic (Tape Op #19) came out in 1998, word on the street from working engineers was overwhelmingly positive. I borrowed one from Jeff Stuart Saltzman and soon bought my own. Ribbon mics were coming back in style (kudos to Wes Dooley for keeping the faith), and Royer had delivered a great new mic. So here we are twelve years later, and Royer has a wonderful line of stereo and mono ribbon mics, Chinese factories knock out ribbon mics of varying quality, Dooley's AEA has some very fine mics, and Shure just bought up Crowley & Tripp and dove back into the market they left decades before. So what is Royer to do? The R-121 sells for a street price of $1295. It's worth it, but that ain't cheap. Anyone that knows Royer Labs' commitment to quality would guess that they're not about to make a crummy, low-quality mic and spoil their rep. Enter the R-101, a "lower-cost" version of a mono, passive ribbon mic, with a slightly larger, cylindrical body (no cute little ears around the magnets), a "multi-layered windscreen" (to help protect the ribbon), plus a free shockmount - and it's built in their shop in California. But here's the thing - as I suspected, lower cost doesn't mean any dip in quality; it just means a different flavor.
I used a pair of these mics on several "cold call" sessions (see this issue's intro). For drum overheads, they provided that smoothed-out cymbal sound, and with a bit of low-mid cut and high-shelf lift (the usual procedure with ribbons, I find), they really worked well, providing a slightly retro-album sound that the band wanted. On sax? The growl was kept intact, and the clicks and audible artifacts a sax makes were in check. On guitar amps, the sound was easy to capture, and this is where I first found the true difference between the R-101 and the venerable R-121; the 101 had a seemingly reduced proximity effect and less low boominess in general. I'm not sure if this lessening of the low-end causes it, but the R-101 also sounds a tad brighter - in a way, a bit more like a Shure SM57 or comparable dynamic mic, but with that quite different transient response that a ribbon mic has. On acoustic guitar, this was quite noticeable, especially when I compared the mics directly. And then it hit me - in general I haven't liked using my R-121s as drum overheads, although using the SF-12 stereo mic (Tape Op #25) on drums at Tucson's WaveLab was highly rewarding. But the heavier low-end of the R-121 always sounded out of place for me, especially in the old Jackpot! building, with its lower ceilings. But the R-101 was appealing to me right from the start.
I think of microphones as my first line of defense on a session, and I rarely think of a mic as being flat-out lousy. (Ask me over a beer, and I'll give you a short list.) In the case of the R-101, I'm damn excited, as I feel Royer has given us another color of ribbon mic to work with, with their superior build quality and customer service, and at a decent price point as well. My review units will not be returned, and I can't wait to pull them out during my next session.
by Adam Kagan
How many good vocal mics are there out there today? Probably way too many, but how many are truly great vocal mics? Now we can narrow the field, with the choice mics being mostly of the vintage or...