AEA makes some of the world's finest ribbons mics, including their recreation of the RCA 44-BX (the AEA R44) and their groundbreaking active A440, which carry hefty price tags. Wes Dooley, the founder of AEA, wanted to create affordable alternatives for us "married guys" who have obligations that sometimes take precedence over our gear lust. Enter the A840, which shares the trademarked Big Ribbon design with its elite ancestors, and the lighter and more open body design of the passive AEA R84 [Tape Op #38]. As an active mic, the A840 contains a JFET line- driver/buffer that does not provide any gain, but allows the mic to work well with long cables and virtually all mic preamp impedances. Additionally, the A840 contains a high-ratio Lundahl transformer, which provides a significant amount of gain so that the mic produces a signal level that equals that of most studio condensers. This increased output level reduces the amount of gain needed from the preamp, which expands the preamp choices for this ribbon. AEA had a simple goal for the A840: an affordable, high-output ribbon mic with a classic pedigree and sound. That seems like a lot to ask for, but AEA came to the table to play.
Cosmetically, the A840 borrows its oblong capsule shape from the RCA 77-DX, but the A840's two dark metal end-caps hold an almost transparent gold metal grill, which surrounds the 2.3'' long ribbon. Classic chrome trim bands, the red AEA badge, and a traditional yoke-mount complement its looks. The weight of the mic has been reduced to a modest 3 lb, which helps when mounting these mics on a long boom arm or typical lightweight studio mic stands. Despite the low mass of the mic, the build quality is excellent. The yoke is very well designed and will last a long time, providing flexible placement and vibration isolation from the stand and floor. A short, cloth- covered Accusound Silver Studio Pro cable connects the microphone body to the stand mount and additionally isolates the microphone from cable-borne vibrations. I must admit that it took me a little while to appreciate the simple elegance and thoughtful, well-engineered design features of the mic. Outside of the rare-earth magnets, the entire mic is manufactured and assembled in Southern California.
Once I powered up the mic, all of my questions were answered. On acoustic guitar, with the Moon 3500MP preamp [reviewed in this issue], the A840 sounded natural, full, and also very detailed. With headphones on, I could easily move the mic around to find the sweet spot for the mic. During the mix, I could easily shape the guitar's recorded tone with EQ, and even gaining up high-mid and high frequencies quite a bit never made the guitar sound harsh or brittle. While tracking acoustic guitar in my control room, the recording was noise free - probably as quiet as a good condenser - and with the mic's hot output, the preamp only needed to provide about 40 dB of gain on fingerpicked parts. Interestingly, the proximity effect on this mic does not nearly affect the sound as much as most ribbons. I could get as close as 8''-10'' from the body of the guitar without any boominess or rumble. On solo cello, the A840 faithfully represented both the fundamental notes and the scraping of the bow. I also noticed a pleasant amount of room tone, but not so much ambience as to be distracting. AEA states that they tune their 1.8 micron ribbons to a resonant frequency of about 16 Hz, at least an octave below the tuning point of other ribbon mics. This tuning provides an extremely natural low-frequency response, even down to 20 Hz.
The A840 also performed well as a mono drum room mic, placed about 6 ft in front of a small kit on a pop/rock project. While requiring only 20 dB of gain, the mic provided a true representation of what the drums sounded like. With both naturalness and detail, a pair of these would be equally great as overheads for delicate jazz brushes as well as hard- hitting rock drums.
On trumpet, I found the sound to be clear, detailed, and still cozy and warm. The loud horn required the mic preamp to be padded down, but the A840 can handle about 140 dB SPL, so distortion or breakup wasn't an issue. Plugging the A840 into a colorful preamp, like a Chandler Germ 500 [Tape Op #89], can give a close-mic'ed guitar amp just the right amount of attitude, and still provide the clarity and top-end bite needed to cut through a dense mix. A Fender amp with the A840 and my studio's Ampex tube mic preamp creates a guitar tone so big you can step inside of it.
The A840 works well as a close-up microphone, compared to an RCA 44-BX, which truly excels at mic'ing from distances over 3 ft. Vocals, acoustic and electric guitar, percussion, drums, piano, and anything else I threw at the mic were handled extremely well, and I would love to add this mic to my collection. I would say this mic leans slightly toward the modern mic sound, with great detail and clarity, but still retains the creamy openness of vintage ribbon tone. The midrange is clear and natural with no high-mid edginess, and the space around acoustic sources is well represented by the mic. Almost any ribbon mic will provide the general "ribbon" flavor, but I haven't found one that sounds as well-balanced and useful as this one.
AEA provides a wealth of technical and artistic information in their manuals, so their website is worth visiting just to download and read the posted documentation. While you're there, check out the A840, too.