These days, in nearly every working class studio worth a spit, you'll find a couple of Fat Heads in the mic closet. I'm not talking about the Grammy Award winning janitor or the drummer with the head injury; I'm talking about the wildly popular Cascade Fat Head ribbon mics [Tape Op #55]. The original passive Fat Head IIs have earned their reputation as viable short ribbon alternatives for those of us who can't afford a vintage RCA or boutique remake. Cascade has staked their claim in the "bang for the buck" market by pairing cost- effective, globally-sourced machining and manufacturing, with meticulous "in-house" circuit design, quality control, and assembly. They're also one of the few manufacturers in pro audio that offer a higher level of customer service through direct-to-consumer sales, upgrade/customization options, and "in-house" service and repair.

The newest product from our good friends in Olympia, WA is the Fat Head II Active/Passive ribbon microphone - the first active/passive switchable ribbon mic on the market. Though I was expecting the standard "landfill" microphone flight case, I was most surprised to find that Cascade had totally revamped the body style, grille (offering an asymmetrical shape that slightly affects the response of Cascade's symmetrical ribbon design), and shockmount - all tough as nails and built for day-to-day use. By the way, the mic is available in "working-class" black powder-coat or upscale brushed-silver finish.

Typically, I'm the guy that reads the instructions only after I break something - not a wise tactic with ribbon microphones. After 20 minutes of scratching my head, unsuccessfully attempting to figure out how to switch between active and passive mode (cut to a YouTube video of a primate trying to use an electric razor), I begrudgingly read the short 6-page user guide.

It turns out that the Fat Head II A/P incorporates a removable lower chassis, providing access to a clearly-labeled active/passive switch located just below the now standard Lundahl LL2913 transformer on the mic's USA designed and manufactured circuit board. At first, I thought the location of the switch to be inconvenient, but over repeated use, I found that the Fat Head II A/P really is two mics in one - and should be treated as such.

Though I'm a fan of ribbons for their natural, smooth sound, and I utilize ribbons on nearly every tracking session, they're not my first choice for sources requiring a detailed top end. I was particularly anxious to test the active ribbon (promising and delivering an extra few kHz of high-frequency response) on rock vocals, drum overheads, acoustic guitars, etc. However, before jumping into active mode, I wanted to try the new Fat Head II A/P design on sources I often employ passive ribbons on.

One of my standard operating procedures (when mic'ing drums) is to place a Coles 4038 [Tape Op #15] ribbon in front of the kit at the same distance as the overheads. I was floored at how open the low end sounded on the Fat Head II A/P. In this position, I wouldn't say it was as natural as some ribbons, but it really brought out the "whomp" of the kick drum with an unbaffled front head in an amazing way. As expected, excellent results were achieved in passive mode with electric guitar amps, percussion, and a bevy of individual horns - trumpets, saxes, mellophones - and holy Judas Priest, the Fat Head II A/P sounds ridiculously cool on bones (trombones) and sousaphones. Tried and true, it's still hard to believe that a microphone of this build, quality, and character can be so inexpensive... and I haven't even switched to active mode yet. An aside regarding all Cascade ribbon mics - though care should be taken, they're all phantom power safe.

Let's get active. I've always loved the idea of mic'ing an acoustic guitar with a ribbon, but had never achieved great results capturing the detail of higher-frequency harmonics and overtones. In active mode, the Fat Head II A/P came close, but I found that adding a small-diaphragm condenser at the 12th fret yielded a better result - the combination of the ribbon on wood and condenser on strings allowed for a very natural, full sound. Although on individual acoustic stringed instruments - mandolin, banjo and fiddle/violin - the Fathead II A/P in active mode never offered the presence of a condenser mic, it did take the edge off of bright transients from pick "clucks," string "pings," and bow squeaks, working well for stringed rhythm instruments not intended to be at the front of the mix. On upright bass, the Fat Head II A/P was stellar with careful placement. I had the most fun with the Fat Head II A/P on upright piano. Combined with the "human- like" vibe of the figure-8 pattern, the Cascade sounded great (and different in character) at nearly every position - inside the piano; outside facing the strings and hammers; above, between the ceiling and the top of the piano; against the soundboard behind the piano.

Lastly, the vocals. I love "air" and presence in vocals and rarely consider a ribbon for a main vocal. On both rock and ballad vocal, I did get good results when using post processing, and while the Fat Head II A/P handles sibilance better than any condenser mic will, as with any ribbon mic, it would not be my first choice for main vocals. However, the Fat Head II A/P is great for backing tracks or vocal ensembles that again aren't meant to be featured or up front in the mix.

Though I didn't have a second Fat Head II A/P for stereo or Blumlein mic'ing, it's easily apparent how flexible this mic can be. As stated earlier, the Fat Head II A/P is indeed two mics in one. If you're in the market for one ribbon mic, there's no question that the Fat Head II A/P should be at the top of your grocery list; it's flexibility in character, quality in build, and excellent sound sells itself. You'd be hard-pressed to find any mic that sounds this good at below $600. The icing on the cake is that you're buying from a great company that maintains a rapport with their customers and can service what they sell.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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