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By Jon Chappell
Senior Editor, Harmony Central
Ribbon microphones have become very fashionable of late. They offer the sensitivity normally associated with high-quality condenser mics, but with less of the brittleness that can make some condensers sound harsh (especially when they're going through less than stellar preamps). So I was immediately excited at the prospect of testing Audio-Technica's AT4080 and AT4081—two new bi-directional active ribbon microphones. Note the word "active"—it's important. We'll get to why in a bit.
First, some back story for those who may be unfamiliar with ribbon mics: The technology dates to the 1920s, and many classic recordings were made with ribbon mics like that famous big one you've seen in Elvis and Frank Sinatra photos. But while they sounded great, the mics' element (actually a very thin strip of aluminum or other metal) was pretty fragile, and their output relatively low. As a result, condenser and standard dynamic mics eventually took over as the go-to tools for studio and live work, while ribbon mics became more specialized. (I say "standard dynamic" because a ribbon is in fact a type of dynamic mic, but uses a different element than something like a Shure SM57.) As a result, mic preamps that were designed to match those more popular mics became the standard, so even when a ribbon mic was working, it didn't always deliver its optimal sound due to level and impedance mismatches.
Fast forward to the modern era, which is turning into a ribbon renaissance. These two Audio-Technica models are a prime example of how new approaches to old technology can yield great results. Both are solid enough to handle regular studio and (very careful) live use. Right out of the box, both these handmade beauties exude Audio-Technica's trademark combination of sleek design and sturdy construction (and backed with a 5-year warranty). Each has solid metal housings with an open acoustical design to reduce internal reflections and an ultrafine metal mesh to protect the ribbon element from damage. You should still be careful to keep the mics in a clean environment and use a pop screen for close-miking vocals, but these babies aren't going to fall apart if someone in the room sneezes.
The AT4080 is about the size of a large-diaphragm condenser (the kind you typically see on pro vocal sessions). It comes with the great AT8449/SV shock mount, a really nice addition for vocal use, but also useful when you want to mic a guitar cabinet or other source that could produce rumble. The frequency response is an impressive 20Hz-18kHz—incredible low-end response, and signal-to-noise is 72dB at 1kHz (translation: the mic is quiet). AT4080 can handle anything from voice to brass to amp stack to drums.
The AT4081 is in the shape of a large pencil mic but, like the AT4080, it's a side-address mic, so it doesn't "point" at the source the way some pencil mics do. It mounts to a standard clip, and its compact size makes it ideal for instrument recording, especially guitar and percussion (it can also handle 150 SPL), or application where space is tight. Frequency response is 30Hz-18kHz, signal-to-noise is 69dB.
Each mic employs a figure-8 pickup pattern, which captures sound equally at the front and back—a pretty a common feature on ribbon mics. But that may be the only thing "common" about this pair. Both mics feature proprietary technology (18 patents pending), including Audio-Technica's MicroLinear™ ribbon, which offers superior durability and the ability to handle sound pressure levels (SPL) up to a whopping 150dB. Dual-ribbon construction offers even more sensitivity than other ribbon designs, and the powerful N50 neodymium magnets give each mic a high-output level.
Remember how I said the word "active" would be important? Here's why: Both mics feature phantom-powered circuitry that boosts output without adding noise, and offers a better impedance match with today's microphone preamps than you'll get from typical ribbon designs.
Audio-Technica's mating of classic and modern design proved itself the moment I plugged in the mics. On vocals, the AT4080 delivered articulation and clarity, yet the singer also sounded natural and full-bodied. Sometimes, people say "warm" to refer to a sound that's dull; but this was real warmth—strong, solid, and totally present. The AT4081's sounded great on acoustic guitar, electric guitar cabinet and actually worked pretty well on a vocal part. Both mics impressed us for their low self-noise, but in the end, it was that sweet, natural sound that won the day.
Audio-Technica has always offered excellent value, and these two new ribbon mics uphold that tradition. The AT4080—the more expensive of the two—is a classic vocal mic that can also get down with an amp stack and marshal high SPLs into warm and full signals. And you've gotta love the fact that it comes with a shock mount. The AT4081 is a versatile instrument mic that could well end up relegating both dynamic and small condenser mics to backup status at your sessions. But while each has its own personality, both of these two modern ribbon mics share the magic combination of innovative active circuitry and sleek design. The AT4080 and AT4081 go beyond just "bang-for-the-buck" to deliver outstanding performance—regardless of price.