Anyone who’s taken a garder trying out a ribbon mic knows how awesome these vintage units are…
…as well as how expensive.
So in this guide we’ll take a look at some great inexpensive options and see which is the best cheap ribbon mic we can find for under $300*.
That way you get to enjoy the natural sound characteristics of a ribbon in your studio recordings, without having to break the bank.
Quick answer: the MXL R144 is the most popular and one of the cheapest ones on this list.
But the Cascade Microphones FAT HEAD is one you’ll recommended very favorably among enthusiasts and professionals.
Let’s take a closer look 🙂
Table of Contents
- Ribbon Mic Buying Guide
- Best Cheap and Inexpensive Ribbon Microphones under $300*
- Final Thoughts
Find more great gear here:
Ribbon Microphones – Buying Guide
There are two types of sound engineers: those who love ribbon mics, and those who haven’t used them yet.
Ribbon mics are some of the oldest available, and fell largely out of common use with the advent of tube mics. Then, when phantom powered condenser microphones became cheap enough in the 1970s, ribbon mics became a studio novelty.
But ribbon microphones are still in use today, and are praised for their faithful reproduction and natural sound. The type of sound that condenser and dynamics can’t provide.
What is a ribbon mic?
Ribbon microphones use a thin strip of metal rather than a coil of wire as a diaphragm (used by dynamic microphones) to capture sound energy and transduce it into electrical energy.
Also unlike condenser microphones, they rely on the velocity of the air around the ribbon to reproduce electrical audio signals. Condenser, conversely, rely on the sound pressure reaching the condenser’s capsule to create audio signals. For this reason, ribbons are sometimes also called “velocity microphones.”
Over time, it was understood that a narrow aluminium ribbon performed better in certain tasks than the diaphragm of other types of microphones. When ribbon microphones were first used in the 1920s (Wiki article), they were praised for having a flatter high frequency response than their peers.
Sound characteristics of a ribbon mic
Ribbon mics are sensitive without allowing in too much detail, which can be the bain of some inexpensive condenser microphones.
They’re also highly directional, and are good at avoiding bleed once positioned correctly. This makes them great candidates for spot miking guitars and amps, as sound entering the front far overpowers reflected sound entering the back while also avoiding side entry.
Ribbon mics are honest. Condensers and dynamics tend to offer their own color to the sound, with condensers considered “brighter” and dynamics giving you a more “meat -and-potatoes” kind of sound.
But ribbons have long been heralded as neutral, natural reproducers of audio that are crisp yet warm, rolling off the top-end to produce sound that is not too bright yet highly detailed.
Ribbons pick up a figure-8 polar pattern, offering total off-axis rejection of sound. This means that they’re extremely useful for picking up a stereo signal while also negating room ambience.
Over the years, ribbon mics were popular in television and radio presenting; a single mic could pick up only the voices of two presenters seated across a table. Positioned correctly, ribbon mics offer stereo heaven.
Due to the very thin and sensitive ribbon, ribbon microphones are also notorious for being as delicate as they are beautiful. So care should be taken when handling these things.
How to choose
Ribbons are the industry standard for electric guitars, offering a smoother midrange on amp overdrive and punchy low-mid tone.
Ribbons have been singled out numerous times as great candidates for brass, particularly trombone and trumpet sounds.
Their wide stereo field means that a stripped down drum recording can effectively be achieved with nothing more than one well-positioned overhead ribbon and a kick mic.
Older ribbons are little more fragile in build, but the newer generation models in this list need not be limited to studio usage.
Best Cheap and Inexpensive Ribbon Microphones under $300*
*Street price. This means that while the general price for these ribbon mics will remain under $300 at most places, Amazon holds the right to change them at any time.
Cascade Microphones FAT HEAD (98-G-A)
This appropriately named ribbon mic gives a fat sound too. Slightly darker in tone, the Fat Head is a good alternative to the SM57 for guitar amps and drums.
The lows yield amazing clarity, and the results rock when it’s paired with a brighter pencil or shotgun mic. The Fat Head has a brown body and golden grill and is shipped in a molded flight case including a mic clip and leatherette pouch.
- Dimensions: Grill diameter: 3″ , Length 6.5″, Body Diameter 1″
- Weight: 4.4lbs (incl packaging)
- Sensitivity: -56 db. +/- 2 dB (0 dB=1V/Pa)
- Max SPL (1% THD @1kHz): 135 dB
Be on the lookout for boominess in the mix. Avoid using it alone for vocals, as the results can be a little heavy on the low end.
Brass instruments – particularly trombone – are the favorite target for engineers using the Fat Head. A good amount of clean input gain is required to avoid it from coming out a little on the soft side.
Cascade has an excellent customer service department, and while you won’t find the overall tone of the Fat Head as warm as old RCA ribbon mics, you’re getting good value for the price.
The MXL R144 is the ribbon mic of choice for outstanding vocal and acoustic instrument recordings. Like other mics in its class, the precise directivity of its bidirectional (figure-8) pickup pattern allows front-back sounds while rejecting side entry. The MXL R144 has a purple and chrome metal finish and also ships a premium ‘Heritage Edition’ cosmetically refreshed model.
- Dimensions: 1.85” x 6.75”
- Weight 0.85 lbs
- Sensitivity -56 dB (0 dB=1V/Pa)
- Max SPL (0.1% THD @1kHz): >130 dB
The R144 is a perfect choice for a musician who requires a workhorse microphone offering a mellow, rich midrange and less top end. Its high SPL makes it a able to handle horns and electric guitars. The R144 has been criticized for its build quality, but at its price point, replacement is an option.
It’s an excellent option for producers looking to supplement their vocal or acoustic instrumental mics with the warmth and clarity of ribbon mic.
Having a ribbon sound is a useful weapon in the engineer’s arsenal. The very versatile Nady RSM-4 is said to have a super-fast and accurate transient response and ultra-high SPL capability, making it good for brass and drum sounds.
The RSM stands out from others at this price with wider sweet spots and increased off-axis response for high-frequencies on both sides. This makes it ideal for stereo mic setups of hand drums and snappy instruments. The Nady RSM-4, which is rugged for a ribbon microphone, ships with microphone, microphone clip, internal shock-mount and velvet drawstring storage bag.
- Dimensions: 6.5” x 0.8” x 3”
- Weight: 12oz
- Sensitivity: -55dB (0dB=1V/Pa)
- Max SPL (1% THD @1kHz): 165 dB
The RSM-4 lacks some of the required high-end for a realistic recording, and some users have commented that it lacks the sensitivity required for any kind of distance miking. However, the quality, build and size make the RSM-4 an excellent option for its class. Especially good for close miking drums and guitar amps while preserving mid-low tonality and warmth.
The Apex 205 is an excellent choice for a first-time ribbon mic user. Unlike its peers, its pickup pattern is an asymmetrical figure-8, leaving a larger sweet spot on the back face of the microphone to give the ambience of the live room a little extra presence.
While microphones in this class can’t be compared to manufacture and design in the $1000+ range, the 205 gives its ribbon mic contemporaries a run for their money.
- Dimensions: 6.5” x 2”
- Weight: 19oz
- Sensitivity: -55dB (0dB = 1V/Pa)
- Max SPL (1% THD @1kHz): 160dB
The manufacturers state that the 205 has been designed with digital recording systems in mind, but there’s not much follow-up on how or why. The 205 is able to operate at high SPL levels and handles transients with extremely fast accuracy, making this a good option for guitar cabs and brass instruments.
One small issue that some criticized is the way screw holding the mic to the shock mount was manufacturer, making it difficult to readjust. If you can live with that, the Apex 205 is a great mic for the price. Great choice for first-time users of ribbon mics, and a favorite for room recordings and ambience.
Avantone Pro CR-14
The visually gorgeous Avantone Pro CR-14 contains all the silky stylings of a great ribbon microphone. Instead of a single ribbon, it contains a dual ribbon element, making it more sensitive than most single-ribbon designs.
The design also contributes towards a very fast transient response. The CR-14 also features very low residual noise and zero overload or distortion. The CR-14 ships in a padded wooden box with a shock mount and metal road case.
- Dimensions: 1.45″ x 6.89″
- Weight (BV-1 Mic Only): 16oz
- Sensitivity: -52 dBv +/- 2dB Re. (0dB=1V/Pa)
- Max SPL (0.5% THD @1kHz): 145dB
The CR-14 is a great-sounding mic that faithfully delivers the warm ribbon mic sound while also including a little more top end than other ribbon mics in its class. The gain requires a little boost in order to capture a good signal.
All in all, this is a standout microphone in its class, delivering slightly more sensitivity than its peers. The CR-14 is a good option as a spot mic on string ensembles or solo acoustic instruments.
With so many value-for-money options in the microphone marketplace, reaching a decision should be based entirely on how you plan to use the mic.
To summarize the above findings:
- Cascade Fat Head 98-G-A: Good spot mic for guitar amps and drums
- MXL R144: Good for guitar amps and brass and as a second mic for vocals
- Nady RSM-4: Great for stereo mic setups and high SPL signals
- Apex 205: Good for close-miking guitar amps and drums
- Avantone Pro CR-14: Brighter than most ribbons, good for strings and solo acoustic instruments
Given the price point of the listed microphones, it’s entirely possible that you double down and purchase two or more and do some round-robin testing on various sound sources.
Audio engineering always comes down to careful listening and personal preference. The delicate ribbon mic continues to charm studio engineers and musicians after 100 years of use, so make sure you get a chance to find out why.