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Thomann's Cool Online Guides: Ribbon Microphones

2. History

Few people know that the ribbon microphone was already invented near the end of the 19th century. And by none other than Werner von Siemens, the same guy who invented the dynamic moving coil mic. Unfortunately, tubes were not invented yet, let alone transistors; and without any means of amplification, both the ribbon and the moving coil dynamic microphone were essentially useless. Sometime in the 1920s Erwin Gerlach produced a ribbon loudspeaker and in 1930, Harry Olson of RCA presented the first usable ribbon microphone.

The ribbon microphone sounded much better than the crystal and coal microphones, which were then in use, and it became an instant success. While Germany preferred the condenser microphone, the rest of the world used ribbon microphones for broadcast, movie sound, and orchestral recordings up until the early 1960s. All the great swing, jazz and early rock & roll recordings were done with ribbon microphones: Big Bands, Hollywood stars such as Bing Crosby or Judy Garland, and Elvis Presley – essentially all pre-Beatles music was recorded using ribbon microphones.

In the 1960s the ribbon was more and more replaced by condenser microphones. People had gotten tired of the smooth crooners of the 50s and were longing for brighter, more modern sounds. Most manufacturers of ribbon microphones either went out of business or concentrated on other branches. RCA, once the ribbon manufacturer quit making microphones altogether. Quite ironically, the only larger microphone manufacturer who continued to produce ribbons and thus preserved the ribbon legacy was a German manufacturer: beyerdynamic. Actually, most of their ribbon mics introduced in the 1960s are still in production after 40 years!

Ever since the emergence of digital audio, there has been a ribbon revival. Suddenly, the smooth, and full, yet pleasantly understated sound of ribbon mics was exactly what engineers needed to fight “digital frigidity.” Since the late 1990 Royer Labs have been a spearhead of modern ribbon mic technology. Other American manufacturers such as AEA began to revive classic ribbon designs. And more recently, Chinese manufacturing has made ribbon microphones available to virtually anyone.

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