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aea r44ce ribbon microphone

The RCA 44 ribbon microphone, continuously produced from 1932-1955, has secured its place in history as one of the most iconic microphone designs in recording history. From its imposing size and unmistakable visual presence, to its enormous versatility in the studio and famously smooth and silky top end, this is a mic that has stood the test of time as a singularly compelling recording tool.

AEA founder Wes Dooley began servicing the thousands of existing RCA 44s (among a variety of other ribbon mics) back in 1976. By 1998, according to the company's website, he had acquired “100 percent of the interchangeable parts used within the original RCA 44,” and began offering his own part-for-part recreation of the microphone, called the R44C, that same year. Twenty years later, AEA's fleet of RCA 44-inspired microphones has grown to six: their original R44C, the R44CX (offering 6dB more dynamic range than the 'C'), the R44CE (for “cost-effective” – a cosmetically more spartan version of the 'C', with the same internal components and sonic signature), the R44CXE (offering 6dB more dynamic range than the 'CE'), the A440 (an active, phantom-powered version with extremely low noise), and the brand new, limited edition R44ACE (an active version of the 'CE' model).

In deciding where to jump into this impressive collection for a TapeOp review, I decided to zero in on the “cost-effective” R44CE model. With a $2520 street price, this is by no means an inexpensive microphone – it is, however, the AEA model probably most within the reach of the small studio or and home recording enthusiast. According to AEA, the mic is sonically identical to the more expensive R44C model ($3780 street), with only minor cosmetic differences that allow the company to offer the mic at a significantly lower price. Sammy Rothman of AEA says: “The R44CE is identical to our R44C on the inside, but the outside has an economy yoke and cushion mount, a satin finish (instead of shiny), and the ribs on the transformer case are black instead of silver. Sound-wise, they're the same.” I requested a pair of the microphones, to audition the mic not only in its familiar uses as vocal or spot mic for acoustic instruments or amplifiers, but also in stereo applications such as drum overheads and stereo room mics.

This is a seriously heavy microphone – 7.5 lbs. – so a heavy-duty mic stand is a requirement, preferably one with a substantial counterweighting mechanism. The mic ships in a vertical soft case, keeping the mic's ribbon element from sagging when not in use. The first opportunity I had to try out the pair of mics on an on-location recording of a large chamber group in New York City. I set up the pair as outriggers for my main Schoeps ORTF pair, spaced about 30 feet apart and in line with the Schoeps, using AEA's The Ribbon Pre as preamplification. The spaced R44CE pair provided spatial dimension, considerable “reach” into the ensemble, and incredibly rich low and low-mid information to supplement the more neutral main pair. The figure-of-8 polar pattern also allowed the mics to double as audience mics. While these are certainly not the most economical mics to lug around for mobile recording, I was sufficiently impressed with their sound to write their weight off as a small price to pay.

Next, I used the pair in the studio to record a jazz guitarist with a stereo amplifier setup. I set each  R44CE up in phase with a U67, yielding a ribbon/condenser pair in front of each amp, for tonal variation and blending options. Compared with the U67s, the R44CEs had a much smoother and less “stiff”-sounding top end. They had considerably more weight in the low-end, but still with plenty of detail and richness in the mids. Upon hearing the playback of each mic pair, the guitarist favored the R44CEs so much that we opted to ditch the U67s completely. The ribbon mics captured the guitarist's complex low-mid voicings with ample detail, while still providing plenty of clarity and punch on single-note lines and occasional overdrive passages. The next day, I had the opportunity to use the mic for orchestral overdubs on a rock record. I had great success with the mic on trumpet, trombone, cello, clarinet, bass clarinet, and glockenspiel. The fact that the original RCA 44 was a fixture on scoring stages the world over is no accident: it sounds good on virtually any acoustic source you can throw at it. The R44CE proved to be a worthy heir, providing huge, natural sounds with tons of character on brass, strings, winds, and percussion.

My final evaluation of the mics was a shootout that I arranged with my friends at The Bunker Studio in Brooklyn. The Bunker has two original RCA 44s –  and B and a modified BX –  and I figured it might be fun to see how the R44CEs held up in the typical mono applications like mono drum overhead, upright bass, and vocals against the originals. We used The Bunker's Neve 8058 console preamps throughout. On drums, we positioned the AEA mic and the two RCA 44s directly over the drum kit, looking down at a point between the snare and bass drum, and supplemented it with a FET 47 on bass drum. We all agreed that the modified BX was the winner of this particular shootout, providing the most size and “pre-mixed” sound, with the AEA a close second, and the B a distant third. Both the BX and AEA provided a highly desirable mono drum sound, filled with fatness, dimension, and heaps of vibe. On upright bass, we universally preferred the AEA mic over the two originals. Bunker co-owner John Davis compared the difference between the AEA and the BX to the difference between a U47 FET and tube U47 on upright – the AEA was punchier and less flabby, while still providing plenty of size. On male vocals, both the AEA and BX again stood out as the frontrunners – with the BX sounding slightly more saturated and the AEA a tad cleaner to our ears – both providing a rich sound with considerably smoother and rounder top end than the usual suspect condenser mics.

Of course, such comparisons can never be scientific – who knows what these older mics have been through in the last 75 years – but this session was enough to prove that the AEA can definitely hold its own, beating out one of the two originals easily and going neck and neck with the other.

The final verdict: if you are looking for a mic that can impart some of the legendary RCA 44 sound into your studio, without exposing yourself to the vicissitudes of the used market (and the considerable tonal variations between 75 year old microphones), AEA's R44 series is undoubtedly the first place you should be looking.

Price: $2800 MSRP; $2520 street

Manufacturer URL: https://www.aearibbonmics.com/

review appears in issue #127 of tape op magazine

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