Is a Ribbon Room Mic the Missing “Glue” in Your Recording?

Recording Your Room with an R88 stereo mic

Since the early history of recorded sound, musicians have gathered around a single ribbon microphone to capture performances. This was a standard method of multi-source recording in the 1930s and 40s.

Years passed and audio tape technology improved to allow for additional tracks, so engineers began close miking everything in the studio. This shift in technique made the art of placing a “room” mic far away from a source seem old-fashioned.

Every Room Has Character

Every room or space has a unique sound. Whether it’s Abbey Road Studios or a one-car garage, each space is distinct and sounds like no other. Oftentimes, incorporating the sound of a space into a recording provides the missing piece that rounds out the complete sound of a performance.

This is especially true on drums and other instruments, such as brass and strings, that have long reverb tails. Though it isn’t always obvious, the ambience of a recording space is often a major element of the sound of an instrument.

Ribbon Mics
Direct Sound vs Indirect Sound

Recordists should understand the valuable distinction between direct sound and room tone. The closer the mic is to a source, the more direct sound is captured. A mic placed farther away from the source captures more room tone.

If a sound source is quiet, the amount of room tone captured by a mic will be greater than if the source were loud. This logic applies even if the mic is positioned the same distance away from the source. These are two important elements to understand when placing a room mic for recording.

Ribbon Mics
Using Room Mics to Add Depth to Your Drums

Drums are one of the most complicated instruments record. Since so many different sounds are produced from different sections of the kit, capturing a complete image proves difficult. Even when close miking, the sound of a drum kit is heavily dependent on the sound of the room it’s in.

In these samples below, we positioned two AEA R88 stereo microphones in two different positions. One is positioned above the drummer, Zach Harmon, as a close overhead mic about 7-feet above the ground. The other is positioned as a distant mic about 15-feet back from the drums. Though both mics are featured in the same performance, the only thing changed is the position of the R88 microphone. The two unique positions capture significantly different sounds, but together they give you plethora of options when mixing. There are no EQ, compression, or effects on any of the tracks in this article.

Miking Overheads With the R88 For Focus

In this drum overhead example, the majority of the tone captured is the direct sound from the drum set. The transient response is crisp, the room tone is limited, and the overall sound of the kit is focused.

R88 on drum overheads

These drums were recorded in a large scoring stage with tons of natural reverb. Some room tone is captured by the microphone due to the height of the overhead and the back side of the microphone.

In many instances, this track alone would sound great in a mix. However, it is lacking the true scope of the room which is a necessary element in many recordings.

Miking Rooms With the R88 for Natural Reverb

In this room miking example, the sound captured from the R88 is much more reverberant than on the overhead example. There is mostly room tone recorded and very little direct sound. Positioning the R88 in this spot captures the ambience and immensity of this room in its full glory.

R88 on drum room 20 feet back

On its own, this track may work well in some recordings, but the drum kit has very little definition which limits where it could be used.

R88 overheads and room mics blended

In this example, the R88 overhead and R88 room miking audio samples are blended together. This gives the clarity and definition present in the overhead track, and the detail and natural reverb from the room mic. The depth created by the two perspectives gives you great flexibility when mixing. The definition of the instrument is much more present and realistic in this mix.

Ribbon Mics
Using Room Mics to Add Depth to Your Violin

Violin can often be a difficult instrument to record. The sound is produced from multiple areas of the instrument: where the bow makes contact with the strings, the f-hole, and the whole body resonating. But it is very rare that we listen to a violin with our ear directly on top of the instrument unless you’re the one playing it. When we think of violin, we often think of the long reverb tails and the mountain-like dynamics of the instrument.

In these audio samples below, violinist, Jaylene Chung, records in a semi-reverberant studio with two different mics— one close and one at a distance. In the close example, Jaylene is recorded with an AEA N8 from two feet away. In the distant example, an R88 captures the natural room ambience from about 15-feet back. Both mic positions produce very different sounds, but together they give you numerous options when mixing.

Miking Violin With the N8 For Focus

In this close-miking example, the violin has detail and focus that truly captures the direct sound of the instrument. In many mixes, this track would work on its own. Because the room is reverberant, some natural room tone is picked up in the mic due to the back side of the N8. However, it is lacking the full scope of the room which can be an important element for certain styles of music.

Miking Violin With the R88 For Natural Reverb

In this example, the R88 is positioned about 15-feet away from Jaylene. There is very little direct sound while the pure ambience of the space is captured. The reverb tails are apparent and huge. On its own, this track may sound washy, but when combined with the close-mike, it can immerse the listener like no other.

Close Mic and Room Mics Blended on Violin

The final example is a blending of the close microphone and the distant microphone. The direct mic gives the detail and focus of the violin while the distant mic captures the sound of the space and natural reverb. Together, the depth of the two tracks could not be replicated by just a single microphone. By adjusting the level of the R88 room mic, you can manipulate the size of the space to make it sound larger or smaller depending on how you want it to fit into the context of a mix.

Where to Position?

There are no hard and fast rules when miking an instrument at a distance other than to make sure that all of your microphones are in phase. When positioning a microphone at a distance, avoiding phase issues is normally not too difficult.

One technique that we follow here at AEA is to follow your ears. As the musician plays, walk around the room and listen for one of three things:

1. An area where the instrument sounds good.

2. A position where the treble-to-bass ratio is equal. That is where the frequency response of the source sounds balanced.

3. Where the natural reverb in the room sounds nice.

It is in one of those three places where we recommend placing your room mic.

In most instances, we recommend far-field ribbon mics when picking a room mic because they retain a solid bass response at distances of over 10 feet from the source. This allows greater flexibility when positioning your mic in the room.

The Glue in Recording

Both the drum and trumpet examples featured the R88 stereo mic in positioned as a room mic. The same effect can be achieved with a pair of almost any AEA mic in a stereo configuration. Even a single mono ribbon mic can work effectively as a room mic if placed in the right position. And no matter the instrument, this technique can be applied.

Capturing a room’s sound can be the glue that holds your recording together while giving you limitless options when creating your final mix.

Ribbon Recap
John Cuniberti’s OneMic series: Recording bands with a single mic

Engineer John Cuniberti aims to capture a band in one take, without edits or overdubs, but sound as balanced as a conventional multi-track recording.

Tricks of the Trade
Blumlein vs Spaced Pairs on Drum Overheads: How to Choose
Tricks of the Trade
Near-Field vs. Far-Field Ribbon Mics: What’s The Difference

Knowing the difference will change the way you record.