As digital recording has become the norm, many of the tools that engineers once took for granted have disappeared from recording studios. But it’s one of the ironies of the DAW-age that the embrace of computer recording has led directly to the comeback of one technology that’s even older than tape itself.
That’s right: Today, we’re talking about the triumphant return of the pressure-gradient ribbon microphone.
Below are my personal picks for the three contemporary classics against which all other ribbon microphones can be judged.
The Coles 4038 isn’t just one of the best ribbon microphones you can get for under $1,500 – it may also be one of the best microphones ever devised. In my book of vintage studio staples, the Coles 4038 would sit right up there alongside the most iconic designs from Neumann and AKG.
Unlike most of its condenser cousins, the Coles 4038 has remained completely unchanged for almost 40 years. The mic’s true legacy goes even further back than that, in fact, and buying a new one today is a whole lot like picking up an original off of the BBC’s private production line back in 1955.
The 4038?s smooth, natural, and textured sound makes it a beautiful performer on drums, strings, room and piano. It’s also a knockout on a good-sounding electric guitar amp, and it can even work well on vocalists who could use a little softening around the edges.
The top-end on this microphone rolls off sooner than many modern ears would expect, but that’s half of its charm. While the 4038 is not a natural choice for sounds that need to cut through a mix, it’s famous for taking EQ well, and a high-frequency boost in the right place can make the mic shimmer like satin does.
Still, don’t let the 4038?s balanced, gauzy timbre fool you: In the right scenario, this microphone rocks as hard as anything.