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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Home Studio Recording!
CASCADE Fat Head II
Ribbon Microphone Recording Kit



Brevis...
Like: Classic ribbon sound, Incredible price;
Dislike: Not a thing.


by Jack Macinnis

It is coming up on twenty years since engineer/producer Steve Albini told us of his many uses of the Coles 4038 ribbon microphone and how the Nirvana half stacks massive level were ripping the mics to pieces. Yet, Albini would have them re-ribboned and go on, determined to capture the sonic magic of a harsh guitar sound recorded through a ribbon microphone.
Through the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, ribbon microphones were the workhorses of live, recorded and broadcast music/voice. As a distant cousin to the dynamic microphone, the Figure-8 pattern (bi-directional) ribbon uses a thinly-stretched, metal membrane element that offers a big, warm and smooth sound with a bit of midrange and low-treble presence and a diminished top en
Despite the deluge of condenser microphones since the 1960s, ribbons have always held a special place in many recording engineer’s acoustic sensibilities. This affection allowed companies, such as Speiden and Coles, to continue the ribbon niche in the 1970s
And today, thanks to more companies carrying the ribbon torch (Royer Labs, AEA and budget newcomers like Cascade Microphones) many a session are now set up with ribbon microphones. In fact, the Cascade line has brought the ribbon microphone to the masses for studio and home recording — without diminishing the essence of the classic ribbon sound.

Features
The made-in-China, Cascade Fat Head II, is priced at $219 as a single mic with standard mic and case; and $399 for a matched pair, mic mounts and a Blumlein stereo-mounting bar. (Invented by engineer Alan Blumlein in the 1930s, the Blumlein technique mounts a pair of Figure-8 patterned, ribbon microphones close to each other on a threaded bar. Each microphone is placed 45 degrees off-axis from the music source. Since this mic placement method puts the mics 90 degrees off-axis from each other, the Blumlein approach is close in placement to the stereo X-Y configuration of two cardioid mics. However, the polar patterns of the two Figure-8 mics in this “X” configuration creates a detailed stereo image — with a bit more room sound and ambiance than a cardioid X-Y setup).
Despite its shockingly low price for a stereo pair of ribbons and mounting hardware, there is nothing low-end about the Fat Head IIs’ performance. The microphone has the typical frequency response of a good ribbon 30 Hz to 15 kHz (+/-3 dB) with a claimed maximum SPL handling 1% THD @1,000Hz) of 165 dB! This is very loud, but, as with all ribbon microphones, they should not to be used with instruments that blow too much air directly onto the element. I would not use them on a kick drums. Horns are fine.

I loved the Fat Head II stereo pair on a banjo recording; I decoded a MS (mid-side) recording into three channels for mixdown. The imaging was detailed and open, and the ribbons did their magic by smoothing out the piercing, loud transients on the banjo.

As chief engineer for the Sirius/XM Performance Recording Studio in Washington, DC, I have used ribbons for electric guitars, acoustic guitars, overheads, violins, metal percussion, and brass. I have recorded with the made-in USA Royers — a great sounding ribbon — for more than 10 years, but they are on the pricey side. The Cascades are really inexpensive and within the reach of recording audiophiles, home musicians — and working home studio professionals who don’t have a lot of greenbacks for microphones.
A lot of value is packed into Cascade Fat Head II stereo kit, including the stereo-mounting bar and the shock mounts. The shock mounts are outstanding and heavy duty — much better than the shock mounts that come with other microphones I have used.

The audition
In my home studio, I setup both a Royer 121 and a single Cascade Fat Head II on a guitar cabinet — with a boutique VVT head and a 2X12 cabinet fitted with Celestion Vintage 30’s. The guitarist was using a standard Fender Stratocaster and a few pedals. The mic preamp fed a digital recorder. With levels matched, the initial A/B tests were hard for subjective listeners to hear major differences when recording through both sets of mics, a testament to the quality of the budget-priced Fat Head IIs. We ultimately heard small differences after many repeated listenings; the Royer had a smoother presence on the ribbon’s limited top-end, but which one was preferred depended on personal preference and the instruments used.


In a blind test with levels carefully matched and a Les Paul guitar, I chose the Cascade over the Royer. The Cascade’s ribbon sound can be categorized as warm, as the top-end is rolled off, but the high midrange exhibits a nice crispness that flattered my guitar. It is a seductive sound.
Stereo-miking was a joy with the Cascade setup. Compared to the stereo bar that came with my Schoeps microphone system, this system is a heavy weight champ. Not only is it nicely designed and easy to configure your Blumlein setup, but each of the mic clips has a quality shock mount that easily supports the weight of the Fathead
I recorded several instruments in stereo. I loved the Fat Head II stereo pair on a banjo recording; I decoded a MS (mid-side) recording into three channels for mixdown. The imaging was detailed and open, and the ribbons did their magic by smoothing out the piercing, loud transients on the banjo, eliminating any need for compression. If you want to record in stereo, this ribbon microphone setup is an unbelievable deal.

A lot of value is packed into Cascade Fat Head II stereo kit, including the stereo-mounting bar and the shock mounts. The shock mounts are outstanding and heavy duty — much better than the shock mounts that come with other microphones I have used.

One bit of advice for potential ribbon microphone buyers; traditional ribbon microphone designs — including the Cascade Fat Head II and the Royer — have considerable high-frequency roll-off after 15 kHz. Sometimes a little EQ boost on the high end is needed to hear a bit more sparkle — depending on the instrument. Again, it’s personal taste.

The verdict
Overall, the Cascade Fat Head II is a great-sounding ribbon microphone — especially for the $395 retail-priced stereo package. Sure, if you are a pro and work with “A-list” artists in a huge studio all the time and have money to spend, you may opt for prestige $3,000 to $6,000 high-end, high-dollar ribbons. The Cascade Fat Head II, however, is no pushover — even up against these big-money ribbons. I enthusiastically recommend the Cascade Fat Head II, which also earns an Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award. For more information, click Cascade Fat Head II.

Jack Macinnis is chief engineer and director of the Sirius|XM recording studios in Washington, DC. He also is a multi-instrumentalist musician and home audio recordist who composes music for TV and film at his home studio.

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