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Get The Noise Out Of Your Cables!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Home Recording Review!
Coles 4050 Stereo Ribbon Microphone
Adds Extra Dimension To Recordings


Brevis...
Retail Price: $2,851
Likes: dual-mono mic design,
high output for a passive ribbon
Dislikes: Even the price ain’t that bad...


by Dr. Frederick J. Bashour


Ribbon microphones have seen a big comeback in the last 10 years. One can now choose from literally dozens of different models—at various price points—considerably more than was available during their heyday in the forties and early fifties. Today’s recordists appreciate the ribbon’s smooth, non-fatiguing sound, which softens the edges of harsh vocalists or screaming brass instruments and often “pre-conditions” the source euphonically for digital recording.
These days, ribbon mics are also ubiquitous for miking guitar cabinets, while both classical and pop engineers praise the realistic image that a stereo ribbon mic produces when set in front of a chamber group, symphony orchestra, or looking down over a trap drum kit. The UK-manufactured Coles 4050 mic, street priced at about $2,700, is unique in that it can function as a typical stereo mic — as well as two separate mono microphones — due to its ingenious “refrigerator magnet”-like design.

Features
Most dealers sell the Coles 4050, with its various parts, to assemble it as a 2x stereo setup, including two cables and mounts. It is all housed in an included attractive case. The Coles 4050 development stems from the acclaimed Coles 4040 capsule that boasts extended frequency response (for a ribbon) and high output making it suitable for numerous recording applications. Specs list the frequency response from 20 Hz to 20 kHz, but the flattest response extends to about 15 kHz, which is really good for a ribbon microphone.
Unlike a typical stereo ribbon mic (such as the Royer SF-12 and SF-24, or the AEA R88-mk2) — which has no adjustments, and requires no setup besides securing it inside its shock mount, the Coles 4050 “kit” contains several parts that must be assembled each time one uses it. One must screw the shock mount onto a mic stand. The center of this narrow cylindrical device contains two strong magnets, and one then simply “clicks” each of the two mono “halves” of the 4050 onto opposite sides of the shock mount — just as one would stick a refrigerator magnet onto a refrigerator.


On piano, the Coles 4050 stereo ribbon was really effective. In the church hall, in which I regularly record my Kawai grand with the Royer SF-24, the piano sounded closer than usual. In fact, when recording (classical) voice and piano from a distance, the balance was perfect just about anywhere I put the mic.

The male XLR pins are recessed into the end of each mic (each of which is approximately the size of a small can of tomato paste), and your next task is to attach two round plastic cable holders to the ends of each mic. This must be done before you attach the two standard XLR mic cables, and is necessary, since you’ll want to turn one of the cables around and clamp it around the side of the mic (via that plastic clamp) so that both mic cables will be running in the same direction. Otherwise, your mic setup would look rather strange, with the two cables running 180 degrees away from each other, and from the mic itself. As it is, it looks strange enough!
Actually, one has this cable problem any time one tries to build a stereo mic from two separate mics, so the Coles solution is actually more simple than the typical manner of using a stereo bar, and mounting two mono mics “nose-to-nose.” Nonetheless, it is definitely more involved than simply taking a dedicated stereo mic and connecting a single cable to it. But then, in that situation, one wouldn’t have the option of being able to use the two mics separately, so Coles have actually given us, in effect, the best of both worlds.
The ribbon perspective
I have owned ribbon mics since the mid-seventies, when I first purchased a B&O BM5 stereo ribbon mic. It was the “small ribbon geometry” mic upon which Bob Spieden built his SF-12 in the eighties. That mic became the model for Dave Royer’s original SF-12, and I have owned one of them as well. I presently use the Royer active version, the SF-24. Small ribbon stereo mics with this family pedigree have a particular sound—smooth and polite, with razor-accurate imaging.
Then there are the “large ribbon geometry” mics, descended from the RCA BX-44 (and BK-11); the modern day equivalents come from Wes Dooley’s company, AEA—the most widely known being the R84 and its stereo version, the R88 mk2. I own an R84, as well as a custom stereo mic built by Stephen Sank, son of the BK-11’s ribbon mic designer Jon Sank, which uses NOS BK-11 ribbons. The large ribbon mics also have their own characteristic sound, which is huge, round, and incredibly present. No other mics have that “you are there” kind of sound.


The Coles 4050 Stereo Mount

Ribbon mics have a very low output that, in the case of classical music recording, requires at least 60 dB gain to reach a decent line level. This “problem” has inspired several solutions involving special low-noise, high-gain microphone preamps (such as the AEA TRP and RPQ, both of which I own), or the little blue Cloud Lifter “pre-preamp” boxes, which boost the levels of ribbon mics by at least 20 dB and optimize their loading parameters so that they’re not as dependent upon special mic preamps. The other alternative is to simply build step-up circuitry into the mics themselves. The Royer SF-24 is an example of this.

The audition
I was pleasantly surprised when I first raised the virtual faders on my first session involving the Coles 4050 stereo mic(s) and my computer workstation setup. Although passive ribbon microphones, they seemed at least 5 dB hotter than my Royer R84. It seems that modern magnet technology, i.e., using neodymium magnets rather than Alnico, is a good thing! But, more importantly, the sound was unlike either of the two “families” of ribbon mic sound to which I had become accustomed. Yes, it still sounded like a ribbon mic of course (possessing none of that condenser mic “snappiness”), but the sound was considerably more aggressive. Not in a negative way, just different! The upper midrange (starting around 5K or so) seemed more present, and the extreme highs were definitely airier than either the Royer or AEA.


Not only does it have a sound that is substantially different from both families of small and large geometry ribbon mics, to which many of us recording engineers are accustomed, but it also can be used as two separate ribbon microphones, more than doubling its usefulness.

So on piano, it was really effective. In the church hall, in which I regularly record my Kawai grand with the Royer SF-24, the piano sounded closer than usual. In fact, when recording (classical) voice and piano from a distance, the balance was perfect just about anywhere I put the mic. With the SF-24, the sweet spot was much more critical.
The Coles 4050 also made the pipe organ in that church really come alive. The imaging was almost as sharp as from the active Royer, but the sound just had more “personality.” Over several weeks, I also used it on solo violin, acoustic guitar, jazz bass, tenor sax, and trumpet. And each time I set it up, I was pleasantly surprised that this “new” ribbon mic sound always managed to please. I usually have to EQ the Royer to give it some personality, or at least some extra air, but with the Coles 4050, I rarely found myself needing any EQ hype. Only two occasions, did I have to tame its 5 kHz presence peak. Ribbon mics always take EQ more gracefully than condenser mics, but this Coles, additionally, seems to require less equalization than others I have used.


The verdict
The Coles 4050 stereo ribbon microphone is a unique addition to the engineer’s microphone tool kit. Not only does it have a sound that is substantially different from both families of small and large geometry ribbon mics, to which many of us recording engineers are accustomed, but it also can be used as two separate ribbon microphones, more than doubling its usefulness. At $2,700 on the street, it certainly isn’t cheap, but when you actually consider both its unique sound and its versatility, the Coles 4050 could be considered a bargain! In its category, I certainly recommend it for an Everything Audio Network Stellar Sound Award.
An avid audiophile and accomplsihed recording engineer, Dr. Fred Bashour is a regular contributor to the Everything Audio Network. He holds a Yale Ph.D. in Music Theory, and currently performs as a jazz pianist and church organist. During the past 25 years, he has received credits on hundreds of recordings released on over a dozen labels — many of them engineered at his state-of-the-art home recording studio.

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