Is a Ribbon Mic a Condenser? The Differences Explained

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Whether you are investing in some gear to start out or looking for an upgrade to bring your production value to the next level, there will come a time in every podcasters career when a new microphone is necessary.

With the rise of podcasting culture, now more than ever there is a demand for newer and better products. In such a fast-growing market of home studio recording equipment, it can be daunting to know what microphone is best for you. Where do you start? What brand is best? And most of all – what type of microphone is most suited to your needs?

Knowing your gear is half the battle, and an understanding of how microphones are made, the different types, and the pros and cons of each is the all-important first step in deciding which is right for you.

Today we will be talking about ribbon and condenser microphones. How they compare, and whether a ribbon is classed as a condenser. However, this is only 2/3 of the options available to you. The third type of microphone is dynamic. Read until the end to find our top picks for everything dynamic microphones which is sure to help you learn all you need to know about the equipment you use.

What is a Ribbon Mic?

First, it is only fair we answer the burning question – is a ribbon mic a condenser?

No. While they are frequently compared to condensers, and in some cases can be somewhat interchangeable, they are very much two different categories of microphones. One of the defining differences is down to their diaphragms.

The diaphragm (the transducer that turns airwaves into an electric signal) of a ribbon microphone is where it gets its name. A ribbon microphone relies on a thin sheet of metal suspended between two magnets. When air passes through the microphone, the metal moves, disrupting the magnetic field. It is this magnetic field that generates an alternating current creating the signal we then hear.

For this reason, ribbon microphones are notoriously fragile. Dropping this delicate piece of equipment may cause the sheet of metal to snap, rendering the microphone useless.

Another feature of the ribbon microphone is its quiet signal output. Requiring no power to generate a signal (unlike condensers – more on that later), the signal typically requires a significant boost in order to reach a decent level.

For this reason, it is advised you have a good quality preamp. Any power (phantom or otherwise) sent to a ribbon microphone is incredibly harmful. If a current manages to reach the ribbon it can cause ribbon warping, which means a trip to the repair shop.

When to use a Ribbon Microphone

Thanks to low sound sensitivity and natural frequency response, ribbon microphones are a go-to for vocals. Known for their high-end roll-off in favor of bass frequencies, a ribbon microphone is a great choice for those wanting a warmer and darker tone to their vocals.

This frequency response is ideal in getting a sound close to that of vintage analog equipment – a tone commonly reserved for high-end studio production, in the modern-day era of digital recording.

It is important to note that ribbon microphones do come with some caveats that are worth keeping in mind when looking to purchase:

  • It is an incredible risk to include a ribbon microphone in a traveling podcast setup. These microphones are susceptible to breakages from bumps and bashes and are best kept to use in studio environments if you aren’t looking to spend a fortune on repair fees.
  • As the ribbon is exposed on both sides, most ribbon microphones have a figure 8 polar pattern. Coupled with a high proximity effect, unwanted noise may become problematic when recording in an untreated room – in echoey and reverberant locations a reflection filter would be a safe bet.
  • As mentioned previously, the low signal level of a ribbon mic means a significant boost will most likely be necessary to attain a decent signal level. While this can be boosted using preamps, cranking the gain on budget interfaces can significantly increase the noise floor, and in some circumstances can even alter the color of the sound.

Ribbon vs Condenser Microphones

As previously mentioned, the difference between a ribbon and a condenser microphone has much to do with what is under the hood. By this point, you should have a good understanding of the transducer that gives the ribbon its trademark characteristics – but let us take a look at how condensers work.

A condenser’s transducer utilizes a parallel-plate capacitor system. Inside the microphone is a stationary backplate running parallel to a flexible front plate (known as a diaphragm). Air pressure in the form of soundwaves pushes the diaphragm closer to the backplate changing the capacitance of the two. This is then captured as alternating current, resulting in the microphone signal that we hear.

While this is the main difference between the two, the list goes on. While power of any form has an adverse effect on ribbon microphones, a condenser microphone benefits. Thanks to active amplification circuitry built into the microphone, phantom power serves to increase the signal level.

Output level, while notoriously low in a ribbon microphone, thanks to the amplifier within a condenser means that signal level is much higher even before reaching the preamp. This means less gain is needed from the preamp, reducing the risk of increased noise, and sound coloration.

As well as higher signal output, a condenser microphone boasts higher input sensitivity. This is great for those looking to capture every minute detail in their recordings, however, increased sensitivity means increased susceptibility to unwanted noise. In a noisy environment, a ribbon microphone’s low sensitivity will negate most of the undesirable sounds.

In terms of tone, condensers tend to be much brighter. This is often regarded as a criticism, as an emphasis on high-end leads to a harsher sound character. Whether you are looking for the brightness of a condenser or the warmth of a ribbon is down to personal preference, however, it should go without saying that your vocal tone is largely dependent on microphone choice.

Final Thoughts

There are strengths and weaknesses to every type of microphone and from reading this article you should have a better understanding of how ribbon microphones work and where they shine in comparison to condensers.

There is no type of microphone that is objectively better than another, just personal preference vs product specs. Comparing equipment in this way helps bring to light the situations in which one microphone may be an obvious choice, and where another may be preferable. At the end of the day, only you know what you want from a microphone, and critical analysis helps shine a light on the product that will get you there.

But there is still much more to learn. As mentioned at the start, there is a whole third category of microphones still to be explored, and luckily for you, The Seasoned Podcaster has you covered when it comes to dynamic microphone content.

To learn more about how dynamics compare to condensers, check our head-to-head ‘Condenser vs Dynamic Mic for Podcasting’ article. If you are looking to scope the best dynamic microphones on the market, then our ‘Best Dynamic Microphone for Podcasting’ guide is worth a read too.