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This article was originally published in issue #41
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It seems strange today to think that the common reaction when sE Electronics launched the original Reflexion filter a decade ago was to mock. Forums and discussion groups were quick to point-out that a device that stops sound reaching the BACK of a microphone was rather a waste of time as most common mics reject sound there anyway- and that what was really needed was something to stop sound reaching the FRONT of the mic! Hah, tell that to everyone who’s copied the design since!
At probably around the same time that the Reflexion Filter launched, ribbon mics started to make something of a comeback in studios, with classic models leading the way and affordable models following a while later.
sE Voodoo VR1 ribbon mic
Ribbon mics have long been popular for guitars because their natural top-end roll-off seems to reduce the harsh and fizzy frequencies that distorted electrics (as well as strings, brass, woodwind and other instruments) create, and it’s always nice to hear a recording sound good straight out of the mic. Oddly though, some manufacturers have designed ribbon mics that don’t have a heavily reduced top-end, and they still sound good on these sources. Part of the reason is that unlike most condenser mics, ribbons don’t suffer from the prominent resonances that circular diaphragms do, so they tend to sound more natural and realistic. They also (very nearly) all have figure of 8 polar patterns, which pick-up as much sound from the back as from the front but very little from the sides, and exhibit a proximity effect which means that they get a bottom-end boost when they’re positioned close to a source. It takes a little care, but with good mic placement it’s possible to get a recording that’s very close to how things actually sound “in the room”.
It’s worth mentioning that when we’re used to hearing the distortion of a microphone on our recordings, it can take a while to get used to an uncoloured natural sound, which often seems to be a little “unexciting” at first. This is what a lot of people feel when they first hear ribbon mics, and is also a common experience for inexperienced users just after they’ve dropped several thousand Pounds/Dollars/Euros on a chunk of vintage German condenser mic for the first time. The worry usually goes-away once we realise how easily the sounds sit in a mix and how little work they tend to need to get them to sound right on just about anything.
The Voodoo VR1is sE’s middle of the range ribbon mic, slotted between the higher end Rupert Neve designed RNR1 and the budget line X1 R. It’s about half the size and weight I expected it to be, and when I first opened the wooden case I actually thought someone had shipped one with an empty soft-bag in it. Nope, check carefully and there is the VR1. The mic chassis is very distinctive, with a built-in “mechanical device” to extend the ribbon’s top-end response without having to add any additional electronic components. It’s dead simple to use; it’s a passive mic so switch off phantom power (the mic is protected but it’s a good habit anyway), slot it into the neat shock-mount that ships with it, plug-in and set your gain.
I had some spoken-word vocals to record for a video series I’m working on, so I put up the VR1 alongside my go-to condenser mic and recorded both onto separate channels. The VR1 hasn’t been off a stand since. It’s brilliant! Ironically, I’ve used far more expensive ribbon mics before and never quite bonded with them, and yet I just fell in love with the VR1 instantly. Often we choose mics because of how their tonality matches a source, but I keep on using the VR1 because it seems to record things how I hear them - but possibly just a smidge better. Noise has never been an issue, and even spoken word from a yard or two away using stock audio-interface pre-amps has been fine. Like many good mics, the VR1 takes EQ well – that’s what reviewers always seem to say about ribbon mics, and it’s a result of that natural sound and lack of resonance which allows you to cut or boost what you need without getting a load of mic colour and distortion that you don’t want.
So. We have a newly popular style of mic that picks up sound from the back, and that we might like to put in front of loud guitar cabs for both recording and live sound applications. Wouldn’t it be useful to have some sort of gadget that would...
sE Electronics guitaRF filter
Combining a shorty stand, mic mount, and a Reflexion filter, the guitaRF takes a lot of the pain out of cab-miking. The filter itself fits onto a rugged metal base, and a mic-mount bracket for a side-address condenser or ribbon mic fits on top of that. If you need some other configuration, you can use it on a regular mic stand too. The guitaRF doesn’t filter quite as fully as the more complex and larger (and heavier and much more fiddly) original Reflexion, but it does very noticeably clear the all important mid and upper ranges that create that 'small room' ambience that plagues home studios, as well as reducing bleed from other loud sources in the room. It also reduces the level of sound from the speaker that gets into the room just a little bit, though this is only really going to work on a close miked single driver. Still, at times every dB helps.
The VR1 mic is a tool, and like any tool it’s never going to be the full and complete answer to every situation. Whilst it sounds great on guitar cabs (even loud ones - it’ll take 135 dB SPL), there is a certain something that we’re all used to hearing that comes only from a standard dynamic-mic, and the most STANDARD dynamic mic of all time has to be the SM57. sE has thought of this by providing a mount for a SM57 or similar mic in the body of the guitaRF, in the form of a hole with soft plastic or rubber vanes that grip the mic body and allow it to be positioned to align with the bracket mounted mic. I did think that a bung or plug for the hole would have been useful for times when I didn’t want to use my 57, but I’ve got plenty of off-cuts of foam around that do the job quite nicely, if not always very neatly.
In practice, the guitaRF appears to do exactly what you’d expect it to do - which I hear mostly as a “cleaning” of the sound (you can even try it without a mic - hold it in front of your face and speak or sing, then take it way and hear the reflected sound flood back in). It just makes everything sound a little tighter and “deader” in a good way.
Bottom line, I love the VR1, I love the guitaRF, I really love them together, and I’m hoping no-one remembers that I’ve got the review models!
Judging from these two products it's no wonder that sE is gaining such a reputation and it's worth stressing again that these products are proving at least as popular for live stage use as they are in studios. Check them out!