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Monday, December 22, 2008

Royer R-121

Royer R-121 mic: Ribboned for guitar amp recording pleasure

Known for their smooth, even response, ribbon mics have been around for decades, but until recently have been considered a little esoteric for the project-studio market. With the introduction of the Royer R-121, all that changed.

I began hearing about this microphone back when it first came out. After reading interviews with well-known engineers, I started to notice that the R-121 was creeping in when they discussed their favorite mics for electric guitar mic'ing. As the majority of projects I work on involve recording electric guitar, from clean to ultra-heavy, I became interested in checking one out. Anything to make my job easier and make my clients happier, don’t you know.

After exhaustively checking out all available resources, I can honestly say that I couldn’t find very many negative comments about this mic in general and none at all in regards to electric guitar recording. Without much hesitation, I pulled the trigger. I love this mic.

First, it absolutely excels at recording guitar amps. On the whole, I’m used to incremental increases in quality, when upgrading gear. I plugged in my trusty Telecaster to a nice Marshall JCM800 and a 2x12 cab loaded with Greenbacks. I positioned the R-121 in front of the cab, about 3” off the grill cloth and tilted slightly towards the side of the cone. I'll admit I got the position from the mic's manual.

I went into the control room and brought up the fader. I really wasn’t prepared for what came out of the monitors that day. It sounded just like the amp: Full, rich and detailed. No harshness or any nasty overtones that I’d normally have to EQ out during mixdown. This was the sound I’d been trying to get for years. Every one in the room agreed that it was an amazing sound. By moving the mic closer and farther away from the speaker, I found I could tailor the low end response to my liking as well as change the room ambience.

I’ve used this mic extensively, mainly to record electric guitar, but also on some other sources. On acoustic bass it was very nice - full and rich, although the figure-eight pattern caused some problems - we were recording in the same room with a small drumset and had to be very careful with our placement, to minimize bleed. For vocals, I tried it on a smooth female singer and a pretty forceful high tenor male vocal. While it sounded good, it really wasn’t what we were looking for. It lacked the clarity and detail needed to cut through a dense mix. We went with a large diaphragm condenser mic instead.

I also had mixed results on trumpet, but I feel it was the player's rather strident tone and not the fault of the microphone. I used it as a mono room mic on some rockin’ basics we were cutting and it darn near gave us a complete sound, just by itself. We squashed it with a limiter and used it along with the other tracks, to give the song a little more aggressive, trashy feel.

Another interesting use is for acoustic instruments. As noted in the manual and on their website, the R-121 has two different frequency responses available, due to the design of the mic. It has a figure-eight pickup pattern, and if you record into the back of the mic, flipping the phase, it has a little bit brighter sound, with more high frequency extension. I tried this on an acoustic guitar and was amazed at the sound. Detailed high end with a realistic, rich body that was hard to find fault with. It just sounded "right." I could easily build a record around that sound. I’ll still use my trusty AKG 451 or 460 to track acoustic guitar when I need to cut through a pop or rock track, but for acoustic music, this may turn into my first-call mic.

Those are the reasons that it’s become one of the favorite mics in my collection. There is a downside, which is shared by all other ribbon mics. The Royer R-121 is fragile. I had to have the mic re-ribboned after only seven months of less than average usage. Talking to Royer, I explained that I had followed all their suggestions, actually being more conservative and careful with it than they recommended, and still it went. They were amazingly helpful however and the first re-ribbon is free at their discretion. One small glitch in the process was that they didn’t get the details of why it broke, which they can deduce from inspecting the damaged ribbon. I still don’t know if it was from misuse or from a defect.

The Bottom Line: It may be the best guitar cab mic made today. Every project studio should have one. Highly recommended.

--Mark Gifford

Royer Labs

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