Microphone choice: Coles 4038 or Royer R-121?

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Dear Mr. Boyk,

On page 60 of your book, you recommend the Coles 4038 as the best microphones you've heard. Since that was originally published five years ago, I was wondering if you have any new recommendations since then.

I'm currently considering buying a pair. However, I've seen reviews of a new ribbon microphone, a Royer R-121. Apparently it has a very similar response to the Coles with a slightly higher output, which might be good since I'll probably use these more for recording chamber, orchestral and choir music than a close, loud piano. Have you been able to try these microphones and if so, do you prefer them over the Coles?

Also, just out of curiosity, were you able to find a Stanwood-prepped piano? I never saw anything on RMMP after you were searching for one to evaluate.

Are you giving any concerts in October? I might be down that way and if I have time, it would be nice to hear you perform and meet you in person.

Thanks for your time, Harry I. Iha hiha@accesscom.com

p.s. I found that a couple of people have already provided feedback on this microphone. Given its lighter weight, if their musical properties are equivalent, I might consider the Royer instead of the Coles. Thanks again.

-- Harry I. Iha (hiha@accesscom.com), August 31, 2001


I have no new recommendations. The Royer's ribbon is far thicker than that in the Coles, but I have heard a few good comments things about the Royer and hope to evaluate it in the next few months.

I never found a Stanwood-prepped piano. Still hope to try a concert-grand.

No concerts in October here, I'm afraid.

-- James Boyk (boyk@caltech.edu), August 31, 2001.

Thanks for the answers.

In an earlier thread, you mentioned you had tried the Royer stereo microphones (I'm assuming SF-12), but did not recommend it. The Royer dealer I contacted suggested this microphone over both the Coles and R-121. What exactly did you find deficient in this model?

Sorry to keep bugging you about technical issues, but the technical board you suggested seems to be empty, and I really respect your opinion.


-- Harry I. Iha (hiha@accesscom.com), September 03, 2001.

I'm checking into this. It may be that the SF-12 design has been changed substantially without any change of model designation. I expect to have more info within a day or two. However, always remember that anyone's advice can only be a guide to useful places to start. To choose a serious mike, you *must* audition it yourself; and you must do so under the best conditions; that is, recording in a room with both excellent acoustics and a substantial reverb time, using the finest mike preamp (very important & often overlooked), and the finest recorder.

More soon.

-- james boyk (boyk@its.caltech.edu), September 04, 2001.

Regarding the Royer SF-12, Royer confirms that the high-frequency response of their current version does extend further than in the original Speiden design. I would expect this to make some improvement in the sound, despite their statement that the sound is essentially "identical." The Speiden sounded very "veiled" to my ears, but obviously I can say nothing about the new version (which is considerably different mechanically and uses a different internal transformer, also).

Listen for yourself is the only answer I can give, as I haven't heard the updated version. But do be sure to use the best possible mike preamp and the most demanding source material: female singing voice(s), piano, percussion, muted trumpet, etc.

-- James Boyk (boyk@its.caltech.edu), September 05, 2001.

Mr. Boyk,

Thanks so much for investigating this. It seemed like there was conflicting information out there.

I am trying to make arrangements to make a comparison, but I'm not sure if that will actually work out.

Thanks again.

-- Harry I. Iha (hiha@accesscom.com), September 06, 2001.

Go to the Royer Web site for a demo CD that A-B's the Royer 121 and a Coles 4038: http://www.royerlabs.com/democd.html It has that, and much more, to show Royers in various recording situations. I have the 121s and the BeyerDynamic 260s, which I think are a tremendous value for a ribbon mic. They are a hypercardioid pattern rather than the traditional figure-8 pattern of the Royer 121s. Which is better? Depends on what you use them for. The CD will give you some ideas, and I think it fairly represents their capabilities and limitations.

-- Bob Brown (robebrown@rcn.com), November 01, 2001.

I did a detailed comparison between the ROYER AND COLES on trumpet. Three people (following listening tests not knowing which mic. they were listening to) chose the Coles hands down! Much smoother more accurate bigger sound. The Royer had, by comparison, a narrow sound but still good and better than a condenser mic.b Two days of testing on different trumpets and the Coles always came out on top. The thinner lighter ribbon does make a difference. In all cases the mics were placed 8 feet from the bell of the trumpet just slightly off axis to get a full spectrum of frequencies. Did not do any tests up close, for example 1 foot away, where the Royer may be more durable. But at these distances all you get is a high frequency screech with little sound quality to evaluate anything. Also compared the Coles with a Neumann 103 which I have been using regularily. Ordered a Coles the next day! The perfect combo: a Manley VOXBOX with a slight boost at 10-12K and the Coles mic., sounds great.

-- Paul Dubelsten (Paul_dubelsten@bc.com), November 20, 2001.

well...when it comes to royer 121 vs a pair of coles 4038's, in an ideal world, the sound of the Coles eats the Royer for lunch--BUT- the Coles are indeed a bastard to set up and adjust, the 121 very easy. So, depending on how much time, energy, strength, and dexterity you have to tweak, it's really a trade off. ( we use both for live classical broadcasts each week) hope this helps as bit. Bill Vestal, Sundays Live

-- Bill Vestal (cadsunatfour@earthlink.net), February 28, 2002.

I agree that the Coles 4038 eats the 121 for lunch in every application where I have AB'd them. This includes drum overheads, piano, acoustic and electric guitar. The 4038s have a scale and physical presence to the sounds they capture that the Royers cannot match. A big deal is made of the fact that Royers can pe placed right next to the speaker of a cranked up guitar cab without dying. The problem is that the resulting proximity effect is so obnoxious that the sound is unusable without drastic corrective eq. If you are going to end up doing that you might as well use an SM57. What next? They will probably be telling us next that you can stir your tea with them.

The 121s are fine ribbon microphones but you would be better off spending your hard earned on a trio of Beyer 160's or a 4038 and a single 160 for a great mid and side combination.

-- Huw Price (huw@ruby100.freeserve.co.uk), May 16, 2002.

I haven't tried the Coles ribbons, Harry, but if you were thinking of getting a pair of R121s I'd strongly steer you towards Royer's SF12 instead. It is a far more natural sounding mic than the 121, and there is the added benefit that the ribbons are very precisely aligned in a Blumlein configuration - so no fussing around with that kind of stuff. The stereo imaging and sense of depth the SF12 can deliver are excellent, in my experience (I often use it to record live concerts, and there are times when I wish the depth reproduction wasn't quite so good). The sound is also very natural, to the point that at times you have to listen carefully to realise how good it is, because it is not a mic that draws attention to itself.

Couple it with a good stereo mic preamplifier and it can give you a stellar result. I've had good results using it with Amek PurePath and Avalon 2020 (is that the correct model number?). Even nicer results from tube preamps, if you can find a good one. Amongst other things, the later versions of the Royer SF12 have slightly higher output than earlier Royer versions, due to a tighter coupling between ribbon and magnet assembly.

-- Greg Simmons (gregsimmons@alchemedia.com.au), August 14, 2002.

I would like to make a mention of a fine modern ribbon microphone that no one here mentioned. As I write this comment I am listening to a ribbon mike comparison made using 4 pairs of ribbon mikes recorded simulataneously to a Tascam DA78 MDM recorder. This recording was made by Ron Streicher at the Aspen Music festival Aug. 7 2003.

The STC (and later Coles) 4038 have excellent off-axis frequency response, as well as a smooth balanced sound throughout the upper frequencies. For bass extension however nothing compares with the AEA R44. The R44 is a faithful reproduction of the RCA44C, probably the most classic American made ribbon ever made. R44s have a 2 inch ribbon geometry which allows the ribbon to be tuned much lower than a Coles 4038 (17.5 Hz vs. ~35Hz). This allows magnificent bass extension and removes the requirement for ribbon resonance damping screens as are found on the 4038.

Unfortunately, the R44 retails for $3000+, but there is a new design which uses NOS RCA ribbon material in a 2 inch ribbon design that lists for $1000 (comparable to the Coles). It is another sound option in a high performance ribbon microphone. There is a stereo version forthcoming at October's AES conference, which will have smooth sound, extended bass, and a price tag well below the Royer/Speiden SF12.

I probably should have mentioned earlier that I work for Wes Dooley at AEA and I am helping develop the new stereo ribbon mic. Maybe I'm biased ;)

-- Matthew Ashman (ashman@ugcs.caltech.edu), August 14, 2003.

MR. Boyk,

Haven't gotten your book yet but I did compare the Coles 4038 and Royer R-122 mics. The R-122 is newer than than the R-122 with similar characteristics but phantom power (higher output - close to condensers).

I tried them with 3 different mic preamps: Avalon AD2022, John Hardy M-1, and a low-end tube pre the ART Tube PAC. While a good value ($299 list), I eliminated the ART quickly.

For my application (whistling) the Royer was much smoother with transients but without the rich low-mid frequency boost that the Coles had. This initially made me favor the Coles but as I spent some time tuning 2 parametric EQs in Samplitude software, I was able to get the Royer to sound very close to the Coles.

No amount of EQing could bring the Coles to sound as smooth as the Royer. Also, the Coles required a good deal more gain and if it weren't for the high-quality of the Avalon and John Hardy, an average preamp would have added too much noise. Vocalists should notice reduced sibilance with the Royer even thoiught its not a first choice for singers (they should give it a try). I notice that with the R-122, the main tone is out front a lot more than some of the overtones (that's what I'd like to minimize in my sound).

I don't know if this can help your analysis, but its always good to have another "corner-case" I suspect. There are few absolutes in music recording (my opinion). I do have a CD with the samples if you like to hear them. I don't know if they'd keep enough of their quality if I translate them into MP3 which compresses a bit.


Frank Bonifazi - 1st Place (Popular Music) 2003 International Whistling Competition

-- Frank Bonifazi (fbonifazi_2@hotmail.com), September 10, 2004.

Thanks for comments. The Royer 122 has a built-in preamp; I think this is the only difference from the 121. When you say, "I notice that with the R-122, the main tone is out front a lot more than some of the overtones (that's what I'd like to minimize in my sound)," this, if true, would be a very *bad* sign, but it's hard to see how it could be the case. I would be curious to hear some .wav files you've created. Regarding the "rich low-mid frequency boost" you hear in the Coles, this is a familiar symptom of having a transformer input on the mike pre (as do all three preamps you mention). Try the 4038 with an input-transformerless preamp of top quality. (It's hard to find a really good mike pre.) The particular thing about the 4038 that I find so addictive is its transparency: I can "walk into" the recording in a way that I can't with others mikes I've tried. But far be it from me to talk you out of a mike you like. For purposes of this forum, the point is: Are you USING the equipment to implement the book's techniques? The equipment is the means, not the end. About noise: What matters is a mike's "self-noise." (That's the inherent noise of the mike, expressed as a dB level. A self-noise of 25 dB means that the electrical noise output of the mike is the same when it's in a completely quiet place as if it were silent but was in a room with 25 dB of acoustic noise.) If the self-noise is low enough--and it is for any mike you're going to consider--then the ABSOLUTE level of its output does *not* matter UNLESS it's so low that no preamp can be quiet enough for it. None of the mikes you're talking about have any problem in this regard. The 4038, e.g., has the output level of a studio dynamic mike; plenty of output! Even the B&O 200 (no longer made), the 2nd-best mike I've ever used and as low in output as any mike I know--even this B&O's output is OK for many preamps. Any modern preamp should be plenty quiet enough for these mikes. If it's not, then it was designed either for high-output mikes, or badly. About "compression": Possibly you're confusing two usages of the word. Traditionally, "compression" means compression of dynamic range: making the louds softer and the softs louder. In digital audio, there is completely separate meaning which is better called "bit compression." It means reducing the size of a file, or recording; reducing the number of Megabytes it takes up, that is. ("Zipping" files is an example of this.) THIS is what mp3 does, by a "psychoacoustic algorithm." I've never heard it said that it compresses dynamics also (the original sense of "compression" I get the feeling that you're trying to become your own recording engineer. It can be great fun to try, but I suggest you engage a professional for the first couple of times around. It is a VERY complex business; and the choice of equipment, important as it is, is only one small part of it.


-- James Boyk (boyk@performancerecordings.com), September 10, 2004.

To clarify, of course you don't need a recording engineer for the self-teaching techniques in my book. But since you're talking about using very high-quality equipment, I get the feeling that you have in mind to make recordings for release. For working with the book, very modest equipment will do fine; a whole system would cost much less than one of the Coles mikes.

-- James Boyk (boyk@performancerecordings.com), September 11, 2004.

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