(In addition to the GRAMMY Awards, The Recording Academy presents Special Merit Awards recognizing contributions of significance to the recording field, including the Lifetime Achievement Award, Trustees Award and Technical GRAMMY Award. In the days leading up to the 55th GRAMMY Awards, GRAMMY.com will present the tributes to the 2013 Special Merit Awards recipients.)
One of the first times I had the opportunity to record a horn section early in my career I was really excited to use the old ribbon microphones I saw in all of the pictures. I got out those mics and dutifully set them in the proper places. They were bigger, and much heavier than I anticipated so I had to use heavy-duty microphone stands, and even then they were unsteady and difficult to place. Was I ever disappointed when I pushed up the faders to have a listen. They sounded horrible: dull, distorted and just plain weird.
I quickly went to plan B and got through the session OK, but just couldn't understand why the ribbon mics didn't sound good. After the session I got them out and plugged them in again to have a listen to try to determine why they just didn't work for me. They were all at least 30 years old, and for the most part just beat. At the time, these were the only ribbon microphones available to us. For the next 20 years I abandoned the idea of using ribbon microphones. There hadn't been any new ribbon designs since the mid-'50s, so most ribbons were old, fragile, big, and heavy … and broken.
In 1998 I got a call from a friend who had a ribbon mic that he had developed and wanted to know if I would like to check it out. Of course I was interested. The first time I tried it I was working with a rock band. For me it was always challenging to get those loud electric guitars to sound great on a recording, especially as we moved from linear tape-based recording to digital recording. Well, I put that new ribbon mic up on the guitar cabinet and cracked the fader to have a listen. I was blown away. It was certainly clear, but it also had body, warmth and clarity, and without the use of any equalization or compression or other signal processing. The musicians came in for a listen and were delighted and considered me a genius. Any tool that does that for me, I need to have.
Dave Royer cooked up his first ribbon microphone in his garage in 1997. In May 1998 Royer Labs opened with two primary purposes: to reintroduce ribbon microphones to the recording industry and to make the world's best microphones. At the time, most music makers had no interest in ribbons.
Royer's R-121 was the first compact, lightweight, high-sound, pressure-level-capable ribbon microphone ever. It was the first ribbon microphone that could be used to close-mic a loud guitar cabinet without fear of blowing the ribbon element. That by itself put it on the studio map. The R-121 soon became a standard for brass instruments and drums. I started carrying my Royers to all of my sessions. When one day all of the horn players showed up to a session with their own R-121s, it really cracked me up.
Recently, Royer developed the world's first phantom-powered ribbon microphone, giving ribbons the same sensitivity levels as phantom-powered condenser mics. I also own those and use them every day that I have music to record.
I got my first Royer mics Nov. 3, 1998. My recording skills absolutely got better that day.
(Ed Cherney is a two-time GRAMMY-winning engineer/mixer. He was nominated for Best Engineered Album — Non-Classical for three different recordings in 1994, winning for Bonnie Raitt's Longing In Their Hearts. Throughout his career, he has collaborated with Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and Sting, among others. Cherney is a current member of the Producers & Engineers Wing Steering Committee.)