Think back to the crooner days where singers fronting big bands stood behind huge metallic jelly beans. Those are the classic RCA ribbon microphones, staples of the early days of radio, recording and live sound. These take their name from a metallic ribbon suspended between magnets.
Cascade’s Fat Head mic is very affordably priced, not much more than a Shure SM57, and has a wide range of applications.
The Long Story Short Department: The Fat Head has an excellent value/performance ratio. It is not, however, a general purpose mic, and it’s probably not the best choice if you have the budget to buy one mic to use for everything.
This is an XLR-equipped microphone, using a standard mic cable. While many ribbon mics have tiny outputs, often requiring a preamp with a lot of gain, that’s not the case with the Fat Head. Also, ribbon mics are generally subject to fatal damage if subjected to phantom power. Again, the Fat Head has your back, since it’s wired to make the presence of +48 volts irrelevant. However, it is a ribbon mic and these are fragile by nature, so careful handling at all times is advised.
Ribbon mics are known for their warmth. Again, think of the crooner era. Bing Crosby never harshed anyone’s buzz with strident sibilants, the “s” and “t” sounds that make you reach for a de-essing plug-in. Part of that is ribbon mic character. These aren’t mics that carefully capture detailed top end. That can be useful in certain situations, but this is not a mic that will sound great on every voice.
Ribbon mics are often described as smooth and warm. When you look at the frequency response charts for a Fat Head, there is a 5 dB drop between 6,000 and 10,000 hertz. For those of you who just asked, “what?” in practical terms it means this mic won’t capture the sound of a dog whistle. Human hearing tops out practically at 20,000 hertz, so there is a lot of high frequency sound you can hear that this mic won’t.
That’s not a bad thing. Take, for example, electric guitar or cymbals on a typical drum kit. Both sources can have huge amounts of high-frequency content. What happens with a mic that ignores that stuff?
In a word, magic, from time to time. This is a mic that can deliver impressively lush guitar sounds, favoring the mid and lower frequencies and filtering the harsh top end. Using this mic as an overhead mic on a drum kit could easily tame overly bright cymbals and high-hats.
It will still be hit or miss with vocals however, really the only blemish, and it’s not the Fat Head’s fault. That’s just what ribbon mics do.
Check out this awesome video for a great demonstration of what this mic is capable of when used to record electric guitar:
Magnets are heavy. Big magnets are very heavy. With a shipping weight of 4.4 lbs., about four times that of a Shure SM57, this is a substantial mic. It’s and the shockmount shipped with it has a tough job, but handles it without difficulty.
As for how it’s built, there are several ways a ribbon mic can be arranged on the inside. For a great explanation of each, and a chance to see the exposed capsule of a Fat Head, see this article by Michael Joly. The Fat Head uses a symmetrical ribbon design. By nature, this design produces a figure-8 polar pattern, equally sensitive front and back, with very little sound picked up at the nodes, both sides of the “waist” of the figure-8.
You can use nodes and figure-8 patterns in a couple useful ways. Pointing the side of a figure-8 mic at a sound source you don’t want it to capture gives good results. If two vocalists are singing together, they can maintain eye contact from opposite sides of the mic, each equally heard by the figure-8 mic. In fact, care must be taken to avoid too much room sound approaching from the rear if only one vocalist is singing. Again, this isn’t a flaw of the Fat Head, but a result of symmetrical ribbon design.
The worst score in user reviews for this mic is a 4 out of 5. Granted, the total reviews on Amazon total only 15, however, user opinion matches mine. This is a good mic, though a specialty mic that won’t score high grades on every instrument. Other than that, I don’t see any concerns that might influence my recommendation.
If you don’t have a mic currently, this is probably not the one you should buy. Ribbon mics are a type of dynamic mic and every dynamic has some compromises to sound that result from having a moving element. Condenser mics, which operate on something called the capacitance principle, react to all frequencies in a more honest and transparent way, more of a what-you-hear-is-what-you-get basis. Ribbons depend more on what the mic hears. It can be good, it may be very good, but equally it might not.
I heartily recommend this mic, though, to anyone getting into ribbon mics or adding to an existing mic collection. It will be used.
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