"Queen of Somewhere... A beautifully produced, lushly detailed sound banquet built around Julianna McDuffie’s nuanced lyrics, which explore themes of discovery, loss and longing... McDuffie delivers her songs in a rich and compelling, closely miked voice, at a measured pace that largely tracks the rhythm of the heartbeat. She is not shy to explore sound in the service of her voice, and listeners who appreciate attention to aural detail will find a lot to like here—vocal treatments spiral and eddy, trailing their way though a sonic landscape that is recorded with a fine sense of spatial possibility..."

-iTunes Review, by edgemitchell

March 23, 2015

DIY Ribbon Microphone Badassery

Austin Microphones Model 1 AUSTIN OTA-1

Yesterday I had opportunity to do something I never in a million years thought that I would do. I made my very own microphone.  With my very own hands.

And. It. Was. Awesome.

I have been wanting a Ribbon microphone for a while now.  In my mind, a Ribbon mic always brings a warm, vintage feel... but it's just the sort of thing that ends up on the "later/maybe/if" list when software demands to be upgraded, or the studio needs a new desk because the old one fell down around my ears...  So, I'd mostly ignored my Ribbon mic wishes, and only occasionally threw wistful glances their way.

I have a nice mic. I actually really LIKE my mic (for the record, my go-to mic is a pattern-switchable AT2050 condenser).  I'd love to try out a Neumann or a higher end Blue, and I really like the looks of the Violet Atomic, but I can't afford a Neumann/Blue and the Violet doesn't seem to be available in the US (also, I've never actually HEARD it)... and, really, I'd rather try a Ribbon, anyway.

Last month, I was wandering through Craigslist when I saw a listing for a "DIY Ribbon Mic Workshop", lead locally by San Diego's own Austin Microphones.  I was immediately and completely smitten by the very idea that I could MAKE one for myself.

In truth, I'm the kind of girl who would rather make things than buy things, and to be perfectly honest, it was the "BUILD" part that pushed me over the edge to Ribbonland. Keeping it 100.

I might have immediately purchased a kit or downloaded plans for the extremely reasonable price of $10... except... oh, wow... it looked pretty involved... and I was a little nervous to do all (read: any) of the electronics soldering on my own. So, a workshop was the *perfect* thing.  I figured that if I screwed up the components, someone could help me more easily at a workshop than at home.

I needn't have worried.

As it turned out, this was a very mechanical build, and Rick Wilkinson from Austin Microphones bent over backwards to not only be certain we were easily able to complete our build, but also to make sure that we were having a good time.

And we were having a great time. There were 11 of us in attendance; most were recording students, with varying levels of experience and expertise, and I was super impressed to NOT be the only female in the room-- in fact, there were FIVE of us (including Betsey, who was helping Rick conduct the workshop), and the girls were possibly even more enthusiastic than the guys.

The workshop was hosted at CSU San Marcos by CSUSM/San Diego City College professor, Bob Kostlan, who kept us entertained with a little Aphex Twin and some of his friends' Bandcamp offerings on the overhead monitors. So we were set.

Kit unboxed.

To begin our build, Rick provided each of us with an Austin Model 1 Ribbon Mic kit, and we started by gluing our magnets to Austin's proprietary truss.  It's worth mentioning that the truss consists of a series of open areas and joining fingers, which allows for more airflow around the ribbon than a conventional truss (see below images).  I really liked the thinking behind the design.

We then separated into groups of three or four, and each group went to a station for soldering the truss, forming and soldering the brass screen, or cutting and crimping the ribbon.  My group started with the soldering station, and we wired up our trusses pretty quickly.  Here's mine, glued and soldered, still with a clear spacer and minus the ribbon:

Magnets glued to truss, electronics soldered, spacer in place. Note
the "fingers" and open spaces between the truss and the magnets.

I surprised myself at how quickly I was able to solder (note to self, that "cold heat" soldering iron you bought is absolute junk, and its no wonder you didn't think you could do it.  Right tools for the job = super important).  Also, I only burned myself once. 

When it was time to build my screen, I challenged myself to do the absolute neatest soldering that I possibly could, knowing that I would be forever annoyed if I knew it was messy-- even though all the seams are cleverly hidden in the tube, every time I stepped up to sing, I would just *know* it was a mess inside... and yes, I know how crazy that sounds. Perfectionism is HARD, y'all.

Clockwise, L-R:  Soldering the electronics to the truss,
forming and soldering the screen,  view of both stations. 

Once the truss was completed, the screen was soldered and the XLR connection to the transformer was wrapped in fiber and inserted into the body tube, it was time to cut, crimp and install the Ribbon.

Included in the kit for this workshop was a 1.8 micron sheet of ribbon material, but I had a little conversation with Rick about my voice and we both concluded that a thinner material would help manage my higher frequencies.  He had brought along a sheet of .8 micron material, but noted that if cutting, crimping and floating the .8 micron ribbon was too difficult-- and it almost was-- then I could go ahead and use the 1.8 sheet included in my kit.

But, I managed.  Somehow.  OH, SO TRICKY. Don't breathe when working with this stuff, or it all just wafts away...

Clockwise, L-R:  Completed XLR connector and connector plate ready for 
soldering to the OTA-1 transformer; All parts ready for final assembly (note 
the straight seams on my brass screen!),  and the nearly impossible task of 
"floating" a .8 micron ribbon into place (ribbon shown is one of several 
practice ribbons... this float lost some crimp, and I had to try again. 
And again, and again. Oh my.

In floating the ribbon onto the truss-- it's so thin, you are quite LITERALLY floating the ribbon into position-- the ribbon is held in place by a sandwich of truss material, and secured in place with tiny screws.  My biggest difficulty in the entire build was managing the teeniest, tiniest nuts I've ever seen... I broke several of my precious ribbons just by knocking the tiny nuts off of the tiny screws as I tried to attach them.  I finally learned to slide the nuts onto a toothpick, place the toothpick tip to the top of the screw, and carefully slide the nut down the toothpick and into position.  

Patience is a virtue, but not one of mine....  And just as I was about to throw in the towel, Rick suggested I tack the connection in place and test it before I tried again.

It worked.

Oh, wow!  It worked!

A little more soldering to complete the connections, tucking the wires into the screen, finessing the screen into place, a final sound check, and Blammo.

I have a new Ribbon mic.

I have already picked up another mic stand, and have ordered a new shock mount.  I'll need to line the  grip of the shock mount with sticky-backed foam, as this mic is an odd diameter (38mm).  But that will work, and I can't WAIT to put it through some testing.

Stay tuned.  Will post some audio samples as soon as I can.


  1. Very cool!!!! Want!!!

  2. You could very easily do it, EnochLight! :)

  3. That is very cool J! Have you recorded anything with it yet?

  4. Great stuff! Very cool! I feel inspired to try this, if I can get the parts sent to Thailand :p Thanks for sharing!

    Cheers :)