Thursday, January 5, 2012

Cascade Microphones Fat Head II Ribbon Mic: A Review in Pics and Sound

The elusive quest for “warmth”.

I’m a little bored to tears by the insane number of forum threads started by people looking for that “supa warm phat sound yo”. What we’re all looking for is a little texture, a little low frequency distortion, and a little character (inaccuracy).

In the VO world, the first line of attack for achieving this “warmth” is usually tubes. Tube premps, tube microphones, some kind of vintage-y glass bulb SOMEWHERE in our recording chain will warm things up a bit. Recently however, there’s been a renewed interest in other old school methods of audio reproduction. One area gaining a little momentum is the return of the ribbon mic.

It doesn’t get much “older school” than a ribbon. A super thin piece of aluminum is suspended in a magnetic frame. As acoustic vibrations hit the ribbon, the wiggling around the magnet creates the electrical impulse used to carry the audio signal. It’s similar to a dynamic mic, but is a LOT more fragile. That super thin aluminum strip can get torqued by drops or even hard ‘P’ puffs of air. Also, due to the nature of suspending the ribbon, all ribbon mics are figure of eight mics, so you’ll always have to contend with both the front and rear of the mic being live.

The Fat Head II is an inexpensive line of mics from Cascade Microphones. I happened to receive a Fat Head with the optional Lundahl transformer, which is more expensive than the stock microphone, but uses higher quality internals to provide a more even frequency response with less severe high and low frequency roll offs. I wasn’t able to test it side by side a stock Fat Head.

General construction is very attractive. The ribbon is mounted behind a lollipop style mesh grill. The mic body has a satin finish which feels high quality in the hand. It certainly looks the gig, and elicits immediate reactions when people encounter it in the studio. I was so taken with the look of this mic I used it for the top banner of this blog...

It arrived extremely well accessorized. A silver flight case contains a separate wooden box for the mic and double wired shock mount. The Cascade branded microfiber cleaning cloth was a nice touch too.

In use, the mic lives up to its name. The sound delivered could certainly be described as “fat”. It’s very sensitive to proximity and placement, and great care needs to be taken in arriving at a good arrangement for a somewhat accurate vocal recording. This is not a mic you crowd. The proximity effect on ribbons can be severe, and working this mic like you might a dynamic will result in muddy recordings. Once you find that sweet spot however, you’ll be treated to a very pleasant sound.

It’s a little hard to describe. In a word it’s smooth. This isn't a mic built for reference grade clinical accuracy. It’s kind of like using a soft focus and sepia filter on a photo. It’s maybe not the “truest” representation of what we’re capturing, but it feels good.

A couple concerns.
Can’t talk about ribbons without mentioning care. These mics are easily affected by bumps and pops. The magnets can pick up stray particles, so you should never let it rest on flat dusty surfaces. It should also never be stored horizontally as gravity will start to pull at the ribbon. Lastly great care must be taken to avoid connecting the mic to a preamp with phantom power engaged. The sudden surge of electricity can cause the ribbon to invert, which will stretch it out and alter the sound of the mic, prolly for the worse. ShinyBox has a video of this happening. It’s not pretty.

The signal coming off a ribbon is super low, so expect to use a REALLY hot preamp (something that can deliver at least 60dB of clean gain, though you’ll probably need more) to capture conversational speaking. You might also want to invest in something like the Cloudlifter CL-1 for two reasons. One, it’ll deliver about 20dB of gain, and two it’ll protect the mic against damage if you ever accidentally connect it with phantom power engaged.

This wont be a mic for everyone. The more extreme we get with effects on recording, the harder it gets to predict whether it will play well with a particular voice. I’d rate this mic as little better than a coin flip. It might sound great. It might sound pretty bad. As such, I can not recommend this mic as a daily driver, but it could be a fantastic companion mic for those times you’re wanting a particular vibe. At $350 it's not too much of a risk for those wanting to expand their mic locker.

Have you been questing for a "fatter" sound? Well, it wont get much "warmer" than this...

Take a listen to my voice on the Fat Head II!

Cascade Microphones - Fat Head II Ribbon Microphone VO Sample by SomeAudioGuy

Thanks to the DIY Ribbon Project for the Ribbon diagram, and Recording Hacks for sending the Fat Head my way!

Help support SomeAudioGuy! Shop for the Fat Head II on Amazon!


  1. Very smoooooth sounding recording .. like you're whispering in one's ear ... nice .. You've got me pretty much sold on the Cloudlifter

  2. great review and recording!
    i'm not sure i understand what, "supa warm phat sound yo" means tho, and what it has to do with microphones.

  3. I recently acquired an original Fat Head and have been quite pleased with vocal recordings on it so far. One note to add about the cloudlifter - I had a Triton Fethead, not a CL, but in addition to protecting ribbons from phantom power, both Cloudlifter and Fethead actually require phantom in order to function. Thanks for the great site!