Audio Technica AT4080
Ribbon mics have been trendy ever since the Royer 121 came out a little more than a decade ago, reminding us of their unique properties and pleasing sonic artifacts. Since that time, virtually every microphone manufacturer has thrown their "little gem" into the mix, with results ranging from spectacular to ho-hum. Unfortunately for Audio Technica their entries, consisting of the AT4080 and AT4081, was thrown into the ring a little late... too many choices, too many established competitors, too much marketing hype concerning all things ribbony. Unfortunately product design is often like a boxing match, and despite having all the winning qualities, timing is still everything.
This is all very unfortunate because, for the most part, the AT4080 got lost in the wash somewhere along the way. Maybe the overall lack of sex appeal for Audio Technica products, combined with an already saturated market, contributed to its rather "flying under the radar" status, because by purely sonic guidelines the 4080 should have cleaned house.
The AT4080 is a great mic. Impossibly deep sounding, nigh indestructible, displaying the clean, natural acoustic properties that made the R121 such a genius product--but adding in vintage tonal qualities lacking (in my opinion) from the entire Royer line. It's such a great microphone it can be challenging to describe, but I'll try: take the generous, focused low end of the Royer and add the weightiness of a Coles 4038; the midrange is sharply defined--but never brittle; the top end is "just right" with a creamy sheen that's conjures images of the U67's controlled top end. If this thing had said "Royer" on the marquee it would have sold warehouses worth and this review would have been completely unnecessary.
Like many modern ribbon microphones the AT4080 uses phantom power for its active circuitry and delivers a very high output for a ribbon mic, its elements (plural--there are two) are designed to take abuse thanks to a proprietary technology that has to be somehow related to what the geniuses at Crowley & Tripp cooked up (RIP). Like virtually all ribbon microphones the 4080 is figure of eight; unlike many of the newer ribbons it is not "dual voiced"--the microphone sounds the same regardless of which end you point at the source... which probably helps explain, at least partially, why the ribbon sounds more classic than most. While not entirely true, one could almost say the 4080 is the "poor man's El Diablo."
This microphone is excellent on all sources, but especially so for instruments where capturing the low end is a priority. There's almost a vinyl, Neve 1073-ish quality to the bass spectrum from this mic; in a mix anything graced with the 4080 instantly acquires low end separation, presence and distinction. Stringed instruments like cello or violin are particularly standout, as is acoustic guitar. Lower gain electric guitar, like a Fender Twin + Tubescreamer type of setup, benefits greatly from the blooming, sweetening character of this microphone. Massively detuned guitars with truckloads of distortion and low-end may prove to be over-emphasized with the 4080, in which case the tighter, thinner R121 would most likely be a better candidate. Vocally this mic really shines! Try it!
Construction-wise there's little to complain about the 4080--they are handmade, including the elements, and put together in (from what I was told) fairly small production runs. They are very solid microphones, but on a purely superficial basis their look is rather boring and blends into the rest of the AT line without distinction. Sure, it's functional and obviously has that "Audio Technica" look about it... but the coloring is a bit ho-hum, the chassis exactly what you'd expect. It's not bad, but from a marketing perspective it may have been wise to make sure a microphone this great stood out at first glance. Maybe a midnight blue chassis with deep silver grill? It just needed something more than what they came up with.
But remember, nobody can see your microphone on a record...
Bottom line: top notch ribbon microphone that SOUNDS like a ribbon--not like a dynamic and condenser microphone had a baby. Extremely versatile. Excellent build quality--practically indestructible. Absolute best sounding ribbon mic within its price range. On the downside, it can muddy up sources already dominated by low end or lower mids. Just to get this clear for our budget-minded folks: no, this microphone does not sound like a Royer. I consider this a plus because we already had this sound, this is something we didn't have before.