Hardware, Microphones

What Is An Old-Fashioned Microphone Called? [ANSWERED]

Written By : Andrew Siemon

Generally speaking, the phrase “old-fashioned microphone” refers to ribbon microphones from the early days of broadcasting and television. In other cases, it’s used to describe the Shure 55S – a dynamic microphone popularised by Elvis, Chuck Berry, and others in the 1950s after its release in 1939.

That said, the term is subjective as some may think of the Shure SM58 as a classic microphone due to its immense popularity as a stage microphone. A more esoteric microphone is the Neumann U47 which most casual music fans will not be aware of but is certainly popular and revered among engineers, musicians, and other people who know mics.

When people say the phrase “old-fashioned microphone,” “vintage microphone,” or any other term that’s close to this, I almost always think of the Shure 55S microphones which bear some similarities to how ribbon microphones look. However, the Shure 55S is definitely a dynamic mic and not a ribbon microphone.

Why Do People Think Of Ribbon Mics As Vintage or “Old-Fashioned”?

An Old School Mic - What Is An Old-Fashioned Microphone Called? [ANSWERED]
This is another “old-fashioned”-looking microphone that appears to resemble a Cloud 44-A Active Ribbon Mic (image taken from Wikimedia Commons)

There are a few reasons why ribbon microphones tend to be thought of as the “classic” microphone. One, according to Sweetwater, is that when companies introduced them a hundred years ago in the 1920s, they were practically the only option available.

You didn’t have the option to choose from ribbon, condenser, dynamic, and XLR mics. You certainly didn’t have the ability to choose a USB mic either because computers hadn’t even been invented yet.

Once radio and television took off and people were able to see television programs with people talking for the first time, they were largely exposed to entertainers, presenters, interviewers and interviewees using ribbon microphones like what can be seen in the image in the next section featuring Ingrid Bergman on the BBC.

3 Different Old Fashioned Ribbon Microphones - What Is An Old-Fashioned Microphone Called? [ANSWERED]
A picture of Ingrid Bergman with a massive ribbon microphone (Wikimedia Commons), another huge ribbon mic in the center purportedly used by The Beatles (Wikimedia Commons), and then my MXR R144 Ribbon Mic. Obviously, the modern ribbon mic is much smaller and this seems to be the trend.

Simply put, ribbon microphones were the only game in town at one point in time and this is one of the reasons why people feel they are “vintage,” “classic,” “old-fashioned,” or “old-school.” It’s because ribbon microphones were fairly common at the very start of this industry.

Today, many people still use ribbon microphones because they have a particular sound and vibe to them. They tend to sound a bit darker and warmer than other mics, like a condenser mic (my guide on these), for example. I did a YouTube video not long ago where I compared all microphone types.

If you do take a look at the video I just shared, you’ll notice that the MXL R144 is significantly darker and warmer than the other mics, especially when compared to the AT2021 from Audio Technica. While every mic is different, in my experience, condenser mics tend to have a bit more sparkle to them so they sound quite different than ribbon mics.

Ribbon microphones tend to be expensive as well, with a few exceptions. With that in mind, if you do want to get your hands on one for a decent price, grab the MXL R144. It’s the one I use and it’s a pretty cool introduction to this style of microphone.

It also comes with a really nice case and a shock mount which are great accessories for the price. Another microphone that people tend to think of when they hear “old-fashioned microphone” is the Shure 55S and it’s thought of this way for a very specific reason. Let’s talk about that now.

What Is The Shure 55S Microphone And What Is It Used For?

The Shure 55 With Elvis Presley - What Is An Old-Fashioned Microphone Called [ANSWERED]
A replica of the Shure 55 on the far left, the Sun Studio’s Shure 55S allegedly used by Elvis (from Wikimedia Commons), and a live performance of Elvis on the far right (also from Wikimedia Commons).

According to Shure, Elvis Presley famously used a Shure 55 Unidyne Microphone not only in the studio but for many live performances. They claim he liked using one wherever possible which is why it’s now known as the “Elvis Mic.”

Because it became enshrined as the “Elvis” microphone, it’s now forever thought of as a relic of not only Elvis memorabilia but also the 1950s, in general. It’s hard to imagine the Shure 55 without Elvis or some other 1950s performer singing over the top of it.

In the same post I referenced earlier, Shure states that microphones were massive before they released the 55S. Large microphones were totally fine to use in the recording studio, but once television became popular, it didn’t make sense to have a huge microphone in front of someone because it would literally hide the person’s face.

It went on to become the microphone of choice for all kinds of performers of that era including the aforementioned Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bill Haley, and country music stars like Hank Williams.

These days, you can find all kinds of Shure 55 Series microphones because the company has re-released them a number of times with subtle differences.

It’s not hard to find one at all on Amazon, for example. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a copyright-free image of Elvis using the Shure 55, but this blog here used a famous picture of Elvis using it.

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Important Things to Note About Ribbon Microphones

1) Other Companies Have Their Own Versions Of The Shure 55S

Shure isn’t the only company that has a mic that looks like this. Other companies have released their own models which aren’t quite the same in appearance but definitely have a similar vibe. Supposedly, Shure designed the 55S with the grill of the 1937 Oldsmobile Coupe Six in mind. If you Google that car you’ll definitely see the similarity.

2) Ribbon Microphones Aren’t Necessarily “Vintage” Or A “Relic” Of The Past

Previously, I made the mistake of stating that ribbon microphones were largely a thing of the past and nobody used them anymore unless as a novelty. But many people still do use ribbon microphones for all kinds of recordings. Some of the more popular ones include the Royer R-121 and the Beyerdynamic M 160.

Andrew Siemon is the principal creator of ProducerSociety.com, a website dedicated to all things music, including music production, music theory, recording, and how to use the most popular DAWs. Starting out as a metal guitarist, Andrew has since moved into other areas of music production including hip-hop and fusion

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