My interview with Roswell Pro Audio provided a lot of insight into the world of microphones and recording, so I decided to keep watch for similar companies to speak with. I came across Stager Microphones by chance and was first drawn to the aesthetic of their ribbon mics, but once I listened to some audio demos I felt compelled to email the founder, Matt Stager, about an interview. He agreed to a Skype call, and I was able to ask him questions about his background, his product design, and what his thoughts are on ribbon microphones in general.
– Hi Matt. Thanks for agreeing to speak with me. I always start by asking for some background. Can you tell me how you started off with audio?
Sure. My dad worked with live sound, so I’ve been around audio all my life. I started working at age twelve by helping him with lighting fixtures and he’d pay me per unit that I assembled. At fourteen I was helping him with the sound at live shows, and if the gig was at an all-ages club then I’d sell the band’s merchandise downstairs instead – I’d make $50 for that.
– And how did you become a live sound engineer yourself?
I moved to Nashville in 1999 to attend SAE, and became an intern at a recording studio during that time. Once I graduated, the studio employed me as an assistant to their in-house technician, but they had to lay me off nine months later when their earnings started to decline. One of the producers who rented a room in the facility knew about my live sound background, and he suggested I apply for a job at the Clair Brothers, which I did in 2000. I spent ten years working for them as a monitor technician, and four years as an front-of-house engineer until I retired in 2014.
– As a live sound engineer, what were some of the tours you worked on?
My first one was with Smash Mouth, which lasted nine months, and then came Tim McGraw. That was followed by Sheryl Crow, who I stayed with for three years, and then I did Beck’s Guero Tour for a year. Kings of Leon came after that, along with different country bands. A lot of those tours would last a year, so we’d be on the road for some months, come back home for a couple of weeks, and then go back on tour. Towards the end, my schedule was anywhere from 250 – 300 shows a year, so I decided to stop because I didn’t want to be away from home so much. It also freed up my time so I could create Stager Microphones.
– But how were you able to start building your own mics? Don’t you need specific infrastructure for that?
Yes, you do. Ribbon microphones primarily rely on two components for their sound: the motor and the transformer, so I knew I had to make them on my own if I wanted a unique mic. In order to bring out the voicing of the motor, I needed the transformer to be sufficiently transparent, and the only reason I succeeded with the design was that I’d purchased a toroid winder. Other than my workbenches, it was the only tool I needed to start building microphones, as it enabled me to wind my own transformers and avoid using the stock ones that had less frequency response. I also needed my transformers to have as much step-up voltage as possible, and I could adjust things like that by building them myself. But transformer design isn’t something you can easily research online, so I had to design mine by ear without using any specifications.
– How were you able to obtain the toroid winder?
Those aren’t easy to find, but I was lucky enough to find mine on eBay. It needed some repairs and I had to teach myself how to use it, but once I got over the learning curve, it was no problem to use.
– Do you create all your microphone parts yourself?
I hand-make all the grills and the non-conductive parts, as well as do the powder-coating, but the metal work is handled by a machinist I work with. He mills out parts to my specifications, such as the aluminum plates for the microphone body.
– But how did you develop the sensibility to create your own mics if you’d never done that before?
Many of the artists I worked with as a sound engineer were very particular about their monitoring, so I got used to hearing my voice through high-quality speakers, which gave me a point of reference for what a mic should sound like. I see a lot of people who buy microphones and don’t even listen to what their voice sounds like through them; they just put the mic in front of their instruments and start recording, which I think is a mistake. Talking into all sides of a mic and listening to the different responses is a great way to learn what it actually sounds like. You should at least know how your voice sounds through an SM58; most people are going to sing through that mic at some point, so it’s a good reference to have. Paying attention to things like that ultimately served me well when I decided to build my own mics.
– Is it true that your microphone designs were based on an old ribbon prototype that was never commercially released?
Yes, that’s what the SR-1A is based on, which became my first mic. I have two younger brothers who also work with audio and one of them is called Benjamin – he was the one who introduced me to building ribbon mics. Prior to that, the only experience I had was tweaking the AR5 to use as drum overheads, but I never thought much about ribbons after that, until Benjamin bought the prototype mic online.
The mic had a broken ribbon that first had to be replaced, but it sounded great on drums once we’d fixed it. After using it on other sources in my home studio, we felt it would be cool to remake it. I didn’t have any business aspirations at the time, and I thought rebuilding an old mic would just be a fun project, but things become more serious the longer you stick with them. So I ended up with a batch of ten, and then another ten, and things just kept rolling after that.
– Do you remember what model of mic your brother bought?
It didn’t have a name and nobody knew where it came from. We sent it to several microphone aficionados online, but they didn’t know either. So it remains a mystery.
(Below: Nameless prototype of the SR-1A)
– Tell me more about the SR-1A. Is it hard to make? How much time do you need to make one?
It’s a dark-sounding mic that’s expensive to build because of the custom-made alnico magnets. The magnets are also part of the reason for the mic’s weight, other than the aluminum plating; it weighs about six pounds, so I’d advise using it with an Atlas MS25 stand. Making your own magnets can take up to eight weeks, which is why I’ve only made about 75 units of that mic.
The time it takes to build one depends on how many I make at one sitting – the more I make, the less time it takes for each one. You can’t predict consumer demand in this business because people buy microphones in waves, so I just build as many as I can and wait for the orders to come in.
– Many of the reviews I’ve seen tend to compare Stager mics to ones by RCA or AEA. Did you have those brands as a reference when constructing your own?
No, I don’t have much experience with AEA or RCA mics. I do have an RCA 74-B, but it doesn’t sound as full as the SR-1A even though it’s similar in output and sensitivity – the bottom-end sounds totally different. Like I said before, I didn’t spend much time with other ribbon mics until my brother bought the prototype. So I never built Stager mics to compete with the ones from Royer or AEA. It was actually the opposite: I spent months tweaking my transformer to suit my taste, rather than use another mic as a reference. And to be honest, when I hear a RCA or a Royer today, I still prefer the sound of my own mics. But having said that, the closest thing to an SR-1A is an RCA 44.
– I can hear in the SR-1A audio demos that the low-end is pretty significant. What’s the secret behind that?
That comes from the transformer design and the geometry of the ribbon. But the whole thing works like a circuit though, so if you change one thing, it affects the other parts. The motor, transformer and mic body have to work as one in a ribbon mic. For example, making changes to the body can affect the airflow around the motor. Also, ribbon mics usually have figure-eight pickup patterns, so the design needs to be symmetrical from the front to the back, otherwise weird things can happen to the sound. That’s why some Royers mics are bright on the front but dark on the back, or have to be designed as unidirectional.
– Do you know of any noteworthy users of the SR-1A?
As far as I’m concerned, anyone using my mics is noteworthy (laughs). But there’s a guy in LA called Rob Schnapf who makes good records, and he uses it a lot. Kings of Leon use it on Matthew Followill’s lead guitar for live shows, along with an Sennheiser 421. But keep in mind that the SR-1A is a niche mic that we made as an exact replica of the prototype, so it won’t please everyone. For example, it doesn’t use active components to boost the output gain, so you probably wouldn’t use it for an acoustic guitar unless you had a hot tube pre-amp. This is one of the reasons why the SR-2N gets used more than the SR-1A, due to its higher output.
– So let’s talk about the SR-2N then. What differentiates it from the SR-1A?
It uses stock neodynium magnets rather than custom-made alnico ones, which gives it a higher output and quicker transient response, and also allows me to sell the mic at a cheaper price. In terms of sound comparison, the SR-1A could be described as “thick” or “meaty”, similar to the sound you get when recording to tape at 15 ips, whereas the SR-2N sounds more clear. But “clear” doesn’t mean “bright”, since all ribbons have a roll-off after 7 KhZ unless they use a Helmholtz resonator to extend the high-end, which mine don’t have because it does weird things to the mid-range. So rather than building the mic to sound brighter, I’d rather use an EQ after recording. Also, the phase coherence of a ribbon mic is such that you can EQ it without running into the kind of issues you might have with a dynamic mic.
– When the SR-2N came out, it was priced at $499, but now it costs $599. Why is that?
$499 was the introductory price, but I realized the mic would take longer to make than initially planned, which costs more money. That’s the only reason.
– Was the SR-2N made specifically to cater to a lower price point than the SR-1A?
I did want to make a mic that was affordable, since not everyone can spend $1500 on the SR-1A, but the performance of the SR-2N isn’t compromised just because of the price. It has the same transformers as the SR-1A, which outperforms all the ones I’ve come across, and I still press and weld all the grills myself. Trust me, you could use that mic to record an entire album, alongside one or two others like an SM57 and a condenser.
– That’s a big statement. Has anyone done that?
Yeah, Sean McConnell’s last record, “Secondhand Smoke“, has the SR-2N on everything, with another mic here and there. It works well on drums and amps, and people have told me they like the stereo version on piano.
– Speaking of which, what’s the story behind the Stereo SR-2N and what advantages does it have over the SR-2N matched pairs?
I designed that mic for a friend who does front-of-house for Carrie Underwood. He was on tour with a pair of SR-2N, and I knew it would be a problem if one of them got damaged. So I made the stereo version to avoid that issue, but I liked it so much that I made it available as a Stager product. However, I still make matched pairs for any mic upon request.
As far as differences go, the phase coherence between the sides is better with the stereo version because the ribbon motors are closer together. There may also be a small difference in the high-frequency response, but it’s hardly anything noticeable.
(Below: Stereo SR-2N)
– Let’s talk about your latest mic, the SR-3. Why do you think that model isn’t as hyped as the other two have been in the press?
I just think the first two models have been out longer than the SR-3, which has given the media more time to talk about them; the SR-3 was only released a year and a half ago. Additionally, I was never interested in mic reviews when I worked as an engineer, so I’m not going to focus on them now. I also don’t buy ads in magazines, and most publications aren’t inclined to review your mics without that, so I’d rather depend on word-of-mouth recommendations. Things like that go a long way in the audio community.
– How would you describe the SR-3 in terms of its character?
It’s a very transparent mic with a high output, and it excels on vocals and acoustic wood instruments. A lot of newer ribbon mics tend to sound a bit harsh, which I wanted to avoid with the SR-3. But if you want more high-end, I’d suggest pairing it with a condenser mic. Sometimes condensers can sound too brittle on their own, but a Roswell Colares along with an SR-3 will help achieve the kind of texture that’s often lacking on a vocal recording. As long as the mics are in phase, the ribbon will thicken up the vocal without sounding muddy.
– Can you outline how each of your mics differ in terms of their proximity effect?
The SR-2N has a low-end bump when placed a foot or two away from a source, whereas the SR-3 could be placed even closer and still wouldn’t produce much proximity effect, despite being 6 dB hotter than the SR-2N. The SR-1A is at the other end of the spectrum – it’s a very low-output mic, so you’d need around 60 dB of gain to record a vocal with that, which could max out your pre-amp. Even if placed in the middle of a drum kit, you’ll probably need the pre-amp at 12 o’clock to get a loud enough signal. The different proximity effects are also due to the ribbon geometry of each mic.
– I read some reviews from 2018 that were lamenting the lack of manuals and technical info included in the purchase of your mics. Is there a reason you don’t ship the mics with a manual?
Well, it’s just a mic – you plug it and it works. I never felt anyone needed a manual for that (laughs). Also, things like impedance are generally spec’d in the favor of the manufacturer anyway, and I don’t have an anechoic chamber to do the acoustic measurements on mics that other companies do. But to be honest, I’m just not a manual guy; I never look at them when I buy stuff. Does the gear sound good or not? If not, then send it back. I’ll probably include stuff like that when my operation grows, but for now I do everything myself and the mics don’t stay around long enough in my workshop for me to spec them anyway. They either get sold or sent off to be demoed. Besides, what’s a frequency distribution going to tell you about a ribbon mic? Generally speaking, all ribbons look the same on a chart – they all roll off at around 7 KhZ, but that doesn’t tell you anything about the mic’s texture. I can’t remember the last time I looked at a chart and bought a mic based on that, which is why I never thought of including one.
– You used to ship the SR-1A in foam-lined, softwood cases. I don’t see those anymore.
My brother is a woodworker, so I rely on him for that. He took the time to make those softwood boxes when he wasn’t on tour. We still have some in stock, but we’ve modified them to open like a book instead, which is a more user-friendly design. The SR-2N comes in a wooden box as well, although we can’t ship the matched pairs in the same case because the magnets would pull together. The SR-3 comes in an aluminum case, and so does the Stereo SR-2N.
(Below: Matched pair SR-2Ns and their cases)
– I read on Gearslutz that you offer lifetime re-ribboning for your mics. Is that true?
Yes, that’s right. If anyone has a problem with a ribbon in my mics, I’ll replace it for free, although I’d have to charge for shipping. But I haven’t experienced that the ribbons keep popping. If that were to happen consistently, I’d be happy to figure it out with the customer. Perhaps they place their mics very close to a guitar amp and the ribbon pops because of the loud volume – that could be addressed with a thicker ribbon. The reason I use lighter ones is that they have more sensitivity and texture than heavier ones. So I’d rather risk having them pop at loud volumes because it results in a better-sounding mic overall, albeit more fragile. But having said that, I know people who love using the SR-3 as a kick mic (laughs).
– But doesn’t it say on your website not to put a ribbon mic directly in front of a kick drum?
Yes, because the kick creates a lot of air movement in front of the hole, which will blow the ribbon and cause it to sag. So the key is to avoid big puffs of air, which isn’t hard to do. Just put the mic above the kick drum instead, which will give you better low-end anyway – the front and back of the kick head will interact with the front and back of the microphone in a symbiotic way, and if you want to capture the sound of the kick’s interior, just throw a dynamic mic in there.
– Let’s talk about ribbon mics in general. What makes them distinct from condensers and dynamics?
In terms of sound, ribbon mics are warmer and more textured than a condenser or a dynamic, and have a more pleasing mid-range. In terms of their build, a good ribbon mic is the result of a proper combination of motor, transformer and circuit. Dynamic mics are different because you don’t actually need the transformer for the microphone to function; you could hook up an SM57’s capsule to a pre-amp and it would still work. Dynamic mics work like a reverse speaker, so the frequency response is relative to how the coil and membrane interact, as well as the membrane’s size – even the sensitivity of the mic is based on the type of membrane it has. But keep in mind that regardless of the physics, people’s taste in microphones is still a subjective thing, and that’s how it should be. The only thing you should be clinical about when it comes to your studio are the converters, because digital representations should be as accurate as possible.
– What kinds of sources do ribbon mics generally sound good on?
All my clients use them consistently on drums, bass, guitar and even vocals. As I mentioned before, the high-end on a condenser mic can sometimes be harsh, and ribbons are good for avoiding that. So they work well on anything you need extra texture for.
– Can you share some advice on how people can properly care for their ribbon mics?
Avoid sending phantom power into it because that could pop the ribbon. I understand it could happen by accident, but if you’re lucky the current will only saturate the transformer and keep the mic from working until you turn the phantom power off. Also, try to store your ribbon mics vertically in order to avoid ribbon sag. Fortunately for Stager customers, I tension my ribbons pretty securely, so they’re more likely to get saggy from a loud guitar amp than from lying horizontally, but not all manufacturers do that.
– I saw that you had your own studio called “Electric Kite Studios“. Is that still active?
Electric Kite is a place I have for fun. I don’t really pursue the recording thing anymore, but yes, I’ve made some albums there.
– But you have a Harrison VOA console there. Where did that come from?
How did you know about that? It was something my dad found. The VOA is a custom-built desk from the 80s that was made for a broadcast company called Voice Of America, hence the name. But it only has five mic pre-amps and seventeen stereo returns, so it’s not very flexible. I only used it because I had an Ampex MM1100 tape machine and needed something to mix the tape returns with. But now that I don’t have the tape machine anymore, the console hardly gets used.
(Below: Electric Kite Studios in 2015)
– As someone who probably rubs shoulders with other audio companies, could you share some names of gear manufacturers that are worth knowing about?
Capi is a company that’s worth checking out. Jeff Steiger is the founder, and he makes DIY 500-series modules that are based on classic API gear, although the transformer designs are his own. All of his pre-amps, especially the Heider FD312, work really well with Stager mics because they’re optimized for high-impedance microphones. We both based our transformer designs on the ADM 780 console, so there’s an overlap there as well.
Coil Audio is another company I recommend. They mostly make tube pre-amps, but also sell a 48V power supply that improves the sound of your condenser mic by delivering a high supply of current, as opposed to what a console or interface provides. A good power supply on a regular condenser like the AKG 451 could make it sound like a tube condenser, so it’s a very handy product.
– I’d like to end off with a business question: Your mics aren’t inexpensive, yet you don’t make them in bulk and only sell a few at a time. So how are you able to earn a profit?
Well, Stager Microphones is a one-man operation, so I don’t need to make a lot of money (laughs). Thankfully, I don’t have six people on my pay-roll, but I do make as many mics as I can, and the sales end up justifying the effort.
– Thanks for talking to me Matt. It’s been an insightful interview. What’s next for you in 2020?
I usually throw an event at Summer NAMM each year with Coil Audio, Capi and Roswell Pro Audio where we bring in bands to perform with our gear; that way people can hear what our products sound like. But with the current coronavirus situation and event cancellations, who knows what will happen in the summer? Apart from that, I’ll be building more mics as usual.