Review: Cascade Fat Head II Active/Passive Ribbon Microphone
By By Russ Long for Pro Audio Review 01.15.2013
The Fat Head II is an attractively-priced, great-sounding ribbon mic, switchable between active and passive operation.
I was introduced to the Cascade Fat Head mic over half a decade ago and since then I’ve been convinced that they hold the reins in the low-cost yet fine sounding ribbon mic market. Cascade’s latest addition, the Fat Head II Active/Passive, takes ribbon microphone innovation to a new dimension. While ribbon microphone manufacturers have been offering active versions of many of their microphones for some time now, Cascade takes this concept a step further by offering an Active/Passive version of the Fat Head II, allowing the user to configure the microphone as either an active or passive transducer with the flick of a switch.
The heart of the Fat Head II A/P is a 99% pure aluminum, 2.5 micron, 1 3/4-inch (L) X 3/16-inch (W) hand-tuned ribbon, the same ribbon as in the Fat Head and the Fat Head II. Combine this with a switchable active/passive circuit, a Lundahl transformer, and a newly designed body that is available in brushed silver (my preference) or matte black, and you have the Fat Head II A/P. According to Cascade, manufacturing costs are reduced by having their microphone components manufactured overseas, but they design, assemble and tune the microphones in the United States.
The patent-pending Active/Passive switching allows the user to select passive for a warm, smooth, traditional ribbon character or active for a modern, open sounding, full-frequency character. In the passive mode, the mic is effectively a Fat Head II with a Lundahl LL2913 transformer. In the active mode, the mic’s phantom powered electronics utilize an amplifier circuit that provides an extended high-frequency response and approximately 25 dB of low noise gain before the signal comes out of the mic; this makes it possible to use the mic with the long list of fantastic sounding mic preamps that provide only minimal gain. As with other active ribbon microphones, the Fat Head II A/P’s active circuit isolates the ribbon’s output from the microphone preamp so that the load on the ribbon can be both optimal and constant, resulting in less ribbon coloration and a purer sound quality.
When operating in Active Mode, the mic has a frequency response: 60 Hz to 15 kHz +/- 3 dB, with a sensitivity of -39 dBv +/- 2 dB (0 dB=1V/Pa). In passive mode, the frequency response is 60Hz to 13 kHz +/- 3 dB with sensitivity of -56 dB +/- 2 dB (0 dB=1V/Pa). The mic has a figure 8 polar pattern and 135 dB maximum SPL. The active/passive switch is located on the circuit board inside the microphone chassis and can be accessed by unscrewing the bottom of the mic and removing the chassis. This sounds more complicated than it is and can actually be done fairly quickly. It also prevents accidentally changing the status during the setup or positioning of the microphone.
Included with the Fat Head II A/P is an aluminum case, heavy-duty shock mount, padded storage bag, cloth storage pouch (perfect for bagging a mic when left on a stand but not being used) and a microfiber cleaning cloth.
When I first began using the Fat Head II A/P, I found myself routinely comparing the sound difference between the active and passive versions, even going so far as to keep one of them set on active and one set on passive; that way, I could compare between the two modes on every sound source before committing to one or the other. The more I used the mics, the more I came to know the sonic differences between the two modes and, at this point, I can predict which I will prefer on a sound source without needing to compare.
The review mics arrived the week before a multi-day tracking session at Dark Horse Recording in Franklin, TN. During the tracking session, I used the mics in active mode along with a Hardy M-1 mic pre and a pair of Empirical Labs EL-8 Distressors to capture the drum room and had wonderful results; the stereo track added the perfect amount of punch and ambience to my drum tracks. During the same tracking session I used the mic, again in active mode, on upright bass along with a Neumann U47, and had wonderful results. After using the mics for drum ambience several times, I found that I prefer the mics in passive mode for drum room but having the active option is like having two different mics in one.
In active mode, the mics work wonderfully for drum overheads. I used them in this capacity multiple times (most recently to record Marcus Finnie playing drums on jazz great Bernie Lackner’s current work in progress). The mic does a great job capturing percussion. I used it on multiple tambourines and shakers with great results. It even worked well as a outside kick drum mic placed about two feet in front of the kick drum, angled slightly down and squashed to death (again with a Distressor). Mixing this with the D112 I had inside the kick drum yielded a thunderous tone.
My favorite use for the mic is recording acoustic guitar, which I prefer in Active mode. I used the pair to record a Taylor 514CE with one mic on the body and the other on the neck; I ended up with a fantastic track. Between the rich, woody and full sound of the body and the pristine tone of the neck, the result was wonderful. I also had good results using the Fat Head II A/P on the body along with a Neumann KM-86i on the neck. The mic works extremely well on electric guitar in both active and passive modes. I still prefer my staple Royer R-122 for this application but this can easily fill the gap if there isn’t a R-122 available.
While the mic does an adequate job capturing vocals (much better in the active mode than the passive), I feel that vocals are not this mic’s forte. I can see myself using the mic to record vocals from time to time, especially on a vocal that tends to be a bit edgy or piercing, but I would never purchase the mic specifically for that application.
My review set of mics included a stereo bar that I used to record an acoustic guitar using MS recording, a technique that yields a beautiful, lush, warm acoustic sound. I also had good results recording a piano in MS using an Earthworks SR77 as the Mid mic and the Fat Head II A/P as the Side. The Cascade Blumlein Stereo Adaptor Bar is quite affordable ($99) and can be used with virtually any microphone, so it’s definitely worth checking out as well.
The sonic character differences between the active and passive modes are slight; the biggest being is the additional gain that the active circuit provides for significantly quieter operation when recording low-volume sound sources (e.g., finger-picked acoustic guitar) primarily because the increased microphone output allows the preamp to be set at a much lower level. Additionally, the active circuit has a slightly better high frequency response than the passive, which isn’t very apparent when recording electric guitar, but is quite obvious when recording acoustic guitar and piano. Since the output loading remains constant in the active mode, the difference from one mic pre to another is quite subtle. In contrast, when operating in the passive mode, the mic’s sound changes from one mic pre to another. To simplify, the active mode is more transparent where the passive mode allows the character of a mic pre to speak through the mic.
Each new Fat Head revision takes the mic to a new level of quality and performance and the Fat Head II Active/Passive is no exception. The ability to switch between active and passive operation crowns Cascade as a true innovator in modern microphone design.
BIO: Russ Long is a Nashville-based producer, engineer and mixer as well as a senior contributor to PAR. russlong.ws