Cascade Fat Head II Active/Passive Ribbon Microphone
Classic ribbon sound or phantom-powered ease of use—with a flick of a switch
Review by Paul Vnuk Jr.
While Royer’s R-121 and the AEA R84 often get cited as the microphones that reignite the ribbon resurgence of the past decade or so, an argument could be made that it was Cascade’s distinctive Fat Head ribbon mic that helped fan the flames. Back in 2005, amidst a sea of dirtcheap (and cheap sounding) imports, the Fat Head enjoyed a healthy popularity. This was not only due to its manageable price and fine sound, but to the fact that Cascade was one of the first companies to offer a “personalized” mic experience.
Users had multiple color and finish choices as well as in-house custom modifications with upgraded Cinemag and Lundahl transformers. Two years later, Cascade introduced the Fat Head II, with a slightly larger body size, improved shockmount, a polished nickel grille, and could also come with a Lundahl transformer as an upgrade option.
The (new) Fat Head II
Now the Fat Head has evolved again and we have the new Fat Head II Active/Passive ribbon microphone.What’s new? Other than the capsule and head assembly... pretty much everything. So much so, I think, that they should have considered calling it the Fat Head III! These mics join the hybrid revolution of
globally sourced parts that are designed, assembled and tuned here in the USA. The Fat Head II A/P commingles an Asian body, bracing and capsule with US-designed and assembled circuit boards, and this time the Swedish Lundahl transformer comes standard. The next BIG change is a literal one, in the form of a brand-new, much larger body design. The body of the original Fat Heads was just slightly larger than your average pencil condenser, and while the Fat Head II was slightly bigger still, the new version’s body is roughly the size of a large-diaphragm condenser. The Fat Head II A/P is available in a choice of matte black or brushed silver finishes (I am partial to the silver).
Passive or active? Yes!
Active ribbon microphones have become quite popular in the past few years. Employing a phantom-powered internal head amp, an active ribbon requires less gain than a passive and is immune to loading issues (and as such is more consistent in its sound). While many companies now offer the same microphone in two different models, i.e. an active version or a passive version, the new Fat Head II A/P is the first microphone design to give you a choice of both in the same mic. The active/passive toggle switch is located inside the microphone on the circuit board, and is accessed by unscrewing the bottom of the mic and sliding off the brass outer tube. While that may sound complicated to those who are not accustomed to opening up their mics, it is both easy and quick to do.
Look, build, and specs
The Fat Heads are quite aptly named: a lollipop/bayonet style microphone with an enormous head that is slimmer in the front and bulbous in the rear lobe. The Fat Head II A/P’s build is solid with clean metalwork and a good fit and finish. Inside the circuit board is also clean and well laid out. Each mic ships as a kit with a hard-shell case, shockmount, vinyl pouch, a felt bag for covering the mic on a stand when not in use, and a Cascade cleaning cloth. The ribbon element/capsule is a symmetrical, short ribbon design with a 2.5 Micron corrugated ribbon between a pair of neodymium magnets.
Like most ribbons it offers a figure-8 polar pattern. The mic’s design does give it a slightly different tonal response between front and rear lobes, the rear lobe being slightly brighter. In active mode it offers a 60 Hz to 15 kHz (±3 dB) frequency response, and 60 Hz to 18 kHz in passive mode. It has a 135 dB Max SPL level with a sensitivity of –25.5 dB (53 mV/Pa) in active mode and –59 dB in passive. If you look at the detailed frequency graphs on Cascade’s website, you will see a high-end rolloff around 4 kHz and a gentle low-end slope starting around 120 Hz, with a slightly different character for active vs. passive mode.
Sonically the active and passive modes sound pretty close. However, the active mode is easily louder and cleaner, while the passive can benefit from the impedance variations of differing preamps and how they load the microphone. It’s easy to say that the Fat Head II A/P has a unique sound all its own because every ribbon mic does. As such it is not as forward and mid-focused as a Royer R-121 or as opulent and breathy as an AEA R84. It also is not as clear and open as sE Electronics’ VR-1 Voodoo ribbon mic or as over-the-top vintage-sounding as the Sontronics Sigma.
And speaking of mics it doesn’t sound like, it is also not cheap, muddy or lo-fi like many of the other lowcost Chinese fare on the market. So what does it sound like? It is one of the biggest and thickest sounding ribbons I have heard; yet it balances that with a unique open soundstage that is best described as “pillowy.” As such it makes a fantastic percussion mic, especially in front of a Cajon, on top of a djembe and even in front of kick drum about 1-2 feet back. (As with all ribbons, do not put it in the sound hole or right by the drum head, as the rush of air can ruin the ribbon). It really does some nice magical things to the low end—somehow thick and wide open at the same time. My favorite use was actually on acoustic guitar, where it nicely grabs and accentuates the woody tone of the body. It is really nice when blended with a pencil condenser like a Neumann KM84 for brightness and string definition.
Similarly it makes a nice electric guitar cabinet mic, and where the Royer R-121 has an aggressive mid-forward tone on guitar cabs, the Fat Head II A/P offers a thicker and fuller alternative, and the two blend beautifully together when used in tandem. While I had no brass sessions at this time to try it out on, I did have a chance to try it on flute, where it did a nice job of filling out and taking the spitty edge off the tone.
Vocals can benefit from its big and round tone, especially when you need to shave some shrillness off the top, but it wouldn’t be my first choice for lead vocals in most modern music. While I liked it on metallic percussion objects like tambourine, guiro and even shaker—where it did a nice job of downplaying harsh bite and ring—I did not like it as much on drum overheads, where I found it dulled the cymbals too much for my taste. However this was in a modern pop context; I know the Fat Heads have quite a cult following as drum overhead mics for indie rock, Americana, and even traditional jazz where “vibe” beats “crisp” most of the time. Having said that, I really liked it as a hi-hat mic where it tamed the bite and accentuated the chuff... but again, positioning is key, as blasts of air and ribbons do not mix.
I admit to going into this review with a tad bit of high-end ribbon mic snobbery, but was quickly won over by the Fat Head II A/P’s pillowy highs and monstrous yet dimensional low end. Add in its unique active/passive design’s technical advantages, and Cascade has ensured that this mic’s cult following will continue to grow... and I’m a convert.