We recently had the chance to chat with Rick Perrotta, President of Royer Labs, and Kevin Parker, Director of Sales, to learn more about how Royer started the ribbon microphone revolution and how they plan to continue to innovate in the future.
Tell us a little bit about how Royer Labs started back in 1998.
Rick Perrotta: Well, the inception of Royer started before we incorporated in 1998. In 1996, I sold my interest in Matchless Amplifier Company and was looking for a new venture to get involved with. My partner, Rafael Villafane, and I wanted to explore manufacturing studio microphones. We were both from studio backgrounds and owned a studio in the 1980s. We loved microphones, we were really studio gearheads at heart.
Meanwhile, John Jennings and David Royer were venturing into the same kind of business with a company they started called DVA. A mutual friend introduced us and after meeting with John and David I felt that my talents and theirs would be a good combination. I set up an R&D lab in a spare building behind my home, which is where Royer operated for its first six years. We worked there until we ran out of space.
We set out to explore the feasibility of designing a new condenser microphone. David had already been producing hand-made condenser mics and we thought that was the direction we would go in. After about six months of experimentation with different designs and monitoring the current condenser microphone market we realized that as newcomers it would be very risky to enter into an already crowded market. We decided that it was probably not a good idea and that we should just close the lab and call it a day.
David, who happens to be autistic, did not want to see this happen. He really likes routine and structure — any kind of disruption to that can be difficult for him. About a week after the decision to close the lab, David approached me and showed me something he had been working on. It was a new design for a ribbon microphone that was completely updated with new technological features.
It was very different from the vintage ones I was familiar with. I contacted Rafael to see what he thought, and he was very excited and said, “Let’s do this!” I discussed this with David and John and before you know it, we were working on a solid production version of what we now know as the R-121.
In 1998, we formed a corporation and went to our first trade show, AES in San Francisco. It did not go well… We were laughed out of the building! People came up to our booth and said, “Why are you trying to reinvent this dying art of ribbon mics? They’re obsolete. People throw them in the trash. No one uses them. You’re nuts!”
We were disappointed, to say the least. We ended up just giving away the mics we had made to our friends. That’s when something magical happened. People started reaching out saying, “I don’t know what it is, but when I record digitally, it sounds just like it sounds in the live room.” Things started to take off after that.
Kevin Parker: That was right when Pro Tools was becoming popular, and condenser mics tended to sound harsh in that format.
RP: The converters and digital equipment that was available 20 years ago had very low sampling rates. Ribbon mics lacked the harmonic resonance of condenser mics, which gave a much more natural sound. That started spreading around and we were in the black almost from the beginning.
What’s changed the most over the years?
RP: A lot! Two things stand out though.
First, there was a major shift in the recording industry that started years earlier with the emergence of digital recording, file sharing, and platforms like iTunes. Big studios were vanishing, and home studios were starting to take over. That meant a lot to us as a manufacturer.
The second thing was the competition. For the first ten years, we had very little competition. I believe that companies were still trying to figure out whether ribbon mics were a fad or not. When the market reached a critical mass, large and small companies started offering ribbon microphones. Our once cozy niche was no longer feeling so cozy.
It put us on our toes, but it turned out to be a good thing. It broadened the awareness and showed people what ribbon mics were capable of. More people were willing to experiment, explore, and embrace ribbon mics.
RP: Our company isn’t really structured like a corporation, it’s more like a family operation. Many of the employees have been with us since the early days. It’s not very corporate either. I would say that it's relaxed and vibey.
Most of the production team are musicians and some have their own home studios. There’s a real interest in music and recording. Another interesting thing is that the employees bring their dogs to work.
If you walk into the lobby, there are no pictures of microphones. It’s all framed pictures of employee dogs and one jaguar, Rafael’s cat! People think they’ve walked into a vet!
KP: At one point there were seven dogs off leash, running around. They really run the place.
RP: It’s funny because ribboning transducers requires a lot of focus and concentration. The dogs bring a very therapeutic vibe to the place. They make the rounds—upstairs, downstairs, into production. They even have favorites! People bring in treats. It's almost like the dogs are trick or treating.
It’s a very un-corporate vibe. The business end is run very business-like, but we want to keep a relaxed atmosphere.
You mentioned that David Royer (designer of the R-121) is featured in an upcoming documentary that showcases people with Asperger’s and their success stories. Can you tell us a little more about that?
RP: The documentary will be out in 2019 and illustrates how people with Asperger’s can function and blossom when given the right environment. David has managed to become a successful designer and has grown a lot socially in this company. The staff understands how he is different and treats him like one would treat a sibling.
I believe the documentary will benefit others with Asperger’s and encourage companies to work directly with individuals that have unique abilities.
Rick, how do you think your experience at Matchless Amplifiers has helped guide Royer to where it is today?
RP: Well, Matchless wasn’t my first venture. In 1979 through 1992, Rafael and I owned a major LA studio called Baby’O Recorders. It was a two-room facility equipped with a pair of Neve consoles. We had Studer and 3M 24-track tape machines for tracking. We had 1/2” Studer machines and 1/4” ATR machines for masters. We did a lot of records in the 80s; we worked with Kiss, George Harrison, Oingo Boingo, Berlin, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and many more.
That’s what got me involved in studio gear and music from an insider's point of view. Around 1989 we felt the studio business was going to go through a major metamorphosis, so we got out and started something different.
I started Matchless because I saw a lot of Vox amps come into the studio and burn out from idling too long. The band would be in the control room and their Vox AC30 would blow up in the live room! I thought with my electronics background I could build a better one of those.
In the beginning, that company grew at a very quick rate. I was not prepared to deal with it on many levels. I made a lot of mistakes, some of them serious. However, the experience was like a college education for me and I’m pleased to say that those mistakes were valuable lessons for me and not repeated at Royer.
I was able to take production techniques from Matchless into the Royer experience so we could manufacture a high-quality product. I didn’t want to build junk or disposable stuff, I wanted to build something that could be passed on to the next generation. That’s the approach we take here at Royer Labs.
Tell us a little bit about a typical day at the office.
RP: I happen to be a morning person, so I’m usually at the office before 8 AM. My two German Shepherds, Tarah and Tosca, are usually in tow. I respond to emails and answer “Questions for an Engineer” from our website, then greet the production staff and see what’s on their docket for the day.
Then I meet with Jackie Lewis (the company’s administrator) and discuss the business at hand, orders, vendor issues, budgeting, etc. All the fun stuff. I’m usually working on our latest project, whether it be a new microphone model, accessory item, or future Royer products.
David and I work as a team. He’s great with the math and in-depth knowledge of certain things, I’m great with translating that stuff into buildable products. David and I are equals with electronics; he knows more about mics but we’re both pretty good with electronics.
When we talk about tech, David’s autistic nature is barely noticeable. Anything with math, anything precise or predictable or textbook. But when it's out of that realm, things become a little more challenging.
What makes Royer Labs different from other microphone manufacturers?
RP: I like to think of Royer Labs as innovators first and foremost. We developed the first “modern ribbon microphone” incorporating our patented “offset ribbon” technology and our direct corrugating method, introduced the first phantom powered ribbon and first vacuum tube ribbon microphones, and introduced shock mounts that utilize no rubber or materials that can degrade performance or wear out.
We find our place by asking "What can we do better?" "How do we provide value to the industry?"
Then I would say that we are focused on building products of the highest quality. I don’t think I could stay interested if the products weren’t quality-driven. Lastly, I think our customer service is the best in the industry. We really value our customers and treat them as such. Our customers are very loyal, and we are loyal to them. I think everyone in the company shares that sentiment and we are all very proud of that.
RP: It was the first ribbon microphone that was compact and capable of delivering good performance. The design, which allowed for high SPL capability, became a Royer trademark and it worked well on so many instruments. Some of that was by careful design and some of that was simply good luck. In any case, the microphone just has a very good sound and is quite versatile. It was embraced by people recording guitars because it translated through digital equipment. We call it our SM57.
In 2002 you released the R-122, the world’s first phantom-powered ribbon mic. Can you tell me more about how you pulled that off?
RP: The R-122 was born out of necessity. Although the R-121 was a success in its own right, we often heard that it wasn’t as sensitive as other contemporary microphones. That bugged us!
We knew that if we wanted continued success in this industry, we were going to have to address that issue. Others had tried to produce higher output ribbon microphones but none of them were a commercial success mainly because they were unacceptably noisy, so that’s where we focused our attention.
Because of the very low output of a ribbon transducer, simply amplifying the signal was going to be challenging because the thermal noise of transistors and tubes was only going to add unwanted noise. We concentrated on the impedance matching transformer as a possible clue.
We knew that a transformer could be used to obtain what we call “free gain” if wound as an inverter, However, when turns-ratios increase, bandwidth, and linearity become severely compromised. Additionally, a high-turns-ratio transformer would suffer from loading too easily. Our first goal was to design a very high turns-ratio transformer that did not suffer from bandwidth limitations.
Dave Royer came up with an ingenious way of using a tape-wound toroidal transformer as the foundation, then quad-filar wound the primary coils over the core and interleaved them with the secondary windings. This was a very complex transformer design, but it worked elegantly.
The next hurdle was to isolate the transformer from loading. Any load whatsoever (because of the high turns-ratio) would cause the signal to simply short out. We had to figure out a way to isolate the transformer from the outside world. We wanted to use P-N-P bipolar transistors for their low noise but ran into an issue of them becoming forward-biased when phantom was applied. This caused the ribbon to be deflected and become stretched.
We came up with a solution of using FETs, which were slightly noisier than bipolar transistors, so we had some very special ones made for us. These had very large dies which cut the noise down.
We designed a fully balanced amplifier utilizing a pair of FETs and followed them with a pair of low noise emitter followers.
The amplifier is a buffer and provides no gain of its own. This combination of high-turns ratio transformer and isolation buffer worked very well. This design evolved into the R-122 MKII that included a 100HZ roll-off filter and a -15dB pad.
RP: The R-10 is actually based on the R-121 format in terms of motor design, so its sonic character is quite similar. We made a few modifications that would allow the R-10 to excel in areas that an R-121 would not be happy, such as exceptionally abusive situations.
We made the transducer housing larger and incorporated a triple-baffle arrangement to cut ‘plosives to a minimum. Then we shock-mounted the transducer, isolating it from the microphone’s case.
Lastly, we modified the impedance matching transformer with a slightly reduced turns-ration so that the microphone would have higher SPL capabilities and reduce the chance of overloading the mic preamp when used with very loud signal sources.
To achieve a lower cost aspect, we had the body components manufactured overseas and switched from an electroless nickel finish to a powder coated finish. We perform all the assembly and testing of the R-10 here at our Burbank facility; we outsourced the extremely pricey parts.
Royer won a Technical Grammy in 2013 for making such a profound impact on the recording industry. How do you plan to continue innovating the industry after setting such a high bar?
RP: That was a very high watermark for us, but gave us a lot of incentive. We have such a love for music and the gear that allows for the production of that music, I believe that will continue to inspire us. We already have several future products in the works, some already developed and beta-tested, some still on the drawing board. I think if there continues to be a childlike excitement for us we’ll continue to come up with cool stuff.
What’s in store for the future of Royer Labs?
RP: We’re going to continue to come up with new products. We already have some in reserve.
I would like to see Royer broaden its market influence beyond microphones. David and I really love electronics and hope to expand our product line into electronics-driven products. My goal is to continue building and broadening the brand so when David and I are past our prime someone else will take our vision to bigger and greater heights. We aren’t getting any younger, you know!
I sold Matchless in 1995 and it’s still around. That’s a huge satisfaction for me. At some point, I'll have to step aside.
If you'd like to learn more about Royer Labs or order one of their fine ribbon microphones, contact a Vintage King Audio Consultant via email or by phone at 866.644.0160.