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Coles 4038 review: The ribbon mic of choice

In this review, I’ll be looking at the Coles 4038 studio ribbon microphone. This is a legendary mic which has been used in the recording industry for decades.

I’ll be examining the microphone’s key features and capabilities, as well as its suitability for various recording applications.

Coles 4038 and a stand adapter
Coles 4038 and a stand adapter | Image: Higher Hz

Final verdict on the Coles 4038 5.0

The Coles 4038 is a terrific microphone, and if you have the cash to buy it, you should. It sounds great on just about everything, it’s extremely durable, and it’s been used for decades.

The only downside of this microphone is that it’s pretty expensive, normally capping at just under $1500. Other than that, there’s really nothing bad to say about it.

What I like

  • Warm and natural sound.
  • Extremely versatile.
  • Extremely durable.
  • High SPL.

What I don’t like

  • It’s quite an expensive microphone.
See current price at: Vintage KingAmazon

Why you should trust me

Brandon Schock, writer at Higher Hz

I’ve worked with a wide range of microphones over the 15 years spent in the field of audio production and engineering, both in studio environments and on live productions.

Working with names such as Shure, AKG, Neumann, and Coles, among many others, has lent me nuanced insights into the practical application of different mics and what value they provide in various recording scenarios.


Use these jump links to navigate to the desired section of the review.

Polar pattern and frequency response

The Coles 4038 is a ribbon microphone with a figure-8 polar pattern, and it is highly effective when it comes to capturing natural and accurate sound.

It has a frequency range between 30 Hz and 15 kHz, and while some of you might think this is slightly limited compared to some other modern condenser microphones, its actual performance casts a large shadow over those microphones.

The Coles 4038 is great on a variety of sources and offers a particular flavor and sound.

Coles 4038 ribbon microphone
Coles 4038 ribbon microphone | Image: Higher Hz

The low end is incredibly defined, albeit a bit pronounced. The high frequencies are reproduced beautifully, although you may find yourself giving a bit of a lift above 10 kHz when it comes to mixdown time.

It might be too mellow and warm to be used as a one-mic solution, but having it in your arsenal definitely gives you an upper hand.

Now, we’re going to talk about some common applications that the microphone is usually used for. To be honest, it’d be a lot easier if we could just say that it’s great on everything, but that wouldn’t be a very thorough review, now would it?

Vocals 4.9

The Coles 4038 is a pretty popular choice for vocals, mainly due to its warm natural sound.

Steve Albini, who is a prominent music producer and audio engineer (some of you might already be familiar with his work) has praised the microphone for its ability to capture vocals.

Especially if you have someone who sings incredibly quiet, they tend to sound best with a ribbon microphone.

Coles 4038 on a microphone stand
Coles 4038 on a microphone stand | Image: Higher Hz

Although most people probably wouldn’t use the ribbon microphone for live sound reinforcement, the Coles 4038 can be a solid choice for capturing live vocals as long as you’re in a controlled environment.

It’s often used in conjunction with the dynamic microphone to provide a fuller sound.

Acoustic guitars 5.0

When it comes to recording acoustic guitars, you also can’t really go wrong with the Coles 4038. It can capture the subtle nuances of the instrument’s sound as well as provide a warm and natural tone.

Guitar amps 4.8

The 4038’s warm full-bodied sound is extremely well-suited for capturing the nuances of a guitar amp, and is extremely capable of capturing the natural sound of the instrument.

Coles 4038 on guitar amp
Recording a guitar amp | Image: Higher Hz

If you’re going with the Coles 4038, I recommend you use it in conjunction with a bright microphone to balance out the two sounds until you can reproduce a rough approximation of what it sounds like in the room.

Bass amps 4.8

Aside from the warmth of its character, the Coles 4038 also has a high sound pressure level, which makes it a terrific choice for recording bass amps.

Again, when it comes to getting the most out of a microphone like this you’re going to want to use the same basic idea when it comes to recording electric guitars.

So, you’ll have a dark mic and a bright mic, and if you balance the low frequency with a high-frequency microphone, you can get a more accurate representation of what the bass actually sounds like.

Drums 4.9

The Coles 4038 can work for drums in a number of cases. The microphone can get an extremely full sound when used as an overhead, although it’s definitely going to need some EQ if you’re using it for a more modern style.

Coles 4038 recording drums
Using the 4038 as a room mic | Image: Higher Hz

The microphone also shines as a room mic, and while it might depend on the room that you’re actually working in, in most cases, you’ll have no nasty peaks or harsh symbols taking over the general room sound.

Build quality 5.0

Constructed of brass, the Coles 4038 weighs in at about 2.4 pounds. This microphone is incredibly solid and robust, but it is incredibly heavy.

Coles 4038 microphone package
Coles 4038 microphone package | Image: Higher Hz

If you have any intention to use these for drum overheads, make sure that you have a good stand. Your average $20 stands are probably not going to hit the mark.

If you’re going to use a cheap stand, at least find some sort of way to make sure that the microphone doesn’t tip over to stand in the middle of recording. Whether that’s a sand bag or some other sort of counterweight, doesn’t matter.

Compared to other microphones

Now here’s a quick shootout of the Coles 4038 against some other microphones that you might be considering.

Coles 4038 vs Royer R-121

The Royer is similar to the Coles in a lot of ways. It’s a ribbon microphone, has a warm sound, as well as a figure-8 polar pattern.

However, the R-121 sounds a bit more modern, so if you’re looking for a microphone with a more distinctly “ribbon” sound, go for the 4038.

Coles 4038 vs Gefell M 930

While a pair of M 930 might not yield the exact same results as a 4038, they are incredibly smooth-sounding microphones, especially for condensers.

They’re not as pricey as the 4038, so if you don’t have quite enough to buy a pair of Coles and are in need of a solid stereo pair, the M 930 are a great choice.

Coles 4038 vs AKG C414 XLII

The C414 XLII is often compared to the 4038 for its versatility in ability to capture a wide range of frequencies.

The C414 XLII does have one leg up, which is that it has more polar pattern capabilities than the 4038, including cardioid, hyper cardioid and omnidirectional.

However, despite this feature, I find the Coles to be far more usable in a wider array of applications. Still, you can’t go wrong either way.

Who is the Coles 4038 best suited for?

The Coles 4038 is a great choice for recording engineers, producers, and musicians, who value a warm and honest sound. It’s an extremely durable microphone and it’s extremely versatile as well.

You can use it for just about anything, so, if you want a microphone that’s gonna last you years of use, the 4038 is a great investment.

See current price at: Vintage KingAmazon

Video demo

Watch this video by my colleague Fabio, where he puts the Coles 4038 ribbon microphone to the test.

Recent updates

  • May 10, 2024: I’ve updated the text, added more photos from the test, and improved the article structure to suit the new universal standard.
  • February 22, 2023: I published the original microphone review based on my experience using it in a variety of applications.