I’m sure you’ve all heard the name, Neumann. That brand is like pure magic in the mic world, just like Neve is in the console world.
While Neve has always been all about that transformer sound, Neumann has been going in a completely different direction. I'm talking about the TLM series - these mics are transformerless!
It's actually not a new design, they've been doing this since the 80s when they released the TLM 170. And since then, they've made some changes and enhancements to the design.
Transformer vs. Transformerless Mics
Okay, so the deal with vintage mics and transformers are basically to make the impedance match the mic preamps - nothing too crazy or nerdy, just practical stuff.
That said, people noticed that transformers also gave the sound a cool low bump that made it warmer and sometimes even a little gritty. The only downside was less SPL and more noise.
And in case you're wondering, SPL means the max Sound Pressure Level before it gets all distorted.
Now, the transformerless approach was all about clarity and more output gain. More output means more signal and less noise, plain and simple.
Capsule and Design
Alright, so before the TLMs, you had the U87 and its vintage cousin, the U67 (we've covered its alternatives here), both with the K87 capsule that's pretty large. It has two sides so you can switch between three different patterns on the microphone, which is pretty cool.
Honestly, I was a little bummed not to see this on the pricier TLM 103. But don't worry, I'll vent about it more in the "features" section of this article.
On the other hand, the TLM 102's got a completely original design that's totally different from what came before it. With an elastic suspension that cuts down on noise, it's perfect for those noisy environments, like when you're jammin' with your band.
What that means is, it's tough and can take a hit without gettin' damaged. If you need a microphone that can handle intense activity, especially when you're rockin' out, the TLM 102 is the way to go.
So here's where you really start seeing the budget trimming affect this mic. On the front of the U87, you've got the fancy rotary capsule switch to go from Omni to Figure 8, but the TLM 103 has nothing. It's just stuck with Cardioid.
Now, Cardioid is probably one of the most popular uses of a Neumann mic, but still, that's quite a limitation. It pretty much means that it's best for vocals.
The TLM 102 isn't much better in terms of features; it's got none. Again, it's just got that fixed Cardioid pattern which does a good job of rejecting sounds from the sides and rear.
But because it's such a small mic compared to the TLM 103, it can be really precise and work well in a lot of different situations. We'll get into some of those later.
Neumann is a pretty cool company because they make all their new mics in Germany with super high-quality standards.
We're in a world where Behringer and SSL are making everything in China nowadays. Apple's famous "Designed in..." strategy might hide the fact that their products are mass-produced, but that's not the case with Neumann. Which is great!
Both microphones have a beautiful metal body with an integrated pop filter, making them very sturdy. However, the newer Neumanns lack a bass roll-off switch in the back, unlike the older M149 microphones.
The high-pass switch was great for limiting the proximity effect and achieving a tighter but full sound, but unfortunately, this feature is missing from these two examples.
The TLM103 also comes with a fancy wooden jeweler's box, which is pretty snazzy and elevates the look.
Alright, let's get into the nitty-gritty of the sound capabilities of these mics.
It's worth noting that TLM mics don't have the same amount of low-end as some other Neumanns. Both models begin to cut off around 70 Hz, but the 102 is noticeably more extreme in this regard.
Most people agree that the 102 has a tighter low end than the 103. The 103 has a deeper and richer low-end, which might be because it's bigger or has a new capsule.
When it comes to the mid and high frequencies, the TLM 103 has a wider and brighter curve than the 102. But the 102 has a cool bump around 6 kHz, so it's got more presence.
The 103 is also more sensitive than the 102, with a max SPL of 144 dB compared to 138 dB for the 102. That could be because of the size and capsule differences.
Both mics have really good signal-to-noise ratios thanks to the TLM design. Generally, the TLM 103 has a smoother, silkier sound, while the TLM 102 sounds a little more flat and dull.
Just remember, you gotta test 'em side-by-side to really hear the differences. Without a reference point, they just sound like top-notch pro mics.
The U87 has always been seen as the "desert island" mic for a reason - it just sounds amazing on everything. Even if it's not immediately mind-blowing like a tube mic such as the Neumann M149 or AKG C12, there's something magical that happens when you start adding EQ to a U87.
The TLM 103 has some magic too. In general, it's a richer mic, so it's perfect for lead vocals and acoustic guitars. Its high SPL tolerance also makes it ideal for recording guitar cabinets since you can really crank those amps and hit them hard. Plus, it's probably great for anything percussive because it has a good crisp transient response.
The TLM 102 has its advantages too - it has a tighter response in the lows and mids. So, it could be an amazing mic for rap and hip-hop because it'll take the sonic levels without giving too much mud and proximity effect in the lows.
Both mics are amazing for recording pianos, especially if you get a consecutive serial-numbered match stereo pair. For pop piano, the tightness and slight mid-bump of the 102 could make it perfect for urban and modern styles, like something Alicia Keys or The Weeknd would use.
The TLM 103 would be sick for bass cabinets as well because it has an extended bottom end but also a good fixed pattern to not capture too much room.
For broadcasting and podcasting, both of these mics are amazing. I'd suggest using a 103 for broadcast or radio, and a 102 for podcasts and social media content.
Okay, so here's my take on it - these two mics are totally worth the price! They give you a nice clean signal and a crisp top end.
Now, the TLM series might be lacking a bit in the character department - you know, that "vibe" that people always talk about in the music biz. I compared Neumann to Neve in terms of "vibe" earlier, but with the TLM series (especially the last two models), they tend to sound more like SSL.
Audio engineers have been arguing about SSL vs. Neve for like, forever. Most folks seem to think that Neve has a thicker, more vintage sound, while SSL is more precise and modern (although it can sound a bit thin compared to Neve).
But yeah, most users agree that these two mics are pretty sweet. At the end of the day, it's all about what you like best.
If you want to add a bit of that missing grit, I'd recommend hooking these mics up to a vintage-style preamp. Depending on your budget, you could go for something new like the Heritage Audio HA73EQ (which costs around $899 and adds some Neve 1073 vibe) or something used like the Warm Audio WA-MPX 1 Tube Pre.
After all, we’re artists, sometimes it’s the imperfections that add all the flavor.