The Ultimate Vocal Microphone? – Part 2

Neumann TLM-103 Microphone

After finding out that the Studio Projects C1 microphone was sometimes too bright and somewhat harsh with certain vocalists, I set out to find another “vocal” microphone to add to my collection.

One of the companies I had bought several items from was blowing out their stock of Neumann microphones, since they were no longer going to carry that brand, so I got a great deal on a

Neumann TLM-103 Microphone. I had never tried the microphone out before, but, for the price I was getting it at, I figured I couldn’t lose! It turned out to be a great vocal microphone for several on the singers I was working with… but, it wasn’t always the best choice for other vocalists. In the last year, or so, this has become a very popular microphone to bash on certain higher-end newsgroups. Many people simply don’t like the sound, nor feel that it really lives up to the Neumann name. Although it’s meant to be more of a “home studio” Neumann, it’s still on the expensive side (if you pay the typical street price), and there are other microphones from other companies that are much cheaper and offer comparable, if not better, performance on some sources. In my own experiences, I found that the Neumann TLM-103 can be a great microphone IF you pair it up with the right microphone pre-amp! It has a transformerless design (thus, the TL part of the name), and uses an op-amp in the output circuitry that many people don’t like. I believe that these features really make this particular microphone’s sound change quite noticeably depending on the microphone preamp you are using. In particular, I got really good results with the Neumann TLM-103 through a Great River ME-1NVmicrophone preamp. The ME-1NV was my first high-end “boutique” preamp, which I used for just about everything. It was patterned after the classic Neve preamps, but with a more modern design. It also has a transformer that you can switch in and out of the signal path (the “loading” button), and you can also change the input impedance. Those two switches, combined with a separate preamp gain and output gain control, allow you to get a wide range of sounds from the preamp. Overall, I found that the Neumann TLM-103 worked very well for me when paired up with the Great River ME-1NV microphone preamp, followed by the Cranesong Trakker single channel compressor (which also has many settings to emulate many different types of compressors). Those three items were my main vocal recording chain in my home based studio for at least a couple of years. Of course, I also had my other microphone purchases to use as well, when the TLM 103 wasn’t sounding right for a particular source.

The Neumann TLM-103 can be much more than just a “vocal” microphone. There are many people who love it on all sorts of percussion sources. In the recording business, you can never have too many microphones! However, due to the relatively hefty price tag of this microphone, compared to similar offerings from other companies, I don’t think I’d recommend it as the first vocal microphone to someone recording at home on a budget UNLESS you can try it out in your own home first on your own voice (or whomever you record the most) with your own preamps, to see if the sound works for you or not.

Bock Audio 195 cardioid condenser microphone

My “final” vocal microphone purchase was the Soundelux U195. That company has since switched names to Bock Audio, and now the same microphone is simply called the Bock Audio 195. I really love this microphone, and it is VERY versatile due to some unique features. It’s probably the closest thing I have to a “do it all” microphone (for vocals, at least, even though it works great on many other things as well). Besides being a great American company, hand-wiring and tuning their microphones using premium components… their microphones simply sound amazing! I only wish I could afford some of their much more expensive recreations of classic “vintage” microphones.

One of the features that make the Bock Audio 195 so versatile is the unique “FAT / NORM” switch, that changes the response characteristics of the microphone. In addition, there is a built-in -10dB bass roll off switch, as well as a -15dB Pad switch. These three switches together make the microphone extremely versatile. Need to warm up a thin/wimpy sounding vocalist? Simply switch the microphone to “FAT” mode. At the same time, though, you can engage the bass roll-off switch to get rid of excess sub/low frequencies (that you don’t need in vocals anyway) and any additional rumble that may be amplified when you turn on the FAT switch. If the vocalist already has a big voice, just leave the microphone in “norm” mode, and it sounds just like some of the classic FET microphones that I loved from the major studio I used to work at.

Basically, the Bock Audio 195 gives you that bright and open, clear and detailed, modern vocal sound, without ever getting “harsh” sounding. It works well with all the preamps I have now, so you really don’t need to worry about its sound changing drastically based on the preamp (like the TLM103 can sometimes do). Of course, as with any microphone, the better the preamp, the better the overall sound, but the Bock Audio 195 seems to be much more tolerant of the preamp used than the TLM103.

The Bock Audio 195 basically lives on my microphone stand for vocals these days. I’ve recorded a wide variety of singers, male and female, in all styles, plus plenty of different rap and hip-hop people as well, and I can always get a great sound out of the microphone simply by working with the switch settings it has, or using different preamps and compressors as needed to tailor the sound.

In addition, it simply looks impressive! It’s got a nice big classic shock mount, and the black and bright silver color scheme is great looking. The vocalists always seem to make a comment about it and ask things like “is this a Neumann” (since everybody seems to know that brand). And then, once they hear themselves through it, they always love it. Never had anyone not like it, and I can’t remember a time when I put up the microphone in front of a vocalist and even thought I needed to try something else.

It’s not an overly expensive microphone, and you can probably get one for just under $1000 if you are a good shopper and ask for a discount! That may seem like a lot of money to spend for someone recording at home, but a good quality microphone really can make a BIG difference in the sound, and this microphone sounds favorable compared to microphones that cost even more. Of course, you can go with some of the other MUCH more expensive microphones out there to get a different, and perhaps “better”, sound… but, for my money, I’m very happy right now with the Bock Audio 195 as my main “go to” vocal microphone.

2012 UPDATE:  Since originally writing this article in 2007, I did a big studio remodel in our new home, and now have a space big enough to record drums here in my own home based professional studio. Along with that remodel, I bought a big collection of new microphones to allow me to record a drum kit with the typical multi-microphone set up. I have also used some of these microphones on vocals on occasion to get a different sound. I’ve also continued to add other microphones to my collection, including several more “vocal” microphones.  However, as mentioned above, the Bock 195 pretty much lives on the microphone stand for vocal recording.  It’s still my “go to” microphone for vocals when I don’t have time to experiment with other choices, simply because it never sounds bad on any vocalist that I have worked with.  Occasionally, when I do have time to experiment, there are some other microphones that will work just as well, giving a different sound that’s not necessarily “better”, but may just fit a particular vibe for a specific song and vocalist.  It’s always good to have choices!!

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