Neumann TLM 103, February 1998STUDIO CONDENSER MICROPHONE 5/14/2004 8:00 AM Eastern
Neumann’s newest entry into the professional and project studio markets, the TLM 103 is part of the FET 100 series of condenser mics. The TLM 103’s heritage is divided between two distinct and important Neumann technological eras: the venerable U87 microphone and the modern Transformerless Microphone (TLM) technology. As should be expected by the marriage of these two pedigrees, the 103 is indeed a quality microphone well worth the under-$1,000 price.
The TLM 103’s capsule is based on the K87 capsule used in the famed U87 and tube U67 mics. Whereas the 67 and 87 use a dual-diaphragm capsule (with two separate back electrodes) to create multiple polar patterns, the 103 uses the single, K103 large diaphragm capsule for cardioid-only operation. (This was acceptable to me, as there are few studio situations where I would use an omni mic and even fewer times I would use a mic on figure-8.)
The 48 VDC-powered, fourth-generation transformerless circuit within the TLM 103 has low self-noise (7 dBa) and a large dynamic range (131 dB SPL). The low noise figure makes the 103 ideal for Foley/sound effects and ambient recordings. Withstanding sound levels up to 138 dB (at 0.5% THD)—nearly the sound level of a modern fighter jet exhaust in full afterburner—the TLM 103 is ideal for close recording of drums and percussion without distortion. There’s no attenuation switch, so you may want to verify that your microphone preamp will handle this mic’s high 13dBu max output when recording close and loud vocals (or close loud anything else for that matter).
Frequency range is 20 to 20k Hz. The mic has a flat response up to 5k Hz where a wide, 4dB presence boost begins. This is similar to the U87, but the 103 remains sensitive down to 5 Hz due to the TLM circuitry. An elastic-mounted internal structure reduces the influence of external shocks on the sound of the mic. This is crucial, as the 103 does not have a bass roll-off switch. This was apparent when I used the 103 around a group of backing vocal singers and could clearly hear the “thump” of foot tapping. The shockmount elastic suspension holder (EA 103) accessory is a recommended investment, especially when the mic is used onstage or around a drum kit. The mic includes the SG 103, a plastic swivel clip of minimal quality. After just a few mic stand changes, the plastic threading looked worn. It would be better if Neumann could have made this out of metal like the U87 mount.
The mic’s small size works well around drum kits or as an unobtrusive mic for an acoustic guitar player. All the musicians I recorded with the 103 were intrigued by the new “cool little mic.”
Subjective comparisons to the U87 are obvious, but I feel the microphone really has its own identity. As a reference point, I did a brief, A-B “comparison” with an AKG C-414 TLII (set on cardioid). I placed both mics in front of a player with a ’60’s vintage Martin D-28. In the case of this song and this particular guitar part, I liked the TLM 103 over the AKG. It has a definite, more “forward” sound, but not in the sense of a EQ’d sound. The guitar occupied a good “space” within the track without much extra equalization or compression. I also liked using the TLM 103 on electric guitar, making a midrange Vox AC-30 sound bright and fat.
Due to the mic’s low self-noise and distortion, you could use a hyper-EQ shape and/or an extremely squashed and spanking compressor setting and not highlight any microphone shortcomings. I found applications where I preferred the TLM 103 over anything else in the mic cabinet. It was excellent on drums, harmonica and sax as well as certain singers who would also sound good on a U87.
The TLM 103 is $995 (including SG 103 mount and a wooden storage box), yet I never felt I was using a “budget” microphone. The mic comes in either satin nickel or black matte finishes, and Neumann also plans to offer the mic in stereo pairs.