Neumann TLM102 Review

Recording Magazine: April, 2010 | by

The Neumann name on a startlingly affordable mic

You’d think, after 14 years of reviewing for Recording, that I wouldn’t get excited when a new microphone arrives. You’d be wrong.

The Neumann TLM 102 is a small, elegantly-designed microphone which sells at an unusually (for Neumann) low price — $700, street. It boasts a new large-diaphragm capsule in a smaller-than-usual case which retains classic Neumann shape, rather like a miniaturized U 87. My review sample came in a matte black finish with chrome ring and insignia; these gave it a retro, Bauhaus-like industrial appearance that said: “I mean business.”

I opened the package; the TLM 102 comes in a minimal container, a cardboard box with soft molded-foam inserts. This is fine for a studio mic, but if you’re planning to take it out in the field, you probably should buy or build something sturdier.

The mic comes with a secure screw-in stand mount with a solid-feeling clamp on the tilt control. It’s nominally cardioid-only, and there are no pads or low-cut filters built in. My sample came without a spec sheet or manual, but I found partial specs on Neumann’s website.

First impressions

As usual, I compared the TLM 102 with my standard reference mic, the Shure SM81Shure SM81, a very neutral medium-diaphragm microphone with flat response off-axis. The TLM 102 was 6 dB more sensitive than the SM81, and much less sensitive to p-pops. For some vocalists, at least, this is one of the few condenser mics I’d venture to try without a pop filter.

The low-frequency shock sensitivity (tapping the boom with the ball of my finger) was higher than that of the SM81 by several dB, and the thuds had considerably more bass content. On the spectrum analyzer I saw a broad resonance centered on 72 Hz. High-frequency shock sensitivity (tapping with my fingernail) measured about the same as the SM81 but sounded softer, since it was mostly still down in the bass regions — that 72 Hz resonance again.

I’d recommend that this mic always be used with a shockmount of some sort, especially in rooms with kick drums, bass amps and toe tappers. Neumann sells a rubber mount, the Z 26 mt; I didn’t find an elastic-type shockmount on their website for this mic, but I expect they’ll have one available soon.

My tap tests, with the barrel of a pen, showed the TLM 102 to be much deader (less resonant) than the SM81; taps on the case brought quieter, much better damped clicks (and that 72 Hz resonance), while taps on the screen excited small, well-damped rings at 850, 1000 and 1290 Hz (front screen), 870 and 1270 Hz (back screen). This is excellent performance; far too many mics ring like bells when tapped, and the resonances are reflected in the way they sound.

The online spec sheet for the TLM 102 states that it draws 3.5 mA from a standard +48 V phantom supply, and that it will take up to 144 dB SPL with less than 0.5% harmonic distortion. I had no desire to test the latter number, but Neumann suggests that it means the TLM 102 is usable for close-miking drums and instrument amps, rare in a condenser mic.

The self-noise spec was 12 dB-SPL, A-weighted, which is nice and quiet; I certainly didn’t hear any noise in my tests.

The Great Wide World

I’d hoped to get a chance to try the TLM 102 at Webster University’s studio as an overhead mic on drums, but it arrived on the last day of class, too late for our drummer to bring in his kit. So we did my usual guitar and vocal tests, and we tried the mic on a kick and snare that were lying around the studio, badly out of tune. Since I was at the university’s studio, I didn’t have my regular project-r preamp, but I made do with the SSL console that lives there. (Life’s tough sometimes.)

I began, as always, with my acoustic guitar, the instrument that after nearly thirty years I know best. With the SM81 and TLM 102 positioned 7'' over the 16th fret, I recorded my usual piece, “Planxty George Brabazon”, then listened. The tonalities were remarkably similar, with the TLM 102’s bass frequencies slightly better-defined (transformerless mic) and the highs just a tad brighter and more open.

That’s unusual. Most large-diaphragm condenser mics have significant rises or peaks at the high end. On a good mic, this adds a bit of sparkle, air and definition; on a bad mic it can be harsh, spitty and unpleasant. Very seldom will you find a large-diaphragm condenser mic with this subtle and tasteful a lift; I think that’s a useful thing, for reasons I’ll explain at the end.

I tried the mics at 90°, again from 7'' away; the two sounded almost identical. The SM81 is unusually flat off-axis; the TLM 102 was, if anything, a bit flatter-sounding. Fearing that the large body of the guitar (which subtended a significant angle from the mic’s position) was causing some anomaly, I backed off to 12'' and tried again. Once more the responses were nearly identical, with the TLM 102 having perhaps a bit more bass. Again, this is unusually good performance for a large-diaphragm microphone; from the side, at least, the TLM 102 was behaving more like a medium-diaphragm mic.

At 180° the behavior was more typical of a large-diaphragm mic; the TLM 102 had a good deal less rejection than the SM81, and it had a pronounced rise in the high frequencies that made the sound very crisp and bright. On a hunch, I moved to 150°; although these are both nominally cardioid microphones, they both showed more rejection at 150° than at 180°, which is behavior I associate with hypercardioids. In any case, the TLM 102 again had less rejection than the SM81, with elevated treble.

This all suggests that the TLM 102 will have fewer problems with off-axis leakage coloring the sound than typical large-diaphragm condensers, but it’s still something to listen for, particularly from instruments positioned at or near the 180° region.

I tried a vocal test at 7'', using my usual Electro-Voice RE15 as the reference. There was no contest; compared to the TLM 102, the RE15 sounded “cardboardy” and nasal, while the TLM 102 sounded open and very natural. Neumann’s website says the mic was designed to perform particularly well on vocals, and if these tests are any indication they hit the bullseye; in particular, I suspect it could work wonders on singers with nasal-resonance problems (like me). I did manage to pop a few p’s, so it’s not totally plosive-proof; some people, at some distances, will need pop screens. Someone who works the mic closer, though, probably won’t.

Speaking of vocals, a few weeks later I tried it on a dance caller who has a very smooth voice without nasality problems. It sounded rich and full, and the intelligibility was excellent, important in a roomful of dancers. A propos of spoken words, one of my students remarked that he’d love to try the TLM 102 on a rapper. So would I.

Back in the studio, we gave the TLM 102 a go on the dubious kick drum. Our reference mic was an Electro-Voice RE20Electro-Voice PL20; we placed both just inside the rim (this is an open kick). The E-V sounded a bit dead, while the TLM 102 had a much better-defined bottom end and caught a bit more of the resonance. It’s hard to tell from a very quick test on a not-very-good drum, but I suspect this is one of the few condenser mics that might do justice to a kick.

The snare was something of a washout; it would take a certifiable miracle to make this gawdawful drum sound good. The TLM 102 got more out of it than I expected, though; there was at least more sense of impact, of a skin vibrating in a frame, than usual.

In the field again, I tried the TLM 102 on a brilliant klezmer clarinetist with a tendency to bob and weave as he plays. The TLM 102 picked him up consistently and never let him get off-mic; in this case I wanted a little more “reach” from the microphone, which I normally get from a Microtech Gefell M 930Microtech Gefell M 930 and its more-pronounced upper-frequency lift. Perhaps this would have been a moment to add a bit of eq to the Neumann.

(Thanks to my ukis: Nick Price, Paul Wexler & Peter Wollenberg. You guys make it fun.)

One motif ran through all my tests: this is an extraordinarily clear-sounding microphone. It’s not the false clarity of a mic with a peaky upper-midrange; that gets fatiguing very quickly. Instead, it’s the real clarity that comes from high-quality equipment. That kind of clarity is one of the things that separate truly professional microphones from wannabes. That Neumann is able to reach this quality level at what is for them a low price is a more-than-respectable achievement.

Doing justice

If there’s any justice in the world, Neumann will sell heaps and heaps of these microphones. Here’s why.

In the world of microphones, and particularly in that segment of it that’s aimed at project studios, almost everything out there is one shade or another of bright. In the world of digital electronics, and particularly in the lower brackets, brightness adds on brightness until too many recordings wind up so crispy-crunchy and harsh as to be unlistenable. Over the past few years, we’ve seen a renaissance of ribbon mics as an alternative, but there are times when ribbon mellow is too mellow, and you crave the clarity and definition of a really good condenser mic. The TLM 102 gives you that clarity and definition without the crispy-crunchies, and without ever losing its suavity and control.

Flat or nearly-flat mics can be worth their weight in gold; they can tame difficult vocalists, unsnarl ringy guitars, and even do justice to percussion. If you need sparkle, there’s always eq; it’s a lot easier to put brightness in when you need it than take it out when you don’t.

The TLM 102 will do things, magical things, that none of the competitors I’ve encountered in its price range will do. I’ve come across a few magical mics in my time — the M930 which has become my workhorse, and Neumann TLM 49Neumann TLM 49, a behemoth which does its own wonderful things. This little brother shares the family magic while bringing its own strengths to the fore. Recommended, without reservation.

Price (as of April, 2010): $1020 ($699 street)

Learn more about the Neumann TLM 102 condenser microphone.

Bring on the brightness

As I mentioned, we did my standard tests at the Webster U. studio, using their SSL console. Being a belt-and-suspenders type, I repeated the guitar test at home, using the project-r mic pres I normally use. The SM81 sounded the same, but the TLM 102 was definitely brighter, rather than being “just barely brighter, maybe” as it was with the SSL.

What’s that about? A possible explanation is that my preamp has transformers (Jensen) on its inputs, while the SSL is transformerless, and the TLM 102 has an output impedance of 50 ohms.

Most modern microphone-input transformers are designed to be fed by an impedance of 150-200 ohms, typical of dynamic mics and many condensers. Driving a transformer from a lower-than-designed-for source impedance causes its high-frequency response to change, in the direction of up. I measured the project-r; fed from a 50 ohm source impedance, its frequency response was about 0.2dB hotter at 20kHz than when it was fed from a 150 ohm source impedance.

That’s not much, but it’s enough to reach down an octave or so and be audible. And it was enough to push the preamp’s -3 dB point from 72 kHz to 100 kHz, with accompanying changes in the phase response. Think of it as an eq boost in what Rupert Neve calls the “air band.”

Most of you probably have transformerless preamps, so this won’t matter to you; transformer-input pres have become minority-interest items in today’s marketplace. And the slightly-brighter sound with the project-r preamp certainly wasn’t unpleasant.

If, however, you have a transformer-input preamp and want to get the flatter response that the TLM 102 can deliver, build a Gizmo with a pair of 51.1 ohm resistors in series with pins 2 and 3; see Figure 1. (Match the resistors as closely as possible, using a DMM.) That way, you’ll have your choice of brighter or flatter, at the drop of a Gizmo. — PJS

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