Chameleon Labs TS-1 – The Tape Op Review (#1 of 2)

TapeOp Issue #60/July, 2007 | by

The sonic combination of a small-capsule microphone diaphragm with a tube amplifier can be a thoroughly pleasing one for many applications. The high-frequency definition and quick transient response of the small diaphragm coupled with the moderating and sweetening response of a well-designed tube circuit can be magical, and sounds like nothing else.

I’ve got a bunch of Altec “lipstick tube” microphones, both omni and cardioid, and love them for overheads and acoustic guitar. More recently, we’ve been lucky to own a Telefunken KM-256C, which rules on acoustic guitar and piano top end, and a Telefunken SM-2 stereo tube SDC, which is equally lovely on strings and as a drum-kit overhead. These days, those microphones, for all their beauties, are costly both to purchase and to maintain.

When I first got involved in recording (during the Cretaceous or was it the Mesozoic Era?), it seems that there were only two classes of microphones: mundane and moderately priced; and great but expensive. It is wonderful to see good affordable alternatives becoming available — a stellar example being the Chameleon Labs TS-1 small-diaphragm tube mic. Chameleon makes products available that are very strong in the bang-for-the-buck category, with good craftsmanship and warranties. They often poll people as to what they would like to have available. In fact, at TapeOpCon 2007, they had a drawing for a free TS-1, and on the entry form was a big space for “what would you like us to offer next?”

The pencil-type TS-1 has a 3-micron diaphragm and uses a 5840 pentode tube, strapped for triode operation. This tube is also used in the amplified Royer ribbon mics, and is the same as the European EF732 used in some of the Telefunken USA re-issues. It looks nice with its little vents for the tube and gets pleasantly warm when in use. The circuit is “plate loaded” with a high-ratio transformer inside the microphone body, and the power supply has seven stages of R/C filtering on the non-regulated B+, four stages of filtering on the regulated heater voltage, and a toroidal transformer. Translation? It’s quiet.

Included in the snazzy, lockable aluminum suitcase are the 115/230V power supply, tube microphone body, both cardioid and omni capsules, a 25ft seven-pin cable, foam windscreen, and shockmount with spare elastics. This last inclusion may sound small, but consider that I just spent $60 on elastics for three Neumann suspension mounts. Available options for the TS-1 include a hypercardioid capsule ($62), and the ADP-1 adapter ($42) for AKG CK series capsules (though not the CK-5). So, C-451 lovers can “tube” their capsules!

The power supply is interesting in that it has both a power switch and a standby switch, like a tube guitar amp. It’s recommended to turn the power switch on first, then lift the standby switch after ten or fifteen seconds, allowing the plate (B+) voltage to be turned on after the tube has heated to full temperature; this extends the life of the tube. Generally, it’s a good idea to let tube microphones stabilize for fifteen minutes or more before use; the same goes for tube instrument amplifiers, compressors, and equalizers. The TS-1 can also be put into standby mode when taking a break, leaving it thermally stabilized and ready to use, though the manual recommends not leaving it in standby for more than a half hour.

I do have, and love madly, a custom-built tube LDC also designed by Professor Terry Setter (the TS) of Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington — an excellent human being who some of you may have met at past TapeOpCons. Terry also designed the large-capsule Chameleon TS-2 microphone, whose power supply features a variable heater voltage; it will be interesting to see how the TS-1’s sound might be varied using it.

The shockmount works well and holds the microphones snugly. The cable between the PS and mic is rugged and makes a good connection. In the six months that I have been using a pair of TS-1s, I have had no problems with them — nary a sputter. They do carry a one-year warranty. The TS-1 has no internal shockmount or pop filter, and so should be used with the supplied mount, and with a windscreen if used as a vocal microphone or outdoors. I have used it as a vocal mic, with great results from some singers, though it wouldn’t be my usual first choice just based on its type.

The Chameleon Labs TS-1 is a marvelous instrument. They have been used on nearly every project in the time they’ve been here. They excel particularly as drum overheads, on acoustic guitar, string bass and other stringed instruments, on percussion, and piano. They have a sweet top-end but are not strident. I love our aforementioned Telefunken SM-2 for overheads and the velvety bell-like quality that it imparts. The Chameleons to me sound bolder and more sharply etched, and I have to say are my new favorites for this application. I find that they tend to need little to no equalization when used as drum overheads or on acoustic instruments and percussion.

It’s cool that the TS-1 comes with both cardioid and omnidirectional capsules. It is very much worth outgrowing the sound reinforcement habit of always using directional mics and experimenting with omnis. When using the TS-1 as a drum mic, especially when the mics are farther away, the omni capsule can open up the room nicely and eliminate or reduce the coloration that can come from off-axis pickup. Likewise, omnis are underused, in my opinion, on acoustic guitars. Since they don’t exhibit the rising bass from proximity that cardioid and other directional mics do, they can be very useful for guitarists who move around a lot. You can control the varying volume easily with compression or gain riding as needed, but it’s very useful to have the timbre remain the same — the guitar sits more stably in the mix.

Though the TS-1 has no pad, it doesn’t seem to need one. It’s rated at a maximum of 130dB SPL, and I haven’t detected distortion even from loud drummers. It’s pretty great on snare drum too — I need a third one! The TS-1 seems to sell for not much less than MSRP — rightfully so. It’s totally worth it.

(See also John Baccigaluppi’s review of the TS-1.)

Read more about the Chameleon Labs TS-1 small-diaphragm tube condenser.

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