Gobs on Sticks

Thoughts mostly (but not always) about the voice-over business, from London Voiceover Artist, Mike Cooper

  • About the author

    My name is Mike Cooper. I'm a full time Voiceover Artist living and working in London, and this is my blog. Find out more about me on my main website (there's a link further down this column), or if you'd like to hear some of my work, check out the files below.

Onwards and Upgrades

Posted by MikeCooper on December 30, 2008

Yesterday, I made a significant investment in upgrading my studio. I decided it was time for a Christmas present for myself – in recognition of a successful year – and time to do the one thing that, on a psychological level, would make me feel like I was “doing it for real”.

I bought a Neumann microphone.

If you don’t have any interest in microphones then that probably won’t mean much, but if you do then it will probably provoke some reaction – possibly an “ooh”, or an “ahh”, even. Pretty much every studio I visit for voiceover work has the same microphone: the Neumann U 87. In the UK, possibly more so than in the US, the Neumann range are often perceived as the mics to use when you want the best (and have the budget to match your aspirations), and the U 87 is the top of the Neumann pile for voiceover work. Unfortunately it also retails at between £1500 and £1800 (plus another £230 or so for a shockmount). Nonetheless I wrestled with buying one for weeks, before deciding that the time wasn’t right: a mixture of predictions of a recession, economic downturn, and the plain, hard truth that I actually don’t have that sort of cash knocking around at the moment.

Instead, I went for the TLM 103. If you believe the marketing, it has most of the U 87 sound, but at about half the price (I paid £799 for mine, including a shockmount). In fact, regardless of how accurate this statement is, I’ve found it quite difficult to tell the U 87 Ai and the TLM 103 apart when listening to A/B comparisons on spoken voice (like here), and the differences I do hear – mostly a slight lift in the top end, providing a touch more clarity, but without it getting nasty – I like. The TLM 103 borrows a lot in the design of its capsule from the U 87, and can be seen – very approximately – as a sort of “sawn-off U 87”, but without the -10dB pad switch or the high pass filter. Mine’s finished in matt black, by the way…

Neumann have been making microphones for eighty years, and they must be doing something right for them to maintain their reputation. When the BBC replaced all of its microphones in the newsreading and main on-air studios at Bush House a year or so ago, they bought Neumann BCM 104s (at a cool £800 a throw). I was told this week that the BBC has started replacing presenter mics in Local Radio with Neumann TLM 103s like the one I’ve just purchased, and in the past, wherever I’ve worked as a television announcer, the mic has been a Neumann of some description. Even Hitler used one… (though his was badged “Telefunken”).

This is an interesting thing, as the Neumanns may not technically be the “best” mics out there. It’s often said that they’re not the most accurate, or “transparent” microphones, and that they add a character of their own to the sound. But the truth is, that “character” often flatters the spoken voice in a way that producers and voiceover artists appreciate. There’s also something comforting, as a performer, when you walk into somewhere you’ve never worked before and see a familiar microphone. This is, of course, more psychological than anything else: the way the preamp and processing are set up by the engineer will have a huge bearing on how the voice sounds on the track, but psychology is psychology – and shouldn’t be underestimated. The truth is that when I walk into a booth and see the familiar, cigar-shaped body of the U 87, I – like many of my peers – breathe an internal sigh of relief. The U 87 creates an even playing field, too, for voiceover artists working remotely and patching into studios where the engineer has no control over the equipment the artist is using. They probably breathe a sigh of relief too when you can say “It’s a Neumann” – it takes one more thing out of the equation.

In the last few years I’ve noticed more and more voiceovers listing either the U 87 or the TLM 103 on their spec sheets, and I’m happy to join them. My Audio Technica AT 4040 has served me very well as my “starter mic”, and at £230 or so it’s a lot of mic for the money, putting some much more expensive mics to shame. But doing that same A/B test yesterday with my new TLM 103 brought to mind words like “glassy”, “papery” and “harsh” for the 4040, whereas the Neumann oozed “warm” and “smooth” on the same script – not that warm or smooth are always right for the material, of course. But in my case, I’ve sometimes had people say that my recordings have been prone to sibilance, and I’ve had to admit they were right. With the new mic acquitting itself admirably on “The successful Syrian soccer side scored a stunning sixty-seven”, I’m very pleased to report that that won’t be a problem in the future.

Mike is a happy boy.

PS – If you’re interested in hearing about the development of Hitler’s “Bottle” mic, read this article at NPR.org. Halfway down the page there’s a link to an excellent interview with Klaus Heyne of German Masterworks, which may have you rethink some of your preconceptions about new being better!

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