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.
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Mike’s mics. Or Neumann TLM 103 vs TLM 193

Posted by MikeCooper on September 19, 2009

Back in December I decided that my Christmas treat to myself would be a new microphone. I wanted a Neumann of some description, but was having trouble making up my mind which one. In the end I plumped for the TLM 103, and I must say I’ve been very happy.

But part of me has been curious this year as to what the similarly-priced TLM 193 might have brought to the table, so I’ve had a “saved search” running on eBay for a few months – just in case one came up at a price that was too good to miss. This is a really useful feature of eBay, if you haven’t used it, whereby you get an email alert every time someone lists the thing you’re looking for. If the “thing” has a “Buy It Now” price, and if you’re quick, then you can bag it before anyone else gets in on the bidding, and this is exactly what happened to me the other night when I checked my email on the train home.

The TLM 193 is currently available – from online retailers – for between £1,000 and £1,150, so we’re not talking pin money here. If I tell you I picked mine up on eBay for £550, bundled with an EA-1 shockmount (normally an extra £150 or so on top), you’ll appreciate that this was one of those deals that was too good to miss, even if I came to sell it on again myself.

On this point, it’s interesting to note that gear has been getting more expensive this year – especially here in the UK where the Pound is currently weak. If I’d wanted to pick up a 193 in December 2008, I could have done so for about £800. The TLM 103 I bought cost me £700 in a bundle with the EA-1. Even at the time it was a bargain, but now the 103 is retailing for upwards of £730 on its own. Many retailers put their prices up in the first few months of this year, so we’re now in a situation where you can actually make money on the kit you bought before the slump. My first microphone – the Audio Technica AT 4040 – cost £200 when I bought it two summers ago, and is now on sale from the same retailer at a breathtaking £363, which means that I’m now in the position to be able to sell mine for more than I paid for it. (Even I’ll gleefully admit that I’m “doing the recession” on this one.)

So, my thought process went a bit like this: Buy the 193, run it in my setup and compare to the 103, then keep the one I liked most and sell the other without loss (or possibly for a profit!) With this in mind, I hit the “Commit to buy” button. Two days later my new microphone turned up and I set to work doing some objective tests to see how they sounded and which I preferred.

The moment I connected the 193, I noticed the change in my headphones. Suddenly there was a “presence” and warmth to my voice that hadn’t been so apparent with the 103. Not only that, but the very distinctive high frequency response I’d become used to was gone. The 103 is somehow both sweet and sharp at the same time on my “ess” sounds. It’s never unpleasant on playback, but while it’s great when I’m doing radio commercials, it can become a bit, well, “fatiguing” in my cans on a long read. I was interested to notice straight away that this element was gone. But of course, we can’t trust everything we hear in our headphones now, can we?

Why can’t we trust what we hear in our headphones? Well, it’s because of a couple of things.

Firstly, if you’re monitoring yourself reading live then what you’re hearing is a combination of what’s coming through your cans plus the sound that’s being transmitted to your ears through your own body. That’s why people are often surprised when they hear themselves played back for the first time – we all think we sound one way, whereas to the rest of the world we sound rather different.

Secondly, though headphones are great at getting you so close to the recording that you can hear every distracting click, pop or mouth noise (that’s why I insist on using them), they rarely sound the same as a set of studio monitor speakers (and those that do generally lack the amount of low end “tilt” that gives us VOs confidence in the booth).

With this in mind I constructed an objective test, and read a few short script excerpts on each mic in turn, without making any other changes to my setup, which is a Focusrite Voicemaster Pro with digital ADC, feeding directly into an M-Audio Delta 66 soundcard on my PC. For the purposes of the exercise I read a piece of TV continuity for the History Channel, part of a training script, and a typical 20″ radio commercial offering to add a conservatory to your home at a low, low price. Three suitably different scripts which would get me some different results. I also recorded the output of the mics when I wasn’t talking – what we refer to as the “noise floor”. The TLM 103 has famously low self noise (that’s the amount of noise the microphone generates from its own electronics) and the 193’s is, on paper, several dBs higher, but would I be able to hear that?

What were the results of all this? Well, why don’t you judge them for yourself? You can download a ZIP file of the clips I made from my website here. Have a listen before you read on.

If you listen to the tracks one after the other on a reasonable system you’ll spot the difference, I’m sure. But is the difference enough for you to pick a favourite if you heard it solo? One point here is that there certainly is more noise from the 193, and the 103 is indeed clearer, as advertised. Whereas the voice tracks are both “normalised” to -3dB, the noise floor track is as it comes, straight out of the preamp. The 193 needs a fair bit more gain to get the same level out of it. The 193 also picked up mains hum being transmitted through vibration in my rig to begin with, and I had to dampen the mic support to avoid this being noticeable to my ears.

I’ve been using the 193 as my main microphone for over a week now, and I have to say it’s grown on me. Both of these mics demonstrate that “Neumann sound” which so many of us like, but they demonstrate it in slightly different ways. The 193 is definitely more “reigned-in” at the top end than the 103, which I’d expected by looking at the frequency response graphs on the Neumann website. My initial thought was that it sounded “splashy” where the 103 was clean and shiny, and that there was less “punch” at the low end. Doing a radio ad didn’t get me quite so excited about the sound of my own voice as it usually does (hey, I’m a voiceover artist – cut me some slack here!) But extended listening began to endear the mic to me. The 193 has a “fuller” sound and handles the mid-range especially well, lending a presence to my recordings which I rather like (most of the human voice is in this range, after all).

The bottom end on the TLM 103 appears to roll off at a slightly higher frequency than the 193, and perhaps this was why I found myself stopping recording yesterday in my basement studio when some arsehole pulled up in the street outside with one of those bass rigs that – literally – shakes the foundations of my house. With the 103 I’d felt this kind of low frequency noise from time to time more than was apparent on the playback, but on the 193’s waveform there it was: thump… thump… thump. Fortunately such arseholes – and such mobile bass rigs – are rare, even in my corner of South London, so this isn’t, in itself, enough to sway me on the subject.

I’m left in a quandary: the truth is I like them both. The 103 sounds great on radio commercials, and I do a fair few of those. It’s “deep”, and “crisp” (if not particularly “even”) whereas I’ve just recorded a two-hour audio CD and really appreciated the 193 – both in my headphones while recording, and when editing, due to its nature of being a “smooth operator”. In short, it’s been an expensive lesson in why sound engineers keep cupboards full of mics for different applications, and I now have to caution myself against “trying out” any more, just in case this turns into an expensive hobby.

There’s one more thing I’ve been keen to trial though, and that’s a change in preamp. eBay did me proud again this week and offered up an Avalon VT-737SP. As I write, Parcelforce says it’s “out for delivery”, so watch this space for an update once I’ve had a chance to play some more.


5 Responses to “Mike’s mics. Or Neumann TLM 103 vs TLM 193”

  1. […] on my mind, with a new microphone to try out (the Neumann TLM 193, which I compared to the TLM 103 on my blog) and I recently invested in an Avalon 737 microphone preamp, with which I’ve been very happy […]

  2. Excellent work Mike. Thanks for taking the time to post your findings. I enjoyed listening to the samples. In my experience, it’s quite possible to EQ out the brightness of TLM103 to suit long reads. As you know, the TLM103 has a high shelf starting @ 5kHz boosted by 4db. I have a hunch that the transient response of both mic’s are very similar in which case it’s just a matter of eq’ing the recording to suit. Only Neumann would know for sure.

    After a few months, which mike do you prefer?

    Thanks. Josef Horhay. Mixing Engineer. Acoostic Zoo Recording Studio.

    • mikecooper said

      Hi Josef,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. This blog’s “resting” at the moment, but not forgotten. In the coming weeks I hope to move it to my own web hosting and do some more interesting stuff with it. Watch this space!

      I’m still not sure which mic I prefer, to be honest, though in recent months I’ve come down on the side of using the TLM 193 – and that’s what’s currently in the rig on a daily basis. The differences between the two are small but significant, and on one or two occasions where I’ve had to go back and revisit material for recuts, that’s become very apparent. In software I’ve found it quite hard to make the 193 sound like the 103. I’ve got close enough for clients not to ask questions, but I’ve known all the same and been able to hear the transition despite my best efforts.

      The TLM 103 is an alluring beast: it’s crisp and clean and that extended LF is very appealing to a VO like myself (!) but in blind tests everyone I’ve asked has said they prefer the sound of the 193 on my voice, and I’m inclined to agree. The lows may not go quite so low, but there’s a touch more warmth and presence to the recordings, whereas the 103 has a touch more punch and brightness. I still stand by what I said: the TLM 103 is great on short-form, dynamic material and the 103 is an easier listen on the longer stuff.

      But I’m not done yet, I don’t think, and I may play around some more. I now have an Avalon 737 in my rig, which does indeed give me the opportunity to add a touch of EQ. Adding in the EQ stage also adds some noise, though, and the 737’s already noisier than the preamp in the Focusrite Voicemaster Pro, so I’m inclined to leave well alone.


  3. Hi Mike! Thanks for this great article. I am torn as you were between the two. My wife has a sibilant voice that I would like to tame with the TLM 193 but I also like the TLM 103 for myself… ggrrrrr…. choices, choices. Thanks a lot ! Best Regards! Julio and Tamra Rivera

    • mikecooper said

      I haven’t regretted the 193 one bit. Just my opinion, but it might be easier to “punch up” the 193 a little than to tame the 103.

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