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 115/230 V power supply, tube microphone body, both cardioid and omni capsules, a 25 ft 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 130 dB 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. -Mark Rubel, www.pogostudio.net
We've had a pair of TS-1's at The Hangar for the last six months or so, and they've seen a fair amount of use in that time. It seems that almost every time I walk back to the studio, there's at least one TS-1 out on the floor. I've made a point of asking the engineers what they thought about the TS-1 and listening to the track. One of the TS-1's first sessions was with engineer Ralph Stover. I've always loved the drum sounds Ralph gets here. A near perfect mix of close-mic'ing and room sound-commercial but not at all sterile sounding. He always seems to get set up very quickly, using essentially the same mics and preamps each session, going for what he knows will work. That's why I was a bit surprised to see the TS-1 as the snare mic. "Sounds amazing," was Ralph's comment, and I had to agree. Everything you wanted from the snare, solid body -not too woofy -and nice top end, but
not too much high end; nor was it harsh. Very natural sounding. The next time I heard the TS-1 on a track was when engineer, and Tape Op's pre-press dude, Scott McChane used them on an acoustic guitar track for Alaska based artist, Matt Hopper. Again, the mic just sounded great -really natural with just the right amount of low mids and a nice, natural top end. On a session for the band Say No More on Drive Thru Records, engineer Robert Cheek used the TS-1s for top and bottom snare mics (in conjunction with a Heil PR-20) and kept them up for the entire record. The snare had that perfect pop/punk snare tone that only got better when Robert ran it through the Chandler/EMI TG 12413 limiter and TG12345 EQ. Engineer Eric Broyhill has also been using the TS-1s as overheads, and his comment was, "They sound awesome. Warm but with an extended top end. I could really see each cymbal without it being washy. I had them placed pretty high too, about eight feet above the kit." This mic seems to excel at capturing sources with potentially challenging top-end transients as noted in the examples here.
I've always really liked SDC's as used above, but I've heard some that are brittle and harsh from over-hyped top end. Or, the preamp section seems to be less than flattering above 8 kHz or so, adding an unpleasant distortion that sounds great on really shitty worn-out acoustic guitar strings, beat-up snare heads, and filthy cymbals, but not so nice on good instruments with good players. And who amongst us really wants to buy mics that only sound good on shitty sources? For me, the holy grail of SDC's is the Neumann KM 84, a mic I've used extensively over the years but don't currently own due to its cost. Of course, I've always wanted to hear, but have not yet been fortunate enough to hear, the tube-based Neumann KM 54, a mic that is essentially the same type as the TS-1. I've found the Audio Technica Pro 37 to be a very nice and affordably priced SDC. But, the mic that has kept me from buying a costly pair of KM 84s on eBay is the THE KA-04 body with the THE cardioid capsule. This mic is so close to what I remember the KM-84 sounding like, that whatever differences there are, I'm going to just chalk them up to my auditory-brain interface and my wallet-brain interface keeping a happy balance. I, and all of the engineers above, have been using the THEs for the past three years, and they are universally regarded as sounding pretty much excellent on whatever source they're put on.
So, as a final test of the TS-1, I thought it would be interesting to compare them to the THEs that we all know and love around The Hangar. Scott, Bryce Gonzales, and I made two short recordings with both mics: a Guild steel string acoustic both strummed and finger picked; and a hi-hat cymbal both open and closed. On both sources, both mics sounded excellent and remarkably close to each other, especially below 8 kHz or so. But, the THE had a bit more extended top end and better transient response. I couldn't really say that one or the other mic sounded better, they both sounded great. The THE has had years of successful use on tracks here by all of the above engineers, and I think the TS-1 will soon be joining it. The main difference is in the top end as noted. If I were recording to analog tape, I'd probably put up the THE first, whereas if I was recording to digital, I'd probably go with the TS-1. If I wanted an acoustic guitar to really cut through a dense track, I'd go with the THE, but if I were looking for a guitar track to sit a little bit more in the background, or if the track was pretty open, I might go with the TS-1 first. Bottom line, every recordist should have at least one SDC in their mic locker, and the TS-1 is a versatile and excellent sounding mic. If this were your only SDC, you'd be in great shape. ($499 MSRP; www.chameleonlabs.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.