Chameleon Labs TS1 and TS2 - EMusician

Chameleon Labs TS1 and TS2

I have long been a detractor of Chinese mics. With the exception of the Langevin CR3As, which were made in China, yet assembled by Manley Labs in Chino, CA, I have yet to experience a Chinese-made mic that I’m willing to use on a recording session. I mean, we have reason to be wary of these products, right? From pet food that kills our animals, tires that have not properly been laminated and explode while driving, seafood containing harmful antibiotics, toxic toothpaste, and other recent scandals, we have some very serious examples of how cheap labor comes with a hidden cost. And as more and more audio manufacturers start outsourcing parts to China, they have to be increasingly vigilant in order to maintain quality.
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But Chameleon Labs has decided to take a different approach: Hire somebody schooled in the manufacturing of traditional European mics to design a microphone, and then make it affordable by building it in China. The results? The TS1 and TS2 tube condenser mics.

OVERVIEW

The TS1 is a fixed-pattern, small-diaphragm mic that comes with two removable capsules: a cardioid pattern, and an omni pattern capsule (a hypercardioid is available as an option, and an optional adapter allows the TS1 to use AKG’s original CK series capsules, as well). The TS2 is a large-diaphragm, variable-pattern model. Included with any given mic is a durable aluminum, padded carrying case packaged with a shockmount, a power supply (switchable between 115v and 220v), and the necessary cables. \

However, the TS2 offers a unique feature on its power supply: A knob that allows you to control the voltage to the heater plate of the 12AT7 tube, whereby you can either starve the tube, or give it extra voltage. Why? The mic’s designer had this to say: “The variable heater on the TS-2 supply allows the mic to have more than one sound. For example, I can ‘dial in’ a particular singer — often by just setting the voltage a bit under the normal setting. At the extreme low range, the mic gets very cranky-sounding — and it also loses output — but I’ve used that setting on a punk session to give the guitar and snare a crunchy and aggressive quality. I never have selected the full-throttle setting for any tracks that I was serious about, but time will tell. Also, it’s important that folks heed this warning: Using the tube at the extreme ranges will shorten its lifespan noticeably.”

All tests were recorded at 88.2kHz/24-bit into Pro Tools HD, using Apogee AD16X converters, which are my favorite multi-channel converters. I find them to be the most honest for tracking, and they suffer from the least pre-ringing of any of the converters I’ve tried, which makes for more accurate transients.

ON DRUMS

I used the TS1s as overheads in an isosceles triangle position, which is as follows: One mic placed about three feet directly over the snare, and the other mic positioned to the outside of the floor tom, three feet from the snare. This is a great overhead technique for capturing a good snare-centric stereo image of the drums, where you get the cymbals, as well as all the toms and snare in a nice balance. Simply mix in a kick drum mic, and you’re in business.

I used Neumann KM84s as reference mics, and I ended up favoring the TS1s in this overhead application. The cymbals were sweet, and the drums had a good sound to them, as well. (I’ve tried mics as overheads before where the cymbals sounded good, but the drums didn’t please me, and vice versa. These two managed to convey the sound of both the drums and cymbals well.) The TS1s had a similar range to the KM84s, but there was a sex appeal to their sound due to a slightly more open top end. I want to clarify that the sound has extended high frequencies — not boosted — in comparison to the KM84s.

Switching the TS1s out for the TS2s resulted in a little more bell sound to the cymbals, but it was on the drum sounds where these mics stood out. The way the snare, and, particularly, the toms, came through on the TS2s made them my favorite of the three mic choices. In short, the TS2s gave some nice boom and body to the toms.

ON GUITAR

Next up was a Martin D35 acoustic. Even though I tend to prefer miking the soundhole, we recorded the acoustic from about 8" away, positioning the mics on both the soundhole and the 12th fret. Of the two Chameleons, the winner for the soundhole mic was the TS1. There was a nice sparkle to the top end, and the midrange was very articulate. The TS2 had nice-sounding highs, but it was a little tubby at the hole, and it sounded a little strange at the 12th fret, as well. It could take some more experimenting to find a suitable way to use this mic for acoustic guitars, but, at first blush, it’s not the mic I’m going to reach for immediately in this application.

I never use small-diaphragm condensers on electric guitar — I just don’t like the way they sound — so I tested only the TS2. This time, it went against the AKG C414 B-ULS. The C414 is a great utility mic that works reasonably well on just about anything. With both the TS2 and the C414 about 6" off the speaker — and equally offset to the voice-coil dome — I recorded some fairly loud electric guitar from a vintage Selmer Zodiac Twin 30, into a pair of API 512b mic preamps (Figure 1). The TS2 sounded great without any EQ. It captured solid lows, punchy mids, and gave some real teeth to the highs. In fact, the crisp sound let a crunchy distorted guitar cut right through the track all on its own — which wouldn’t be said for the C414, as it needed a little help from my EQs. If you want aggressive guitar sounds, the TS2 might be the mic for you. It gives that “in your face” guitar sound I see lots of less-experienced guys trying to get with ribbon mics. And with the 20dB pad, it’s a great mic for all you half-stack folks, too. It’s a winner.

ON PIANO

Both the TS1s and TS2s sounded spectacular on a Yamaha C7 grand piano. Initially, I didn’t care for the TS1s, but then I tried them with the omni capsules, and it was a whole new ball game. The TS2 — in cardioid mode — was fantastic, as well. Both mics gave a very nice piano sound required no EQ, and I was able to achieve a very even balance between all the notes across the keyboard by putting one mic about a foot above the high strings, and another mic a foot above where the low and mid strings cross (Figure 2).

ON VOCALS

Lastly, I tried the TS2 on vocals, again using the C414 for comparison. Where the C414 sounded very flat and unexciting, the TS2 had a nice, airy openness on the top end, as well as what I can only describe as a warm richness. As I played with the patterns, I found the mic didn’t take on a different balance of lows and highs in omni mode, as can be typical with a lot of variable-pattern condensers. That said, I preferred the figure-8 pattern setting for vocals, as it brought out some richness in the midrange.

Another personal acid test for vocal mics is applying heavy compression. Some mics sound nice at first, but as you add compression to the signal, they suddenly don’t sit well in the mix anymore, and the sound becomes rather unattractive. I put the TS2 into a Urei 1176-LN compressor, set at a ratio of 12:1 with around –10dB of reduction. This setting made the mic sound airier, and moved the vocal directly to the front of the mix. This was exactly what I wanted, and I suggest you try this technique, as well, if you end up with a TS2.

CONCLUSIONS

I’m truly impressed with these mics. My only caveat is that I will wait to see if Chinese manufacturing can consistently deliver quality production. But at these prices, and with warranty service available, it shouldn’t matter to the skeptics.

My only other qualm is that one of the TS2s exhibited a rattling sound when I first took it out of the box. Using the tool supplied with the mic to open it, I found a wandering screw for which I could not find a home. The problem? The screws for the strap that holds the transformer down were frightfully loose, and the transformer itself was rattling a bit. I managed to correct this, and, of the four mics, this was the only problem I found. Still, I don’t like to have to tinker with new mics like that.

That said, everything else about these mics is impeccable, and I highly recommend trying them. If you can provide the magic in front of these two mics, they’ll do a great job capturing your performance.

Product type: TS1, fixed-pattern tube pencil condenser; TS2, variable-pattern tube condenser.
Target market: Mid- to professional-level recording musicians who seek a less expensive alternative to some classic Euro-style tube mics, but don’t want to sacrifice sound quality.
Strengths: Solidly built. Sounds great. Comparable quality to many esteemed pro mics at a fraction of the price.
Limitations: Nothing noteworthy.
List price: TS1, $499; TS2, $749
Contact:www.chameleonlabs.com