I'm looking at buying a pair of drum overheads as an upgrade to the AKG C451s I've had for a couple of years. I'll probably go with either AKG C414s or Neumann TLM103s. Do you have any suggestions or advice to make my decision a bit easier? The choices were made by recommendation really, and I'm after a pair that will add more depth and body to my drum recordings; the C451s are great, but more often than not are thin and splashy for me, and I'm assuming that something with a larger diaphragm might help.
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SOS contributor Mike Senior replies: The C451s are indeed quite bright mics, with a high-end response peak above 5kHz (reaching +4dB between 10kHz and 15kHz) and a gentle roll-off below about 200Hz. That said, do make sure that their built-in high-pass filter is bypassed (in the 'Lin' position), so that you're getting all the low end you should.
Before thinking about the comparison of the other two mics, it's worth mentioning that there are actually two different current types of AKG C414: the C414B XLS and the C414B XLII (these are the latest incarnations of the famous C414B ULS and C414B TLII studio stalwarts respectively). You should be looking at the XLS, as the XLII is also pretty bright and that quality doesn't seem to suit the drum kit you're recording.
Both the TLM103 and the C414B XLS should sound 'warmer' than the C451, on account of their more extended low-frequency response. The C414 is particularly good here, as it only starts rolling off at the low end below 50Hz in cardioid mode, whereas the TLM103's roll-off begins at around 70Hz. I once did a session where we got a beautiful full-range kit recording (complete with a nice punchy kick drum) out of nothing but a pair of C414s. However, both models are also large-diaphragm designs, and these tend to capture less off-axis HF than small-diaphragm models like the C451. Furthermore, you can use this off-axis coloration to your advantage, angling the mics away from the splashiest-sounding cymbals to take some of the edge off them.
For these reasons, my opinion is that you're likely to find that either pair of mics will do the job you're asking of them sonically, so I'd say that a comparison of their facilities and prices is probably a more pressing concern. At around £600 in the UK, the TLM103 is the more affordable of the two, but offers only a cardioid polar pattern. The £800 C414B XLS, on the other hand, gives you four additional polar patterns including omni and figure-of-eight. Given your stated primary role for these mics, I'd probably go for the AKG model, notwithstanding the extra expense, just because different polar patterns are particularly useful for drums, in my experience: the deep null of the figure-of-eight pattern is a great tool for balancing the kit, and an omnidirectional pattern gives you the option of a more ambient sound without additional room mics. If you've got no other mics with figure-of-eight and omni patterns already, then I'd say that it's even more clear-cut, because these patterns are so useful in other situations too (for example, for recording singing acoustic guitarists or grand pianos).
However, if you've already got access to other polar patterns in your mic collection, but you don't have a really classy vocal mic, I'd maybe reconsider my advice and suggest going for the TLM103s. I've never been particularly enamoured of the C414B XLS as a vocal mic (although the C414B XLII is one of my favourites for this application), but the TLM103 works very well in this role, and is favoured by a lot of home studio owners for capturing vocals.