Spark Digital microphone
Blue Microphones, store.apple.com/au
Good sound; supports both computer and iOS recording
Bulky stand makes it difficult to work with; could really use a windscreen
In the smallish world of USB microphones, there’s an even smaller subset of mics that attempt to address both the Mac OS and iOS platforms. We’ve seen one such microphone in the form of Apogee’s US$199 Mic. Blue, maker of the Snowball and Yeti USB microphones also make such a microphone – the $249.95 Spark Digital cardioid condenser microphone.
As with the Apogee offering, the Spark can connect to either a Mac or iOS device. This is accomplished by connecting one of the compatible cables included with the microphone. Just over 1.8 metres long, one of these cables has a micro USB connector on one end that you jack into the companion port on the bottom of the mic. This cable splits out to a standard USB cable that you attach to your Mac or PC and a 3.5mm audio jack that you can use with your headphones. The other cable works similarly but has a 30-pin connector that you plug into your compatible iOS device rather than a USB connector. Although Blue has plans to offer a version that includes a Lightning cable in the coming weeks, it’s not yet available. If you have an iOS device with a Lightning connector you must currently use Apple’s $39 Lightning to 30-pin adapter. Blue intends to offer a Lighting cable free of charge for those who’ve purchased a Spark after 1 August 2013. If you purchased a Spark prior to that, the cable will cost US$28.
The Spark additionally ships with a unique stand. Unlike other microphone stands you’ve seen where legs telescope from the mic’s body or you screw the mic into a traditional table-top stand, this one asks that you connect the microphone to a shock mount built into a somewhat bulky stand. I have mixed feelings about the stand. On the one hand, the shock mount does what shock mounts are supposed to do and helps isolate the microphone from vibrations that would otherwise travel to the mic. On the other, it’s bulky, making a portable mic less so unless you want to hand-hold it. And it makes adjusting the mic’s position a little clumsy as there’s play in the elastic that holds the mic in place. Also, the mic doesn’t fit into just any shock mount. Instead, if you want to mount the mic on a normal microphone stand or boom stand – which gives you a lot more flexibility in positioning the mic – you have to purchase Blue’s custom S3 Shock, which is a US$100 accessory. This may seem like nitpicking, but mic position is crucial when recording voices and instruments and a stand/microphone combination that makes that difficult is more hindrance than help.
Of knobs and switches
It seems that Blue can’t release a USB microphone that doesn’t bear at least a couple of interesting knobs and switches. The Spark is no exception. On the bottom front of the microphone you find a small, knobby dial. This dial serves three purposes. In the default setting it controls the volume to the headphone jack, as indicated by the blue light in the middle of the knob and the four blue LEDs above it. Briefly press the knob and the mic is muted (the knob’s light now flashes). To unmute it, press again. When you press and hold the knob, the lights change to orange. In this setting you use the knob to adjust the mic’s input gain. In the case of both volume and gain adjustments, the higher you turn the knob, the more LEDs light up. The LEDs are an inaccurate indicator, however. In regard to gain, the lowest level shows two LEDs lit. As you turn the knob clockwise the other LEDs light – or half-light – over the course of eight clicks of the knob. You’re better off looking at the input gain meters in your Mac or iOS device’s recording application. On the back of the mic you find a Focus Control switch. Blue tells us that when you have this switch in the Off position, you get better response with low frequencies. When you switch it on, the capsule’s dynamic frequency response changes so that the mic picks up ‘greater clarity and detail’. Having listened to the results with both voice and a stringed instrument (an Appalachian dulcimer) and compared them using a sonogram readout, I can tell you that with the switch in the On position, the recording is a bit brighter. There’s definitely a difference, but not a radical one.
Speaking of sound
The Spark, when the gain knob is adjusted correctly, is sensitive enough that you can place it on your desk, speak into it from a 30 centimetres away, and still produce a recording with plenty of volume, whether recording to your computer or an iOS device. But under such circumstances you’re going to hear the acoustic properties of the room in your recording. When recording an instrument such as a guitar you can deal with this issue by simply moving the mic closer to the sound source. Voice, however, is trickier. It’s very easy to pop Ps and Bs when you move in on this mic. Given that, you very definitely want to add a windscreen to your recording setup, but traditional ones don’t fit as they won’t attach to the Spark’s stand. Blue sells a universal pop filter called, aptly enough, The Pop, which you can find online for around $US29. Otherwise you can jury rig some kind of setup with a traditional pop filter (clamp one onto a traditional desktop mic stand or your desk, for example). Once you’ve found the perfect position and have protected the Spark with a pop filter how does it sound? Quite good. It’s very much a generalist’s microphone, and that’s not at all a bad thing. It does a good job with acoustic instruments and, when approached and configured correctly, produces the kind of results that any podcaster would be proud of (though professional voiceover talent will find it difficult to ‘work’ the mic).
The Spark is a good microphone hampered by a poor stand – one that’s too bulky for the Spark to be truly portable and makes it difficult to position the mic. Were I designing the Spark Digital 2 I’d reshape it so it fit in a traditional mic stand, slim down the current stand to make the microphone more portable, and toss a windscreen into the box. by Christopher Breen, Macworld