Test-driving the Blue Microphone Spark Digital
Many podcasters and musicians love the digital and analog microphones made by Blue Microphone. The company's booth at trade shows usually has a long line of computer geeks eager to see what the latest mic is, and earlier this year we were wowed by both the Spark Digital (US$199.95) and the just-released Nessie ($99.95). Now that the initial crush of orders for the Spark Digital has subsided somewhat, I was able to get a review device for a test drive and found a lot to like in this compact microphone for Mac and iPad.
When I say it's a compact microphone, I'm saying that the Spark Digital isn't as massive as the Blue Yeti that I currently use. It comes with a small adjustable tilt stand that not only has some vibration-isolating padding on the bottom of it, but also includes a separate shock mount that suspends the microphone body from a series of elastic cords.
The body of the mic is dark metallic blue with light metallic blue highlights at top and bottom. On the front is a chrome-plated Blue logo, and a mute/gain/volume knob. There is an LED in the knob, as well as a set of four tiny LEDs that glow orange to denote gain level or blue for output level. On the back is a switch for Focus Control -- more about that later.
The top of the mic contains the action -- in the words of Blue Mics, it's the "same studio-grade condenser capsule and hand-tuned components for high-fidelity recording and consistence performance in any situation– vocals, drums, piano, speech, location recording and more." The capsule is in a see-through metal cage that acts as a bit of a pop filter, although professionals will want to invest in a separate pop filter to keep those plosives from wrecking their recordings.
With the Spark Digital, Blue Mics includes two cables. One is used to connect the microphone to a USB port on a Mac or PC, and includes a separate headphone jack for monitoring what you're recording. The other cable also has that separate headphone jack, but ends in a 30-pin connector for use with an iPad. If you wish to connect it to a fourth-generation iPad or iPad mini, you'll have to invest in a separate Apple 30-pin Dock connector to Lightning adapter.
To carry all this on the road with you, there's a nice microfiber-lined carrying bag with the Spark Digital logo on the side. There's a separate pocket for the cables, with the mic being carried in the main pocket of the bag.
According to Blue Microphones, the Spark Digital was designed from the start to provide a rich and vibrant sound, perfect for podcasters and singers but also appropriate for many musical instruments. I'll get to the meat of the review right now -- the sound quality of the Spark Digital absolutely blew me away, and that's coming from someone who has used a Blue Mics Yeti for years. Listen to the following Garage Band recording on the Mac in which I first record a sentence with the Yeti, then the same sentence with the Spark Digital without Focus Control enabled, and finally with Focus Control enabled.
Sound is quite subjective, but for me the Spark Digital recordings sound much more realistic than the one from the Yeti. There's much less background noise in the Spark Digital recordings, and the Yeti seems to be emphasizing the lower tones in my voice, making it boom a bit more. The Yeti sounds a bit more "mechanical" to my ears. Note that the Yeti was set up with a similar cardiod pickup pattern to what is normal for the Spark Digital.
There's less of a difference between the Spark Digital recordings with Focus Control disabled and enabled. However, after listening repeatedly to the two recordings, the one made with Focus Control enabled seems to me to be the most accurate representation of what my voice actually sounds like. It's just a hint "warmer" than the recording made without Focus Control on.
Monitoring with a set of headphones worked well; just changing the output settings to "Blue Microphones Spark Digital" allows monitoring of everything that's being picked up by the mic.
The Yeti can't be used with an iPad, so I was unable to do a similar comparison between the two Blue Mics. Instead, I did a comparison between the built-in microphone of the iPad and the Spark Digital. Unsurprisingly, the Spark Digital did a wonderful job. Llsten to the recording below to hear the built-in microphone first, followed by the Spark Digital.
Unless you love background noise and hisses, you'll agree that the Spark Digital recording is hands-down superior (this was done with Focus Control turned on). I apologize for cutting off the beginning of the second recording.
Once again, monitoring worked perfectly through the headphones; I could even hear the "countdown" cue to the start of the recording.
For the first time, I could actually imagine recording a podcast or music (if I had any musical talent other than singing) on the iPad. It's almost hard to believe that both recordings were made in the same location on the same iPad -- the Spark Digital did an excellent job of ignoring the background noises that the iPad's built-in mic seemed to exaggerate.
With the Spark Digital, Blue Microphones has created what is probably the best microphone for recording both on iPad and Mac or PC. The unique design and superb electronics combine to make a microphone that excels in capturing voices in a most realistic way and would most likely be (I was unable to test) excellent for musical recordings as well. For podcasters who want to get the most out of their computer or iPad, there's currently no equal to the Spark Digital.
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