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Blue Microphones Spark Digital Lightning Review

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Spark DigitalDetailed Features

The first thing you have to do, after getting the Spark Digital resting comfortably in its shock-mount stand, is connect it to your computer. There are two versions of the Spark Digital that are currently offered. One has separate cables for Lightning and USB connections, and the second one has USB and the old 30-Pin Apple connection. With these three options, all the major platforms are accommodated. The exception at this time is Android, but that’s only limited by driver availability. There’s no reason that the hardware should be incompatible. If you need all three, you can purchase the one that you are missing from Customer Service at Blue Microphones. That’s what I did, since I got the USB-Lightning version and needed the 30-Pin Apple connector to interface with an older iPad. My experience with Blue Customer Service was fast, efficient, and friendly. Don’t hesitate to call them if you have a question or concern, or just want to buy some more accessories. The picture below shows just the cable end that connects to your computer. The cables themselves were nicely made, with good quality construction. It would have been cool to have a really flexible cable construction, like a good professional mic cable, but since this is a microphone that’s designed to stay put, firmly grounded on the table in front of you, it’s not a problem.

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The other end has a mini USB connector that mates up with this receptacle on the bottom of the Spark Digital microphone body. The manufacturer has tweaked the mechanical fit of this connection to make it a little more secure than normal. Given the kind of handling that microphones typically get, that was a smart move. Another connection is located at this end of the cable, and that’s the headphone jack. The Spark Digital drives the monitoring headphones directly from its own internal circuits, thereby eliminating any delays or latency in the monitor signal. It’s a simple approach and it works very well. Some of the headphones I used for monitoring have a semi-open air construction, and I never heard any delay between the live sound and the signal coming from the microphone. People do have their preferences, but a typical studio headphone set will have quite a bit of isolation.

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One of the reasons the headphone monitoring system works so well is that the user has quick and easy access to independent microphone gain and headphone volume adjustments right on the microphone itself. Conveniently located right on the front, towards the bottom, is a multi-function knob that adjusts gain, volume, and also mutes the output of the microphone. In normal mode, the knob controls headphone volume and the volume level is displayed on a series of small blue LEDs directly above the knob. In this “normal” mode, the status indicator light in the center of the knob is also steady blue. Press it in and hold for three seconds, and all the LEDs turn yellow indicating that the knob is now controlling microphone gain. Some tend to call this setting “sensitivity”, but gain is gain in my book…. The microphone ships with the gain set fairly low, to avoid any loud surprises; most users will need to bump the gain up a bit to get it right. Pressing the knob once will mute the microphone, which is indicated by the status indicator on the knob flashing its blue LED. It’s more complicated to describe than it is to use, which is a plus for users.

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Around the back of the Digital Spark, directly opposite the Volume/Gain/Mute button is a switch that alters the response of the microphone slightly, to provide a clearer, more “focused” sound. The Focus Control acts differently than a standard high-pass filter – it alters the bias voltage of the condenser capsule, which changes the capsule’s behavior in a way that’s more nuanced than a standard filter acting on a microphone’s output. It’s still performs one of the tasks of a low frequency filter, which is to keep the rumbly stuff out of your audio signal. That’s especially important if you are going to run the audio track through some post-processing, where any stray low frequency components modulate the audio processor and produce unwanted effects. You do lose a bit of weight in the signal, so some experimentation is necessary. Sometimes you can compensate by moving closer to the microphone, sometimes that muddies up the upper bass without filling in the lower bass. The truth is, there is no way to get high quality sound without a fair amount of experimentation. Even seasoned pros, who know in advance the effect that certain changes will have, don’t know what combination of settings and adjustments will produce the best sound.

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Good sound starts at the source. Once it gets messed up, there’s no way to undo it. The Second Law of Thermodynamics dictates that once you mix the ketchup and the mustard, you’re going to be hard pressed to separate the two. Same thing with sound; once an extraneous component gets added to the original signal, forget about extracting it back out. It’s in there for good. For microphones that means that the thin membrane, magnets and coils of wire that make up what’s commonly called the capsule, need to be of the highest quality possible. Blue Microphones gets that, and although this review of the Spark Digital is focused on all the supporting elements that make it unique (USB, Lightning, monitoring, etc.), it’s important to remember that before there was a Spark Digital there was an all analog Spark microphone that earned its place in the lineup without the benefit of any digital features. Before that, was a bevy of Blue beauties that always seemed to offer great sound for the money and a bit of specialization that made them uniquely useful.

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Hidden behind multiple layers of stainless steel mesh is a circular, gold-sputtered Mylar diaphragm that turns airborne vibrations into an electrical signal. Large diaphragm condensers have been very popular since they were first used commercially in the 1940s, but their roughly 1″ diameter diaphragms all have resonance peaks somewhere in the audio band that needs to be tweaked. That’s why most large condenser mics have a distinctive sound, because no two designs have the same set of resonances. There is a recent trend toward medium diameter diaphragms, in order to push the resonant frequencies out of the audio band, or at least make them easier to control. This new breed of medium-sized microphone capsules tend to have a more natural sound, while maintaining most of the benefits that the large diaphragm models are known for.

Now that we’ve had the grand tour of the Digital Spark, let’s hook this thing up and see how it works. The next page deals with Setup and Usage.


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