Spark Digital Setup and Usage
Setting up the Spark Digital was very easy, as it mimics all the standard audio drivers and acts just like any other microphone in Windows or iOS. Installation was no more difficult than plugging in a new mouse. System requirements are very low, so an older laptop or first generation iPad is OK, as long as you have the right connecting cable. The Spark Digital model that I received included the Lightning cable, which limits it to the more modern Apple devices: Gen4 iPad, iPad mini, and iPhone 5. I purchased the 30 Pin cable from Customer Service at Blue Microphones, so that I could use it with an older iPad. I could have bought the version that had the 30 Pin Apple interface + USB for the PC, but I wanted to have the flexibility in the future to use the Lightning interface. The 30 Pin cable is the cheaper of the two, when you buy it as an accessory, so if you want all three cables it’s best to buy the Lightning kit and get the 30 Pin cable from customer service.
One of the key features of the Spark Digital is that the microphone has a dedicated analog output which is meant to be used for monitoring with headphones. That signal is passed from the internal circuits of the microphone to a 3.5mm headphone jack, located on a pigtail near the end of the cable that plugs into the bottom of the microphone. It makes sense to put it at that end, because that’s where the performer is, but it also means that you need to be careful that the headphone cable doesn’t move around too much and disturb the microphone. The shock mount won’t filter out any scraping noises if the user drags the headphone cable around on the table in close proximity to the microphone. The good news is that you’ll hear it in the headphones as it happens, the bad news is that the take is ruined already by the time you hear it. Yes, a time machine is on every audio engineer’s wish list.
Just like any analog recording setup, there are several places in the signal chain where gain needs to be adjusted. Gain, Sensitivity, Level, Volume – they’re all different terms for the same thing, variation in the magnitude of the signal. The key in setting the gain at every point along the chain is to make sure that no single output is driven so hard that it runs out of breath and distorts, and on the flip side to make sure that no single input is overloaded with a signal that’s too strong for it to handle. It’s all about balance. The Spark Digital is shipped with the microphone gain set relatively low, in order to prevent any unpleasant surprises when first connecting it. Blue recommends setting the volume level on the computer’s internal driver to 80%, as a starting point. Once that’s set, you can access the microphone gain adjustment by pressing and holding the main control knob until the LEDs turn yellow. In this state, the knob changes the mic gain, and you can see the approximate level by looking at the group of LED indicators right above the adjustment knob. Once you’re done, just press the button again and the indicators will all turn blue again, and you’re back in normal operating mode. I usually set the mic gain so that the loudest sounds register on the recorder’s VU meters at -3dB, because I like a little headroom. Digital clipping (going above 0dB) produces brutal distortion and could cause harm to your equipment, not to mention your ears, during playback. You can use the Normalizing function to get back that 3dB after the recording is done; it’s a lot tougher to get rid of the effects of signal clipping.
Once the microphone is plugged in and set up, now it’s time to open a recording application. I used something very simple, Exact Audio Copy V1.0 beta 3. It’s a lightweight tool that I mainly use for ripping CDs and some mild editing of WAV files. There is a recording capability built right into the operating system, but it’s a bit clunky, as you might imagine. The recording module within Exact Audio Copy is straightforward and uncomplicated, just the way I like it. Normally, I would use a Tascam solid state recorder to record digital audio files, but that hardware is 3x – 5x the cost of the Spark Digital. For this assessment, I wanted to use what a typical podcaster would use, and stay within reasonable cost restraints. Using the sound card for A/D conversion duty makes more sense, especially if you have a good quality discrete card. The built-in sound processor on the motherboard could also be used, but their quality varies and not everyone pays a lot of attention to this component when buying a new laptop, system, or motherboard.
The situation is very similar if you plan on using an Apple device for your recording. The main difference is that you should definitely use a third-party recording app, because the built-in Voice Memos application uses a low bit rate and will not produce high quality recordings. Blue Microphones recommends investigating some of these popular recording tools in Apple’s app store:
- RØDE Rec
- MultiTrack DAW
- Music Studio Lite
- StudioMini Recording Studio
- TwistedWave Audio Editor
There are some very sophisticated tools available in this list, but I stuck to one of the simple ones, RØDE Rec. Yes, I know it’s owned by a competitor, but they only recently bought it from the original developers, so I used it anyway. Plus, like all things that are too cheap to be good, and too good to be true, it does have a bug. Converting and exporting large (over 2GB) files causes the app to crash and the file appears to be unrecoverable. This was not an issue during the review, but I felt I should mention it.
Recording on the Apple platform was pretty much the same as on Windows. That’s mostly because I chose the most basic recording apps to use, and I’m not reviewing the apps. Obviously, once you start getting into post-processing and multi-tracking, the character of the app and the platform will have a much bigger influence. In terms of how the computer interfaces with the microphone, the bottom line is that both Microsoft and Apple treat the Spark Digital like any other ordinary audio device, and that’s a good thing.
In the next section, I’ll explain how Benchmark Reviews tested the performance of the Spark Digital, and we’ll see how it compares with an assortment of studio mics that are in roughly the same price range (< $500).