Digital Microphone Final Thoughts
The audio recording scene has always suffered from a wide gap between professional gear and consumer products. On the one hand there is a huge variety of microphones, preamps, mixers, and processing gear that will provide the tools to create great recordings, once you master the techniques. The consumer market occasionally offers up some mediocre, lo-fi solutions that interface with whatever recording platform is in style that decade. The combination of digital audio and the internet have changed that, in the last few years. Although the term podcast heralds back to the days when iPods ruled the planet, not iPads, the name has stuck with us. The current low-end recording solution is the rear-facing camera on a smartphone or tablet and the built in microphone. All very lo-fi (and hi-tech), and everyone got their start on YouTube that way. The next step up is a huge one, to a compact digital camera or an Interchangeable Lens Camera (ILC). The enhanced optics give the video component a big boost in quality, but the audio still suffers from the ills of miniaturization. Some models offer an input for an external mic, and the increase in sound quality and flexibility are well worth the upgrade costs. For straight audio recording, it all depends on how much time and money you want to invest, but I think the solution you’re looking at here is a top contender if your budget is less than $400.
I’m an engineer, so I’m no stranger to test equipment, testing protocols, and the science behind all that. Lab tests will tell you a lot, but what they tell you is mostly what’s wrong with a product. This is invaluable information during development, because it tells you what you need to go back and fix, in the design. Using that same information to determine “sound quality” is a tougher problem. Humans are notoriously non-linear in our senses and our thinking. Our survival instincts make us more sensitive to transient sounds, while centuries of human speech have honed our ability to detect very slight variations in the middle frequency range. Babies make all kinds of sounds that don’t conform to a formal language structure, but a parent still needs to be able to interpret those jibber-jabber sounds accurately, for the survival of the species. So, our ears and our brains are most sensitive to the subtlety of sounds in the upper midrange, where most baby’s (…and wives, mothers, and girlfriends) voices reside. See what I mean about survival skills…?
Spark Digital Conclusion
The Spark Digital is not the do-all, be-all microphone that solves every recording problem. The first rule of microphones is that there are no perfect microphones in this world. Its design brief was limited to a couple of applications, and I believe Blue Microphones was able to take advantage of that fact to optimize it for its intended purpose. Having control of the signal all the way to the USB digital interface also provided the opportunity to build some synergy into the circuitry. I put the Spark Digital up against several studio-quality microphones that I know and love and it came out in the middle of the pack. That’s a solid win, in my book! Integration with the host computer platform was simple and seamless, whether it was a PC or an iSomething. The inherent frequency response and the addition of the Focus control provided an optimum setup for voice, similar to the classic RE20 broadcast mic that is ubiquitous in most radio station sound booths.
Blue Microphones has always had a quirky design ethos, and the Spark Digital fits right into their family tree. Dressed up in a deep blue livery, with big chrome accents on both ends, it’s not a device that’s going to blend in. The satin finish on the aluminum desk stand provides a bit of contrast and relief from the high polish surfaces on the microphone. At first I thought they clashed, but the stand provides a more neutral background which then allows the microphone to stand out a bit more. Regardless of its finish, the stand is a work of art anyway, with just the right amount of retro appeal designed in.
I detected no design or construction flaws in or on the Spark Digital. Considering the number of high end surface finishes on the microphone itself and the accompanying stand, there are plenty of opportunities to create seconds. The build quality was nice and tight and I suspect it will live a long and happy life in a studio, somewhere. I would not attempt to use the Spark Digital for live music performances, because it was not designed to handle the rigors of the road. It’s designed for studio recording and for that role it’s very well built. The shock mount desk stand is a standout IMHO, and really adds to the overall impression of quality. Threading the microphone into the stand was a bit fiddly, but I’ve always been a shameless cross threader. Once both sets of threads were properly aligned, it screwed in smoothly and then was seated firmly. The Spark Digital was utterly reliable during my usage, and it’s backed by a major player in the pro audio market with a solid customer service department, so you can scratch that off from your list of worries.
First of all – kudos to Blue Microphones for including a very useful desktop shock mount with the Digital Spark. That item is an accessory for some of the competitors, and for its intended use it’s really a necessity. The controls that are available on the Digital Spark are well designed and well executed. The Volume/Gain/Mute control manages to integrate a number of functions without being overly complex. The gain control for the microphone and the headphone volume both had a decent range of adjustment. I never felt that I needed “one more turn” on the volume knob. The LED indicator scheme always lets you know exactly what’s going on, so you can avoid those awkward moments when you “thought” you were recording…. The Focus control on the back of the microphone worked well, and manages to avoid chopping off ALL the bass, like several other high-pass filters do on some microphones. Driver issues were a non-issue, as in there were none, even on an old laptop running XP. For those within the Apple universe, I’m not sure how much it matters that there are two different versions for sale, one with the Lightning connector + USB, and one with the Apple 30-Pin connector + USB. Is that a deal breaker, I confess to not knowing?
The Spark Digital gets very high marks for value, based on two factors. One is that by eliminating the need for a separate mic preamp and A/D conversion hardware, the total cost of the recording solution goes way down. Just for reference, the plain Spark microphone, without the ability to go direct into a USB port has the same MSRP as the Spark Digital. The second factor is the overall level of performance you get for less than $200. The Spark Digital is widely available for $189.99 (Amazon | NewEgg). I put this microphone up against a quartet of studio mics that all cost more, and the Spark Digital held its own. When I combine the sound quality, the build quality, plus the added functionality of the USB interface and then look at the price, I see an excellent value. There are cheaper solutions, but if you want to get this level of sound quality streaming into your computer, you can’t get it any cheaper than this.
This is my first foray into digital microphones, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. There’s so much junk being marketed today that you can plug into a USB port, that part of me was skeptical. However, I knew Blue Microphones’ history of innovation, so I was hopeful that the Spark Digital would turn out to be a truly useful product. The skeptic lost this round…. Not only is it useful, it’s easy to use, easy to set up, easy on the eyes, and it produces great sound without a lot of work. Great sound never comes easy, but the Spark Digital cuts out a whole host of steps in the process and lets you focus on the small details, like microphone placement, that can maximize your sonic results. The fact that it cuts out a lot of the ancillary equipment that you would need with an analog microphone, means reductions in complexity and cost.
+ Super simple to set up and use
+ Optimized for the intended market
+ Excellent audio performance
+ Excellent value for this level of quality
+ Monitoring solution works great
+ Solid construction
+ Shock mount desk stand looks good, works good
+ Works with wide variety of host devices (iOS + PC)
+ Unique visual style
– iOS users must choose Lightning or 30 Pin version (or buy accessory cable)
– USB connection paradigm can be limiting for musicians (for now…)
– Not compatible with Android devices