Three small, convenient and inexpensive mics for simple home recording
I was encouraged when Premier Guitar’s March 2009 issue [“Five Studio Setups You Should Know About”] mentioned that Nashville songwriters have been turning to the MacBook, Apple’s GarageBand recording software, and Blue Microphones’ Snowball mic for recording demos and working out arrangements. I thought GarageBand had potential as a recording tool, but wasn’t sure if musicians were taking it seriously.
When I received three moderately-priced pieces of computer recording gear from Blue to review, I upgraded my software to GarageBand ’09 [read about the improvements in our recent review] and got to work. On the Mac, setup effort is minimal – just choose the Blue mic in GarageBand’s preferences menu and tweak the mic’s level in System Preferences. (I don’t use a PC and can’t comment on that experience, but the Blue stuff is compatible with both platforms and should work for whichever computer and software you prefer.)
I first spent some time with Blue’s Snowflake – a small USB condenser mic that comes in its own sturdy case/stand – and then with Blue’s Snowball, a versatile USB condenser mic with dual elements. Finally, I also put Blue’s Icicle – a USB preamp that lets you plug whatever mic you want into your computer, even ones requiring phantom power – through its paces.
Starting Off Simple
The Snowflake is designed to be a portable and durable upgrade to your computer’s built-in mic. The Snowflake’s front-address element folds down inside a metal and plastic case that holds a slim USB cable and protects the mic when you’re hauling it around.
I first set up the Snowflake on my computer desk, plugged into the MacBook and run through GarageBand. The mic slides out of the back plastic part of the case and turns the metal part of the case into a tabletop stand just by folding the mic back and pivoting it around. The forward-back part of the pivot could use more friction to hold it in place, but it works – I thought it might flop forward or back, but it never did.
For my first recording test with the Snowflake, I decided on acoustic guitar and voice. By moving myself and the mic around, I was able to get a good balance between the two sounds. The USB cable isn’t all that long – just 3’ between the plugs – so don’t plan on a lot of flexibility for where you place it.
I played back the vocal/guitar recording through my studio monitors and was pleasantly surprised with the clarity and detail. Of course, the vocal didn’t have the depth of a mic with a larger element, but the little Snowflake would be a handy and affordable mic for recording song ideas or jams. Just getting a mic away from the computer’s fan that invariably kicks on during GarageBand makes the Snowflake a helpful tool.
My second recording was of a an upright piano, which I mic’d from 5’ away. As with the voice/guitar recording, my goal was just to improve on the Mac’s internal mics. The piano’s sound through the MacBook’s internal mic had a nasal quality to it, falling short in the highs and in general, coming across as lo-fi. Mic’ing with the Snowflake provided a decent step up from the internal computer mic, just as I had been hoping.
you're looking for a sturdy USB mic that beats your computer's internal mic at an affordable price.
you want a mic with more flexibility in placement.
MSRP $79 - Blue Microphones - bluemic.com
A Cool Ball of Snow
The Snowball moves USB recording into serious mic territory. The folks at Blue have a lot of experience creating quality gear and they’ve put that knowledge into a very versatile package. The Snowball is a condenser mic about the size of a softball, with two elements that let you switch between cardioid and omnidirectional patterns (or more simply, “what’s right in front of it” or “everything around it”).
There’s also a middle switch position that pads the cardioid pattern down -10dB for louder situations (like mic’ing a loud singer or an amp). I noticed that the mic’s pivot was a little stiff at first, but after moving the mic up and down several times (with a dab of chapstick), the pivot became much smoother. You can use its tabletop mini mic stand, but the Snowball also has standard threads on the bottom for a regular mic stand, letting you get right up to an acoustic guitar or other instruments that are not at table height.
Rather than repeat a recording test of voice and guitar together, I decided to record guitar first, and then add a vocal track, each with the Snowball.
The vocal sound with the Snowball was nice – what I’d expect from a large diaphragm studio condenser mic. And like a condenser mic, it works best with a shock mount and a pop screen. Both accessories are available from Blue, but together would cost more than the mic itself. Other pop screens, of course, would also work with this mic and some cost less. The shock mount, though, is a custom fit. I’d suggest trying the mic right out of the box first to see how well it meets your needs.
Up close – say, a couple of inches – I heard some nice proximity effect that deepened my voice, along with producing an occasional pop on words beginning with “P.” Backing up about 6”, the proximity effect tapered off and the popping was gone as well.
For guitar, I mounted the Snowball on a regular stand to get it in the right place – the manual recommends close mic’ing at the neck-body joint, with the mic angled toward the sound hole. Other locations provide different sounds that balance the guitar sound with the pick-on-strings flavor. Again, the sound was clear, neutral and realistic.
The mic’s manual shows response as pretty much flat from 60Hz up to 4kHz, rising up to a peak at about 10kHz and dropping off again by about 15kHz. As hoped, I found this mic could be used to multi-track some decent demos.
you're looking for a versatile, good sounding USB condenser mic.
you want a mic that's more immune to popping and handling without buying accessories.
MSRP $159 Street $99.99 - Blue Microphones - bluemic.com
And For All The Rest
There are times when you’d prefer flexibility in your choice of mics – that’s where the Blue Icicle comes in. It’s a slim mic preamp with phantom power (for your condensers) and a gain knob (to knock the level down when the music gets loud) that works with just about any mic you might have, whether dynamic or condenser. To use the Icicle, plug the cable from your mic into one end, then run a USB cable from the Icicle to your computer.
The setup with the Icicle was like the two Blue mics – straightforward and easy. Likewise, turning on phantom power for a condenser mic is a breeze. The Icicle actually senses if phantom power is needed and the end of the Icicle glows to indicate that phantom is on.
I tried the Icicle three ways. First, it was mated to a studio condenser and a vocal track was recorded. That was easy and the high quality preamp kept noise low and clarity high. The second thing I did with the Icicle was to hook up a dynamic mic to record bass guitar played through an amp. Again, that worked fine and the Icicle’s gain control kept the mic from overloading the computer’s input level.
Finally, I tried running bass guitar through an active DI/preamp and into the Icicle. That was trickier, because the DI’s pre-EQ gain produced too hot of a signal that distorted considerably. I was able to succeed with the post-EQ setting of my DI box by turning the gain and master way down. The Icicle doesn’t seem to handle the higher signal level off of a DI box, even with its gain control turned down. Otherwise, the Icicle would be a quality tool for recording.
you want to use your own mics with a computer.
you need an interface that can handle a guitar as well as a mic.
MSRP $79.99 Street $69.99 - Blue Microphones - bluemic.com
Wrapping It Up
All three of these Blue devices are well-designed and easy to use – they interfaced simply with GarageBand and produced excellent sound. There are so many USB mics and computer interfaces these days that a comparison review isn’t really practical. What it comes down to is price, design, quality, and features. If the Snowball, the Snowflake or the Icicle meet your recording needs, by all means pick one up. Nothing stood out as an obstacle to success and all three should last quite a while with adequate care.