The Snowball Microphone
Issue: 7.6 (September/October 2009)
Author: Dave Mancuso
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IN BRIEF Product Snowball Microphone USB Manufacturer Blue Microphones Price Approximately $95.00 (Amazon) Contact Info http://www.bluemic.com/consumeraudio/microphones.html Pros Great sound, affordable price for a microphone, one of the best USB microphones on the market Cons Large size awkward to transport, not quite as good a sound as the next step up, a mixer with a good traditional microphone. Rating (1.0-5.0): 4.2
Most developers contemplate podcasting at some point. The ability to put a conversation out there about your product or your company (or even your development philosophy) is very attractive. The options for production are many and well established, but the key component to making a good podcast has always been audio quality. The first episode of many podcasts have terrible audio, almost unlistenable in some cases. Usually the audio quality increases progressively by the third or fourth episode and listening becomes much more easy. The microphone is usually the key. Microphones can be very expensive, costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars. A podcaster needs something simpler (and less expensive). Blue Microphones Snowball claims to be the best solution.
Blue makes a number of microphones for professional use. The Snowball is a USB version of their technology, so it plugs into your PC without a mixer or other adapter equipment. In addition, it gets its power from the USB port. It's very difficult to translate USB power into a microphone with good gain and audio characteristics. High quality condenser microphones usually require "phantom power" to operate, but the Snowball is a condenser mic using bus voltage from the USB port.
Setting up the Snowball is a pleasure. Your best bet is to buy the microphone bundle, which includes the stand with fold out tripod legs. The tripod is very sturdy. It needs to be, because the Snowball is the size and shape (and weight) of a softball. It's rumored that the designers developed this form factor intentionally from its beginning design phases. It's definitely a tabletop device. It could be easily used with several people around a kitchen table if you chose. The included USB cable is a tough, high quality braided cable that's six feet long. This gave me a good deal of latitude for locating my PC so that it wasn't in the way. For podcasting, it's difficult to get a good conversation going if you're literally talking around (or over) a computer.
Once the Snowball is plugged into a computer, it's usually recognized by any PC with Windows XP or newer, and by any Mac. I usually check the computer's sound setting to make sure that the Snowball is selected for sound input. Recording can be done in any program, including the freeware application Audacity.
The Snowball has three sound settings, selected via the small switch on the back of the mic. The omnidirectional setting works well for a group of people stationed around the microphone, as long as they're less than four or so feet away. The voices are clear, and the audio sounds fairly full (not thin or tinny). Recordings are definitely usable for a podcast. The second setting is hypercardiod (somewhat more unidirectional than omni). This would be more useful for a single narrator or recording a musical instrument. In my tests, the Snowball once again provided good sound. The audio was clear without being thin. It wasn't as full or vibrant as a studio microphone, but those microphones are several hundred dollars (on up to thousands) and are used with mixers costing even more. The Snowball's audio was very good quality for the price, and certainly acceptable studio audio in any case.
The Snowball's third setting is the same hypercardioid pattern as the second, but it drops the audio gain 10 decibels lower. This is a true studio setting, for an announcer speaking just a few inches from the mic. It handles up close recording much better than the second setting. This was the original intention of the Snowball, and Blue made the louder second setting especially for podcasting demands. In fact, the louder second setting used to be provided via a firmware update from the Blue website. Any Snowball you buy now should already have this firmware update.
Once I have a recording in my software program of choice, I usually tweak the audio a bit to get the highs out and make it a touch deeper. This makes the recording more well-suited for podcasts, and it gives the audio the sound of a much more expensive setup.
The Snowball is a good value, but its main drawback is portability. For those users who need a more compact solution, the Snowflake is available. It's a small mic that folds into its stand to make a small case the size of the palm of your hand. The USB cord stores inside the case (although it's a tricky fit). Be aware that the Snowflake's recording quality is a bit thinner than the Snowball. It's acceptable for the road, but at home or the office, the Snowball is a better bet. One advantage of the newest Snowflake model is an attached, good quality video camera. The Snowball has no such feature, but that's not its intention. Another option for the size issue is the Snowball's closest competitor, the Samson CO1U. The Samson, however, doesn't seem to come with a collapsible stand, so its small size is somewhat negated by its complete setup.
Conversely, if you want to go a step up (and if you get into recording, most audiophiles eventually do), you can look at a regular microphone with a mixer like the M-Audio. The M-Audio provides your USB connection for the microphone, and your sound mixing options become much more widespread.
For a simpler setup though, the Snowball is the way to go.
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