Microphones don’t have the panache of a video camera and no one seems to care what kind is inside their mobile device as long as it records. But because smartphones and tablets are increasingly being used to do recordings, it’s important that the microphone be efficient and competent. That’s why the $199.99 Blue Microphone’s Spark Digital StudioGrade Condenser Microphone should become the “go to” mic for the mobile world.
The Spark Digital is a condenser microphone: what this means to the layman is that its sensitivity is more responsive to sound waves than the popular and inexpensive dynamic type mics found about (think: Radio Shack). It is well suited for recording vocals as well as instruments (both acoustic as well as amplified). The Spark Digital derives its power, as it must, from either a USB port, if plugged into a computer, or from the Apple dock connector if attached to an iPad. No external power supply is needed.
Preparing the microphone for use may not seem important to read about, but by doing so a number of important features of the Spark Digital can be found. The mic stand’s size harkens back to the old-style mics as found on the Johnny Carson show and earlier, but be assured that the technology of the mic is cutting-edge and first rate. The microphone stand is designed so as to hold the mic between two beams that allow for angling the mic almost horizontally. But it’s the bottom of the mic that holds great importance, because it screws into a base that consists of a free-standing arrangement of interlocked cabling. Because of this, vibrations that the mic experiences are mitigated and absorbed — think of it as a “shock absorber” system. The included audio cable then plugs into the mic’s bottom and is routed to the audio input that will be used; if to a computer (Mac/PC), then the USB plug goes into a USB port; if to an iPad, then the dock connector is plugged in directly (Lightning connected devices require the Apple converter). Either way, the Spark Digital is now powered, as can be seen from the series of vertical LEDs on the mic’s front which are used to gauge adjustments made. There’s one additional end to the cable — it’s a headphone jack for listening to the audio feed in real-time as it’s being sent out.
With the mic’s label facing front, pressing in on the control knob activates Headphone volume, Mute (brief press) and Gain control (3 second press). Turning the dial increases/decreases the volume or Gain, with the LEDs going orange when Gain is in effect. But on the lower recess of the mic is a toggle switch that does a wholesale change of the mic’s characteristics: off it’s in Normal mode, but when on it’s in Focus mode. The Focus mode isn’t something that everyone “gets” right away as it physically changes the audio characteristics of the capsule’s input driver. The audio signal exiting the mic is unchanged (no “coloration” of the sound), with the frequency response curve having been altered to draw more attention to the mid-range and upper frequencies. This can provide greater clarity for the audio being recorded — I say “can” because how it sounds is highly subjective. But the mic’s ability to do this adds a significant value to control over the audio being recorded.
Using the Spark Digital and an iPad with a recording or audio editing app can make for a portable solution of high caliber. For example, I took it with me to the summer E3 video games event where I was doing recordings and afterwards transcribing interviews (the booq Viper courier laptop bag being an excellent padded choice for carrying it since the soft pouch it came with is useless for protection). Being practical, those interviews done on the show floor I did with the mic of the iPhone 5, but when I was interviewing two game designers for Warner Bros. Entertainment, we had a meeting room that allowed me to place the Spark Digital on the table between them. The difference in sound quality between the Spark Digital and the iPhone’s mic was like night and day — the Spark provided audio that was good enough to be used in a professional situation as far as I was concerned, this despite the ambient noise. Granted I “tweaked” the gain twice during the discussion, and had used the Focus mode to highlight the voices. I wished I could have used it for all the recordings I had done that day.
Later I connected the Spark Digital directly to my Mac’s USB port and used it with a voice dictation program. The Spark Digital conveyed my voice so clearly that the recordings with the $100 webcam mic that I normally used sounded like they had been done underwater in comparison.
I also loaned the Spark Digital to my cousin Manny who’s a musician and records his Bluegrass band in a studio in his home. He told me that the Spark’s recording quality was perfectly suited for acoustic instruments, for example how it picked up the plunking of his banjo playing without adding any sense of “brittleness” to it. He also said that he disliked how the Focus mode made the instruments sound and and after trying it once, never used it again (he said he preferred the wider “sound field” that the Normal setting gave). I asked if this was a quantitative assessment and he said no, it was subjective. But that’s valid too.
Bottom line: Blue Microphone’s Spark Digital Studio-Grade Condenser Microphone for iPad and USB is perfectly suited for recording podcasts and Internet recordings, but don’t count it out for recording the next Lady Gaga or street band. And for those of us looking to do recordings revolving around the portability and functionality of an iPad, it’s top notch.
Free online storage (temporary)/Cloud social sound platform use
Proprietary connection cable
Marshal Rosenthal is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and journalist specializing in technology, consumer electronics and pop culture.