These past few days we've had the pleasure of putting the new Snowball USB microphone from Blue Microphones through its paces. We say pleasure, because it is without doubt a high quality piece of kit, but nothing less should be expected from a company that made its name manufacturing world renowned studio mics.
The Snowball itself looks like something out of Spaceballs with a touch of vintage chic thrown in for good measure. The bold company logo in gleaming chrome mounted on the grille is clearly a seal of quality and a statement of pride from Blue – and rightfully so – the Snowball sounds fantastic.
Admittedly, we didn't have high hopes for a USB microphone at first: "It can't be that great, it's not going though a preamp or a mixer, it'll probably sound dull and lifeless" we reasoned, but we were wrong.
The Snowball captured some fantastic midrange detail both with vocals and acoustic guitar. The sound was rich and full and vibrant and we never once struggled for more headroom or volume.
Being geeky knob-twiddlers here at TechEye, we thought we'd try out some compression and EQ on the recorded audio but there was very little room for improvement. The Snowball seems to naturally add a slight compression to the sound it captures anyway, but this is certainly to its advantage as a good multi-purpose microphone.
Speaking of which, what IS the Snowball for? Or, more specifically: who? The uncertainty arises because we can't imagine many serious amateur musicians or producers turning to a USB mic, less so one with a fixed sample rate (44.1kHz/16 bit). Despite the quality of the Snowball, a recording interface with XLR sockets will always offer greater flexibility and room for expansion. We imagine the vast majority of music tech people that are in the market for a new microphone already own a mixer or a sound card and are looking exclusively at XLR mics anyway – of which Blue makes many excellent examples.
So who else might the Snowball be pitched at? Well, Blue suggests using the Snowball for podcasting, video voiceover, instant messaging, interviews and conferences. These seem more likely applications for a quick, simple plug'n'play device like the Snowball, although Blue also suggests live music and environmental recordings as possible applications.
If it's a more practical purchase for budding podcasters and Skypers, then it's a rather large investment at £89.95 (RRP) and $99.95 at The Apple Store, considering some of the other products aimed at that market. It would make a fantastic portable recording device – BUT being a sphere slightly larger than an average man's fist means it won't easily fit into most laptop bags.
Perhaps the Snowball doesn't fit squarely into any established market because it's aimed at people whose needs fall somewhere between the pc desktop mic and the home studio market. Video bloggers, hobbyist musicians, or animators perhaps?
As far as high quality recording goes, using the Snowball is about as easy as it gets. It comes with a simple desktop tripod stand (although it can be mounted on any standard-thread mic stand) and there are no settings to adjust, no complicated inputs and outputs, or dials to turn.
It just has a simple USB cable and a switch on the back to flick between cardioid, cardioid with -10db pad, and omnidirectional pickup patterns. Unfortunately the omnidirectional setting on our review model captures sound sources directly in front of the mic noticeably louder than it captures sources the same distance behind it, so we're afraid Blue's claim in the Snowball press-release that, “Omnidirectional hears everything at equal volume from all angles” was simply untrue in this case. Nevertheless, the omnidirectional setting does provide a wide, open, natural sounding recording which is well suited to capturing a whole room and would certainly come in handy for recording meetings or jam sessions.
We rather suspect people are going to buy the Snowball on the basis of its looks and its heritage, but that's no bad thing - it lives up to both name and image. If you're looking to make great recordings without any hassle and fancy treating yourself, the Snowball could be exactly what you're looking for.