Earlier this year, Blue Microphones updated their “Spark Digital” condenser microphone for compatibility with both PC/Mac and now Lightning-based iOS devices, giving budding artists a simple, entry-level tool they need for a studio sound at home, or on the go.
USB condenser microphones and consumer mobile recording were all the rage at NAMM Show and other creative events over the past 5 years. Blue Mics believes their Spark Digital will deliver the “same performance and detailed audio found in professional studios”, elevating beginning artists to the “next level of home recording”.
Sounds promising… but does it also talk the talk?
Everything you’ll need to start recording is in box, with minimal assembly required. The microphone body easily screws into the base shockmount, and from there a single connection below bridges the Spark Digital to either a desktop, laptop, or compatible iOS device and headphones via the appropriate cables. Also included is a soft carrying bag and owners manual.
As always, Blue didn’t skimp on design. The desktop stand is both stylish and sturdy, while allowing enough room below the mic to route the USB cabling. The shockmount, however, is underwhelming and noisy at times, which I’ll cover later in this review. A pop filter is not included, and available for separate purchase through their customer service. Without it – watch those “P”s.
Most of your controls are right at your fingertips. On the front sits a glowing knob that adjusts the microphone gain and your headphones. Both settings are married together, but even with the knob turned all the way down, a full signal is still sent via USB, so this is more of a volume control.
Pushing on the button mutes the mic, but you cannot hear playback when enabled. Although connecting your cans directly into the Spark ensures latency-free monitoring, the output has a noticeable hiss underneath. Plugging your headphones into the system instead, while cleaner, would be jarring to listen to because of digital conversion lag. The actual recording does not have this hiss, but I found myself switching between Spark and laptop after takes to ensure a quality recording.
Now for the “Focus” control on the back. Simply put, while ON, this is a high-pass filter starting at 100 Hz. In the the OFF position, there’s about a 3 dB bump @ 90 Hz for a “punchier low-end” advertised in the manual. Overall, this mic has a very colored characteristic, which I’ll cover next.
The Spark Digital shares the same capsule and components as its original analog brother, replacing the XLR innards with a USB converter housed inside the same body. It features the same cardioid pickup pattern, focusing in on whatever is directly in front of the mic element, and rejecting most information from surrounding angles. The DAC converts at a 44.1 kHz sampling rate, by 16-bit depth, which is a common standard for music listening, however most “studio-grade” recording is captured at a much higher specs. While 44.1 may be satisfactory for entry-level voice work, higher bit rates are more crucial when recording a wide variety of instrumentation.
Looking at the frequency response, this mic comes with character. Although it shouldn’t be used for flat reference recording, these curves at least allow for smooth and present vocals to immediately sit into a mix. The manual states the Spark Digital has a 32 dB adjustable gain, but like most USB condensers I still found myself almost kissing the mic to get an achievable voice-over, plus cranking it up ~10 dB in post. One quirk is my mic still sends a full signal to my system regardless of where the knob is turned, which may be a bug on my end. The fact remains that USB voltage can only drive a condenser mic so far, so staying close to the element is key when using the Spark.
Anyway, enough jargon. Check out these raw, unsweetened samples and decide for yourself:
I brought up the shockmount earlier because it’s a let down. Despite having a stylish and simple design, the shockmount is only effective if the mic stays perfectly perpendicular, without any handling or movement immediately around it. The rattling you hear appears to be the gap between the mics screw threads and the mounts bottom surface not making a complete seal, and I hope this is a quirk with just my unit. Shockmounts are meant to isolate the mic from handling noise, not create it.
The low end on an acoustic guitar may be a bit muddy, so you may need to tinker with mic placement and maybe even the Focus switch so it doesn’t overpower the track. Overall, it plays nicely with guitar, but because power output on the mic is limited by USB, you need to get up close.
When connected to a Lightning-based iPad or iPhone, iOS immediately recognizes it as an input device. Free recording apps like TASCAM’s “PCM Recorder” work well, with little discernible quality difference. Monitoring through the Spark’s headphone output still has the introduced hiss. “It just works”, but whether you’ll actually be using an iDevice to handle your home recordings is a whole different argument.
As far as USB condensers go, the Spark Digital is a fine choice for budding creatives: with its sound quality, flexibility, and ease of use. While it does have room for technical and structural improvement, for a $200 price point, this can at least make a good gift for someone just entering the world of home digital recording. Blue Microphones’ Yeti Pro is also worth checking out, featuring both XLR and USB connectivity, switchable pickup patterns, and higher recording quality options. Overall, we enjoyed playing with the Spark Digital, and look forward to what’s next from Blue.