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The Snowball

Blue Microphones introduces a novel USB-powered mic that sounds terrific By Frank Moldstad

Blue Microphones, creator of such noteworthy professional recording microphones as the Dragonfly, Bottle and Kiwi, has now introduced an entry-level mic so cute that my wife wants one. I should add that shes not normally interested in such things.

But this one, called the Snowball (MSRP $159), is a small white orb that plugs straight into a computer with a USB cable. This makes it ideal for field recording on a laptop, and it works with either OS X or Windows XP. I tried it on both platforms, using GarageBand on a Mac and Sound Forge on a PC.

I didnt know quite what to make of the Snowball at first, to be honest. Given Blues reputation, was this a radical departure into a cheap Fisher-Price-style product? Ive never used a microphone with a USB cable, and the mics novel appearance had me wondering. But once I plugged it in, I found the quality to be remarkably good clear, present and full-bodied.

The Snowball is a condenser mic, a design often preferred for recording because of its smooth frequency response and ability to pick up transient sounds. But unlike most condenser mics, the Snowball does not require standard phantom power, being bus-powered from either a USB 1.1 or 2.0 connection. The Snowball also handles A/D conversion internally, fixed at the 44.1 kHz /16-bit CD standard.

The Snowball has several other features that increase its versatility. One is an included tripod, which makes the Snowball look a bit like Robby the Robot from ''Lost in Space.'' But its invaluable for positioning the Snowball, not to mention that without it the Snowball would roll away. The tripod holds the mic at a perfect desktop speaking height. Although the tripod height is not adjustable, the mic itself is able to pivot up and down to find a good angle.

Another noteworthy feature is a three-position switch on the back for selecting either cardioid mode, cardioid mode with a -10 dB pad, or omnidirectional mode (sound clips below). This gives it flexibility for multiple miking situations.

Cardioid, the first position, is the standard front-address mode found in most microphones, used for ordinary speaking levels. The second position is cardioid with a -10 dB pad, which allows the mic to handle higher sound pressure levels without distorting. This is useful for recording amplified instruments -- or screaming people. Finally, theres the omnidirectional switch position, which allows the mic to capture a 360 degree sound field. This would be handy for recording a choir, a group of people speaking or an acoustic trio, although the level is still strongest from the front position.

No drivers were necessary to connect the Snowball on either the Mac or PC platforms. But once its plugged in, you must make the Snowball the preferred audio input or you wont hear anything.

In Mac OS X, this is done by opening System Preferences from the Apple menu and double-clicking the Sound icon (the little speaker under Hardware). On the Input tab, the Snowball should be highlighted as the input source instead of any sound cards or the Macs Line In port. Once Id done this, I launched GarageBand, opened the Audio/MIDI Preferences menu and selected the Snowball as the preferred input device for Track One. It was instantly recognized and ready to record. Levels were adjustable in System Preferences. I recorded a sample narration in GarageBand to demonstrate the mics -10 dB pad in action, below.

 To play a QuickTime file demonstrating the Snowball's -10 pad, recorded in GarageBand, click this link: sno_pad.mp3 
I tried to enable the Snowball in Apples Logic Pro 7 but was unsuccessful in selecting the Snowball as an input source, apparently because I was using a computer with OS 10.3.9. Apples new Tiger OS (10.4 and above) has a new Core Audio feature called the Aggregate Device Editor. The explanation for this, according to the Tiger manual, is that ?Logic cannot access devices that offer only an input, and therefore cannot use the digital input. On systems with Mac OS X 10.4 or later, you can work around the issue by creating an aggregate device that uses the I/O from both available audio devices on your system.

Then it was on to the PC, where I successfully recorded into Sound Forge 8 with the Snowball. The procedure was similar open Sounds and Audio device in the Control Panel, select the Audio tab, and click on the Snowball as the preferred recording device.  Levels could be set via the Volume tab. In Sound Forges Audio Preferences tab, I had to select Microsoft Sound Mapper as the preferred recording device (didnt see any reference to the Snowball here), but it worked just the same. I recorded a clip in Sound Forge to demonstrate the Snowballs Omnidirectional mode, below.

To hear a file recorded in Sound Forge demonstrating the Snowball's Omni mode, click this link: sno_omni.mp3
I was also able to record with Cakewalks SONAR 5 using the Snowball, by selecting ?USB Audio Device ( 1, in, 0 out) from an audio track in SONAR.

The Snowball produces a detailed and high-quality sound, and is a great choice for desktop podcasters or field recordists. It is built like a tank of strong plastic with a metal grill, and should be able to withstand a lot of abuse.

The Snowballs sound is infinitely better than most Lavelier or handheld field mics, and it has a much a much better dynamic range than is typically found on those types of mics. In addition to the tripod that comes with it, the Snowball will screw right into most mic stands, or even a boom. Although I didnt try the Snowball out on instrumental sources, the manual even suggests trying a pair of Snowballs out as drum overheads. With specs that range from 40-18,000Hz, I wouldnt doubt that with the -10 dB pad engaged, the Snowball could hold its own on drums, guitar amps, or other instruments. It certainly has the clarity.

With all its attributes, the Snowball is a great little mic. The odd shape has a 50s retro appeal that definitely grows on you, and its utilitarian nature and smooth sound quality make it a winner in a category where it really has few competitors. With the caveat that on the Mac, youd be advised to upgrade to Tiger for maximum flexibility, this comes highly recommended.

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Related Keywords:Blue Microphones, Snowball, microphone, USB, condenser, recording, OS X, Windows XP


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