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Getting a great recording into your computer requires a great microphone. Unfortunately, the amount of effort it takes to adapt a professional microphone for use with your computer can be a daunting task, often involving outboard sound cards, bulky pro-audio cables, and cumbersome microphone mounts.
To bridge the gap between professional microphones and the cheap mics that come with some computers or Webcams, Blue Microphones offers a plug-and-play USB microphone called the Snowball. Best known for its boutique line of high-end studio mics, Blue Microphones first released the Snowball in 2005, as its first consumer-level microphone, priced at $129. Since then, the Snowball has become a ubiquitous staple of podcasters and home recording enthusiasts, recognized as much for its unique retro design as its dependable and clean audio quality. As of August 2009, the Snowball can be found in multiple colors (black, silver, and white) and a new, lowered price of $99.
There's no mistaking the Snowball for any other microphone. For starters, it's literally shaped like a ball (making the included stand a requirement for use), measuring 4 inches in diameter. The bottom of the mic includes a threaded metal hole for attaching to the included tripod base, which has an adjustable height of 5 to 6.5 inches.
The front of the Snowball is beautiful, provided you don't mind looking at Blue's retro-inspired scripted logo all the time. Beneath Blue's chromed plastic logo is a wire mesh grille and an integrated foam wind screen that protects the Snowball's two 0.5-inch mic capsules. Closer to the top of the mic you'll find an LED that indicates when the Snowball is connected to your computer.
On the back of the Snowball you'll find the mic's single audio connection, which technically isn't an audio connection at all, but rather, a metal-reinforced USB port. While we can appreciate Blue's emphasis on simplicity when it comes to its single output design, an additional output for line out or headphone monitoring would have been a nice.
Also included on the back of the Snowball is a convenient three-position switch for the microphone's three recording modes (cardioid, cardioid -10dB, and omni). We'll talk a bit more about these recording modes in the next section. From a design perspective, it is slightly frustrating that modes are labeled "1 2 3" instead of offering any suggestion as to what each mode does. Because of this, we found ourselves consulting the manual repeatedly--even after weeks with the microphone--simply to recall the purpose for each mode.
Aside from just looking cool on your desk, the Snowball has a number of big and small features worth mentioning. Compared with the competition, the Snowball's greatest asset is the sonic flexibility offered by its two microphone capsules. In a product like the Mikey, Blue uses two similar capsules to achieve stereo recording. The Snowball, however, sticks to monophonic recording and dedicates the use of one capsule to an omnidirectional cardioid recording pattern (well-suited for a single voice or instrument), and lets the other capsule take in sound from all directions in an omni pattern. Users can switch between the two capsules to suit their recording needs, using the mode switch on the back of the microphone.
For those who aren't interested in all the technical details of the microphone, the Snowball's most appealing feature is its plug-and-play simplicity. No software drivers are required for use with either Mac or PC. The included desktop tripod stand and 6-foot, clear-coated USB cable couldn't be easier to set up. Once connected, Mac and PC users should be able to immediately spot the Snowball on their list of available sound input sources.
We feel that the Snowball offers a well-rounded set of features considering its $99 price tag, but there are a few extras we'd like to put on our wish list. Our first request on the list would be an option for direct monitoring and line-input. Since the Snowball already acts as an external USB audio device, why not slap a headphone jack and a line-input on the back to truly realize its potential as a portable, all-in-one recording tool?
We also wouldn't mind if Blue included some basic software tools for making recordings. The Snowflake does an excellent job solving the problem of how to get quality recording into your computer, but it leaves novices in the dark when it comes to capturing and sharing their recording.
When you boil it all down, the true test of any microphone is how good it sounds. Over the four years the Snowball has been on the market, users have shared both praise and disappointment on the microphone's recording quality--but mostly praise. To our ears, the Snowball's audio (in cardioid mode) is an indistinguishable alternative to outfitting a computer with a basic pro-audio USB sound card and a Shure SM58. For the majority of applications, this type of full, close-range sound is just what the doctor ordered, providing accurate sound with a wide dynamic range and a minimal amount of hiss.
The majority of complaints revolving around the Snowball tend to involve a misconception over what it promises to sound like. To save potential users any heartbreak, let's be clear that the Snowball is not a one-stop solution for creating a podcast or recording music. While the outside of the Snowball's packaging advertises the microphone as "great for podcasting," it is not a podcast studio in a box. The Snowball may solve the problem of the microphone and computer audio input, but all of the in-studio elements necessary for any kind of professional recording (mixing, audio compression, EQ) are still left to the user to figure out.
Let's also be clear that the Snowball is a monophonic microphone. It excels at recording single audio sources such as a voice or instrument, but in no way should it be your first choice for capturing realistic nature recordings or multiperson interviews that demand several microphones. For stereo recording, there are several affordable portable audio recorders better-suited to the task.
Blue Microphone's Snowball USB mic is a swanky-looking and sonically competent microphone that deserves the attention of every budding podcaster and amateur musician. There are a few extras it lacks, such as external inputs, direct monitoring, and recording software, but for $99, you're getting a whole lot of microphone for the price.