Test Drive: A Pair of USB Microphones

by Steve Cunningham

Podcasting. Everybody and his uncle Bob is podcasting. Often podcasting is little more than remote recording, which we all do now and again. But beyond the actual activity of creating, editing, and uploading, podcasting is important to me because it represents an opportunity to engage in one of my favorite activities — checking out new gear! Woo-hoo!

This month we’ll look at a couple of affordable USB microphones that plug directly into your laptop. While they both were clearly designed with podcasting in mind, they’re also appropriate for remote recording in general. Let’s see how they fare when used to interview the owner of Honest John’s Used Car Emporium for a commercial campaign. Do they capture his sincerity well enough to air?

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BLUE MICROPHONE’S SNOWBALL

The Snowball is the latest in Blue’s series of microphones with a “- ball” suffix in its name (what’s next, the Eyeball?). Clever name aside, the white resin casing with wire-mesh grilles at front and rear contains two condenser capsules, one with a cardioid pattern and one that is allegedly omnidirectional (more about that later). No phantom power is required, as the Snowball gets its power from the USB bus. A threaded stand-adapter is set into the base, and the mic comes with a slick little table-top tripod stand, plus a USB cable for connection to a computer. A shock mount called the Ringer is available as an accessory, although its price is two-thirds of the mic itself. For desktop use it is not necessary.

Besides the USB port that is the microphone’s only connector, there is also a three-position switch at the rear. Position one activates the cardioid capsule, position 2 inserts a -10dB pad into the cardioid capsule’s signal path, and position 3 activates the omni capsule. No phantom power is necessary, as the mic gets its power directly from the USB bus; a red LED indicates that power is active.

Blue lists the Snowball’s overall frequency response as going from 40Hz to 18kHz, although by looking at the response curve it would seem this is plus or minus 6dB, with a presence peak at 3kHz in cardioid mode and at around 10kHz in omni mode.

The Snowball works with computers running Windows XP or Mac OS X without the need to install additional drivers — all you need is a free USB port. From inside your digital editing software the mic shows up as two identical input sources rather than as a single mono source (one source for each capsule). The analog-to-digital converters built into the microphone are fixed at 16-bit and 44.1kHz.

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