The Blue Spark Microphone
You know In-Dev reviews is starting to take off when we get pre-release goodness to review! This time, we have the eagerly anticipated Spark microphone, a solid-state, fixed cardiod condensor mic from Blue, one of the most renowned and respected microphone companies in the industry. While many of their products easily break the four digit mark, the Spark’s ask is a head-turning $200, which makes it the least expensive professional microphone Blue offers. There is some stiff competition in this class and price range, including the AKG Perception 220, MXL V88, and countless low cost, high value Chinese made offerings, such as the Studio Projects B1 and C1 models, or the Apex 480. Even Blue’s own Bluebird microphone is not too far off.
Blue has one of the widest product ranges out there, offering everything from items geared toward the home-studio enthusiast, like the inexpensive Icicle preamp or Snowball USB mic, to truly boutique grade legends, like $6000 Blue Bottle microphone, and a host of other professional microphones at prices in between. The Spark looks like it’s designed to be the new entry in the latter category, and to be honest, the highly stylized presentation had me a little dubious at first. But having put it through its paces a bit, I’m happy to be able to report back that it’s actually quite good, if not (at least in my opinion) exactly what Blue makes it out to be.
Design and Build Quality
Seeing as most of my major qualms with the Spark revolve around its presentation, I figured we’d get this out of the way first. Before anything else, I’ll just go on record that the Spark is beautifully built. It has a surprising heft and weight to it for it’s size, and the construction is clearly quality from top to bottom, both for the mic itself and for the included shock-mount and form-fitted metal pop filter (which, unlike most other pop filters, actually screws onto the back of the case, guaranteeing perfect placement every time). The bright orange color and textured hard plastic finish of the body itself would not have been my first choice, but that’s hardly a show stopper.
From the second you open the box, however, the Spark’s highly stylized presentation hits you like a ton of bricks. The 50’s cartoon style of both the packaging and the manual feels lifted straight from Fallout 3 (whether intentionally or not), and while fun, takes away from the professional aura of the piece a bit. The purple prose and recording-for-dummies approach of the product manual is a little off-putting, as is the need to glorify a high-pass filter by calling it the “focus control.” This is not like the dark vs. warm settings or sides on something like the MXL V67i or the Crowley and Tripp Naked Eye. This is a simple high-pass filter, as Blue’s own comparative frequency graphs provided in the manual will attest to. And to market it as a unique feature that gives you two completely different characters is misleading. I would much rather have had a well labeled switch like most every other mic than have to remember whether in or out is on or off.
Once you get past the layering, however, and get to the mic itself, its class and pedigree is undeniable, especially given what a cheap date the Spark is. I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but the one outrageous claim they make in the manual that I have to agree with is that, as a singer, I always feel sexy singing into a Blue microphone. You can’t help but feel special when you’re singing through an all metal, custom fit pop filter with the name Blue emblazoned on it in all it’s retro glory. The Spark, like every other Blue microphone I’ve ever sung into, makes me feel like Dean Martin, and my singing edges just a little closer to that level of greatness as a result.
Sound Quality and Tone
Ultimately sound is always going to be the real meat of the matter, and this is where the Spark will live up to to its name. Despite Blue’s own assertion that the Spark is a largely uncolored mic, I found it be unusually colored for it’s class. The Spark is just that: a bright, highly saturated, somewhat aggressive sounding microphone replete with top end sparkle. It can and will fundamentally alter the sound and character of most sources you use it on, but as long as you recognize this, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Spark produces an undeniably desirable sound. Even in cases where you decide a different mic is more appropriate, it’s not because the Spark sounded bad. It’s actually a surprisingly versatile mic given how far off of neutral it’s voiced.
Given the Spark’s inherent depth of color, however, proper preamp matching is important. Things can get a little too saturated with the wrong preamp. I had the best results using neutral to slightly dark or warm of neutral preamps, like my Mackie Onyx pres or my Grace Designs M201. Especially with the latter, the detail retrieval the Spark proved itself capable of was really impressive. Home studio owners with fairly high noise floors will have to be sparing with their gain controls, however.
Having already established that the focus control is merely a high-pass filter, unless you have ambient noise you need to get rid of, or really want a nasally, bright sound, I’d stay away from it. The Spark, as I’ve said, is already a very bright, aggressive microphone, and, at least for my tastes, I almost always want the low end there. The rich, shimmery voice that makes the Spark so special to begin with thins out and starts to become grating with the high pass filter, ahem, I mean “focus control” engaged.
I am undeniably biased, but in my opinion the Spark really shines brightest on vocals. Again, keeping in mind that it does have a unique and less-than-subtle color, this mic can work beautifully on a fairly wide range of voices. The high-mids may be a little too pronounced for those with a more treble-heavy timbre (a.k.a. the Gretchen Parlato school of modern female Jazz vocalists), but I was extremely pleased with the results on my own voice, and I imagine the Spark’s tone would translate well to most similarly round voices. The Spark has all the right gestalt for a front and center microphone, and it’s probably the cheapest mic I’ve ever tried that I’d feel comfortable using for a lead vocal recording. Just be careful not to get to close to the capsule, as the included pop-filter, while doing an excellent job of not muffling the source, does not cut harsh transients as well as other filters I’ve used.
One could easily be misled into thinking that the Spark is indeed yet another reasonably high quality utility mic at this price range, given how many sources it sounds excellent on. The Spark is a far cry from a “what you hear is what you get” type of mic, but so far I’ve yet to get it to sound bad. The tone may not always be what you’re looking for, but in my experience, once you’ve familiarized yourself with its voice, the Spark will behave fairly predictably based on your expectations. Its natural color will make most instruments sound fatter and a little treble rich, and as long as you know that up front, there are few sources I can think of that the Spark couldn’t be ideal for in the right situation. It’s worth noting that there are a number of good multi-pattern large-diaphragm condensors at this price point that are considerably more neutral, and hence suitable for more applications. That said, all price considerations aside, the Spark is a useful tool to have in your arsenal.
There are many respectable microphones in this price range, but the sound of the Spark is essentially unique for its budget. It’s not clearly better than its competition, because I’m not sure it really has all that much competition. Simply put, I have not heard another mic in this price range that has this kind of tone and voice. The closest comparison I can think of is the Rode NT-2A, which is a fantastic microphone in its own right, and was actually the microphone I used for the vocals on my first album. At $200 for a mic of this character, the Spark may well be the only game in town. And when you place the Spark in the larger hierarchy of microphones, it boasts detail retrieval and sound quality that vastly exceeds its diminutive price. A number of the subtleties that distinguish a truly great mic from a good one are present on the Spark, and that too is a feat you’ll be hard pressed to match for a similar ask.
The Final Verdict
Once you get past the somewhat kitschy feel of the packaging and literature, you’ll realize that this is a phenomenally good sounding microphone for its price. Especially for lead instruments that you want to cut through a mix and stand out and shine, the Spark is easily the best choice you’ll find for $200 based on my experience with the competition. If you are putting together a recording setup on a budget, and you need one microphone that can add a little something special to nearly everything you throw it at, look no further than the Spark.
About the Recordings: There are a number of competing schools of thought when it comes down to how to design the perfect preamp or microphone shootout. Converters, EQs, compressors and other pieces of outboard gear are fairly straightforward because you can simply run the same sample through each piece of gear you’re testing, but mic preamps, interfaces and microphones are a little more problematic. Ideally you want all your competitors recording the exact same source using the exact same ancillary equipment simultaneously, but that’s usually impossible. I’ve seen some shootouts simply mic their monitors playing back the same clip, and while that certainly helps to eliminate performance variables, I don’t think it really gives you a true and accurate sense of what a microphone or pre actually does on a given source. So I’ve opted to simply record three different takes of the same short clip for each given sample, using the exact same settings and gain for guitar, and in this case using the same Onyx Blackjack preamps and converters attenuated to the same gain, and doing my utmost to maintain a consistent performance on vocals. There are definitely some slight variations, but most everything that can really affect the sonic signature – gain, tone, EQ, etc – was kept consistent.
The Blue Spark’s “focus control,” or glorified high-pass filter, was disabled for all recordings, as was the Shure KSM-44’s high pass filter, in keeping with the parameters of my prior microphone shootouts. The KSM-44’s pickup pattern was set to cardiod to match the Spark’s.
Clean Guitar: This was recorded using an Epiphone Supernova played via a Marshall MG15CDR studio amp and recorded into a Mackie Onyx Blackjack recording interface. All reverb and other effects were disabled, all tone controls were set at neutral, the amplifier’s gain was attenuated at 75%, and the Onyx preamp gain was attenuated at line level. Mogami Gold TS and XLR cable was used for all interconnects.
Overdrive Guitar: Same as above, except gain and volume were both set at 50% for the MG15CDR’s overdrive mode.
Male Vocals and Spoken Word: Using the same Blackjack interface (with preamp gain set to 30) and Mogami Gold XLR, I sang a clip from the as-yet-unreleased song The Enlightened Paige, a piece I wrote for Wire Spoke Wheels’ upcoming debut release: After The World Ends, and spoke a short introduction to the two mics.
Dev is a professional jazz-fusion composer, singer, sound engineer and front man for the band Wire Spoke Wheels, living and operating in beautiful Bushwick, Brooklyn. He’s also co-founder and co-chairman of Frost Audio, a small Michigan based audio company specializing in high performance cables and loudspeakers, all hand-made in the USA. He’ll be releasing his next studio album, Tears of Men, in early 2011. To learn more or hear his work, check out www.devavidon.com