As a regular podcaster, with my show I Saw That Years Ago, microphones hold a bit of interest for me. Over the years I’ve tried a fair few, and when my old Zoom H2 developed problems recently I needed to quickly find a replacement.
My search led me to the Blue Snowball, which has been a perennial favourite of many people, and for good reasons. First of all it’s inexpensive, usually found going for around £50 online. Then there’s the fact that it’s actually quite versatile, with the higher end version (as reviewed here) offering three different recording modes – Cardioid, Cardioid with -10dB pad, and Omni-directional.
Aesthetically it’s also a very handsome device : the main body being spherical, hence the name Snowball, with grilled openings at the front and back. Manufacturer Blue increase this visual splendour by offering the Snowball in a number of colours including White, Blue, Green, Orange, Purple, and the rather fetching Chrome finish on this review model.
In the hand the ball-like microphone has a decent amount of heft, making it feel durable and expensive. It’s a little bigger than a tennis ball in real life, and once affixed to the included stand it can sit quite happily at chest height on a normal desk.
As the Snowball is a USB microphone there’s not much to do in regards of setup. I just plugged the device into my Mac, where it was instantly recognised and ready to go. Very handy for mobile podcasting, which is in fact where I went first.
Having a holiday booked, but shows still to record, I was pleased to find that the Snowball packed easily into a laptop bag without adding much in the way of bulk. The only real issue I had with it on my travels was the bemused look a customs lady gave me when I produced it from my luggage. At that moment it did resemble, with some accuracy, a thermal detonator from Star Wars. So I immediately demanded the release of Han Solo, and made my getaway on a passing baggage carousel.
Of course the main purpose of a microphone is to sound, rather than look, good. In this regard the Blue Snowball is again solid. As this is a condenser mic it’s very good at picking up a wide area of sound. On the standard cardioid setting, which was pretty much the only one I used, the Snowball proved sensitive enough to capture good quality audio while being positioned a foot or so away from my mouth. In fact I found the best results by having the mic sit to the right of my MacBook on a desk while I sat back in a chair. As I was travelling I didn’t want to have to pack a pop-shield, but this meant I couldn’t speak directly into the Snowball as it would invariably cause popping due to my sloppy microphone-technique.
“the Snowball proved sensitive enough to capture good quality audio while being positioned a foot or so away from my mouth”
The place I was staying was quite remote, and as such there was next to no background noise. This turned out to be important, as my home setup is in the heart of a city where it is very hard to block out the shouts and traffic noise of a metropolis, and the Snowball struggled more in this urban setting. Amidst my seclusion the sonic sphere proved a useful and sturdy companion. Recording was trouble free, and the amount of edits required due to noise or ‘plosives was acceptable. One thing I did find though, which is probably due to the entirely digital nature of the device, was that ‘plosives and pops did tend to completely obliterate the audio rather than simply make it grainy and harsh.
To hear samples of how the recordings went you can listen to these episodes of the show, all of which had my voice captured by the Snowball with no tonal alterations applied.
In general the audio seems clear and balanced, with maybe a slight over-emphasis on the higher registers. EQ would address this, and my only real concern is the sensitivity to background noise that a condenser mic brings. If you have a quiet recording environment, then the Snowball is a stout choice, especially for the price, but those with less sedate surroundings will find that noise spillage can be an issue. As an example you can try listening to the High Noon episode of the show, in which the first half is recorded on the Zoom H2 (which has always done a good job of cutting out background sounds), but was replaced by the Snowball for the second half.
While the audio isn’t hugely different, it did take more work to keep the background clean on the Snowball. This isn’t technically a problem with the device itself, but definitely an environmental factor that needs to taken into account if you’re thinking of buying one.
The Snowball is a popular microphone, and after spending a month or so with this model I can see why. Sound quality is good, and with a few tweaks in post production this can be brought up to impressive. There are a few idiosyncrasies that you’ll need to work around to get the best out of the unit. Using a pop shield is essential if you intend to speak directly into the Snowball, but this is true of many microphones, and you’ll need to take care with any changes in speaking dynamics to avoid sudden peaking in the audio, again not uncommon. Overall though the Snowball is dependable and versatile, especially as a travel recording solution. It won’t be replacing my SM58 and Focusrite preamp for my main home rig, as that handles noise a lot better, but the Snowball will be one of the first things in my bag for future trips.