Great sound plus Focus Control in a budget-priced condenser
By Jon Chappell
Senior Editor, Harmony Central
Although still a relative newcomer in the microphone manufacturing arena, BLUE microphones has quickly established itself as a producer of quality microphones packaged in unique and strikingly stylish housings that make them unmistakably recognizable in studios and onstage. Their Bottle, Baby Bottle, Kiwi, and Dragonfly models have already gained acceptance among recording aficionados, and sit comfortably alongside classic models decades older and bearing revered German names.
With their new Spark, Blue continues its twin traditions of providing excellent sound in a polished package, but this time venturing into the entry-level tier of the mic-shoppers' market—which is great news for recordists on a budget. Like other Blue models, the Spark's capsule is segregated from the rest of the housing, following the company's signature design flair. But the Spark is not just a looker. It boasts great sound and includes a new twist in its circuitry: a Focus Control that can be selectively activated via a switch to produce a more focused sound. Included in the purchase price (under $200) are both a custom-designed shock mount and a pop filter. Completing the package is a classy wooden storage case. Let's see what's under the hood of this lowest-priced recording mic from Blue.
The Spark is a cardioid condenser microphone, so it's quite versatile and appropriate for almost any studio application. The diaphragm size is not specified, but it looks to be a little under 1", placing it in the mid-size category, and striking a nice utilitarian position between large- and small-diaphragm mics. It features Class A discrete electronics, which makes it a viable contender for guitars, drums, vocals, pianos, and horns.
When you lift the mic from its case and hold it in your hand, you're immediately aware of the mic's excellent build quality. Physically, the Spark is smaller than the larger, full-size Bottle mics in Blue's line, with a diameter about the size of a Red Bull can, but weighty and solidly constructed. The mic body is a matte-finished red with a recessed part at each end (in matte orange) connecting the capsule and stand mount. At either end of the mic body are the base—a thick, glossy-chrome-finished cup that surrounds the body and holds the mic to its mount—and the capsule mount, a dome that bookends the cup and creates a nice element of symmetry. The silhouette formed by the mic, from capsule to base, creates an interesting contour, and keeps the body from looking too cylindrical. If The Sharper Image sold mics, the Blue Spark would be on their catalog's cover, based solely on its industrial design.
The capsule follows Blue's signature "doll's head" look with a circular mesh enclosing the mic diaphragm. The mesh is a bright, glossy gold finish, and I found I could easily see the mic's orientation from a good distance away, based solely on the mesh's reflective quality—even when viewing it through the pop screen. Inside the mesh, you can see the diaphragm in a three-point suspension mount, with a generous cavity inside the mesh surrounding the suspended element. Positioning the mic is easy, partly because the mic is so easily handled in one hand, and because the mount allows you to move the mic itself to be quite close to the source, if necessary. This came in handy when I recorded a soprano ukulele that had a lovely, sweet tone, but not great projection abilities.
Must. Maintain. Focus.
New to the Spark is Blue's propriety technology called Focus Control—that, when engaged, reduces any overly prominent low-end frequencies and tightens up the overall sound. The effect is activated by a push-button on the mic's housing, so it's easy to A/B any sound source quickly to see if the Focus Control improves the sound or not. I found Focus helpful in a situation with a male R&B singer with considerable natural vocal gifts but less than perfect mic technique. The Focus Control seemed to smooth out the singer's irregular distances to the mic and reduce the intensity of the proximity effect common to all cardioids. More than just a bass roll-off switch (though it had a distinct impact here), the overall effect it produced was a more focused sound, as the feature's name implies. I found the Focus Control somewhat less significant on an airy soprano with a soft voice and consistent delivery, but I was grateful to have the option. It really does provide a choice of two distinct sonic signatures, each one unique and musically useful.
I used the Spark for several types of sessions, including the aforementioned uke recording, and vocal work with both a male R&B stylist and female children's singer/songwriter. The first thing you notice when working with the Spark is just how good it feels in your hands and how nicely scaled it is when put up to the mouth of a singer or aimed at the 12th fret of an acoustic guitar. It's a well-designed and balanced mic from the physical perspective, and, as mentioned, its mount allows the head to be placed quite near the source, unimpeded by its own hardware. The Focus Control can be discreetly engaged, and I was pleased that it employed silent switching so that my assistant could press the switch and not have it create an audible click in the headphones of the talent. The sound was uncolored and faithful—another nice surprise in so affordable a microphone. It was a reliable conveyer of varied sources, instrumental and vocal, producing a clear, finely detailed sound that was full and quite transparent in the mid and upper-mid registers. I really liked that it was not overly-bright and produced no perceptible midrange bump.
The Spark is typical for Blue, which is to say that it boasts impeccable build quality, stylish aesthetics, and a wholly professional presentation—complete with custom-built shock mount, pop screen, and wooden storage box. Attaching the mic to its mount and pop screen is a very satisfying motor-mechanical experience and shows the attention to construction in all its component parts. The sound is transparent and faithful, and its versatility makes it appropriate for so many applications. When you consider that you can own a Blue mic of this caliber for under $200, it's an amazingly sweet deal.