The Snowball: a high-end mic for my Mac

Lately I've been trying to build up some screencasts and found that the little RocketFish microphone I had was woefully inadequate. I had to doctor up the sound considerably with Audacity just to get it to come across reasonably well.

My friend Bob (who happily shares his marketing expertise) let me borrow his professional setup, complete with a Tascam US-122, a Sennheiser mic, filter and large desktop stand. He used to do professional voice-over work and after getting it up and running the difference was simply stunning.

Though I liked Bob's setup, it was a little too much for my modest needs. Since I'm not an audiophile or accoustics expert I just wanted something that approximated the sound quality of a professional setup in a nice little USB based package. I hit up the local Apple store and the gentleman that was responsible for high-end creative applications said some good things about the Blue Snowball USB Microphone. I jumped up to Amazon and bought one.

Enter the Snowball
The Snowball looks kind of like a, er, Snowball on a small tripod. All I needed to do was plug it in then drop into System Preferences / Sound, select the Input tab and then choose the Blue Snowball as my device. There wasn't much more to it than that.

As far as sound quality goes I couldn't tell the difference between it and the Tascam based setup I was using earlier. Again, I'm really just a layman when it comes to audio so to my amateur ears the Snowball sounded just as good.

The best part for me was that with the stand it sat between my keyboard and dual displays perfectly, allowing me to view what was on the screen during the screen casts without having to twist my head sideways to speak into the mic. Here's what it looks like while I'm using my Mac:

The Snowball's stand is slightly adjustable. The top of the Snowball hits 9 inches at it's lowest setting—which is what I use—and 10.5 inches at maximum extension. Just to round out (so to speak) the measurements, the ball itself is roughly 3.75 inches wide. If you are considering getting a Snowball grab a ruler and use those measurements to ensure it won't block your screen if you want to use it like I am. My Samsungs are set at their highest level and this just makes it.

This is a really nice piece of hardware; it feels extremely solid and comes with a high quality USB cable. The screencasts I've been working on suddenly got much better and my everyday uses for the mic have improved dramatically. When I made a call to a friend I speak to frequently on Skype and asked if he noticed a difference his response was "clearly".

That summed it up nicely.

Do you have a mid to high-end microphone setup for your Mac? If so, please drop a note with the specs into the comments.


Bob Ragsdale said...

I need another mic like a hole in the head. But that probably won't stop me from buying this one.

Korey and Kids said...

I'm trying to figure out a good reason why I need this microphone and cant. I might have to go with the "I just want it" excuse.

Keleko said...

I showed your tweet about it to a friend looking for a microphone, and he immediately bought it, too. You should ask Amazon for kickbacks!

Also, I'm BarbaricPenguin on twitter. Keleko wasn't available on twitter.

MPR said...

I use a Centrance MicPort Pro USB which allows me to plug on any of my higher-end mics like an Oktava or Schoeps (ha ha, maybe one day). It uses an XLR connector and can supply phantom power. Records 24bit/96kHz and has a headphone minijack built in for direct monitoring. What's not to like? Especially if you already have a small arsenal of XLR based mics.

BTW, I had a Blue Snowball as my first USB mic and thought it was a great mic too!

Bill Burkholder said...

Two great mics I've used over the years since the mid 1970's are the Shure SM58 vocal microphone, used by practically every legendary rock band at one point or another, and the Electro-Voice RE-20 broadcast microphone, used by the vast majority of radio stations. Both have low-impedance XLR outputs, so you have to connect them with a proper cable to something like the Griffin iMic, for USB input, OR to a microphone preamplifier compressor/limiter such as the Behringer Tube Ultragain Mic 200, for analog input.

I actually prefer working from an analog-output pre-amp comp/limiter like the Behringer, because it eliminates distortion and adds vocal warmth, compression, and the ability to handle a dynamic vocalist without fear of digital saturation distortion. Just as important, it reduces latency, the lag time between what you are saying, and the time the computer lets you monitor it.

In all fairness, the iMic and similar solutions usually offer an analog output for headphone or amplifier monitoring to avoid the latency issue, but I'd rather compress my signal and not just pre-amplify it. Compression is very important to the sound of a voice!

The Shure SM58 is about a $125 with cable. The EV-RE20 is about $375 with cable. The EV sounds the most natural. The SM58 sounds better for singers and anyone who needs to boost bass through a proximity effect (get close to it and it boosts the bass at 100 Hz by 6 db or so). It also has a "presence boost" in the midrange.

The iMic is about $50, and the Behringer unit is about $60.

An SM58 with a Behringer will set you back less than $200.00, and the things you can do with your voice and that setup are worth it. If you plan to be a professional narrator, I'd probably get the EV RE20 mic instead, and swap it for a pricey ribbon mic if you get rich!

--Bill Burkholder

redington said...

Samson makes a really nice USB mic as well, which can be found at a pretty affordable price. I've read that the USB mics are universally a little lacking for instrument recording, but I think they are fine for most folks. I have a non-USB Blue condensor which I like quite a bit, but I haven't used it nearly enough recently...

David Alison said...

@Keleko: BarbaricPenguin! That helps, thanks man. I actually signed up a little while ago for the Amazon affiliate program. If you click on the link I provided above I get credit if someone buys the item. It's my first attempt at monetizing this blog without it becoming a distraction to the content.

@MPR, Bill Burkholder, redington: Some great info in there - thanks!

alan said...

Pardon me for saying so, but...

Don't you find it a little ironic that you're trying to make money off of this little tidbit you're passing along...

...after taking a little money out of the pocket of the person who helped you out?

How much money did you save by buying it at Amazon and what would you do if everyone did as you did and no there was soon no one with such useful knowledge to turn to?

David Alison said...

@Alan: Ironic? Hmmm, no, not really. The person at the Apple store simply mentioned he had heard good things about the microphone, including the other that they had on display. He didn't have any first hand experience with the device. Apple charged $22 more than Amazon did for the same item ($99 vs $77). If the prices were closer I would have likely just purchased it from the Apple store but a 20+% premium for that little discussion was simply not warranted.

I on the other hand bought the item with my own money, installed it and took the time to put together this post. I've also answered a couple of first hand questions about it through e-mail and on Twitter.

Since I switched to Mac nearly a year ago I've posted over 150 articles on my Mac experience so that others could benefit from it. I have not done it for the money, I did it because I'm passionate about technology and the majority of the time I get my information on products and services because people have taken the time to write down their experiences - just like I'm doing.

My completely rough estimate is that I spent nearly 300 hours on this blog in 2008, many more hours if you count the time I spend responding to most of the comments and questions people send me. I do this because I really enjoy helping people.

To date I have not made any money on this blog. That may change over time and I'm seeing what happens with the Amazon affiliate program but given the investment I've made in time helping others I think I'm being more than reasonable about it.

Neil Anderson said...

Good review. I already have two of Blue's Snowball mics ... purchased through Apple's online store. When I buy more, I'll use your link.

Me, Myself & I said...

Good to actually hear from someone that bought this mic, I wanted to buy it some time back, but could only find sales pitches.

So yet more money will be invested ;)

David Alison said...

@Me, Myself & I: I've been really pleased with the performance of the mic so far. Sound quality is simply outstanding. The ONLY challenge is the height of the device; I wish the stand could be lowered just a tad more because it's tall enough that it can slightly block my screen. I may just hunt around for a lower mic stand.

Hendrik said...

I just ordered this mic based on your endorsement. Looking forward to using it.

I recently recorded a tutorial video for my iPhone app using my headset mic plugged into my 5D and the sound was pretty lousy. As if hearing my own voice recorded wasn't bad enough there were lots of mouth noises picked up as well as cable noise and background hiss. And soon thousands of people are going to watch the thing. Ugh.
Hopefully this mic will give me much better sound quality for my next attempt.

David Alison said...

@Hendrik: You won't be disappointed; I'm really happy with the Blue Snowball. It will provide deep, rich sound without a lot of the artifacts you get on cheaper mics. If you do anything live—I use it for Skype calls as well—your voice will come across great.

I do recommend that you pull your audio track out and "scrub" it with Audacity though. Just running a "compressor" pass on it will help reduce/remove most of the hissing you get when pronouncing words with S's in it and smooth out some of the variance you get from speaking.

Hendrik said...

Cool, thanks for the tips. I'll have much learning to do with video & sound editing. I used the new iMovie for this last project. The things it supports are super easy to use. But the limitations are pretty significant too.
I couldn't figure out for example how to pull out the audio, edit it externally and put it back in.

I own the CS3 Master Collection and will probably spend some time learning to use Premiere and Soundbooth (maybe After Effects, although I doubt I'll need that). I'll check out Audacity too though.

Hendrik said...

Hi David,
the Snowball just arrived. And I noticed that the input volume is very low. I read many complaints about this beforehand in reviews but lots of other reviewers didn't encounter this problem. I was hoping to be in the latter group.
Do you have this problem as well? Well, I am not sure how much of a problem it really will be, I can of course increase the gain later, but that sacrifices at least some amount of resolution / fidelity.
If I talk in my normal talking voice 30 cm away from the mic, the bars in the input level indicator don't go higher than 1/5th (with the input volume setting maxed out). Is that the same for you?

I did find posts about a high-gain firmware and downloaded that, but it won't install. I assume it is for older versions of the Mic only.

David Alison said...

@Hendrik: You may want to try playing with the Audio MIDI Setup application in /Applications/Utilities. That may give you a little better control over the input qualities.

I mention it because I had played with that when I was borrowing my friend's setup and that may have impacted my Snowball configuration. Worth a look.

Hendrik said...

Thanks for the tip. I tried that, but it doesn't give me any new options (apart from setting the sample rate).

So when you fire up Audio Recorder and speak at normal volume into the mic, how much of a response do you get from the level meter? For me it doesn't go beyond the first tick mark (1/6th).

David Alison said...

@Hendrik: I have the input volume set to 83% and the switch on the back of the mic set to #3. If I speak in a normal voice about 40cm away and directly into the mic the input level gauge hits tick #5 out of 15.

The sound that is actually recorded (in Audacity) come across clear and distortion free, though it does appear a little on the quiet side and sometimes I will amplify it using Audacity or iMovie (if that's where I'm doing post production).

Gwyn said...

I have exactly the same problem with low input level on the snowball (imac 2.66ghz).

Great quality but have to get way too close to the mic to get anything onto the bars. Any suggestions on how to improve gain?? Download from blue wont load either.


Glyn W

Hendrik said...

No, I never found a way to increase the gain. I just did it in post-processing and the quality was still fine that way.
I recommend the free Levelator tool for post-processing voice recordings. It is completely automated and gives good results.

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