Blue

Gear lust is one of the most common reasons for procrastination among recording musicians.

“I really need to work on my song. But I want to get high-end mic XYZ first, so it sounds amazing. And I can’t afford it just yet.”

Did that sound familiar?

Sure, many of your music heroes recorded at lavish studios equipped with only the finest gear. And top producers can sometimes pontificate about how a rare vintage microphone or wildly expensive condenser mic from a boutique maker was essential to the perfect vocal take.

However most of them didn’t start out that way.

You may have read about how ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’ by Eurythmics was recorded on a TEAC Portastudio in a hotel room. Annie Lennox’s famous lead vocal was captured with a humble Beyer stick microphone typically reserved for hi-hat. The track reached #3 in the UK charts in 1983, and the group’s career shot up like a rocket. But it was primarily talent, arrangement, production skill, and a great song that got them there.

The original Snowball is one of the key microphones that helps facilitate the podcasting and YouTube revolution.

Blue managed to set its performance high enough to satisfy the streaming-obsessed crowd, while keeping the price low. The combination of value that wasn’t possible just five years prior and really decent sound won over startup podcasters and aspiring YouTubers alike. They didn’t want one of those dirt-cheap desktop “computer mics” we’ve grown to hate, and couldn’t justify getting a pricey “radio mic” like the Shure SM7B or Electro-Voice RE20 either. The Snowball was and still is the goldilocks mic for a ton of content creators: just right.

Now Blue recognized the Snowball had professional features that the average solo podcaster, YouTuber or gamer would never use. Namely the Snowball has a three-way switch that allows you to do omnidirectional recording (picks up all the sound in the room), cardioid (sound from in front of the mic), and can give you a -10db pad (for recording loud sounds like drums).

Snowball iCE was born by removing omnidirectional capability as well as the -10db pad. These features were wasted for most applications outside of music recording and group podcasting. And by getting to the heart of what makes the Snowball great with the iCE, Blue was able to reduce the price around $20. Nothing huge granted, but even $20 is too much to spend on features you don’t need.

The iCE focuses on what we care about most: getting a good sound from sources directly in front of it. It has one capsule inside rather than two as with the original Snowball. That’s all that is needed to capture solo voice recordings. Take it from a person that has accidentally recorded a podcast in omnidirectional mode, simplicity is a plus. Snowball iCE doesn’t need that tiny switch that in the wrong hands just introduces one more variable to get wrong.

Like the Snowball and Yeti before it, the Snowball ICE records audio at 16-bit/44.1kHz. That’s plenty for your average YouTube or streaming production. You’ll need to pay a lot more for the capability to do 24-bit audio as you can do with a pro audio interface plus XLR mic or Yeti Pro.

For the price it’s a great sounding mic too with a 40 –18 kHz frequency response. That’s in line with what humans are capable of hearing and more than enough for recording your voice.

Blue is known for super cool product design and of course this is what attracted so many to the Snowball in the first place. It’s about as big as a softball and that future-retro grill and logo at the front make it about as adorable as a microphone can be.

The Verdict

Blue’s Snowball iCE takes everything we love about the Snowball, and throws out the fancy features to achieve an even more attractive price point. If you you’re itching to start a YouTube channel, new podcast, or are tired of gaming with a cumbersome headset and don’t have much to spend, start your journey here. If you simply need a mic for Skype or Twitch, Snowball iCE is more than enough.

blue-nessieThe designers at Blue are experts at injecting cool-factor into their mics. And they’ve really topped themselves with the future-retro styled Nessie. Like the fabled sea beast of Loch Ness, it has an intriguing angled neck worth admiring.

It’s not done this way just for the sake of aesthetics. It’s a very practical design.

The “head” of the mic can be tilted for a myriad of applications such as instrument micing and capturing overhead ambience. Like other Blue products it has

Blue calls it’s headphone output “zero-latency” and I found it too indeed to be very responsive and without noticeable delay. The headphone input is hidden away at the back, directly above the mini-USB port.

The base of the Nessie is a giant headphone volume dial. Just above that is a large mute button. While handy and absent from many competing mics, due to the position and size it may be prone to accidental activation.

To eliminate extra time setting up, the pop filter and shockmount is built right into the mic. This is a huge plus for recording on location and helpful to beginners as there are two less items of concern to think about.

Unique Audio Processing Settings

Nessie’s three recording modes are different from the standard polar pattern switching you might expect. It sticks with the cardioid pattern and tunes the sound for the application. One position is optimized for rich vocals, another for detailed instruments, and a raw audio option is there for experienced producers who prefer to make adjustments in post-production.

This is an interesting step toward allowing the hardware to get the right sound, rather than expecting users to find the right EQ curve via software. If you’re a beginner when it comes to recording, this is welcome, but experienced individuals may prefer the more advanced setup the Yeti provides, with it’s three polar patterns.

The Sound

The sound may not rival vintage tube mics but it’s definitely more than good enough for podcasting and recording demo music tracks. In the right hands you could make a hit record with the Nessie. Onboard audio processing does help achieve a serviceable voiceover sound but I prefer the Yeti for this. The real strength of the Nessie is capturing instruments and female vocals because of the character of the small capsule condenser inside.

The Verdict

This is a great choice for budding musicians but it didn’t quite cut it for a deep male radio voice. The Nessie makes it difficult to capitalize on the proximity effect, which is speaking very close to the mic for a bass-rich sound.

The swivelling head allows for some creative positioning options, which the Yeti and Snowball cannot do, so beside the uber-cool design this is what makes the Nessie stand out.

The Snowball ICE is a stripped down version of the earlier released Snowball.

Although the Snowball is very affordable it includes features many solo podcasters and gamers will rarely if ever use. Blue recognized this and released ICE to shave down the MSRP.

If you’re a musician the choice is easy. The Snowball has an omnidirectional cardioid setting that allows you to pick up everything surrounding the mic, not just sounds in front of it. This can be used creatively to record room ambiance or to capture several instruments at once. Additionally it has a cardioid with -10dB pad setting so you can record loud guitars, drums, etc. These features are absent from the ICE.

For podcasters who want to do interviews or record commentary with more than one person speaking, the original Snowball is still the way to go since it has omnidirectional capability.

Gamers opting to ditch their headset are the only audience I recommend the Snowball ICE to. The original Snowball’s switching features are useless in this application.

Even if you hardly use omnidirectional mode or the -10dB pad, it’s well worth the small premium. Plus it will give you room to grow, as you never know if a friend might want to join in or if you’ll become interested in new recording methods as you gain experience.

Snowball and Snowball ICE sound the same and record at the same bit rate, 16-bit, 44.1kHz. For more detail on sound quality and features common to both USB microphones, read my review of the Snowball.

Oddly, Amazon.com is doing its own thing and has priced the ICE above the Snowball, at least at the moment. Unless the ICE is at least $10 cheaper, there’s no reason even those with the most basic needs should choose it over the Snowball.

For such a small, inexpensive USB mic Blue makes lofty claims about the Tiki. In Intelligent Speech Mode it minimizes background noise. In Natural Recording Mode it balances levels from various sources such as vocals and acoustic guitar.

While this seems like godsend on paper, anyone who‘s applied noise gates and various filters to accentuate sounds is better tuned to the reality. When you gain one advantage via heavy tinkering you usually do it at the cost of another.

I found the audio quality in Intelligent Speech Mode to be below average due to internal DSP processing which rendered it dull and muffled. While this mode is designed for use with Dragon NaturallySpeaking or Skype, it ironically crippled speech recognition capabilities.

Natural Recording Mode faired better however the processing to make various instruments equal in volume wasn’t pronounced enough to place this above solutions such as Samson’s excellent Go Mic, which I reviewed here. Besides, most people are picking this up for its Intelligent Speech Mode.

One reason it can’t see serious podcasters or musicians using this is due to the awkward mic placement. Granted condenser microphones are adept at picking up distant noises but it’s awfully low to be speaking or singing into. This lowers proximity effect so the deeper frequencies in the voice won’t be as pronounced.

Another fatal flaw is the way the Tiki plugs into the USB input. The USB connection is oversized, putting unnecessary stress on the input of Apple laptops particularly. The convenience of doing away with cables that run to the device is clever on paper but again real-world application isn’t so hot. If you value your hardware you’ll be using a USB extension cable and that defeats the purpose of the design.

Despite the gripes if you want to record rough music AND use Skype and don’t have much money to spend the Tiki is a decent solution as it’s a jack-of-all-trades. Still, the gimmick-free Go Mic is a better bet.