The first thing I warn people who are getting into podcasting is that it's a slippery slope. You start out with a simple mic and produce your show in GarageBand and the next thing you know you've got a bunch of microphones, a couple of digital recorders, and a home studio that has expanded beyond your needs.
As your equipment gets better your standards are probably getting better as well, and so you'll constantly be checking out the gear other people are using. In many ways it's like photography without the lens lock-in.
So when fellow gear-head David Battino asked me if I'd be interested in reviewing two pieces of portable recording gear, the Blue Snowflake USB mic and SM Pro Audio Mic Thing baffle, I jumped at the chance. I like the look of the Snowflake and I'd wanted to know for a while if something like the Mic Thing was worth having.
My bias is clear: I only review products I think I'm going to like and I review them on how they handle the human voice. It takes so much time to evaluate a product fairly that I don't want to mess around with gear I don't think I'm going to end up liking. For those of you with a short attention span, I personally don't find the Snowflake worth owning but will explain why you might. I do like the Mic Thing but would not take it on the road with me.
I really wanted to like the Snowflake. Look at it: it's cute. It's compact. It's easy to set up on your desk or on the back of your laptop. It looks really well designed to go with you and perch wherever you need it to be. And it's just $89.99 list.
The problem with the Snowflake is that its physical design means that you'll probably work it from too far away. When you use a microphone you should experiment with getting closer and farther away from it and comparing the way you sound. For the most part, you'll find that you have a much richer and fuller sound when you are pretty close. You certainly want to be closer than the foot or so away that you will tend to be from the Snowflake.
On the plus side, the built-in USB output is very convenient, because you don't need an external preamp. You just connect the Snowflake to your computer's USB jack and start to record. (Direct USB connection also lets you bypass the computer's analog mic input, which is often noisy.)
However, if you have good audio habits — monitoring what you record with good headphones as you lay it down — USB mics can be a problem. That's because there's a bit of a delay, or latency, as the computer processes the signal and spits it back out to the computer's headphone jack. This latency is only a fraction of a second, but it can be distracting.
Pricier USB mics (and most external computer audio interfaces) have a zero-latency design that passes a copy of the analog signal directly to the device's built-in headphone jack, but the Snowflake doesn't, so you will hear a bit of a delay. I sometimes record with one headphone cup on and one off but it requires practice and concentration to make that work.
If convenience and physical design are driving your decision, the Snowflake might be the right choice for you. It's also very reasonably priced and travels well. But if sound quality is more important, then your opinion may change. I didn't care for the Snowflake on my voice.
To be fair, I don't tend to record directly into my Mac. My portable unit is either an M-Audio MicroTrack or a TASCAM HD-P2 along with a Rode NTG-2 shotgun mic. The MicroTrack is dwarfed by the mic and some people complain about the recorder's preamps, but I think the most important tool in the chain is your microphone, and for me the Snowflake doesn't stand up to some of the other ones I own. Granted, the Rode is much more expensive ($349 list), but I even preferred the little T-mic that comes with the MicroTrack. In particular, the Snowflake's low end was thin. (Or my voice is higher than I remember.)
I was hoping the Snowflake would be an easy choice for "good enough" audio on the road, and for some applications, it is. If I'm using Skype or iChat to talk to friends or family, then the Snowflake is a lot quieter than the built in mic on my MacBook.
If I'm recording a personal podcast, then the Snowflake is fine as long as I include time in my workflow to clean up the audio. I probably wouldn't choose the Snowflake for a professional podcast, although many screencasters are using it to record the voiceover for their videos.
You can find a bunch of Snowflake reviews on YouTube. In this one, the reviewer points to many of the shortcomings but concludes that when you speak close to the mic the sound is very good. I thought the sound he used as his example of good audio was thin and distorted. But I also thought the Snowflake sounded pretty good when he used it to record acoustic guitar — at least to my non-musical ears.
But here's the thing. You know those cameras that fit in your pocket? They don't take pictures as lovely as the SLRs with really good glass. But they are in your pocket and so you use them. The Snowflake would seem to be in that category, because it's so easy to bring with you.
Except, here's the other thing. You need your laptop to use it. I seldom have my laptop with me when I'm out and about and notice some sound I just want to capture. For that I want a small audio recorder with a small but decent microphone. In most business situations I do have my laptop with me, so packing the Snowflake is not a big deal.
Except, here's one final thing: the handling noise for the Snowflake is not good. You'll want to put the Snowflake down and leave it there. So it's hard to get a good recording of a conversation because you want people to be close to the mic but you don't want to move the mic around.
Once you have your mic sorted out, another dramatic way to improve your sound is through acoustic treatment, which is where the next product comes in.
SM Pro Audio describes the Mic Thing ($319) as "a portable multi-purpose acoustic treatment panel suitable for minimizing room artifacts and improving separation during microphone recording sessions." I agree with everything in that description other than the word "portable." If by portable they mean "lug it across the room" or "pack it in your case and take it to a gig," then yes. It is portable like a snare drum is. It is not portable like a mobile phone. It's not portable like the Snowflake. The Mic Thing weighs 14.3 pounds and spreads 29 x 15.75 inches. And that's without the optional stand.
So although I won't be flying with the Mic Thing anytime soon, is is easy to set up and arrange the way you want. The optional stand works well with it, allowing you to set up a microphone in a perfect position for the baffle. (You can also use a generic stand, though you'll probably want to weigh down the base for stability.)
The Mic Thing has three sections. The two sides can be rotated from the flat position inwards to an almost 90-degree angle. Once you've positioned it the way you want, you turn a couple of knobs to secure it in place. The adjustments were very easy to make.
You can also adjust the sound by placing two metal screens (included) over the foam padding. These slip easily over the top of each of the wings and add a bit of reflection that helps liven up the sound you have just worked to deaden (examples below).
If you work from copy, the Mic Thing does make it hard for you to read your text. You can work a bit farther way from the surface or you can place your copy above or below.
Before I set up the Mic Thing I used the Quilt Thing. This isn't a product so much as it is me dragging a quilt over my head and the microphone. It works wonderfully and is a great solution when you're traveling and have to do some recording in a hotel room. It is, however, hot and stifling and not the best setup on a sizzling summer day.
I did try building a version of Harlan Hogan's portable sound booth. I didn't have much luck with it; folks who evaluated my sound files definitely liked the recordings without this booth better.
On the other hand, the sound comparisons with and without the Mic Thing made it clear that people liked the sound of the mics used with the Mic Thing more than the sound of those used without it. Here are some WAV recordings of a Shure SM57 mic with and without the Mic Thing. Other than normalizing levels in the computer, I added no processing.
For comparison, here's the Snowflake mic recorded with the Mic Thing:
It's important to understand what the Mic Thing does and doesn't do. This is not a way for you to soundproof your environment. When I record up in my attic and a car drives by, the Mic Thing can't make that ambient sound go away.
The Mic Thing changes the feel of the room. Your voice will sound different depending whether you're in a big room or a small room. You will get a different sound in a box-shaped room versus one with a sloping ceiling. You will get a different sound in a room made of glass and wood than you will in a room that has carpeting on the walls and floor.
The Mic Thing changes the reflection pattern and eliminates some of the unwanted bounces. If you don't spend a lot of time listening to audio you may not be able to put your finger on what sounds different or better, but your audio should sound cleaner. Experiment with different angles for the two wings — different angles produce different sounds. For my voice with the mic I used, I got the best results when angling the wings in at a gentle angle and covering the foam with the metal plates.
It's hard to give these two clever recording tools a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down. My final advice is "It depends." In my case, as a narrator, I would say yes to the Mic Thing because I like what it does for the sound. But it is not very portable. I would say no to the Snowflake because I didn't care for the sound it produced on my voice. On the other hand, I like its physical design a lot, and it's a definite improvement over my computer's built-in mic for applications like online chat. So depending on your needs, one or both of these tools may make a good upgrade for your sound.