Review: Blue Mikey Digital
A $99 digital stereo microphone and line-in adapter for recent-model Apple iDevices.
By Adam Wilt | November 01, 2012
Mikey Digital on an iPhone 4S running Voice Memo.
Blue Microphones recently started shipping the Mikey Digital, an add-on stereo mike for iPhone 4, iPhone 4S, iPad, iPad 2, iPad 3, and iPod touch 4G (iOS 6 only), and Blue offered to lend me one for review. I'd been intrigued by earlier, analog Blue Mikeys at trade shows, so I jumped at the chance to look at—and listen to—this digital descendant.
Some context: I'm primarily a picture guy, not a sound guy, so I'm looking at Mikey as an iDevice add-on for double-system sound work, for location ambience, and similar film/video support roles.
Design and Features
The Mikey Digital is the third-generation Mikey from Blue. All share a similar design, being tiltable flat paddles that plug into an iDevice's 30-pin dock connector.
The original Mikey for iPod and the Mikey 2.0 were analog devices usable on any iPod with a dock connector, 1st-3rd generation iPod touches, and iPhones up through the 3GS. Starting with the iPad, iPod touch 4G, and iPhone 4, Apple stopped supporting analog audio input on the dock connector, so Mikey had to evolve to include its own A/D converter, and Mikey Digital is the result. Mikey works on these newer iDevices, and Blue says that Mikey will also work on the latest generation, Lightning-equipped iDevices using Apple's $30, 30-pin-to-Lightning adapter.
Mikey Digital (I'm tempted to call it the Mickey D) uses a pair of cardioid condenser mikes with a specified response of 35 Hz - 20 kHz (the variation in that range is not listed, nor does Blue publish either a frequency response curve or a polar response plot). The A/D converter outputs stereo audio at 44.1 kHz, 16 bits deep.
The mikes sit side-by-side between two black metal grilles wrapped by a matte-chrome band; the entire package, including the dock connector, measures a bit under 2.5 inches square, and it's about half an inch thick. The dock connector tilts about 230 degrees, allowing the mike paddle to be oriented forwards or back, with seven click-stops along the way.
Mikey Digital, front view.
Mikey Digital, rear view, with sensitivity switch centered.
Backlighting reveals the two mike capsules in Mikey Digital.
There's a rather stiff three-position slide switch on the back, and three small bicolor LEDs on the front, each indicating a switch position and its associated sensitivity. Mikey offers a low-sensitivity mode (indicated by three lines: in other words, the position for LOUD sounds), a high-sensitivity mode (with a single-line indicator, indicating quiet sounds), and an auto-gain position in the center (with a two-line symbol, e.g., who knows how loud it'll get?).
Mikey Digital on iPhone 4S, aimed at sounds offscreen to the right.
Plugged into an iDevice, Mikey stands off about half an inch or 7 mm, allowing reasonably thin iPod/iPhone/iPad cases to be left in place during use. It blocks the adjacent headphone jack on the iPod touch, but the jacks on the iPad and iPhone 4S are well out of the way, so that live monitoring with those iDevices is easily done.
Mikey Digital on Ipad 3, running PCMRecorder.
Mikey has a 1/8" stereo input jack on its top for line inputs. It also has a Type B mini-USB port on its side, letting you power the iDevice remotely for long recording sessions.
Mikey Digital & friends (iPhone 4S and iPod touch 4G): 1/8" jack on top, USB on side.
Mikey is thicker than any of the iDevices it plugs into, so it'll prop up the connector end of the iDevice when its laid on a table, and put the sensitive mike module directly in contact with that potentially noisy surface. If you plan to use Mikey with your iDevice on a table, you might want to use an iDevice case or cover that folds back and acts as an cushion, or put the iDevice on a slab of foam, a folded sweater, or some other isolating mount.
Mikey comes with a 1/4" to 1/8" stereo adapter and a lined carrying bag, as well as a small user guide (which you can peruse as a PDF).
What's in the box: Mikey, manual (one side in French, the other in English), 1/4" adapter, and bag.
You plug it in. You run a recording app. You're done. Right?
When you plug Mikey in, its currently-selected LED glows green for a few seconds, even if your iDevice is asleep. It lights up again once a recording app starts talking to it, and stays lit until the app stops using it.
Mikey is unprovided with recording software. There used to be a free app called "Blue FiRe" specifically for Mikey, but at the time I write this, it's unavailable. iDevices with Apple's "Voice Memo" app can use Mikey, but only at lower quality: my iPod touch 4G records Voice Memos as mono, 44.1 kHz, 64 kbps AAC.
The full-up, paid version of Blue FiRe is the $6 FiRe 2 Field Recorder, but being the cheap bastard I am, I decided to use free apps, or paid apps on borrowed iDevices. I wound up using four: Apple's own GarageBand on an iPhone 4S and iPad 3, TASCAM's PCMRecorder on iPad 3, Pocket WavePad on iPad 3, and the somewhat embarrassing (but entirely functional) Awesome Recorder Free on iPad 3.
(My touch 4G is still running iOS 5.1.1 for development purposes, and indeed, that iPod ignored Mikey entirely, always using its internal mike. The other iDevices also happened to be running 5.1.1, but they saw and used Mikey with no problems.)
Of these apps, both WavePad and GarageBand recorded mono files from Mikey; Awesome Recorder Free and PCMRecorder let me choose mono or stereo as I saw fit.
PCMRecorder detects the presence of a stereo input device, but I determined that it won't reliably enable stereo recording unless you have headphones plugged in, or plug them in while PCMRecorder is running—that is, PCMRecorder apparently needs to receive the iOS notification that a stereo output has been connected, or it won't give you the option for stereo input. It took me a couple of days to figure that one out!
Mikey's manual says that "[w]hen Mikey is under control of an application, all three LEDs will illuminate green in color", but none of the apps I used caused this to occur. Blue tells me that there aren't any current apps that control Mikey's gain directly, but that this capability is available should app writers want it in the future.
A single green LED always tracked the position of the switch on the back: to the left (when looking at Mikey's front) for a fixed, low-gain setting; centered for auto gain control; and to the right for a fixed, high-gain setting.
Mikey Digital on an iPhone 4S running GarageBand, operating normally.
When Mikey gets overloaded, all three LEDs flash RED for about half a second.
Mikey Digital on an iPhone 4S running GarageBand, overloaded.
In practice, the dock connector isn't a robust field receptacle like an XLR: it's easy to knock Mikey partially or entirely out, just as it's easy to insert the dock plug on a slant, perhaps making some electrical connections in an unfortunate order. For that matter, the force needed to slide the sensitivity selector switch is considerably more than that required to dislodge Mikey, so if you don't exercise due caution, you'll pop Mikey off your iDevice, or at least disrupt its electrical connections momentarily. In these cases, Mikey sometimes gets confused, either turning off its lights completely or leaving one single LED lit regardless of switch settings.
When Mikey gets bumped loose, the iDevice falls back to its internal mike, but with the exception of GarageBand (which immediately stops recording), none of the apps I used gave me any warning that this had happened—again, this is a design fault in the apps, not something that's Mikey's problem.
I expect that if I were to use Mikey for serious field work, I'd use some gaffer tape to tether Mikey's dock connector more securely to the iDevice.
The tilting head is helpful for aiming the cardioid mikes, but don't expect shotgun-like directionality with it. When shooting iDevice video, the 115-degree swing to aim the mikes forward isn't quite enough to aim 'em completely forward, and with the iDevice held sideways, the mikes are positioned so that the stereo separation is up-and-down, not side-to-side.
Shooting video with iPhone 4S, Mikey angled forward as far as possible.
Next: Performance and Conclusions...
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