Neat Microphones Podcast Round Up-Beecaster, Bumblebee, and Widget
Two Bees and a Widget Walk into a Studio...
by Chris Loeffler
(this image may be a place holder - I'm not happy with it ... but you pose an interesting non-existing challenge)
Neat Microphones has been on quite the kick in 2016, with six microphones now available in their Bee series and three cosmetically-different microphones in their new Widget series. Notably, the Beecaster, Bumblebee, and Widget are all designed with computer use in mind; featuring USB outputs and functionality designed to accommodate everything from conference calls to podcasting to recording music and vocals. I asked Neat to lend me the three different USB mics to compare and contrast them for various applications.
To set the stage, I’ll be discussing them in order of price point; the Neat Widget (available in three styles, I reviewed Widget C) retails at $99.00, the Bumblebee at $199.00, and the Beecaster at $349.00.
The Neat Widget, the lowest priced of the line, features an internally shock-mounted cardiod mic with a 20 Hz - 20 kHz frequency response and a sample rate/bit depth of 96kHz/24 bits and a USB 2.0 output. The Widget C is large, feels sturdy, and has a distinct Jetsons-meets-Bioshock aesthetic that’s decidedly not your standard pro audio look. I plugged it straight into my MacBook Pro and had it replace my internal microphone almost instantly.
I demoed the Widget in several Skype and FaceTime meetings and was told I was noticeably clearer than when I used the internal microphone or my headset. I did find that the microphone was best suited to one or two people at most, as including more than a few people sitting around a table yields diminished returns. I was surprised how little crosstalk there was with the Widget and my computer speakers, which I attribute to the microphone's relatively linear field.
I captured perfectly serviceable and detailed tracks when I demoed it as a vocal mic and placed it in front of a small guitar amp. Proximity is important to get the most out of the Widget.
While it has no bearing on the sound quality of the microphone, the Widget packaging is fun and very “retail”—oriented, proudly displaying the microphone in a clear plastic box rather than the standard black cardboard box with a slipcover.
The Bumblebee and Beecaster build upon the “really good USB microphone” concept of the Widget by including controls for microphone input gain, headphone jacks, headphone volume control, and additional audio and/or polar pattern options. The two Bees share identical frequency response (20 Hz - 20 kHz), sample rate and bit depth (96 kHz/24 bit), sensitivity (16 mV/Pa @ 1kHz), maximum SPL (128 bB SPL 0.5% THD), signal-to-noise ratio (98 dB-A), noise level (14 dB-A), and dynamic range (98 dB), as well as microphone gain and headphone volume controls.
Again, tangential to the actual microphones, the packaging was some of the best I’ve seen, with a honeycombed, multi-layered box that opens like a gift, with every layer perfectly packed in the custom foam. If that sounds like a strange thing to fixate on, I see a lot of gear and don’t believe I’ve encountered a more elegant or thought-out package.
Where the Beecaster and Bumblebee diverge is in the Beecaster’s four distinct microphone polar patterns, whereas the Bumblebee uses a single cardiod pattern.
The Bumblebee’s single cardiod pattern expands beyond the Widget feature set by offering three sonic signature modes; Music, Voice, and Neutral. These are achieved by onboard processing and are incredibly useful to quickly optimize the Bumblebee for the desired application.
-Music is the most open and wide-frequency mode, and does a fantastic job of capturing subtleties in a performance (like, say, the fretboard sound on an acoustic guitar).
-Vocal mode seems to sweeten the highs and lows and address some of the inconsistent volume issues and sibilance that speaking and singing can introduce.
-Neutral mode is completely unprocessed, and is the most accurate for capturing an uncolored performance for later signal processing.
The booklet included with the Bumblebee is incredibly well written, fun, and informative, and there are over four pages of suggested setups and configurations for specific applications such as vocals, acoustic guitars, electric guitar, woodwind and brasswind instruments, percussion, and podcasts. These aren’t just vague instructions, either…they suggest a mode, mic placement, and more while explaining the “why” as well as how to make fine tweaks with further microphone manipulation. Here’s an example for the Acoustic Guitar-
Acoustic Guitars Sonic Mode: Music Problem: Most desktop stands place the mic high on the desk. While this is fine for speaking, it does little to capture the brilliant sound of a guitar that sits at chair level in front of the desk. Enter the Bumblebee, and...problem solved!
Move your Bumblebee’s base to the edge of your desk. Bring the articulating arm all the way forward and down to position the capsule below the edge of the desk, facing forward. This will be the perfect height to record your guitar. Now fine-tune the placement using the rotating base and capsule.
Each guitar is different, but the “sweet spot” is usually near where the neck and body join (around the 12th – 14th frets). For maximum presence, start with the mic close to the guitar—about 3 or 4 inches (7 - 10 cm). Moving the mic closer to the sound hole increases the warmth and fullness, but beware the dreaded “sound hole boom” that can give acoustic guitars a “muddy” quality.
Now try moving the mic farther from the guitar. This may help even the sound and create a better image, with the tradeoff of a little less presence. Find the right balance, and your guitar will sing.
Even a complete recording novice will get solid audio if they follow the booklet’s advice, and the best thing is the information isn’t specific to the Bumblebee, so owners get a free course in basic microphone techniques with every purchase.
I found the flexibility added by the sonic signatures very applicable to recording instruments or even vocals, and it was much easier to obtain a more detailed acoustic guitar sound, for instance, than with the Widget, while I found the differences in standard voice to be negligible for Skype or a conference call.
Moving on to the most feature-filled of the three microphones, the Beecaster (with its four capsules) goes beyond signal processing and straight into the four aforementioned distinct polar patterns- Mono (cardiod), Stereo (XY), Wide Stereo (Blumlien), and Focused Stereo (M/S).
-Mono setting selects a standard cardiod pickup pattern that emphasizes noise directly in front of the microphone and suppresses background or far-field noises, making it ideal for voices, vocals, and really anything that doesn’t require stereo imaging.
-Stereo mode uses a standard XY microphone configuration to capture 3D imaging, or anything that benefits from a bit more dimension and space, like acoustic guitars or a table full of people for a conference call.
-Wide Stereo expands the stereo field left and right and leaves a bit of space in the center for a lead instrument or vocals; especially ideal for larger ensembles.
-Focused Stereo focuses on the front-facing left and right stereo images for a more immediate, focused sound that retains stereo depth like vocals.
Similar to the Bumblebee, the Beecaster’s detailed instruction manual give you specific tips and guidance for music, podcast, and voice conference applications. Given the four polarity configurations, the manual often offers different ways to skin the same cat and, again, is a great primer in getting good sound.
I used the Stereo mode about a foot away from the top of the sound hole of my acoustic guitar and was very impressed by the fullness of the sound after fidgeting with the angle for a minute and using the headphone out to monitor. For giggles I tried a Wide Stereo mode for a rhythm track and a Focused Stereo mode for an acoustic lead over it and a vocal part and they did indeed “fit” into each other nicely without even needing to tweak EQ.
An unexpected (for me) application for the Beecaster is mobile recording of live performances. The stereo imaging is fantastic, and a good pair of headphones offers a fair amount of noise isolation so you can move around the room with your laptop and microphone to find the sweet spot and ensure you aren’t getting any clipping. While I haven’t had a chance to try this out with a louder rock band in a festival environment, I did check out a jazz trio at a winery and, other than getting the odd look for setting the Beecaster on the table facing the band, it was an incredibly easy experience and caught a fantastic live take.
So… what’s the right one to buy if you’re looking to upgrade your computer microphone? Depends on what you want.
The modestly-priced Widget is a great choice for basic voice applications like conference calls, vocal parts, and simple mono recording if you intend to use your computer’s speakers for audio playback and don’t mind managing the mic input within your control panel.
The Bumblebee brings additional flexibility in recording with the three distinct sound modes, as well as mic input trim and headphone outs directly into the unit for complete physical control of the audio and isolating audio for a cleaner signal. This makes it ideal for people looking to do a decent amount of actual recording (instrument or voice) but not concerned about stereo imaging.
The Beecaster, as the most feature-packed, is clearly aimed at going beyond basic mono recording and is well equipped to handle mobile recording of live music, acoustic performances, or capturing tracks with enough dimension they can easily be dropped into a final mix.
In closing, the following may go without saying if you've read this far, but the days of assuming that USB mics are garbage are in the rear-view mirror - even the sub-$100 Widget delivers quality audio. Although the Bumblebee and Beecaster may seem expensive compared to other USB mics, you're paying for preamps, converters, and overall design that bring USB mics into the professional arena.
Chris Loeffler is a multi-instrumentalist and the Content Strategist of Harmony Central. In addition to his ten years experience as an online guitar merchandiser, marketing strategist, and community director he has worked as an international exporter, website consultant and brand manager. When he’s not working he can be found playing music, geeking out on guitar pedals and amps, and brewing tasty beer.