The Truth About USB Microphones

Depending on who you talk to, USB mics are either essential tools for professional applications or toys that have no right to exist in any recording situation, including corporate or worship environments. So who’s right?

Well, both are. There are indeed cheap, consumer-grade USB mics that exist solely so that grandpa can plug a mic into his computer and Skype with the grandkids. But there are also pro-grade, fine-sounding USB mics that are ideal for professional podcasting, as well as several other computer-based recording applications.

The USB Mic Difference

Some people refer to USB mics as “digital mics” but that’s only partly true. The mic element itself still uses the conventional technology found in any mic. However, instead of sending that analog signal down an XLR cable, an analog-to-digital converter inside the mic converts the output to digital data. This data can then travel through a USB cable directly into a computer, bypassing the need for a conventional audio interface that provides analog-to-digital conversion.

There are several advantages to USB mics compared to conventional models:

  • The output is digital, so you don’t need to set levels at the computer because it knows what kind of levels to expect. Any gain controls are on the mic itself.
  • Eliminating the need for a separate audio interface simplifies mobile applications.
  • Because there’s no audio interface, USB mics often include a headphone jack and output control for monitoring, which further simplifies setups.
  • The “plug-and-play” nature of USB mics mean easier setup for non-technical people.
  • Some USB mics offer both USB and conventional XLR outputs.

There are also some tradeoffs for this kind of convenience:

  • USB mics often have more latency than conventional mics that connect through an audio interface. With multitrack recording software, this makes it difficult to monitor through plug-in effects like reverb, which vocalists often like to hear as they sing.
  • Although USB is here to stay and won’t be obsolete any time soon, XLR connectors have been around forever.
  • You can’t upgrade a USB mic’s onboard electronics. With a conventional mic, for better performance, you can upgrade to a more expensive mic preamp or audio interface. Fortunately, there are USB mics with pro-level converters that sound every bit as good as traditional mics going through a conventional audio interface.

Variety is the Spice of…USB Mics

USB mics are well-suited to many different applications.

1_Apogee Hype
Figure 1: Apogee HypeMiC

Podcasting. There are several sub-$100 mics made with podcasting in mind, like the Audio-Technica AT2005 USB. It hedges its compatibility bets by including an XLR output as well as USB. But there are also deluxe mics, like the Apogee HypeMiC (Fig. 1). Apogee is known for quality analog-to-digital conversion, but this mic also includes a studio-level audio compressor that can enhance mobile recordings by ensuring more consistent levels.

Conference calls, board meetings and sermons. With most meetings these days, at least one person will have a laptop. Plug in a USB “boundary” mic that’s optimized for a wide pickup pattern, and you can record the meeting via audio notes, instead of having to designate someone to take notes. And for worship applications, it’s convenient to place a boundary mic on the lectern to record sermons.

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Fig. 2: CAD Audio U7

Several mic options fit this kind of application. The MXL AC-404 boundary mic lays flat on conference room tables, and includes three mic capsules to provide 180-degree coverage. It also offers a headphone and speaker jack. A similar mic, the CAD Audio U7 (Fig. 2), lacks the AC-404’s headphone and speaker jacks, but tailors the frequency response range specifically for speech and comes with a 10-foot USB cable. Finally, the MXL AC-424 (Fig. 3) might end up being your boundary mic of choice for a very simple reason: in addition to a headphone out, it has a mute switch.

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Figure 3: MXL AC-424 

Music recording. Samson’s G-Track Pro (Fig. 4) takes the USB mic concept further by including an audio interface with a 1/4” instrument input, and separate volume controls for the mic and instrument. You can record the two channels on separate tracks for later editing, or together for streaming. What’s more, the mic has a three-way switch to choose among figure-8, cardioid, and omni patterns, and you can monitor the output from your computer’s recording program while recording. It would be iffy to record a band with this, but for songwriters, it’s very convenient for recording voice and instrument in a portable context.

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Figure 4: Samson G-Track Pro  

Is There a USB Mic in Your Future?

The bottom line is that USB mics continue their trajectory of constant improvement. Of course, as with anything else, you get what you pay for—and quality internal electronics add an expense that’s not part of a traditional mic. Then again, with a non-USB mic, you need to factor in the expense of an audio interface, and probably a more expensive cable as well. As a result, depending on the application, it’s often a toss-up as to which type of mic is more cost-effective.

In any case, even if you already have a selection of mics, it’s good to have a quality USB mic in your collection. For online meetings, you’ll love it when the participants on a conference call say “it sounds like you’re here in the room with us.” For songwriters, being able to record song ideas quickly is always welcome. And for houses of worship, USB mics are a fast, efficient way to record sermons. So yes…there probably is a USB mic in your future.

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