USB Microphone Buying Guide

USB Microphone Buying Guide

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The features and specs that matter when shopping for a USB-friendly mic to record high-quality audio direct to your computer.

Table of Contents

USB Microphones vs traditional microphones
Conversion to digital audio
Sample rate
Bit depth
Latency
Condenser mics vs dynamic mics
Microphone diaphragm size
Mic polar patterns
Cardioid mics
Omnidirectional mics
Multi-pattern mics
USB mic controls
Need some more guidance?

Recording music has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. Creating high quality recordings has become old-hat for many musicians who have put together their own home studios.

But what if you just want to record a podcast, practice or performance with minimum fuss using your computer? The USB microphone can be used with any digital device that has recording capability and a USB connector. These mics have exploded in popularity thanks to their plug ‘n’ play convenience.

Need help setting up your podcast recording rig? Learn more with our Podcast Audio Gear Buying Guide.

Read on to find out what to look for in a USB microphone, what separates one model from another, and other factors to consider before pulling the trigger.

Want to jump right in? You can browse the full Musician’s Friend collection of USB microphones to explore the choices. Then come back here if you need help with any of terms or technology you run into.

USB Microphones vs traditional microphones

USB mics have both advantages and disadvantages when compared to standard microphones that connect via XLR or ¼-inch inputs.

A major advantage, of course, is that USB mics don’t need additional audio equipment to plug into a computer. As long as you have a laptop or desktop computer or other USB-equipped audio recording device and DAW software, you’re good to go. (Software can run the gamut from Pro Tools to simple recording and editing programs such as Apple’s GarageBand.)

USB mics have a digital interface built into their housing and usually are a more affordable option than buying a separate mic and interface. For anyone on a budget, this is a good way to make quality recordings without breaking the bank.

BLUE Yeti Studio All-In-One Recording System for Vocals

The BLUE Yeti Studio All-In-One Recording System for Vocals, has four sound-pattern settings, plays nice with just about any Mac or Windows device and includes software titles from PreSonus and Izotope to get you up and recording in no time.

On the flip side, there are some limitations to USB microphones, which you’ll want to understand. Most importantly, it’s not common to find USB inputs on mixing boards or audio interfaces. A number of USB mics we highlight below have additional XLR connectors that deal with this problem. .

A mixing board or audio interface will also provide greater control over the EQ and mixing of your microphone signals—something experienced sound engineers may appreciate. But keep in mind that the mixing software in most DAWs can give you similar control over the sound of your mic.

Learn more about traditional microphones as well as USB mics with the full Musician’s Friend Microphone Buying Guide.

Conversion to digital audio

Another function of computer audio interfaces and some mixing boards is the conversion of a microphone’s analog signal to digital data so the computer can process it.

However, with USB mics, this capability is generally built right into the unit—and it’s an important function to consider in your mic selection because it will affect three crucial specifications: sample rate, bit depth, and latency.

Put simply, converting audio waveforms into digital data involves the capture a large number of samples.Think of each sample as a snapshot of the music’s current waveforms. The speed and depth at which these samples are captured determines the quality of a digital recording. The sample rate and bit depth of a USB microphone give you clues about the quality of recording you can expect.

Sample rate

The speed, referred to as sample rate, is measured in kHz (kilohertz). To capture the spectrum of frequencies in the range of human hearing, it’s necessary to use a sample rate of at least 44.1kHz—the rate used on CDs. This sample rate is generally adequate for recording purposes, and you will want to make sure your microphone supports it at a minimum. Professional A/V equipment often uses 48kHz and 96kHz sample rates, in part because they are compatible with other professional production tools and offer the best definition and editing options.

Rode Microphones NT-USB USB Condenser Microphone

The Rode Microphones NT-USB USB Condenser Microphone delivers an up to 48kHz sample rate and is engineered for singing, podcasting and voice-over application

Bit depth

The bit depth of a digital recording refers to how many bits of information each sample contains. This determines a recording’s resolution or detail. CDs have 16-bit depth, and at a minimum your microphone should handle that depth too. Professional audio equipment commonly uses 24-bit samples, which some USB microphones can deliver.

Apogee Mic 96k Lightning

With 96K/24-bit sound capture, the Apogee Mic 96k Lightning produces smooth, detailed sound worthy of a traditional, studio-grade mic.

Sample rate and bit depth can be confusing. Learn more with our Introduction to Sampling tech tip.

Latency

Latency refers to the delay between the time a sound reaches your microphone and the time it takes for the signal to be converted into a digital signal and played back via monitoring gear. This can be a problem when you’re recording a new track while listening to playback of previously recorded tracks with headphones. In general, the higher the quality of a USB mic, the lower its latency—one reason to avoid a cheaper model if realtime monitoring is important. Some USB mic manufacturers deal with latency by including a headphone output specifically for realtime monitoring during recording. 

Condenser Microphones vs. Dynamic Microphones

So far this guide has assumed you’re looking for a USB microphone for recording and music production rather than live performance. After all, you probably don’t want to plug a microphone into your computer while performing live on stage.

Manufacturers make this same assumption, designing their USB microphones for audio recording rather than live sound. As such, most USB microphones are condenser models, as opposed to dynamic. Because of their extended frequency response range and better transient response, condensers are more common in studios than dynamic mics. However, condenser mics can sometimes be a problem with some loud sources, being more delicate than dynamic mics. As a result, they’re less commonly used onstage, where the more rugged dynamic mics rule, especially for hand-held use.

All that said, some manufacturers have started to build dynamic microphones that add a USB port to the usual XLR connector. These road-ready mics readily plug into your computer or sound console, and thus do double duty onstage and in the studio.

A popular hybrid, all-purpose microphone with both connector types is the Audio-Technica AT2005USB.

Audio-Technica AT2005USB Mic

With both USB and XLR connectors, the versatile AT2005USB from Audio-Technica performs well both onstage and in the home studio.

Microphone diaphragm size

Another way microphones differ is in the size of their diaphragms—the mic component that first reacts to the sound input. Large-diaphragm models are good all-purpose mics that are more sensitive than small-diaphragm models. They also tend to pick up low frequencies better than small-diaphragm mics.

Small-diaphragm microphones excel on acoustic instruments with lots of resonance and overtones (think guitars) and high-pitched instruments. The Audix USB 12 USB Condenser Mic, for example, is optimized for capturing vocals and acoustic instruments

Audix USB12 USB Condenser Mic

The Audix USB12 USB Condenser Mic offers crisp, articulate capture of voice and acoustic instruments and has a convenient gooseneck design for easy placement.

Check out the big selection of USB models with either large diaphragm or small diaphragm designs offered by Musician’s Friend.

Mic polar patterns

Microphones are engineered to pick up sounds in different ways, and specifically from different directions. In some cases, a microphone that picks up sound from all directions might be best, while in other situations, a mic designed only to pick up sound from one direction will fit the bill.

Here are the most common patterns for USB mics and how they work:

Cardioid Mics

Named for their heart-shaped pickup pattern, they capture sound primarily from the front, with some reduced responsiveness at the sides. This pattern is used in many recording applications and generally is best when picking up significant room sound is undesirable. Semi-cardioid polar patterns have a narrower field.

Omnidirectional Mics

Omnidirectional microphones are the best choice when you want to capture the sound of the room or ambient sound as well as the source itself. An omnidirectional mic is also good for recording several acoustic instruments or voices at once.

Multi-pattern Mics

There may be times when an omnidirectional mic is ideal and other times when you need a cardioid microphone. If this is your case, you may want to consider a model with switchable pickup patterns. These are commonly known as multi-pattern microphones, and are also referred to as switchable or multi-directional mics. Blue Microphones, for example, makes a number of switchable models, including the popular Yeti microphone.

BLUE Yeti Pro Studio USB Microphone

With four polar patterns to select from and both USB and XLR connectors, the BLUE Yeti Pro Studio USB Microphone is a super-flexible choice.

USB Microphone Controls

Because USB microphones integrate functions usually found in audio interfaces and preamps, they include controls that are not typically a part of standard microphones. Commonly, they will offer a volume control that allows you to adjust the microphone output. And as mentioned, some have polar patterns selectors.

Other USB mics may have the following:

  • Pad control: A switch for attenuating the output of the microphone, allowing headroom for spikes in volume thus preventing overload and distortion.
  • Monitor mix: Some microphones with realtime monitoring allow the recorded signal volume to be adjusted relative to previously recorded tracks.
  • Mute control: Cuts off the microphone signal.
  • Low-cut filter: Cuts out low frequencies eliminating rumble and stage noise.
  • EQ modes: Typically microphones do not have detailed, multiband EQs on board, but they may have mode switches that EQ the microphone’s preamp for different recording needs.

Need some more guidance?

Not finding what you are looking for in a USB microphone? Get the inside scoop from people who actually use the gear by reaching out to a Musician’s Friend Gear Head at 877-880-5907.

Tags: Recording Microphones

Comments  

# matthew urban 2016-09-19 10:26
I need choir thing that I am donating to a local school but it a choir and I want to get thing that new to them and give back to these people to help make them better but I need to know what kind of mic the school
Reply
# Robert Bebop Martine 2016-05-09 08:57
Hello,
I sing for crowds from city to city and i am looking for a descent mic. I mostly sing Motown music and R&B. i am a little bit older in age and so i am not up to date in the technology.
thanks
Reply
# Anam 2016-03-08 06:42
I have a u37 cad microphone but I don't know how to change the analog signal into digital signals
Reply

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