Audio, one way or another, has to get from the outside world to the internals of your computer. All those ports were put on your computer for a reason. It would be a shame not to take advantage of them.
I applaud anyone who wants to go beyond plugging in a cheap headset to the built-in input and output, or shouting at the built-in microphone. In fact, the words ‘built-in’ should be avoided at all costs, or at least, a little bit of cost. If it’s what you have to podcast with, then by all means, do what you have to do.
In the last few years, the all-in-one solution of USB microphones have been springing up all over, from small and inexpensive things you set on your desk, to larger mics that approach a professional quality (the Rode Podcaster is the first thing that comes to mind). They run the range of shape and sizes to price.
Like most jack-of-all-trade products, they rarely accomplish everything they set out to do. Getting decent quality audio from a USB mic can be achieved, but when it comes to doing more than the basics, you are limited. Yes, you can record, and do so with little fuss and hassle. But there are no USB mics – just as there are no regular mics – that will do everything, and do it well.
In my own personal experience, I have owned a few USB microphones, and have been disappointed in them from start to finish. One of them recently found it’s way into the dumpster (I would send it to ‘one lucky reader’ except I wouldn’t wish this mic on anyone). This particular mic had issues ‘booting up’ the first time it was plugged into my computer. It had a direct monitor path, so I could hear myself as well as the person on the other end of the Skype call, but the mic didn’t seem to be the problem so much as the USB part of the mic. What was sent to the person on the other end of the call was a noisy, crackling stream that was hard for him to understand, but also useless for the podcast. He thought it was the Skype call itself, and said nothing about it. I was hearing a clean feed from the mic, and didn’t know anything was wrong. When I listened back to the recording, I knew right away what had happened. I never used that mic again.
This isn’t to say that you will have the same experience I did. Not all USB mics are bad. This particular brand was problematic for me, and for other people I know who have used it. On the other hand, I know people who are very happy with the USB mics they own (I have heard good things about the Yeti from Blue Microphones for example). I’ve also moved people away from USB mics to a more conventional mic-and-USB-box solution, and they were much happier.
If someone is determined to go the USB route, I wouldn’t try to stop them (maybe a little). But there are some things I would want a buyer to know about before they spend their money on a USB mic:
– You can not plug a USB mic into anything other than a computer:
USB mics are designed to act as an audio in (or in / out) device for a computer. You can not plug it into a hardware mixer, a mic preamp (more on preamps when we get to a later discussion about levels), or any pro audio gear. There are a few exceptions, such as the Yeti Pro and the Studio Projects LSM (Little Square Mic). Both of those need a specialty cable to work with your standard 3 pin XLR connector found on most audio hardware, so don’t lose that cable.
– You can only plug in one USB mic at a time (with an exception):
Audio recording software only wants to see one piece of hardware at a time. I doesn’t like handling multiple interfaces, and that includes USB mics (and headsets, for that matter). If you want to record an interview, you are limited to one mic if you have a USB mic.
The one exception is using an Aggregate Audio Device in Mac OS X 10.5 and later. An Aggregate Audio Device is a virtual audio device that combines multiple physical audio devices (USB, firewire, built-in, or whatever shows up in the audio system preferences) into one audio device and driver. If you have two USB mics, you can plug them both in, combine them into an aggregate audio device, and record them on separate channels in your DAW software. This is a support article from Apple describing an AAD. To date, I haven’t seen anything in the Windows world that does this.
When you want to upgrade a USB mic, you throw out the old one and buy a new mic. That’s it. If you have an outboard audio i/o box, and you want to upgrade a mic, you get a new mic, and you can still use your old mic as well. You just keep filling up inputs until you run out. If you need more audio inputs, you replace your audio i/o box, and keep on using your mics. Does it get much easier?
It wouldn’t be fair to talk about the downsides of USB mics without talking a little bit about the upsides they can offer. Grudgingly, here I go:
– Gain structure and settings:
You don’t have to set the input levels on a USB mic. Most outboard USB and Firewire i/o boxes are general enough to use with most microphones and other inputs. The USB interface is tailored for the mic itself. You aren’t presented with many controls, and while I would hate that, for a simple push-record-and-go setup, it’s easy enough. Plug in, select the mic as your audio device, and start recording.
– One cable to rule them all:
You don’t need anything other than a USB cable to connect your mic. USB cables can vary in quality, but you can find them anywhere. Microphone cables are a more specialized than what you would find at your average electronics store, and that may mean stepping foot into a musical instrument retailer, something that makes my hair stand on end.
USB mics have their place in the podcasting world, but aren’t the be-all-end-all solutions manufacturers want them to be. It’s my own personal preference, but after trying a few USB mics on my own, I wouldn’t recommend buying one. While there are people who are perfectly satisfied with the USB mics they have used in the past, there are also horror stories.
Rather than leave you in a lurch, next up I’ll talk about what to look for when buying an audio in / out box.