This is going to be a little painful for me to write.
A few years ago, I wrote that you shouldn’t buy a USB microphone. I laid out my case, and I even left a few reasons out, for fear of sounding like a complete zealot.
I, admittedly, am a bit of a gear snob. I can’t help it. I’ve been a sound tech for over half my life (sound engineer sounds to technical for what I am, as I don’t have an engineering degree). I like quality gear. If I need to chose a solution between easy and more professional (and sometimes that is what it comes down to), I will go with the pro option.
I do realize that there are times to go with the easier solution, and USB mics are easier than using a professional microphone and a separate audio interface. So to be fair, here are some good reasons you might want to get a USB mic.
The biggest benefit to a USB mic is that it’s plug-and-play simple. Plug it in to a USB port, select it as your audio interface, and you are ready to record. No hassles with gain settings, no drivers to set up, it’s ready as soon as you are.
And there are usually very few options on a USB mic, which can be a benefit when you don’t want to mess with too many settings and just get down to the business of recording. Sometimes you just want to get down to the business of recording, and a USB mic will get you there fast.
USB mics have come a long way from the junk that first hit the market. Now there are USB models of professional mics, when before there were simply new USB mics of varying quality and style. That isn’t to say that all mics are created equal. USB mics are generally targeted towards a budget-conscious market. And when it comes to audio, you generally get what you pay for. So no, there aren’t any USB versions of the Neumann U87, and if you really wanted one, I would seriously question your sanity.
No, you won’t find as much variety as you will in the professional audio world, but you probably don’t need every mic mirrored in the USB style. That’s what audio interfaces are for. But there are many types of USB mics around, so you should be able to find something if you need to.
There are a few things to keep in mind if you are going to go the USB mic route:
– You can not plug a USB cable into a mixer and get a USB mic to work in it. USB mics are designed for computers. Some come with an audio connection out, but it’s good to understand what you want to accomplish and how your mic fits in to that. If you want to take your mic out on the road, do a live show with it, or patch it into someone else’s setup, a USB mic is not the way to go.
– Most audio software only allows you to select one audio device at a time. Some allow you to select one device for input and a different one for output. If you want to use more than one USB mic at the same time, you better have a Mac. You can merge multiple audio devices into one virtual device called an Aggregate Device. I wrote a little tutorial on how to do it here. I don’t know of any way to do this on a PC.
– Standards in computers change. It seems USB is here to stay, but look at what happened to FireWire. Some of you may remember serial and parallel cables. Two weeks ago, I had to deal with a SCSI hard drive. Remember SCSI? No? You are the lucky one. The pro audio standard has been around for a very long time, and it’s not likely to change any time soon. As new technology has emerged (the digital ‘revolution’ being the main one), it’s still be wrapped around the same standards as we’ve been using for years. In other words, a USB mic is going to become obsolete long before a regular mic. Maybe not soon, but it will happen.
You have to make a decision on what you want to use and buy according to your own needs and means. And it would be unfair of me to say not to buy something because I don’t care for it. My experiences with USB mics have been less than stellar. I’ve had a few recordings ruined by poor quality USB mics. Mind you, I haven’t used one in years. But I can’t see myself ever going back to one.
That’s just me. Your milage may vary.