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electronic MUSICIAN

Mics Meet USB—The Universal Studio Bus

By Craig Anderton | July 24, 2008

What’s that? USB stands for Universal Serial Bus? Okay, but when you consider what it does in the studio, it’s understandable some might think it has the alternate meaning in the title.
Of course, there are so many USB audio and MIDI interfaces—as well as controllers—that we’re not even going to go there. Instead, we’re going to delve into USB mics, and sprinkle additional tips and techniques on getting the most out of USB. So, let’s get on the bus—it’s quite a ride.

 

USB MICS: STUPID IDEA OR INSANELY GREAT?

Plugging a mic into a USB port seems weird: Mics are analog devices, and so it shall ever be. Except it isn’t any more, because we have USB mics that plug into your computer’s digital innards. Say what?

Some “real” recording engineers don’t take USB mics seriously, because of a few inherent limitations—but after working with USB mics for well over a year, I’ve become a fan. Let’s look at the limitations first, then get to the good stuff.

  • You’re locked into a specific A/D converter. A standard analog mic can plug it into any A/D converter for digital recording, so you can take advantage of technological improvements and match your needs to your budget. A USB mic’s A/D converter can’t be changed—but A/D conversion technology has matured to the point where quality differences among A/D converters are relatively small. While that $70 USB mic might not have the “converters of the gods,” it’s not going to suck.
  • USB mics are disposable. The computer world changes so fast there’s no guarantee the USB bus will even exist in ten years—but your 1950s vintage mic will still plug into a preamp. Although sE Electronics hedges their bets with a dual-output mic, that adds to the cost and so far, is not the norm. So yes, it’s likely your USB mic will have a limited life span. But thanks to aggressive pricing and the convenience factor, your USB mic will have paid for itself many times over by the time you have to retire it to your personal Museum of High-Tech Things that Are Now Doorstops.
  • USB was never designed for audio. There are two problems with audio over USB: voltage (there’s no +48V for phantom power) and, for lack of a better term, “dirt”—peripherals on your USB bus (e.g., hard drives) can spray clicks and noise onto the bus. Proper filtering can reduce the noise, and voltages can be multiplied; how well a manufacturer addresses these two issues is one of the main differences among USB mics.

And now, let’s look at the good stuff—because if there wasn’t good stuff, I wouldn’t be writing this article.

  • Exceptional convenience. USB mics have been a great addition to my mobile computing world of recording and video narration/editing compared to bringing a mic, preamp, and bulky XLR cable. What’s more, no one has ever noticed a difference between the narration I record on the road with the USB mic and the narration I record at home with a full setup.
  • Instant annotation for sessions. Why take written notes for sessions? Just record a track with comments and annotations. I don’t have a huge mic locker, and I don’t want to use my $995 tube mic just for taking notes. But when the mood hits I can feed a USB mic into a track, and hit record.
  • Recording rehearsals. Yes, those cute little portable recorders are great for recording rehearsals. But USB mics often provide better sound quality, and a better choice of patterns, than the ultra-small mics included with typical recorders. Take your laptop to the rehearsal, plug in a USB mic, and go.
  • Songwriting. I’ve sometimes used a USB mic with a laptop to sing an idea for a song. Nothing too exceptional there, but the current generation of USB mics is good enough that if you record a really great take that you can never quite duplicate, you can fly in that part, add a little processing if needed, and have something that’s useable for your final recording.
  • The “I just need one more mic” situation. Surely you’ve had those occasions where you needed “just one more mic” and your mic locker comes up empty. Break out your USB mic, plug it in, and capture that one extra signal source.
  • All the other obvious stuff. Podcasting, interviews, taking audio notes—they’re all candidates for USB mics.

 

BETTER USB PERFORMANCE

Software isn’t all that gets updated: Take your motherboard. For example, for me Line 6’s USB-based UX8 worked fine at 44.1/48kHz, but not 88.2/96kHz. The computer manufacturer (PC Audio Labs) recommended updating my motherboard, and that solved the problem.

Updating a motherboard is not always trivial. PC Audio Labs had a utility available online that you burned to CD-ROM, then booted the computer from the CD; from there on, the process was pretty much automatic. However, it’s not always that easy—check your motherboard manufacturer’s website for details. Should the flash process misfire (power your computer from an uninterruptible power supply!), you could lose your motherboard until the flash memory is physically replaced. Consider having a pro shop do it for you.

 

CONNECTING USB MICS

USB mics aren’t quite as simple as just plugging a standard mic into a patch bay. Here’s what you need to know.

Patch the USB cable from the mic directly to the computer. Most companies recommend not plugging their mics into a USB hub. If your computer doesn’t have a lot of USB ports, a USB hub can expand the number of USB ports for low-bandwidth devices such as mice, printers, and keyboards, thus saving computer ports for your music devices.

A better way to add more USB ports is by plugging a USB port card (e.g., PCI) into your computer. Get one with as many ports as possible; you’ll fill them up sooner or later. Avoid combo USB/FireWire port cards, as some FireWire interface manufacturers report problems with the FireWire section. If you install a USB port card, use it for your audio peripherals; plug electrically “dirtier” peripherals, like USB hard drives, into your computer motherboard’s USB ports.

Most USB mics will work with either USB 1.1 or USB 2.0. See the section “Sorting Out USB Speeds” below.

With Mac OS X machines, Core Audio will recognize the mic and it will operate at relatively low latency. Simply call up System Preferences, click on Sound, click on the input tab, and select the mic as the input source, as shown in the screen shot.

With Windows, there are two options. USB mics are class-compliant devices that will show up as input devices with Windows XP (and generally Vista), similarly to how they do with the Mac. Specify your mic as the Sound Recording device by going Start > Settings > Control Panel > Sound and Audio devices, then clicking on the Audio tab. However, this will likely have considerable latency. Check the manufacturers’ websites for custom ASIO drivers for their mics or mic interfaces (e.g., CEntrance, which uses a universal ASIO/GSIF/WDM driver for the MicPort USB mic adapter). ASIO4ALL (www.asio4all.com) is another low-latency driver option that will generally give better performance than standard Windows drivers. Many manufacturers also offer small applets designed to give more flexibility, such as phase reverse or gain control.

As to Vista, how it handles USB audio is somewhat different compared to XP, so check the manufacturer’s website for compatibility. Most USB mics are 32-bit Vista-compatible.

If you’re a complete newbie to installing USB mics, check out Sweetwater’s helpful PDF tutorial at www.sweetwater.com/sweetcare/techlib/support/USB_Microphone_Guide.pdf.

 

THE WORLD OF USB MICS

Let’s take a look at some representative USB mics (all prices are list prices). This isn’t meant to cover Everything That’s Out There because, well, there isn’t time or space. Instead, we’ll cover representative mics that indicate the breadth of what’s available. All were tested on a Mac running OS X 10.4.11, and recorded into BIAS Peak LE 5.2. Playback was monitored through a Mackie Onyx Satellite feeding ADAM A7 speakers and Audio-Technica ATH-M40 headphones.

 

BLUE MICROPHONES

 (www.bluemic.com)

BLUE got an early start with the Snowball ($139 with desktop stand and cable), a dual-capsule condenser mic with a 3-pattern switch that selects among cardioid, cardioid with -10dB pad, and omni-directional responses. Of the two capsules, the cardioid is optimized for voice and sounds relatively neutral, while the omni-directional has a brighter, more present high end that I generally preferred. Resolution is 16-bit/44.1kHz. It works with any mic stand with a standard thread, but the package also includes a tripod desktop stand.

One limitation for recording is the Snowball’s lack of any monitoring facility—and you know what monitoring through a computer is like in terms of latency. Not a huge deal, but USB mics that can monitor are very handy.

The Snowball has been re-designed since its introduction, with a better-sounding chip and higher gain structure than the original (which needed some software applets for assistance). The new model is much harder to clip than the original (the –10dB pad option certainly helps for loud sources), and the higher gain makes it more useful with low-level audio source.

BLUE’s latest entry is the Snowflake ($79), one of the least expensive (and most convenient) USB mics you can buy. Even if you never plan to use a USB mic, the cardioid-response Snowflake is inexpensive enough that you can have one sitting around for, if nothing else, getting better sound with Skype than the weird little mic built into your laptop’s screen. I suspect that over time, though, you’ll find other advantages of mic life in the USB lane. Like most USB mics, it offers 16-bit/44.1kHz resolution.

The Snowflake weighs next to nothing and folds up in a small case that holds the mic element and even a USB cable (included). You can also pull off the plastic case back, leaving a metal clip that can hook over your laptop screen. The mic not only rotates front and back, but swivels. The USB connector is a mini-USB type, saving further space and making the package even smaller.

And what about the sound? This little condenser mic exceeds expectations. It hypes the high end a bit and is subtly “peaky” in the upper mids (actually, though, that’s a good thing for voice applications); I wouldn’t record the Vienna Philharmonic with it. But for narration, quick acoustic guitar sketches, and recording rehearsals, it’s surprisingly good—and the price is right.

 

USB FOR GUITAR

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could plug your guitar right into your computer? Now you can, thanks to USB.

IK Multimedia’s Stealth interface is a small USB gizmo: Plug your guitar into it (and optionally headphones), and your guitar becomes an audio source for your program of choice. You’ll still have the usual latencies caused by running your guitar through a computer, but it does have low-latency ASIO drivers and works with Core Audio.

Another option is IK’s Stomp I/O, which is primarily a footswitch control for their “powered by AmpliTube” series of programs (AmpliTube 2, AmpliTube Jimi Hendrix, AmpliTube Metal, and Ampeg SVX). However, the Stomp I/O also includes a USB audio interface, so you can use it with guitar—no need for other audio interfaces. And Native Instruments’ Guitar Rig Session includes not only their Guitar Rig XE software, but also, a quality USB interface.

But if you really want to cut out the middleman, there’s Behringer’s iAXE USB guitar line, which plugs directly into your computer. Granted, the $120 street price means you’re getting more of a beginner’s guitar than a Paul Reed Smith, but for laptop jockeys on the road it simplifies life: Just bring the guitar and a USB cable. And once you change the strings and set up the action to your liking (setup tools are included), it’s more playable than you might expect. Extra points: It includes low-latency drivers for Windows, NI’s Guitar Rig combo software, Kristal multitrack recorder, and Audacity editing software.

 

FINALLY: NO MORE EXCUSES NOT TO BACK UP

You know you should back up your data (which is on a separate drive from your operating system—right?), but don’t “because it’s a hassle.” So, grab a 500GB, 750GB, or even 1TB USB 2.0 hard drive. Just before dinner, plug it into your computer, and copy over all your data. Do this at least every couple of weeks, and when your data dies a horrible death (which it will), you’ll be soooo glad everything’s backed up. You can even buy packages at office supply stores with a hard drive and backup software that makes the process even easier.

 

sE ELECTRONICS

(www.seelectronics.com)

sE made a name for itself with the sE 2200a, so sE adapted the cardioid, large diaphragm, gold-sputtered 2200a to the USB2200a ($499). However, it wasn’t just a straight adaptation, and sE has added a couple ideas other manufacturers would do well to steal—I mean, emulate.

Most importantly, while the USB2200a is a USB mic, it also includes an analog, XLR out (that requires +48V) so the mic’s lifetime is not tied to USB’s lifetime—good move. What’s more, both outputs are available simultaneously, so you can record straight with one out and at, say, –10 for the other as a “safety” in case of overload on the primary channel. It also includes headphone monitoring with a mix control (and headphone minijack) for zero-latency monitoring, –10dB pad, low-cut filter, and a “Mac/PC” switch that optimizes levels for the way the two platforms handle audio (there’s also a third position you can try).

Sound-wise, the USB2200a is “honest” and neutral, with a smooth response over the frequency spectrum. I’d use this more for, say, piano and other acoustic instruments where I wanted a natural, warm sound.

Although it records at 16-bit/ 48kHz and outputs at 24-bit/48kHz, sE claims the USB2200a will lock to 88.2/96kHz clocks with “most software, writing files as 16 bit and, with the automatic conversion (bit stuffing), 24-bit files.”

Bottom line: It’s about $100 more than the non-USB version, but that buys you portability to go along with quality electronics.

 

SORTING OUT USB SPEEDS

USB 1.1 is slow—good for computer peripherals, and audio interfaces up to about four channels at 44.1kHz, but that’s about it. USB 2.0 is much faster.

You’d think a port labeled “Full Speed” would be USB 2.0-compatible, but actually, that term applies to USB 1.0 and 1.1. USB 2.0 is called “High-Speed” and has a maximum rate of 480Mbps, as opposed to USB 1.1’s 12Mbps. Got it?

Thankfully, USB devices are totally compatible. A USB 1.1 device will work with a USB 2.0 port, and a USB 2.0 device will work with a USB 1.1 port—but only at 1.1 speeds, of course.

All modern Macs use USB 2.0 ports. USB has been standard on Windows machines going back to Windows 98SE, so with older machines you may not know if it has 1.1 or 2.0 ports. To find out, right-click on “My Computer” then go Properties > Hardware tab > Device Manager. Expand the Universal Serial Bus Controllers tree; if you see “enhanced” for a host controller, then your computer has USB 2.0. You should also see standard controllers too, which handle 1.0 and 1.1 devices transparently.

 

SAMSON

(www.samsontech.com)

My first USB mic was the cardioid C01U ($134.99), based on Samson’s C01 mic. Substantial and efficient, I use it a lot for narration on video projects edited on the road because it’s a little “forward” in the upper mids, bringing out intelligibility in vocals. While it lacks a bit of “air” in the high end compared to more costly mics, the overall frequency balance works well. It features a 19mm internal shock-mounted diaphragm, but includes a nice extra: custom software “SoftPre” drivers for Mac and Windows that offer low-cut filters, phase change, gain control, and metering. It’s reasonably-well accessorized, with a swivel stand mount and 10' USB cable; resolution is 16 bits, and it supports 8/11.025/22.05/44.1/48kHz sampling rates.

Samson also makes the C03U ($389.99), a USB version of the multi-pattern C03, with switchable super-cardioid, omni, and figure-8 pickup patterns. It also features a 16-bit/ 48kHz A/D converter, low-cut filter, and –10dB pad switch; it comes with a USB cable and carrying pouch.

If you prefer dynamics, the Q1U ($89.99) is a super-cardioid dynamic mic with a neodymium element. Its A/D converter runs at 16-bit/48kHz, and the package includes a tripod desk stand and carrying pouch.

Finally there’s the GTrack ($232.49), reviewed in the 01/08 issue. To summarize, it goes one step further than a USB mic, offering a USB interface where you can choose mic in, instrument in, or stereo line in. It also has level controls for headphone/line out volume, mic sensitivity, and the instrument/line ins. There’s zero-latency monitoring in mono or stereo from the inputs, as well as the option to monitor playback from the computer.

The package includes a desktop mic stand and extension cables for instrument and headphones (a good idea, as the GTrack jacks are 1/8"), and USB. GTrack is fairly heavy; I’d put it in my suitcase, not carry-on. Nonetheless, the combination of a good-sounding mic, interface, mixer, and monitor, all in one relatively compact package, is very appealing.

 

MARSHALL ELECTRONICS

(www.mxl-usb.com)

MXL’s USB mics were some of the first models that made people realize they were for more than just, say, podcasting. The USB.007 ($219.95) is a stereo, gold large diaphragm condenser mic with two capsules (identical to the ones used in their 990 mic, in an XY pattern). It comes well-accessorized: Rugged travel pouch, desktop mic stand, mic stand adapter, 10' USB cable, wind screen, manual, applications guide, and (how’s this for a bonus?) free downloadable stereo recording software.

Using the mic is straightforward. Set the low/medium/high switch for the corresponding level you expect to record, plug in the USB cable, and go. You’ll find the USB.007 sounds really good—at least on a par with any other mic in the same general price range, and it can withstand seriously high SPLs (they spec it at 137dB). What’s more, the stereo image is impressively convincing—much more spacious and realistic than I expected. Like most other mics, it’s 16-bit resolution but handles both 44.1/48kHz natively. Overall, this is a very sweet mic that offers really good value and smooth sound quality—I wouldn’t hesitate to use this for “keeper” takes with serious portable recording. Yes, it’s that good.

 

USB MEMORY STICKS: YOUR EXTRA HARD DRIVE

USB memory sticks can serve as solid-state drives that hook right into your computer. This is particularly good with laptops, which typically have only a single, 5400 RPM internal drive.

If you store your project on a USB drive, it will play back tons of tracks without hard drive issues like seek times. USB sticks don’t record as fast as they can play, but still, I’ve been able to record a couple dozen simultaneous tracks to a USB 2.0 stick (and a hard drive would have given up sooner). To back up the stick data, just bounce it over to your hard drive.

Another good application for USB “drives” is with samplers that stream samples from disk, like TASCAM’s GigaStudio 4. Although USB memory stick capacities still haven’t reached the point where it’s practical to store your beloved 60GB orchestral library, 4–16GB is still a lot. Besides, the way memory capacities are going, just wait a year. . . .

 

AUDIO-TECHNICA

 (www.audio-technica.com)

Audio-Technica’s AT2020 needs no introduction: This side-address, cardioid condenser mic with a low-mass medium diaphragm has become a mainstay in project studios, both for its reasonable price ($169) and high performance. It also handles a quoted 144dB SPL.

So it’s no wonder that A-T adapted the 2020 for the USB world with the AT2020 USB ($249). Why the heftier price? Well, it sure sounds like they put some serious effort into the electronics, because the USB version has the same kind of “open” quality and low noise as the non-USB version (as expected, the output is 16-bit/ 44.1kHz). It also has a relatively “hot” output that will let it drive anything within reason, and the bass is tight, solid, and defined, with what sounds like just a bit of a high-end lift for added intelligibility.

Accessories include a tripod desk stand, pivoting stand mount, threaded adapter, 10' USB cable, and storage pouch. You won’t find any additional applets or software, but the AT2020 USB works out of the box seamlessly with XP, OS X, and Vista.

In use, the AT2020 USB feels solid, sounds very quiet, and has the same quality of sound associated with the AT2020. It’s great for when you want to go beyond podcasting into the world of quality recording.

 

MAKE IT LONGER

The typical recommended USB cable length is 5 meters, which may not be enough if your computer is in a “machine room” and you need to feed it with a USB peripheral. Solution? USBthere, Startech’s line of USB extenders (www.startech.com). For example, their 2-port, bus-powered extender (approx. $140) runs USB 1.1 up to about 165 feet over standard CAT-5 Ethernet cable. But for USB 2.0, a one-port extender will set you back $700 and a 4-port, $800.

For an inexpensive USB 1.1 option, check out IOGear’s GUCE51 USB (shown in picture; around $80). It’s single-port, and extends to a claimed 198 feet using standard Ethernet cable.

 

I’VE SEEN THE LIGHT

Kensington’s USB Flylight (www.kensington.com) is a small light that plugs into your USB port—great for working with laptops under low lighting. It typically costs under $20, and the flexible neck lets you aim the light wherever needed.

 

OUT OF SPACE, BUT NOT OUT OF MICS . . .

Other popular USB mics include the Røde Podcaster ($349), a dynamic cardioid USB mic; we didn’t give it the full treatment here because Røde says it’s tailored for voice. However, while it’s great for podcasting, some musicians also swear by it for recording vocals. Nady’s USB-1C ($229.95) features a large, pressure-gradient condenser gold-sputtered diaphragm, cardioid polar pattern, and FET preamp. And there are others, but let’s wrap up.

 

BUT I WANT TO USE MY OWN MIC!

You have your own favorite mic, but it’s not USB. Fortunately, both CEntrance and MXL make interfaces with an XLR connector at one end, a USB connector at the other, and electronics in between.

The MXL Mic Mate ($99, www.mxl-usb.com) is the simpler of the two, with +48V phantom power, 3-position analog gain control, 16-bit resolution, and like other MXL USB mics, 44.1/48kHz sampling rates. The USB output works with any standard USB cable.

We reviewed CEntrance’s MicPort Pro ($149.95, www.centrance.com) in the 03/08 issue. It’s similar to the Mic Mate, but the extra expense goes to adding a headphone jack (with volume control) for monitoring, mic level control for zero-latency monitoring, and 24/96 resolution. There’s also a +48V phantom power switch.

For either adapter, I’d recommend throwing a female-to-male XLR cable in your backpack. While it’s convenient to plug your XLR mic into either adapter directly, sometimes you might not want the extra length/weight. FYI: CEntrance is about to introduce the AxePort interface for guitar, but it was not yet available for review.

 

CONCLUSIONS

USB mics started out as the Rodney Dangerfields of the mic world, getting no respect. But over time, that opinion has changed. Laptop jockeys and podcasters were the first to appreciate the simplification USB mics provide. Then songwriters got into the act, realizing that they could nail vocal ideas anywhere they had a laptop—and could often get up and running faster with a desktop system, as well. Now, even audio engineers recognize that when you run out of mics, pressing a USB mic into service can not only save a session, but often, produce results on a par with non-USB, upper-middle-class mics.

Even if you have no interest in USB mics, at least get an inexpensive one. You’ll find uses you never considered, such as speech recognition for your computer, online telephony, and other applications that don’t necessarily involve music. Then one day, you’ll need to get down a song idea or do some narration, and you’ll be hooked. The Snowflake is a fine choice due to its convenience, low price, and decent all-around performance. The Snowball is a logical step up from that.

If you’re a songwriter with a laptop, consider a USB mic with zero-latency monitoring and a headphone jack (make sure you check out the GTrack). That eliminates additional gear you’d otherwise need. If you have to use a particular non-USB mic because it flatters your voice, then the MicPort Pro is an excellent option if you need monitoring (it can also provide high-quality audio from your laptop—I take it on trips). For tighter budgets, the MXL Mic Mate is ideal.

Or you can hedge your bets and get a solid, high-quality mic like the USB.007, sE USB2200a, or AT2020 USB. These mics illustrate why people have more than one mic in a mic locker: The MXL’s stereo capabilities and sonic accuracy are welcome in a USB mic, the AT2020 gives a hotter, more present sound that’s great for cutting through a mix, and the USB2200a’s smooth, neutral response is ideal for capturing a variety of acoustic instruments, including percussion. These are all fine mics on their own that you can use in recording situations, but if you need portability, you have that as well thanks to USB. The USB2200a is of particular note, because while it’s more costly, having the analog and USB outputs is a nice touch—and it has monitoring options if needed. And don’t overlook the C01U, just because it’s been around a while; it’s a good compromise of price and performance.

Granted, not everyone needs a USB mic. But for those who do, the time has come where you no longer need to make any sonic apologies for using one.

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