Roundup – USB Mics

What comes to mind when you hear “USB microphone?”
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What comes to mind when you hear “USB microphone?” If images of cheap plastic mics with poor audio quality, limited bandwidth, and horrible latency spring to mind, you’re not alone. Many tech geeks and recording aficionados consider USB microphones as strictly for consumers, and little more than audio toys that couldn’t be useful for “real” work. I used to think that too, until I was exposed to some of the latest-generation USB mics. For example, I had an opportunity to try out the Blue Yeti Pro as part of an Electronic Musician Roundup last July, and was surprised by just how far apart my preconceptions were from the mic’s actual performance. In the process, I gained a better understanding of just how useful these mics can be.

With no need for an external preamp or converter, modern USB mics are perfect for laptop jockeys and those who need to travel light. Models with built-in low-latency headphone monitoring are great for making Skype, iChat, and other video conference calls, but also work well with voice recognition and speech-to-text software. Sample hunters who need a good-sounding mic for capturing sounds in the field will appreciate the speed with which they can be set up and dialed in. USB mics are also useful for music educators and students, allowing pupils to hear back their own performances immediately after they play, which can help them more readily hear the performance issues that the teacher is trying to highlight. Of course, USB mics are also ideal for recording podcasts, voiceover, and narration for desktop video production. For musicians and songwriters, they’re quick and simple to set up, allowing you to get your ideas down fast before the inspiration wanes.

For this Roundup, we’ll look at some strong USB performers and cover what each mic does well, how they compare, and even talk a bit about which potential applications are the best matches for specific mics.

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Spark Digital
MSRP $199.99/$199.99 street

Blue’s microphones are well-known for their distinct visual appeal, and Spark Digital is no exception. The mic’s royal blue body is accented by chrome at the top and bottom; the “lollipop” design mounts the condenser capsule in a double-mesh screen enclosure that sits on a stem at the mic’s top. No windscreen is included, so using a pop screen to reduce plosives and wind noise is pretty much essential. (Blue’s optional fine mesh Spark Pop filter works with the Spark Digital and addresses this issue.) While reasonably compact (7.76" x 1.77"), this isn’t a tiny mic, nor at 1.25 pounds is it a lightweight.

Blue’s Spark comes in two different versions—a standard model with the expected XLR output, as well as Spark Digital, a USB version that interfaces with your computer or iOS device (e.g., iPad or iPhone). Both are solid-state, cardioid condenser mics featuring the same capsule, Class A discrete electronics with 32dB of gain, transformerless output, 128dB maximum SPL, and low (10dB A-weighted) self-noise rating. The digital model incorporates a 16-bit/44.1kHz converter.

Spark Digital includes two cables to connect to the mini USB output connector at the bottom of the mic. One has a standard USB plug at the end, while the second terminates in an Apple 30-pin iOS connector. Both are “Y” cables that also split off to a 3.5mm female stereo output jack to provide low-latency headphone interfacing. While no cable was included for use with my Lightning-equipped iPad mini, I was able to use Apple’s 30-pin-to-Lightning adapter (sold separately) to interface the Spark Digital with both my iPad and iPhone 5 for recording in GarageBand.

Accessories include a very nice plush drawstring storage bag (with a second internal pocket for cable storage) and a distinctive-looking desktop stand that incorporates a shock mount for the mic. This is quite effective at reducing stand-borne vibrations from reaching the mic and muddying up your recordings. Blue’s optional standard shock mount, used on the original Spark, is also suitable for mic stand mounting.

A very clever design allows a single knob on the mic’s front to serve as a level control for the headphones, as well as for setting recording levels. Four small LED level indicators change from blue to orange, depending on the selected control mode; the knob defaults to headphone control (blue LED indicators), but when pressed and held for three seconds, it turns into a mic gain level control. A single quick push on the knob turns the mute function on or off. With mute engaged, the knob’s LED indicator flashes.

Like the original Spark, Spark Digital also offers a unique Focus control option to provide two different sounds from a single mic. With the Focus switch engaged, the lows are pulled back and the mic has a brighter, more detailed tonal character. The highs are very smooth and the overall frequency response is flatter, with less presence peak or high frequency lift than some of the other condensers in this roundup. This makes Spark Digital a good “all-around” mic, and it works well on a variety of instruments as well as for vocal recording.

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MSRP $369/$229 street

Talk about misconceptions. When I saw the pictures of the Podcaster’s white body, I figured it had a plastic housing—but it’s a hefty, metal-bodied mic that bears more than a passing resemblance to the E/V RE20 in not only overall form factor, but also weight. This is a large, solid mic, measuring more than 8.5" long and weighing 21.5 ounces.

Unlike the other mics in this roundup, the Podcaster isn’t a condenser mic but a dynamic, moving-coil design with a 28mm capsule. It’s also the only end-address mic of the bunch. Frequency response is 40Hz-14kHz, with a presence peak in the 8kHz–10kHz range for increased vocal intelligibility. The cardioid pattern is probably the tightest of all the mics in this roundup, so if off-axis rejection is critical, this is a good mic to consider. Additionally, due to the slightly less forward-sounding highs, it’s also less subject to sibilance issues than some of the brighter-sounding condenser models in the roundup.

The Podcaster includes an internal pop filter, and RØDE’s WS2 foam windscreen is available as an optional purchase if you need to further reduce plosives and wind noise. Internal shock mounting for the capsule helps minimize handling noise, but the Podcaster is suited best to stand mounting (as opposed to handheld use), due to its size and weight.

Like all RØDE mics, the Podcaster is designed and manufactured in Australia. You can extend the standard one-year RØDE warranty to a full ten years simply by registering your purchase on the RØDE website. The unusually long warranty period speaks well of RØDE’s faith in the mic’s ruggedness and durability.

Externally, a single bi-color (red/green) status LED lets you know that the mic is connected and powered up. It also has a 3.5mm headphone jack (the mic supports low-latency direct monitoring) and a volume knob to adjust the headphone level. The USB port is located in the base of the mic. A 3m USB cable is also included, as well as a stand adapter. RØDE’s PSM1 shock mount is compatible with the Podcaster, and can be purchased separately for those requiring additional isolation from stand-borne vibrations.

The Podcaster is plug-and-play compatible with both PC (Windows/Linux) and Mac, and requires no additional driver software installation. While iOS compatibility isn’t available out of the box, the Podcaster will work with iOS devices if you use Apple’s Camera Connection Kit and a powered USB hub. Maximum SPL is a respectable 115dB, so no matter how loud you talk or sing into it, overloading will likely not be an issue; the A-to-D converter is 18-bit, and supports sample rates from 8kHz-48kHz.

The Podcaster easily provides clear, clean-sounding broadcast quality recordings. Although you can certainly record instruments with it too, I feel it’s best suited for podcasting, as well as for use with vocal recognition and text-to-speech software, desktop video narration, voiceover work, and other similar vocal-related duties.

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MSRP $311/$249 street

This wins the “largest box of the roundup” award—and when I opened it, I was surprised to see a camera-style carrying case containing the PG42 USB itself, a 9.8-foot (3m) USB cable, and a shock mount. This professional-level mic inspires confidence; while reasonably compact, the all-metal body has some heft to it, and almost feels like an elongated hand grenade. While I don’t recommend throwing it, I suspect it would hold up well to the rigors of mobile use.

The grille is also substantial, with a fine-weave inner-mesh screen surrounded by a somewhat more open, yet very heavy-duty, second external mesh layer. Although this construction decreases the mic’s susceptibility to vocal pops from plosives, using an external pop filter is still recommended. True to Shure’s legendary reputation for durability, the body-mounted controls are also solid. They’re recessed slightly to help protect them from accidental damage, but the design still allows for easy adjustments. Two rotary wheel controls, one on either side of the mic, adjust the mic gain and headphone volume. Around back you’ll find a 1/8" stereo headphone jack for monitoring, and a Monitor Mix control that adjusts the ratio of playback audio and mic signal for latency-free direct monitoring. The USB output jack is at the bottom of the mic.

The Shure PG42 is available in both standard (XLR output) and USB versions, but it’s an either/or choice, and dual outputs are unavailable. As with all other mics in this Roundup, USB supplies power for the onboard electronics, so the mic requires a powered USB 1.1 (or later) port. The PG42 USB is plug-and-play on both Mac and PC; driver installation is not an issue.

The large-diaphragm (1.1"/27mm), side-address condenser design is certainly usable for instrumental recording, but it’s intended primarily as a vocal mic—so the 20Hz–20kHz frequency response is tailored with an upper-midrange presence peak centered at 6.5kHz, and a second high frequency lift from around 10kHz–15kHz. The rest of the response is admirably flat; a switchable highpass filter rolls off the lows below 120Hz by 12dB/octave. This is very effective at countering any low frequency buildup due to the proximity effect. The cardioid pickup pattern is tight, which provides decent isolation from surrounding sounds.

With the -15dB pad switch on the mic’s rear engaged, the PG42 USB can take up to 135dB SPL without caving, and the mic is calibrated well—with the mic gain knob at minimum, a 135dB max SPL input to the mic provides full-scale digital output. There’s 31dB of available gain from the onboard preamp, with signal level shown by a tricolor LED located next to the gain control (signals between -30 to -12dB FS display as green, signals above that turn the LED yellow, and a flashing red LED indicates converter clipping). The converter is mono, 16-bit, and supports sample rates up to 48kHz.

The lack of an included stand means you’ll need to provide your own, but the shock mount is effective, reduces stand-borne vibration, and serves the PG42 USB well for vocal recording duties—even if the singer likes to tap their feet while singing. This is a USB mic that sounds terrific on vocals, and is a strong contender for laptop users who need to record high-quality vocal and instrument tracks on the go.

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Studio Projects

MSRP $179.99, $179.99 street

The Studio Projects LSM (Little Square Mic) is one of the smallest and most compact mics of this roundup, making it an excellent choice for those who need a super-portable microphone for mobile use. Available in black, white, red, and even pink, the LSM also has serious visual appeal.

The mic’s length is just a tiny fraction over 5", and it’s 3" wide at the widest point. The LSM is also remarkably flat and thin, with a maximum thickness of only 1". While the LSM’s head grille is actually square, the overall body shape is rectangular and rather flat, and can fit easily into a shirt pocket.

Externally, the LSM is simplicity itself. The construction is all-metal and robust, with a heavy-duty mesh grille covering the 34mm (large-diaphragm) condenser capsule. The mic body mounts into an integrated yoke, which has the threaded mic stand adapter built right into the bottom. The yoke also serves as an integrated “kickstand” for desktop use. You can tighten or loosen the yoke with two thumb screws; they hold the mic firmly in position without slipping, while allowing for easy mic orientation adjustments.

The mic’s backside has two connectors: a mini USB plug, as well as a mini XLR jack. This dual-output design allows using the LSM conventionally with the included 6' mini XLR-to-standard XLR adapter cable, or as a USB mic with the included USB cable. This design approach provides an unusual amount of versatility; you can throw the LSM into your computer bag’s accessory compartment for on-the-go use with your laptop, or combine it with your favorite mic preamp in the studio. Powering comes from either 48V phantom on the mini XLR jack, or USB bus powering when used with the USB connector. Don’t have a mic preamp with phantom power available? No problem—the USB connection can power the LSM, even without having phantom power available on the mini XLR jack, and even when using the USB and XLR outputs simultaneously. That’s right—both outputs can be used at the same time. The USB output comes after a 16-bit A/D converter, which supports sample rates of up to 48kHz.

There are no built-in monitoring capabilities, headphone jack, or other controls of any kind. As most laptops have headphone jacks, this shouldn’t be a major issue, although depending on the system and drivers used, latency can be a concern. To help overcome this, Studio Projects recommends using the ASIO4ALL driver instead of the default Windows WDM plug-and-play driver. This can result in much lower latency.

The LSM’s audio quality is clear, open, and sounds surprisingly “pro,” with a slight forward emphasis on the highs. The LSM works great on guitar amps, drums, and other instruments, and it takes loud levels without flinching. Of all the mics in this roundup, the LSM is one of the best-suited to serve as not only a mobile recording tool for laptop users, but as a utility mic in the studio. If your budget is tight, but you need a mic that can work equally well in both environments, this is a fitting choice.

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MSRP $199/$199 street

This is another ultra-compact microphone—MiC combines a mic, preamp, and converter in an all-metal body that measures about 4.5" in length, making it a bit shorter than an iPhone 5. Despite its diminutive size, the USA-made MiC feels solid and sturdy, and the black-and-gray color scheme looks classy.

This side-address cardioid condenser mic uses a small-diaphragm capsule mounted under a dual-layer mesh grille. Apogee recommends using an external pop filter when recording vocals with the MiC. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come with a windscreen, although it does come with a 1m USB cable, as well as an iOS 30-pin cable and desktop tripod. An optional mic stand adapter is available, as are longer (3m) USB and 30-pin iOS cables. The stand and tripod mounts can interface with a standard “tripod style” thread insert on the MiC’s back.

The MiC is Mac-compatible; although it doesn’t offer official PC support, you can use ASIO4ALL as a PC driver. Marketed as being for GarageBand on iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, and Mac, MiC works well with all of these, as well as with more fully-featured programs like Pro Tools (Version 9 or later), Logic, and other Core Audio applications. You can even use two MiC units for stereo recording via the Mac’s interface aggregation capabilities. While the included documentation says MiC is compatible only with iPhone 4 and 4S and iPad 1 and 2, I was able to use it with more current devices, including an iPad Mini and iPhone 5. While a 0.5m USB-to-30-pin cable comes with MiC, to use it with the latest generation iOS devices, you’ll need one of Apple’s 30-pin-to-Lightning adapters ($29–$39, depending on model).

The onboard mic preamp supplies up to 40dB gain—plenty for nearly any recording task—and the converters are the level you’d expect from Apogee, with stellar sound quality and full 24-bit resolution, at your choice of 44.1kHz or 48kHz sample rates. The sound is smooth, clear, and detailed, with a slight high-frequency emphasis and reasonable proximity effect boost to the low frequencies when used at close range.

A single rotary-wheel-style gain control on MiC’s side is the only adjustable control, but a clever multicolor LED on the front lets you know the mic’s status at a glance—blue for connected but not ready, green for connected and functioning with your software, orange when you’re approaching clipping, and red when the levels are set too high. By adjusting the level control and watching the LED, you can set levels without having to look at your computer. This is great if you need to move the mic away from the computer to minimize fan noise.

There’s no headphone out or other monitoring capability, but as MiC is designed to work with devices that all feature headphone output jacks, this isn’t a significant issue. Furthermore, your iPhone or iPad’s headphone jack is still available for use with your choice of headphones or ear buds.

This a wonderful-sounding little mic. Because of its simple, hassle-free, plug-in-and-go compatibility with Macs and iOS devices, MiC is a great choice for GarageBand users, or anyone who wants to improve their iOS device’s audio-capture capabilities, regardless of the Core Audio application you’re using. Due to its small size, MiC also makes a fine traveling companion, and is very well-suited to the demands of mobile recording—while being compact enough to be a no-brainer to carry it around for when you need it.

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Studio 24 USB
MSRP $169.95 /$159.95 street

MXL’s Studio 24 USB is a cardioid condenser microphone with a 22mm diaphragm, placing it into the medium-diaphragm condenser category. It measures 6.89" x 1.85", and weighs 0.75 pounds (12 ounces). It has a classy-looking retro visual vibe, with a matte gray body and highly chromed head basket and grille. When connected to a powered USB port, a red LED behind the grille lights up to indicate the “front” of the mic.

This is one of the best accessorized mics in the roundup, starting with a heavy-duty, “binder-style” reinforced cloth-covered zip-up travel case. Inside are several pockets and storage areas for its various system components, including a small, two-piece desktop stand, a threaded mic stand adapter that attaches to the mic’s base, heavy-duty 3m USB cable, a helpful (and well-written) 27-page owner’s manual, software installation CD-ROM, and even an MXL polishing cloth. A separate compartment holds the mic itself. Unfortunately, there’s no windscreen or pop filter included, although the case is large enough to hold the one you’ll likely want to buy and keep handy.

The software includes the MXL Studio Control installers for both Mac (OSX 10.4.11 or later) and Windows, along with a 30-day trial version of Cockos’ Reaper DAW software. MXL’s software adds considerably to the Studio 24 USB’s control capabilities; while the mic’s body has only a 3.5mm headphone jack and single rotary gain control, other features are accessible through the Studio Control software’s extensive controls. You can adjust the mic input levels, and in addition to the gain control, the mic has four highpass filter settings (off /120Hz/235Hz/465Hz), as well as mute and phase-invert buttons. A noise gate offers four attack time options (50ms/100ms/150ms/200ms), with a continuously variable threshold from -34dB down to –82dB. Also included: a software leveler with separate minimum and maximum threshold controls, as well as fully adjustable attack and release knobs. Three more virtual knobs provide control over playback level from the software running on your computer, headphone volume level, and mic monitor level for near-zero latency direct monitoring through the 3.5mm headphone output. You can save your favorite settings as presets for later recall.

The disc doesn’t include the latest ASIO4ALL driver, but it’s always best to go online and download the latest available version anyway. Overall, installing the MXL Studio Control software is painless, and everything just worked—no unpleasant surprises or issues.

Sonically, the Studio 24 USB leans towards being slightly bright, with a noticeable presence peak centered in the 8kHz–10kHz region that adds detail and sheen. The software-adjustable low-frequency rolloff allows compensating for proximity-effect bass boost, as well as reducing any subsonic gunk. While I did notice a bit of noise in the headphone feed at some settings, it didn’t translate to the recordings I made. The 24-bit converters sound very good, and support sample rates up to 48kHz. This mic is a solid choice for laptop users who want a very good-sounding USB microphone that’s suitable for high-resolution 24-bit recording, and which offers extensive control over the input signal.

Phil O’Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer/producer, and the associate editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, and Voodoo Glow Skulls. His articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard and Guitar Player magazines.