Best USB Microphones for Podcasting
When researching podcasting on the web, an often-expressed opinion is that it’s easy and inexpensive to get started - creating your own podcast is a process that requires little experience or overhead. While superior sound quality may not be high on the list of differentiating qualities in an already oversaturated ocean of podcasts, being aware of and following a few basic (audio) principles is essential to getting started.
Your microphone selection is, arguably, the first order of business. Researching the best USB microphones is where you should start. USB microphones essentially work the same way as standard studio mics (as you may have heard them referred to), with the added features of an onboard preamp and an analog-to-digital (A/D) converter. As you might expect, there will be plenty of variety across your search results in terms of pricing and operational features. More important though, will be their common characteristics of simplicity and convenience, allowing you to set up and get started with minimal fuss.
USB microphones contain all the components found in their traditional ancestors: capsules, diaphragms, magnets, leads, etc. As such, the basic working mechanism of the microphone (the conversion of sound waves to audio signal) remains the same. The fundamental difference is the inclusion of an on-board analog to digital converter, which effectively means you can connect directly to your computer and record - without the need for an extra audio interface.
Is a USB microphone better than analog?
Since the innovation of the microphone in the early 20th century, there have been only incremental changes to the underlying technology and this, to a large extent, explains how even lower-price options are able to offer comparable quality. Access to and incorporation of high-quality components (at lower costs) in modern microphones means there is an unprecedented plethora of options for well-designed mics able to deliver good results in different scenarios.
USB mics have much to offer in the area of plug-and-play convenience, but the trend has not yet extended to the high-end market. For the time being, USB mics are primarily intended for musicians with a limited budget, YouTubers, podcasters, frequent travelers and generally any professional (or amateur) looking to minimize their reliance on external gear. Their greatest advantages are portability and ease-of-use.
Where many USB mics fall short is sheer sound quality and technical limitations, at least for those seeking world-class results. While there are many notable exceptions (mentioned later on) that deliver excellent value for money and are able to compete with their analog counterparts, classic XLR mics in the higher price brackets are still on a different level. In other words, USB microphones are perfectly capable of handling projects such as podcasts, YouTube videos or home demos. However, they can be noticeably below the standard you’d expect from professional, studio recordings.
Other areas in which USB microphones lag behind analog are construction quality, compatibility, interface options and latency. While the first two issues can be avoided with a reasonable degree of research prior to purchase, the latter two require a greater deal of consideration.
As USB microphones act as their own audio interface, the single channel limitation means that the computer’s input (and output in certain situations) will only communicate with the microphone and no other source. This is a severe limitation if we want to use two or more microphones at once. Secondly, as all digital audio signal paths create some latency, you can expect (particularly in lower-end models) a significant delay in monitoring that can affect the performance of the microphone user.
As you begin to deal with sound recordings on a frequent basis, you will likely become aware of numerous issues that can come along with making them sound good. Regardless of microphone quality, sometimes there are anomalies and noise problems that you simply can’t avoid, despite following all the rules to getting great sound. In these cases, noise reduction and repair software are invaluable tools.
The short answer is no! The whole point of a USB microphone and how it works is to seamlessly capture an analog input and convert it to digital signal - bypassing the need for a soundcard (internal or external). In addition to housing a built-in audio interface, most USB microphones also include a dedicated preamp which will ensure that the recorded signal is at the appropriate level.
Overall, a USB microphone is a great way of getting started with recording on your computer or tablet - all you have to do is plug in and you’re set. Recording a solo speaker, as in the cases of video voiceovers, podcasts, internet radio, skype and other forms of chat, hypnotherapy tapes, conferences, interviews and so on, are ideal scenarios for these mics to thrive in. Most importantly you will not be overwhelmed, as they are so simple to set up, connect and operate, that you will actually achieve a great recording result within minutes.
However, if you know right now that you want a home studio set up where you want to record several instruments, hook up keyboards and other hardware, then you probably should be looking at a slightly more flexible solution that includes an audio interface, instead.
Having established that, to a certain degree, USB microphones are able to compete with traditional analog models in terms of quality and capable of delivering good recordings, our question essentially boils down to what instruments you want to record, and in what kind of (acoustic) space.
To shed more light on this matter, we’ll need to consider some basic acoustic principles and how they will affect your choice of mic. USB microphones operate using the same technology as XLRs, with the major difference being their built-in audio interfaces. Therefore to further understand how they work, we should quickly discuss how ‘typical’ microphones work.
There are three different types of microphone transducer that convert sound into audio: moving-coil dynamic transducers that convert sound into audio via electromagnetic induction, condenser transducers that convert by means of electrostatics, and ribbon microphone transducers, like dynamic transducers, that convert via electromagnetic induction (the movable “ribbon” shaped diaphragm is the notable difference). Dynamic microphones are designed to pick up all ambient sound in a room; from a variety of sources and angles. Condenser microphones reject signals emanating off-axis, making them ideal for focused, isolated sources of sound.
USB microphones can have any of the transducer types. Most of them, as you might expect having read the above explanation, tend to be condenser mics. Widely known for their applications in recording studios, their type of circuitry naturally produces a detailed response which makes them good for vocals, acoustic guitars, and various other focused (and in most cases delicate) sound sources. Dynamic mics are more versatile in recording situations as they are able to handle sounds of varying intensities such as singers with loud voices, amplified instruments, drum kits etc.
Another decisive factor in the outcome of your recording is the selection of space. While most of us might not have the luxury of choosing our recording environments, it’s useful to bear in mind that small spaces with hard, flat surfaces that reflect sound are going to complicate our task. Ideally, you should aim to try and find a space with few reflective surfaces, or lots of material that can absorb the sound: furniture, carpeting, or even a closet full of clothes can help. The best way to deal with audio problems is to prevent them from happening - cleanly recorded audio will make the technical aspects of editing and mixing much more straightforward, later on.
Another way of classifying microphones (and choosing a suitable candidate for your project) is how they capture audio. The four different types are cardioid (unidirectional), bidirectional, omnidirectional and shotgun. A cardioid microphone captures the sound in front of it, which is why it's also called unidirectional. Bidirectional mics record audio in opposite ways - front and back. An omnidirectional mic captures audio from every direction. Shotgun mics are designed similarly to cardioid mics - in that they are unidirectional - but take that focus to the extreme.
Of course, your selection will depend on the kind of YouTube content you are creating, as various mics will apply. If, for example, you are shooting on a DSLR, you could possibly consider mounting a shotgun mic on your camera. If you are geared towards more stationary projects, perhaps a lapel based mic might make more sense. In either case, you need the mic to generally be unidirectional and aimed at the person talking. In other settings, such as an interview or the fast-rising and hugely popular ASMR category, you might want to consider a bidirectional option, capable of capturing sources of sound coming from wider angles.
Learn more about recording voice for your next project on our blog here.
What is the best USB microphone?
USB microphones come in various shapes, sizes, specs and prices. While certain types will offer a higher degree of specialization and others can be useful in a wider variety of scenarios, the search for the “best” USB microphone is - as we’ve seen - depends, firstly on the results you want to achieve and secondly, on the budget you’re willing to commit.
To make things a little easier, here are our top 3 pics of some of the best USB mics out there:
Top 3 high-end USB mics
- Blue Yeti - Quite possibly the most popular USB microphone ever and widely considered the gold standard to which all others aspire in terms of flexibility, its tri-capsule electret condenser design allows the user to choose between cardioid, bidirectional, omnidirectional and stereo pickup patterns.
- Audio-Technica AT2020USB - One of the most popular and best USB mics out there, it’s ideally suited for singers and recordings artists looking for superior sound quality from their traditional cardioid mic.
- Rode NT-USB - Rode are one of the most popular manufacturers of high-quality audio equipment and this model, with on-the-mic mixing control, cardioid directional pattern and a pressure gradient with a SPL of 110dB (meaning you can probably scream into it and still have clarity), will likely become a classic in years to come.
Top 3 budget USB mics
- Samson Go - A no-frills, tiny, easy-to-use option for users who don't need top- notch studio recording quality or a dent in their budget.
- Fifine K669B - Incredibly cheap yet highly-rated, cardoid condenser microphone that does well for any real-time audio recording like podcasts and live-streaming.
- Razer Seiren - A very affordable option for gamers and streamers who need a portable and space-saving setup.
Top 3 specialist USB mics
- Rode Podcaster - As the name suggests, this microphone is designed for computer recording applications where wide frequency response and low distortion are demanded. Its plug and play and high quality A/D conversion make it an essential tool for podcasters.
- Apogee Mic Plus - Built with musicians in mind this mic offers excellent audio quality with Apogee's signature digital conversion - all in a sturdy and highly compact package!
- Rode Videomic NTG - a hybrid on-camera VideoMic/NTG shotgun mic with a pretty impressive feature set. It also has the versatility to be used as a boom microphone and a USB microphone.