If you are teetering on the edge of consumer-level audio recording and editing and pro-am audio/video needs, then you may find yourself considering a USB condenser microphone. These all-in-one solutions will certainly deliver much higher audio quality than your built-in webcam microphone or any other piece of audio hardware that came with your computer when you bought it. But there are some pros and cons to choosing a USB condenser microphone that should be factored into your long term hardware investment plans.
A USB microphone is designed for convenience and for your budget. In essence, a USB microphone is intended to do what a proper digital audio setup does, but with less components and less upfront cost. To properly record high quality vocals or instruments, including podcast voiceovers, interviews and singing, you should have a high quality soundcard or audio interface and a standard condenser microphone that receives phantom power, either from a mixer or the audio interface itself. You should also have a preamp. That’s a lot of equipment to buy, especially if you’ll only be performing simple recording tasks. A USB microphone, on the other hand, achieves largely the same result as all of this equipment, but you only have to buy one piece of hardware—usually a $150 to $500 USB microphone, versus $600 to $1,000 worth of audio equipment.
All the above being said, a USB microphone won’t produce the same level of quality as the real thing. The difference may be indiscernible to you, but in terms of value, you get more for your money by buying the proper equipment, instead of opting for convenience. USB microphones will usually have more latency than a “real” microphone plugged into a good interface.
Pro: Less of a Learning Curve
Here are the instructions for installing a USB microphone: plug in microphone. Install drivers, if needed. The getting started guide for a preamp, interface, mixer and condenser microphone can’t be contained in this short article—nor can the guidelines for getting the most out of your high end equipment. For an out-of-the-box solution that “just works,” choose the USB microphone.
Con: Drivers, Firmware and Compatibility
Analog microphones and other standard audio equipment never (or very, very rarely) has compatibility issues. A Shure SM57 you bought in the 1990s will definitely still work with your PA or recording equipment today. The same can’t be said for a USB microphone. Changes to audio drivers, operating systems and other software issues can make your USB microphone behave erratically or cease functioning altogether.
Playing a gig? Going into a studio? Processing audio with live effects? USB microphones won’t work quite as well. It’s possible, but few AV guys will want to bother with it. A standard microphone with XLR inputs will work with any pro setup.
When investing in audio hardware, think long. Are you a casual podcaster who wants to remove some of the background noise and hiss from your voiceover? Or are you an aspiring musician who plans to cut an album one day? If you plan on going bigger and better, a USB microphone may be a bit restrictive for your future needs.