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USB condenser microphone – Is it worthy? Is it better than regular XLR?

November 15, 2019 • 7 min read

It might be tempting to get this piece of equipment especially if you’re just starting to set up your home studio. It’s low investment, connects easily, very practical… However, there are many disadvantages to getting a USB condenser microphone and you must know them before making an investment. After all, you’ll want to make the best of your recordings to produce quality material. Because of that, you must know the main differences between one of these models and their XLR counterparts.

The pros of the USB Condenser Microphone

Obviously, not everyone can immediately invest in an XLR model. If you’re just now getting into the field with little money to invest, some improvisation might work. At least temporarily. But you should always keep in mind these tricks are supposed to help you temporarily. Use the USB condenser microphone for musical Productions only as a last alternative. A few positive aspects of USB models are:
  • A good USB condenser microphone is, of course, a condenser: the best XLR brands make USB alternatives. Their components are usually excellent;
  • Since it's a condenser, it has similar characteristics: acceptable frequency response, accentuated sub-bass and medium, a wider range of high frequencies, sensibility, etc.;
  • You don't need an audio interface to go with it: the connection is made via your computer’s USB;
  • They're complete: they have, internally, a microphone preamp and an AD converter. It receives its 5V power through the USB cable (which will be converted to phantom power, necessary for the functioning of the circuit);
  • They meet external demands very well: since they’re “independent”, they’re ideal when the recording requires you to move a lot.

The cons of the USB Condenser Microphone

On the other hand, a USB condenser microphone will also have the following characteristics:
  • High latency: because most of the processing work is done by the driver and the computer internal audio interface; 
  • The need for a built-in headphone output jack: otherwise, the raise in processing demand may cause the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) to freeze constantly as it tries to cope with two devices, the one recording (the microphone itself) and the output jack in the PC (used for the headphone); 
  • Unableness to use better quality AD (analog-to-digital) converters: you’ll be stuck with the internal, built-in converter.
  • Reduced recording quality: they may not work well (or be incompatible) with recordings in more demanding settings, like above 48kHz or 24bits.
You must consider all these factors with caution. The use of a USB condenser microphone in musical recording studios may not be appropriate in the end.

The true purpose of the USB Condenser Microphone

Many people insist that, yes, they can be used perfectly well in a studio. The main argument for that is you can buy them in music stores. But this doesn’t happen because they’re ideal – it happens because they are microphones. It isn’t a real reason. The USB condenser microphone was created for other purposes. The main goal was to cheapen the price of the condenser for narration or recorded speeches. After all, when comparing a dynamic mic and a USB condenser, the difference is alarming. With the advent of streaming channels, such need arose. And let’s face: an ASMR or streaming channel doesn’t need that much money to function. If the voice recording has some quality, that's enough. The same goes for voice-overs. As such, the USB condenser mic works best for these types of work. They’re certainly the perfect alternative in those cases. But there are also some who might need it for music production in an emergency. That’s why we’ll be talking about its use in practice.

USB Condenser Microphone: Problems with Integration

You may already have a good mic preamp, an excellent audio interface. In other words, you may alreadt have a well-established studio. If that is the case, the USB condenser microphone won’t live up to your studio’s standard. After all, you won’t be able to connect it to the XLR inputs. You’ll have to use a USB port and also the built-in preamp. If you have a notebook, you’ll drain its battery much faster since the creation of Phantom Power will depend on the notebook – not the interface – as a power source. There’s another problem with the use of more than one USB condenser microphone. You’ll occupy countless computer connections which will affect the recording. The DAW might even freeze frequently. In such cases, your work will be at risk. Remember that external USB HUBs don’t do miracles. You’ll need to use one with its own separate power source. In other words, more money to invest without the advantages of an audio interface.

USB Condenser Microphone and DAW

Other setbacks may arise when you integrate the USB condenser microphone and the DAW. There’ll be a different result for each operational system. If you have a DAW that doesn’t allow for the use of different devices for input and output, you’ll need: - On Mac: to create an instance of Aggregate Device and use it as a device in your DAW. It’s also possible to use third-party software to do the job, such as Soundflower; - On Windows: third party software, like VB Audio Cable. This donationware will allow you to create a virtual cable connecting the devices. In the end, you’ll have to enable monitoring “Listen to this device” in the virtual cable settings.  All of this will be necessary because the USB condenser microphone will use the standard driver for each system: Core Audio on MAC OS; WMD on Windows.

Facing synchronization and latency problems

Especially for those who use Windows PC: when you use a USB condenser microphone, you may not even be able to open the DAW. This happens precisely because of the WMD driver. Since it wasn’t created for musical production, it works with a lot of delays in processing. This causes latency. The DAW simply can’t work like this. In these cases, the use of ASIO4ALL is a must. It’s an excellent alternative for those unable to buy an interface with native ASIO and an XLR mic. If you don’t know what ASIO4ALL is, it’s nothing more than a software that emulates an ASIO driver (available only in external interfaces) and processes audio, reducing latency and making the connection with the DAW possible.  If you need to use the USB condenser microphone for now, download and install ASIO4ALL to avoid future difficulties. 

USB Condenser Microphone – Recommendations

Arcano's Ar-u200 Sb

The Ar-u200 is a cheap USB condenser microphone option. Although most streamers prefer the BKU-01, we chose this one. Why? Because the BKU-01 doesn’t have an output jack for monitoring. As we said before, it’s very important to unburden processing by using the built-in jack in the microphone. The Ar-u200 is of suitable quality, as it has the monitoring output and costs way less. Besides, it comes with many useful accessories, such as anti-pop and a case. Ar-u200 Sb USB Condenser Microphone The Ar-u200’s price range goes from R$ 250,00 and R$ 280,00.

Blue Microphones’ Blue Yeti USB Blackout Professional Condenser

Blue Microphones’ Blue Yeti is known as a gem. Its recording quality and sturdiness are very talked-about. However, it’s a device of considerable weight and it should be fixed to something. Unlike Arcano, Blue Yeti isn’t cheap – you buy it for about R$ 1300,00. And it doesn’t have an output for monitoring. Blue Yeti USB Condenser Microphone

Samson's C01U PRO

The praise for Samson’s C01U comes from its combination of excellency and output for headphones. Besides, it sells for a more affordable price than other options. You can find it for sale with an average price of R$ 570,00. C01U PRO USB Condenser Microphone

In short

If you just need to deal with an emergency or complete a simple task, a USB condenser microphone may help you. Things like game narration, voice-overs, YouTube channels, amateur singing, etc. can benefit from using this device. If you want to take music production seriously, wait a while. Save the money you’d invest in a USB to buy an XLR condenser and an interface later on. Besides coming across fewer obstacles during your work, the results can be much superior. You won’t regret waiting a little longer. On the contrary: you’ll have a real work studio in your house. Your future productions will thank you.
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