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I’m often asked by people whether they need an audio interface with a USB mic. The easy answer is no you don’t.
You do not need an audio interface with a USB mic. USB microphones are designed so that they produce digital audio directly, without the need for an audio interface. You only need to connect them to your computer with a USB cable and the computer will set it up for you.
If you’re not sure about the difference between a USB microphone and an XLR microphone, or which type you should get, I’ll explain what you need to know.
What is an XLR Microphone
An XLR microphone is a mic that has an XLR connector. If you look at the base of the mic it will have three metal pins that connect to a female XLR connector. These microphones are usually professional quality and can be of several types, including Condenser, Dynamic, and Ribbon.
The audio cable used with an XLR microphone is usually of quite a thick diameter since it contains wires, a metal screen, and insulators. The design prevents interference and noise, so the cable run can be quite long without noticeable noise.
The end of the cable that plugs into an audio interface or sound mixer might be an XLR connector or ¼ inch jack.
What is a USB Microphone?
A USB microphone is a digital microphone that can be plugged directed into computer, usually via a USB socket. The USB microphone is usually a combination of a condenser microphone and a built-in analog-to-digital converter. The microphone converts sound into an analog electrical signal that represents the sound vibrations. This analog signal is changed into digital audio by the analog-to-digital converter.
Even the cheapest USB microphones are of reasonable quality, but their greatest asset is the convenience of plugging straight into the USB port of a computer.
Although most are condenser microphones, they do not require external power. The power they require is drawn from the computer’s USB socket.
What is a USB and XLR Combo Microphone?
These microphones provide flexible connectivity, via USB or XLR connector. Because they offer both types of audio connection, they tend to cost more money. However, they try to combine the convenience of USB with the option of professional XLR connection. A useful option of you plan to use a couple of different setups, say recording in a home studio but also recording on a laptop when away from the studio.
A good example is the Blue Yeti Pro USB condenser microphone. Although more expensive than its Blue Yeti stable mate, it has a better analog to digital converter chip for USB mode, plus a separate analog circuit path when connecting to an audio interface, preamp, or studio mixer. It also has a very respectable frequency response of 15 Hz – 22 kHz. In digital mode it allows you to record audio at a sample rate of 192 kHz at 24 bits.
Do I Need an XLR Cable for a USB Microphone?
You do not need an XLR microphone cable for a USB microphone. XLR cables are for microphones with XLR connectors, which are usually professional microphones.
USB microphones, as the name suggests, connect using a USB cable. In the case of cheaper USB microphones, the cable is often integrated into the microphone body. This means that if the cable develops a fault or gets broken, you will need to buy a new microphone.
With a more expensive USB microphone the cable is separate from the microphone. Faulty or broken cables can easily be replaced without buying a new microphone. You can also replace the supplied microphone with a longer USB cable, which is useful if you need to locate the microphone away from your computer or laptop.
Is a USB microphone as good as using an audio interface?
The quality of a USB Microphone’s analog to digital converter is usually linked to the price of the microphone. So, you can expect the digital audio from a USB microphone that costs $150 to be better than the audio from a USB microphone that costs only $20.
However, even the higher-priced USB microphones, do not usually perform as well as the combination of a good quality microphone and a good audio interface.
For example, a USB microphone costing $150 will inevitably contain cheaper, and therefore lower quality, analog-to-digital converters than a similarly priced audio interface.
The audio interface effectively only needs components to do one job, convert an analog input into digital audio. On the other hand, a USB microphone needs all the parts of a microphone plus the components to convert an analog input into digital audio. If the USB mic and audio interface both sell for the same amount, the USB mic will inevitably have to use cheaper analog-to-digital converters, which probably means they will be of lower quality.
So, you will always get better audio if you use a good analog microphone combined with a reasonably priced audio interface. For example, a Shure SM57 dynamic microphone + Cloudlifter preamp + Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (3rd Gen) USB audio interface will outshine a $150 USB microphone.
However, even with the inexpensive Shure SM57 microphone, the audio interface solution will cost more. Also, the USB microphone will be easier to set up and is ideal when you want good audio that is convenient and relatively inexpensive.
Last update on 2021-07-31 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
What USB Microphone Should I get?
If you need superior quality audio for professional use, say you want to become a voiceover artist, I recommend getting a decent quality mic, preamp, and audio interface. However, that lot will cost several hundred dollars and you probably don’t need that kit anyway.
For live streaming, making YouTube screencast videos, or if you just want to improve the audio on Zoom, Teams, or Skype, a USB mic would be perfect for you.
If all you need is a microphone that produces decent sound quality and plugs straight into your desktop or laptop computer’s USB socket, then the FIFINE K669B condenser microphone is difficult to beat. It’s cheap, sounds OK, and you’ll have it running soon after plugging it into your computer. This is a great starter microphone or if you need to improve your online meeting audio.
If you do need better quality and have a larger budget, I would recommend either the Blue Yeti or Samson G-Track Pro. Both are USB condenser microphones with built-in audio interfaces. You will be able to plug your headphones into the microphone to monitor the audio with zero latency (no delay). With a suitable connector, you can even use these two microphones to record audio on an iPhone or iPad.
The G-Track is great for music makers but can also be used for podcasts, live streaming, and YouTube videos. The Blue Yeti I’d used for podcasts, live streaming, and YouTube videos.
Can You Use a USB Mic with an Audio Interface?
No, you cannot use a USB mic with an audio interface. A USB Mic cannot be used with an audio interface or sound mixer. A USB mic produces digital audio, a sequence of ones and zeros. However, an audio interface or sound mixer is designed to work with analog audio and not digital inputs, which is why they use XLR or ¼ inch jack input connectors and not USB.
An audio interface is designed to take analog audio from a microphone, or instrument pick-up, and convert it into digital audio. The audio interface has high-quality built-in analog-to-digital converters. This ensures the digital audio mirrors the original analog audio signal as accurately as possible. The digital audio is passed from the audio interface to a computer using a USB or Firewire cable.
The use of an audio interface avoids using the lower quality analog-to-digital audio converters usually found on a computer’s motherboard. Therefore, the digital sound is a much more faithful representation of the original audio signal.
Does a USB Microphone have a Built-in Audio Interface?
USB microphones have an audio analogue to digital converter, just like an audio interface does. However, the analogue to digital converter in a USB microphone is not normally as high quality as the analogue to digital converter in an audio interface.
You can think of a USB microphone as consisting of two parts. The first is the microphone capsule that converts sound into an analog electrical signal. This analog signal is passed to the second part of the microphone, the built-in analog-to-digital converter. This is effectively the microphone’s audio interface, where the analog signal is converted to digital audio output.
Tosh Lubek runs an audio and video production business in the UK and has been using the Canon EOS R since it was released in the Autumn of 2018 and the Canon EOS R6 in 2020. He has used both cameras to shoot TV commercials broadcast on Sky TV, promotional business videos, videos of events and functions, and YouTube creator content. He has also won several international awards for his advertising and promotional work. You can meet him by visiting his “video booth” at HashTag Business Events across the country.
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