Mobile Mics

Operation Rising Star winner Melissa Gomez

Traditionally, one of the most important purchases home-recording singers and songwriters made was an audio interface.

Modern music has changed, with much of the hooks and musical phrases now produced by electronic instruments in-the-box. A growing segment relies on libraries and loops; so the ability to record real instruments isn’t a necessity to them. Dedicated singers and rappers who collaborate with other musicians or a producer don’t necessarily need an interface either.

It’s substantially cheaper to merge the mic with USB technology rather than take the established professional route of plugging an XLR mic into an audio interface. It’s also easier to setup and less can go wrong with technical aspect as you won’t have to worry about channel selection, engaging phantom power, etc.

USB mics are thought of as prosumer products, so truly high-end USB mics aren’t here, at least yet. The value packed into USB mics by Blue, Audio-Technica and others is astounding. This makes USB mics the perfect choice for an aspiring singer looking to get his or her feet wet.

Currently most USB mics are limited to recording 16-bit audio at 44.1kHz or 48kHz. 24-bit isn’t a must for music production but it allows for a greater margin of error, so if you don’t get your recording levels just right it’s usually a non issue. Still 16-bit is all you need as a delivery format, and for an entry-level mic its adequate.

While any USB mic will work for singers many are geared towards podcasters, gamers, or people that simply need a microphone for Skype. All popular USB mics are condenser mics and if the internal capsule is too small and chintzy, the recordings lack the rich body we expect from a vocal performance even though its a fine tool for speech.

With that said, let’s look at the best USB mics for vocals.

1. Rode NT-USB USB Condenser Microphone

Well-known for building the quintessential entry-level XLR condensers mic for home recording, the NT1, Rode has moved into the USB mic space with the NT-USB. The primary focus is vocals, not another podcasting mic marketed to musicians as an afterthought. It’s a rich sounding cardioid mic that captures an impressive frequency range 20Hz - 20kHz. Two knobs at the side control mic level in the mix as well as overall headphone monitoring level. It also includes a pop filter positioned at the ideal distance which any singer will need to reduce hard 'B', 'T' or 'P' sounds.

Full review of Rode NT-USB USB

Rode NT-USB USB Condenser Microphone Rode NT-USB USB Condenser Microphone
Sale Price: $169.00

Reviews


2. Apogee MiC 96k Microphone for iPad, iPhone, and Mac

MiC provides a big step up versus your standard USB mic in terms of professional features, so understandably it has a price to match. Like all Apogee gear it’s made to work exclusively with Apple products: iPad, iPhone, and Mac using either a Lightning or USB connection. It’s capable of recording at 24-bit/96kHz which makes it a serious tool as 24-bit recording is the standard in pro recording studios due to the headroom and flexibility it provides. Tiny and intended for serious musicians that need a travel recording rig.

Full review of Apogee MiC

3. Blue Yeti USB Microphone

Hugely popular upon release before falling under the shadow of the Snowball, the Yeti is a wonderful podcasting mic that is also a good choice for singers on a budget. Super feature rich with a tri-capsule array inside that allows you to select cardioid, bidirectional, omnidirectional and stereo recording modes. Cool for some of your wilder, creative miking ideas; not typical for USB mics to have options like this at any price. It’s metal, and better built than you might expect from a mic with cartoonishly rounded edges. Like the Yeti of legend, it’s pretty big so folks with tiny desks need not apply.

Full review of Blue Yeti

Blue Yeti USB Microphone - Blackout Edition Blue Yeti USB Microphone - Blackout Edition
List Price: $149.99
Sale Price: $89.00

Reviews


4. Audio-Technica AT2020USB Cardioid Condenser USB Microphone

This is just like AT2020 but with a USB connector rather than XLR. Pro studios owners tend to like Audio-Technica mics and although this is near the bottom of their line it’s still built like a brick house just like their high-end stuff. Audio-Technica mics sound great and this is no exception putting price into consideration. Smaller than you may think as it was dwarfed by the Yeti. Very simple with no dials or switches to mess with or to potentially break. Another reason this is the USB you’d wager could survive an apocalypse, as long as you ditch the wonky tripod that is included.

Full review of Audio-Technica AT2020USB

--

Photo: U.S. Army

IK-Multimedia-Rig-Mic-StudioBest known for excellent music production software like Amplitube and SampleTank, IK Multimedia has been building their line-up of affordable audio hardware similar to Apogee’s entry-level offerings.

Like the Apogee MiC 96k, iRig Mic Studio may be small in stature but it’s a serious tool aimed at musicians on the go and podcasters.

It can’t reach sample rates of 96kHz like the Apogee, however it’s priced lower and can record 24-bit up to 48kHz. Many professional recording studios don’t use sample rates any higher than 48kHz, so this is plenty for the budding musician or podcaster recording at home. At one time 24-bit was only available in the priciest USB mics to it’s encouraging to see technology advanced to the point IK Multimedia can offer it at such a low price point.

IK Multimedia is emphasing it’s 133dB SPL rating. This means you can record anything from a whispering voice to cranked guitar amps and snare drums.

Frequency response is rated at 20Hz to 20kHz. Sound quality is good with clear slightly exaggerated top-end, which makes it good for recording vocals.

The mic’s design is simple and sleek. On the front there are two knobs: one for recording gain and the other for headphone monitoring volume. There is a 3.5mm/1/8” jack on the back for connecting headphones.

I was skeptical about the claims of it having a “large-diaphragm capsule” inside due to the size of the mic. It turns out capsules classified as large-diaphragm range from about 32mm to 34mm (1.26” to 1.34”). The capsule inside the iRig Mic Studio is 1”. So yes, the claim is slightly exaggerated. Still, it’s amazing they are able to fit a decent sized capsule like this in such a small housing.

It can be connected to a huge array of devices: iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Mac, PC and Android. The cables needed to do so are included too: Lightning, Micro-USB OTG and USB cables (30-pin cable is not included).

To sweeten the deal a variety of IK Multimedia apps are included:

  • VocaLive for effects and mult-track recording (Apple iOS only)
  • EZ Voice for vocal practice along with backing tracks (iOS, Android)
  • iRig Recorder for field recording, podcasting, notes and more (iOS, Android)

Verdict

The iRig Mic Studio is a phenomenal bargain. For $50 more than the Yeti you get the ability to make 24-bit studio grade recordings and with a huge amount of connective options for use with iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Mac, PC and Android.

Bidirectional and omnidirectional recording modes are not present which can be useful for interviews or group recordings. However for most applications this feature won’t be missed much.

Sennheiser-ClipMic-digitalApogee’s innovation in the realm of mobile audio recording has been tireless. They seem to be betting that many podcasters, YouTubers and even self-recording musicians are coming to view even a rig comprising of a laptop, small audio interface and USB mic as burdensome.

Being able to record pro quality audio on an iPhone or iPad is great, but without a tiny, true pro quality mic it didn’t make as much sense to transition into a micro-sized recording setup.

Of course for the film/TV production crowd that has relied on lavaliers for years, this fully digital route is simply more convenient as a separate audio interface is no longer needed.

Enter Apogee’s ClipMic digital and MKE 2: an entry level and high-end lavalier respectively. This is essentially Sennheiser’s lavaliers with a 24-bit/96 kHz converter by Apogee and lightning connector at the end.

Both models have identical specs in many respects. They work with a large range of iOS devices such as iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus, iPad Air 2, iPad Air, iPad mini. You can record at up to a 24-bit/96 kHz sampling rate with any iOS app that allows it.

The difference is the mic capsule. The ClipMic uses a Sennheiser ME 2 capsule while the MKE 2 uses, you guessed it, a MKE 2 capsule.

The price gap is substantial, with the ClipMic currently retailing for $199 and the MKE 2 for over double that cost at $499.

For film/TV production professionals or journalists that may set up in possibly harsh environmental conditions, the MKE 2 is the right choice due to its superior membrane. For a larger proportion comprising of podcasters, YouTubers, etc., the ClipMic will hold up just fine for general use.

Now we come to the comparison you’ve likely been wondering about all along. How does the sound quality differ between the two?

Make no mistake, the MKE 2 isn’t just tougher, it does indeed sound better. The ClipMic’s sound has been described as hyped in the highs or bright, while satisfactory for the low price point. The MKE 2 is no compromises mic, with richer, fuller sound and the ability to create better dimension in the sound due to better omnidirectional technology.

Sennheiser MKE2 Digital Sennheiser MKE2 Digital
Sale Price: $499.00

Reviews


The Verdict

All but the pickiest interviewers, podcasters and YouTubers should be happy with the great value and above average abilities of the ClipMic.

The MKE is tough and sound-wise the omnidirectional performance takes you into its world with more detail and dimension. However in applications other than film/TV or music production those advantages wouldn’t give you as great a return and won’t be worth the price leap for many.

Apple’s iPad and iPhone are now recognized as serious audio production tools. Now that iOS devices have able, multicore processors the trend is only expected to gain momentum.

Top microphone manufacturers such as Blue, Apogee and Samson have jumped onboard; and quick changes from Apple have made it hard to keep up. At present you need a Lightning adapter to use an iPhone 5 or 4th generation iPad with any of the mics listed. While not perfect, it sure beats lugging a laptop around.

Apogee MiC

Like all Apogee products, MiC is exclusively made for Mac and iOS devices. This specialization has so far meant drivers and software work seamlessly with Apple’s gear.

The big advantage this has over the others is 44.1/48kHz 24-bit analog to digital converters. This means studio quality sample rates rather than just CD quality sound. Nearly all other USB mics are presently 16-bit. While this is fine for YouTube videos and streaming, it makes sense to archive in hi-res and sample down if the content will be relevant in the future.

Blue Spark Digital

While Apogee is known for great audio converters and software, Blue is known for their great XLR and USB microphones.

SOS praised the Spark for its “no‑nonsense, not overly‑coloured sound, robust low-end and capable vocal handling.” As expected the Spark Digital takes these qualities and adds direct compatibility with hi-tech devices.

Some have complained about how USB mics tend to have a cheaper feel then their traditional, XLR counterparts. This definitely isn’t the case with the Spark Digital as its brother is analog, and components were added to bring it into the digital realm.

Samson Meteor Mic

Not only does the Meteor Mic have vintage cool factor but it’s also a very good value. If you’re doing rough recordings, or doing podcasting rather than music, this may be enough for your needs. It’s a good desktop PC mic to boot.

The Meteor records 16-bit audio at 44.1/48kHz resolution, which is currently the standard. While the sound quality doesn’t match that of the the MiC or Spark Digital, its a fraction of the price.

If you’re just getting started and aren’t sure if you’re going to stick to making audio recordings the Meteor provides a starting point.

Apogee ONE

This is more than a mic; it’s also an audio interface. If you’re a musician that could use an all-in-one device for travel or recording on location the ONE is definitely worth considering.

It’s amazing that they’ve managed to pack so much functionality into such a small package. Although I was skeptical about the built-in mic due to the size, it turned out to be as good as a full-size, inexpensive microphone such as the MXL 2001.

The downside is ONE has a reputation for being fragile. This is a concern if you travel and it’s recommended that you ensure there is plenty of padding around it in your bag.

Blue Mikey

Mikey stands out from the rest because it connects directly to the iPad/iPhone connector. This is an advantage and disadvantage depending on how you look at it. If you’re a reporter type that needs to move around this solution beats all others. The downside is you need a Lightning adapter and this makes it tough on the Lightning or 30-pin port.

It won’t replace a condenser mic in terms of quality but Mikey is good to have in your audio toolkit for certain applications.

FiRe 2 software is great and features automatic compression so it balances very loud and quiet sounds on the fly. This can make the Mikey very handy for recording loud band rehearsals or concerts.

Overall it’s a cool solution that turns and iPad/iPhone into a field recorder.

Not long ago the idea of home recording was revolutionary. For the first time ever musicians were able to make impressive recording sans the hourly studio fees.

The latest step in this revolution is increased interest in maximum portability. Why chain yourself to your desk at home when music can be captured virtually anywhere?

Leading the trend Apogee has released JAM, and MiC: a guitar input and digital microphone, respectively, for iPad, iPhone and Mac. Before that the Duet and ONE made strides in the direction of increase simplicity and travel-friendliness.

When I first got into recording over a decade ago I was bamboozled into believing the more flexibility and features the gear had the better. Experience has taught me just the opposite is true.

Apogee’s choice to make drivers only for Apple operating systems is a plus rather than a minus. In practice company’s have big challenges in keeping up with driver updates, and more supported operating systems leads to software development efforts being spread too thin.

The Jam and MiC are incredibly specialized in their configuration and applications, taking this Zen-like product philosophy even further.

While I love the Duet and originally picked it up to strip down my setup, ironically I’ve found it’s often more than I need for on-the-fly recordings and overdubs. The ONE concept is fantastic but again if I plan on spending an afternoon on overdubs the built-in mic is a wasted feature.

What’s really great about owning both JAM and MiC is you can travel with only the tool you need to get the job done.

For me, the more I can minimize production concerns, the better the performances are. Having only the features you need at your fingertips and eliminating the ones you don’t helps achieve.

As multitudes of people carry an iPhone with them everywhere, the ability to pick up the JAM or MiC at the last minute is a groundbreaking possibility. In addition, the use of the touch screen on the iPad is amazing in a rehearsal situation while a guitar is strapped to your shoulder.

Finally next-gen devices can be used to produce professional-quality recordings. As this is just the beginning it will be fascinating to see where this leads Apogee and others.

Pictured: Apogee MiC with Zacuto Zgrip.

Apogee MiC USB microphone for iPad, iPhone, and Mac Apogee MiC USB microphone for iPad, iPhone, and Mac
List Price: $199.00
Sale Price: $174.99

Reviews