Every passing year it gets easier to record good quality audio at home. This is partially due to software improvements and partially due to the advancements in recording hardware. One such recent development is the introduction of USB microphones.
For the first time ever you don’t need a fancy audio interface to start recording. A USB mic is essentially a digital microphone with a tiny one-channel audio interface built-in. While it isn’t very useful to recording engineers seeking to record multiple sound sources, a USB mic is indispensible for simple applications. It’s best when used to record artists doing vocals, overdubs, or online broadcasters doing podcasts or audio for youtube videos.
Another benefit of USB mics is the fact you can get a quality device under $150. If you go the old fashioned route by purchasing an inexpensive interface plus XLR microphone, you’ll need to spend at least $500. Granted the best USB microphones can’t match up to high-end offerings in the XLR category. However, if you are looking for a budget microphone USB is worth considering, especially if you prefer using a laptop. With a USB mic, you don’t need to mess around with all that extra gear.
USB mics are still novel, cutting-edge devices so the market isn’t saturated with choices. Admittedly it wasn’t hard to slim down the pack to five top mics. Rankings are in order: the Yeti is considered the best of the bunch overall while the Snowball is the weakest. Of course price and feature preferences come into play. Every one of these microphones is worth considering depending on the intended application.
Due to the bidirectional and omnidirectional settings, this is by far the most flexible choice for podcasters. Although it is best to have individual microphones during a one-on-one interview, the Yeti does a really admiral job in a pinch. Audio is picked up on either side of the mic. By switching on the omnidirectional function you can pick up sound from the entire room in 360 degrees. This can be very handy for picking up sound atmospheres or the mutterings of large groups of people.
The design and included desk stand is pretty darn perfect for podcasters or those going for the broadcasting style of recording. Controls on the front couldn’t be simpler. You have a big volume knob for recording level and a mute button for reducing background noise when idle.
Frequency response is very flat so the AT2020 USB works well for a wide variety of applications. It records with a standard cardioid pattern which captures audio directly in front of it. This is the most common use for any mic, but one can’t help miss the possibilities offered with the Yeti.
The included desk stand isn’t really worth using. Since it comes off like an afterthought, AT seems to be catering to the pro music market more than beginner podcasters without a good stand on hand. Luckily, the mic fits beautifully into a shock mount like the Samson SP01 because of the sleek design. This makes upgrading a no-brainer.
It may be getting a touch long in the tooth due to its release date back in late 2005, but the Samson C01U still ranks as one of the best USB mics available. Sound quality is good and comparable to the Yeti and AT2020 USB. Unfortunately it can get nosier than competing models when you crank up the gain.
A large group of podcasters swear by this mic but that is probably only because it is one of the few decent USB mics that has been out for several years. At the same time it has served as a reliable workhorse for many. That is proof that it stands up to the rigours of long-term use.
The Snowball is a decent microphone with a very unique look and a cheap price. Like the name implies it is shaped like an orb (and comes white or brushed aluminum). The form factor allows you to do creative things with the Snowball you can’t with other mics. However, this comes at a price. For standard podcasting the Snowball is adequate but definitely inferior to its big brother, the Yeti. If you are buying your first mic and need ultimate versatility, you’ll probably want to spend a little more.
You can record in cardioid mode for standard front-on sources or omnidirectional mode for capturing the sound of the room. The snowball works very well as a cheap “room mic” as microphones this price point don’t typically offer that feature.
Mics by MXL are shockingly cheap. So much so that many are weary about their offerings, assuming it must be Chinese garbage. In reality, MXL mics are quite good and an incredible value. If you are on a tight budget and still want half-way decent sound quality the MXL 990 USB might be for you. Those with a bigger budget probably should be looking at the Yeti or Audio-Technica.
Unlike most other USB mics the MXL 990 USB includes a shock mount. It’s not unusual to spend around $30 for a shock mount alone so the addition makes a sweet deal even sweeter.