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

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 Blue Yeti USB Microphone - Blackout
List Price: $126.85
Sale Price: $82.51

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

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Photo: U.S. Army

The original Snowball is one of the key microphones that helps facilitate the podcasting and YouTube revolution.

Blue managed to set its performance high enough to satisfy the streaming-obsessed crowd, while keeping the price low. The combination of value that wasn’t possible just five years prior and really decent sound won over startup podcasters and aspiring YouTubers alike. They didn’t want one of those dirt-cheap desktop “computer mics” we’ve grown to hate, and couldn’t justify getting a pricey “radio mic” like the Shure SM7B or Electro-Voice RE20 either. The Snowball was and still is the goldilocks mic for a ton of content creators: just right.

Now Blue recognized the Snowball had professional features that the average solo podcaster, YouTuber or gamer would never use. Namely the Snowball has a three-way switch that allows you to do omnidirectional recording (picks up all the sound in the room), cardioid (sound from in front of the mic), and can give you a -10db pad (for recording loud sounds like drums).

Snowball iCE was born by removing omnidirectional capability as well as the -10db pad. These features were wasted for most applications outside of music recording and group podcasting. And by getting to the heart of what makes the Snowball great with the iCE, Blue was able to reduce the price around $20. Nothing huge granted, but even $20 is too much to spend on features you don’t need.

The iCE focuses on what we care about most: getting a good sound from sources directly in front of it. It has one capsule inside rather than two as with the original Snowball. That’s all that is needed to capture solo voice recordings. Take it from a person that has accidentally recorded a podcast in omnidirectional mode, simplicity is a plus. Snowball iCE doesn’t need that tiny switch that in the wrong hands just introduces one more variable to get wrong.

Like the Snowball and Yeti before it, the Snowball ICE records audio at 16-bit/44.1kHz. That’s plenty for your average YouTube or streaming production. You’ll need to pay a lot more for the capability to do 24-bit audio as you can do with a pro audio interface plus XLR mic or Yeti Pro.

Blue Snowball iCE Condenser Microphone, Cardioid - Black Blue Snowball iCE Condenser Microphone, Cardioid - Black
List Price: $59.99
Sale Price: $34.49

For the price it’s a great sounding mic too with a 40 –18 kHz frequency response. That’s in line with what humans are capable of hearing and more than enough for recording your voice.

Blue is known for super cool product design and of course this is what attracted so many to the Snowball in the first place. It’s about as big as a softball and that future-retro grill and logo at the front make it about as adorable as a microphone can be.

The Verdict

Blue’s Snowball iCE takes everything we love about the Snowball, and throws out the fancy features to achieve an even more attractive price point. If you you’re itching to start a YouTube channel, new podcast, or are tired of gaming with a cumbersome headset and don’t have much to spend, start your journey here. If you simply need a mic for Skype or Twitch, Snowball iCE is more than enough.

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.

Rode-NT-USBThe Rode NT1-A has long been a stable condenser microphone in home project studios. Since they’ve built a reputation for good entry-level gear it makes sense that Rode has introduced a USB mic as these are generally geared towards the same audience that seeks bang for the buck.

A pop filter doesn’t usually seduce me, but this is an exception. It’s the standard to toss in a micro stand with a USB mic, and now Rode has sweetened the deal by adding a super sleek pop filter. It’s perfectly proportioned to the NT-USB’s dimensions and sans the often unwieldy and pointlessly versatile gooseneck.

The Rode records at a maximum resolution of 16-bit at 48kHz. This can still be considered the norm for USB mics. Close competition such as the Blue Yeti Pro and Apogee MiC 96k can do 24-bit and for not much more money. If your content is YouTube-bound the NT-USB’s specs are just right but for more serious music applications especially jumping up to 24-bit is well worth it.

The casing is very solid and the capsule inside is no different from Rode’s studio-grade condenser mics. The NT-USB looks and feels like a professional piece of kit worthy of sitting along side

There are two knobs nicely placed at the side of the mic that control monitoring. One knob controls the minijack headphone output level and the other sets the balance between the dry sound at source and the signal coming back from your computer. The blend feature is pretty unique and useful if you’re particular about latency or adding effects such as reverb while you track.

No extra drivers are needed to make these functions work; the NT-USB is a class compliant device. This is a huge plus as it’s frustrating to invest in a USB mic or audio interface only to find the driver is no longer supported by a new OS years down the line. It works with an iPad but you’ll need Apple's Camera Connection Kit or similar.

The NT-USB is a cardioid pattern mic with no extra fancy features such as a pad or low frequency roll-off switch.

Frequency response goes from 20Hz to 20kHz, equal to the Blue Yeti and better than the Blue Snowball. There is an upper mid-range boost for a more flattering sound. Giving you a pretty polished result without a lot of EQ.

Verdict

This is a well-constructed mic with some great extras: pop filter, micro stand, and generous 20-foot USB cable. It would have been nice to have 24-bit recording capability but considering the extras and pro-standard capsule the price seems about right. Built-in monitoring features that go beyond the norm is another aspect that make this mic shine. The Rode NT-USB may be a Yeti killer for podcasters wanting a bit more without stepping up to the Yeti Pro.

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 MKE 2 Digital Sennheiser MKE 2 Digital
List Price: $499.95
Sale Price: $499.00

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.

meteor-micI’m often amazed that manufacturers can price certain USB mics so low. A decade ago even on a shoestring budget you’d be looking at a few hundred for a mic and audio interface. And that is what a USB mic really is: a one-channel audio USB interface and mic built into one device.

The Blue Snowball has garnered much attention due to its quirky design, versatility and incredible value. The Meteor Mic seems to be Samson’s answer to it, as it’s similarly priced and has vintage look all it’s own.

Standing only 6 inches high with the legs extended, this is a good mic for your portable laptop or iPad rig.

The super reflective chrome body includes a fold-back leg design; I really this appreciated for portability since you don’t have to fold and pack a stand separately.

A killer feature absent from its competition is the threaded stand attachment. You’ll be able to mount it to any standard mic stand making positioning for acoustic instruments, guitar amps and percussion far more precise. Nice to see Samson thought of the needs of musicians rather than putting all focus on podcasters.

Most noticeable at the front is a large headphone volume dial with a mute switch in its center. Just above is the intelligent LED light: when connected it glows blue and when muted it’s amber. The mini-USB port and 1/8” headphone jack are positioned at the rear.

Most companies have remained pretty hush-hush about the size of condenser diagraph inside the casing.  As a rule of thumb, the bigger the diagraph, the bigger the soundstage it can capture. Samson claims the Meteor Mic has one of the largest condenser diaphragms (25mm) of any USB mic available.

Sound quality is crisp, articulate and quite full bodied when recording male voiceovers. This is rare as many USB mics are lacking in bottom-end that can be picked up.

The most common pickup pattern is possible: cardioid. This means it captures sound from in front of the mic and rejects noise coming from the back. In this regard the Snowball has a leg up on the Meteor as it gives you a choice of three patterns for around the same price.

Samson Meteor Mic USB Studio Condenser Microphone, Chrome Samson Meteor Mic USB Studio Condenser Microphone, Chrome
List Price: $53.00
Sale Price: $50.00

The Verdict

Those that want something highly portable but not too tiny when set up, this is a nice compromise between a desktop mic like the Blue Yeti and the super compact Samson Go Mic.

The sound has a rich character considering it’s low price tag. The retro chrome body is a little quaint and not as rugged as something like the pricier Apogee MiC, but for under $70 few could find much reason to complain.