Gear lust is one of the most common reasons for procrastination among recording musicians.
“I really need to work on my song. But I want to get high-end mic XYZ first, so it sounds amazing. And I can’t afford it just yet.”
Did that sound familiar?
Sure, many of your music heroes recorded at lavish studios equipped with only the finest gear. And top producers can sometimes pontificate about how a rare vintage microphone or wildly expensive condenser mic from a boutique maker was essential to the perfect vocal take.
However most of them didn’t start out that way.
You may have read about how ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’ by Eurythmics was recorded on a TEAC Portastudio in a hotel room. Annie Lennox’s famous lead vocal was captured with a humble Beyer stick microphone typically reserved for hi-hat. The track reached #3 in the UK charts in 1983, and the group’s career shot up like a rocket. But it was primarily talent, arrangement, production skill, and a great song that got them there.
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.
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.
Best 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.
The 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.
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.