Things To Consider When Buying A USB Microphone

VD November 11 2021

So you want to take your vocal recording to the next level and buy a USB microphone? Good idea! Read these recommendations to make the best choice for your vocal recording needs.

USB microphone - the basics 

In contrast to purely analog devices, USB microphones for vocals have an integrated analog-to-digital converter. This means that a USB microphone only needs to be connected to a computer, smartphone, or tablet - an additional audio interface is not necessary. The connection is made either with a USB or a Lightning cable. 

How does a good USB microphone for vocals work?

A USB microphone usually works with both Windows PCs and Macs, and sometimes also with iOS devices (iPad, iPhone, iPod touch). Sometimes even with all three! 

Before you buy, make sure to check whether the model you want will work on your device. Two of the models tested here also output an analog audio signal via an XLR socket. So you can get even more sound quality and flexibility with a high-quality preamplifier.

What advantages do USB microphones offer you over analog microphones? 

USB microphones for vocals offer you the possibility of uncomplicated and quick commissioning. In interview situations you need a quick setup, USB microphones save you valuable time. According to the plug & play principle, they are simply plugged in, and off you go. You don't need an additional audio interface, as USB microphones already have an integrated interface or a converter.  In history recordings, sound engineers have to deal with much more complicated recording equipment. In this case, old devices have to be connected to the computer in a certain order. 

In addition, USB microphones are much more flexible than their analog counterparts since they can not only be used on stage or in studios but also in conferences and video chats thanks to their fixed cardioid polar pattern. They allow you to pick up only the desired acoustic source. Analog microphones require a lot of effort when it comes to post-production if you want to edit or replace sounds in a recording later on - which is not always possible due to copyright reasons. As soon as an analog microphone has been plugged into the console during alive, for example, any re-recording is impossible because of the noise produced.

Advantages:

  • No operating system compatibility issues, no drivers to install
  • High sound quality since it is directly converted from analog to digital
  • Extremely flexible with different applications
  • Easy and quick use
  • Many models even have a headphone output
  • Ideal for studio and concert use

What disadvantages do you have to accept compared to analog microphones? 

USB microphones are limited in their application scenarios, so it is difficult to connect them to the mixer in the rehearsal room. Some models do not come without a gain control, so that the distortion of the signal may not be prevented in the case of very loud sound sources. The level could easily be weakened with an external audio interface. 

Since many music programs do not allow the simultaneous operation of two USB microphones, two speakers have to share a single one. The different volume levels of the speakers must then be accepted on the recording.

Disadvantages:

  • Not all models provide a gain control
  • Volume problems for two speakers
  • More complicated use in live situations
  • Only a fixed cardioid polar pattern
  • Not suitable for all applications

Useful features of USB microphones 

If you want to record vocals, we recommend one of the models with an analog connection. The iCON U24 is the only USB microphone on the market with a separately adjustable line/Hi-Z input. A dedicated controller lets you adjust the volume of the line input separately. 

So you can not only record your vocals at the same time with the background music, an instrumental, or jingle - you can even set how loud which component should be on the microphone. The background music, for example, is only heard in the headphones - your voice is picked up by the microphone.

This way you eliminate disturbing noises or echoes on stage and can record music without any interference for a perfect "final mix" later on. Many models have an all-metal housing that guarantees high stability under adverse conditions - so they are also suitable for mobile use.

A large number of USB microphones have an adjustable volume control on the cable. Thus you do not always have to adjust your computer volume when using it with different devices. The iCON U24 has, even more, uses since its controller allows you to change the settings of the integrated analog preamp as well as headphone volume separately from one another, allowing additional flexibility during recording sessions.

So, the features are:

  • Separate mono output
  • The gain controller on the cable allows you to control volume without affecting your computer's soundcard settings
  • Separate monitor and microphone volume adjustment with U24
  • Adjustable settings for the analog preamp
  • High-quality metal housing (anti-interference)

Tips for buying a USB microphone 

1. The correct operating system 

Does the USB microphone for vocals in question support my operating system? 

2. A suitable directional characteristic 

The choice of the directional characteristic of your microphone can significantly influence the sound quality of your recordings. Only two of the USB microphones tested here use a supercardioid instead of a cardioid as a directional characteristic. The cardioid primarily picks up sounds from the direction of entry (only from the front) which is ideal for solo vocals and most instruments. The super-cardioid or club takes up an even narrower section of the sound field. This is ideal for interviews in noisy environments. However, this directional characteristic is very susceptible to pop and wind noises. 

3. Price/performance ratio 

It is advisable to consider your own requirements for sound and performance before buying. Each USB microphone for vocals sounds different depending on the voice or sound source. The best thing to do is to do your own test or comparison.  A good recording should be as true to the original sound as possible, and this is something you can judge very well. The price range for USB microphones is as varied as the variety of their features. One thing you should always look at is whether a microphone has adjustable settings - particularly if it's for home use. So before buying, think about what exactly you need your microphone for!

4. Active or passive microphone? 

It is worth considering whether you want a passive or an active USB microphone. An active microphone requires a power supply and therefore has either an internal battery (usually AAA) or a connection to the mains. Passive models do not need any additional power supply and provide plug-and-play operation. The quality of the internal components, including capacitors, preamps, transistors, and chipsets are available in different price ranges. If your budget allows it, choose an active model with balanced inputs for guitarists. Before buying, you should ask yourself what exactly you will be using the microphone for. Are you looking to record vocals or instruments only? If so, then a passive model is most likely sufficient. For recording vocals in addition to instruments simultaneously, it may be worth considering an active USB microphone with multiple inputs and XLR/TRS connections.

5. Additional features 

It's not just about sound quality! Most manufacturers of USB microphones offer their products with additional features such as headphone outputs (this allows you to monitor your recording in real-time), gain control  (adjusts the sensitivity), and direct monitoring (the recorded signal can be monitored directly). These functions are especially useful when making karaoke recordings... But you can also use them with the built-in round-robin function for duets. The best thing to do is consider all your needs and find a USB microphone for vocals that has all the features you require!

Tips on using USB microphones

Although they are specially designed to be easy to set up and use, there are still some points worth bearing in mind when using a USB microphone:

  1. When recording audio files, it is advisable to select the highest quality setting. However, this will result in larger audio files due to their size. In addition, it may also produce more noise or reduced sound quality. Before recording, think carefully about how you want to use your recordings at each stage - whether you're planning on editing them or uploading them to the Internet.
  2. When buying a USB microphone, think about what exactly you need it for and whether it will be used for listening back to your songs or recording them. Think too about how you want to use your recordings - whether you're planning on editing them or uploading them onto the internet. The more functions that come with your USB microphones, the better! Of course, this also increases their price.
  3. Don't forget that you can clean up noise in post-production by using any suitable editing software such as Audacity which is free and easy to use! This makes it possible for anyone to record high-quality audio files at home without much expense involved. So if your (home) studio still sounds the same as your bedroom, you are probably not using your headphones at high enough volume during recording. If you do everything on the computer, you only need to adjust one thing. 

To sum up, it is important to bear in mind that a USB microphone can be used for more than just recording audio files. One of the main uses is karaoke recording. The starting point is to read through your lyrics and then record the track with a backing instrumental accompaniment (this will save you from doing it at double speed!)  You can experiment with different speeds if necessary until the result sounds like the right tempo to you. Then you start recording your vocals at the same time as listening back to the backing track so that you can match your singing to it! You could also use other popular music services such as YouTube and SoundCloud for sharing your recordings and connecting with other singers... And of course, don't forget about Facebook!