Monthly Archives: November 2016

Best USB Microphones for Your Recording Need

A lot of folks are doing podcasts and voiceover work and even recording music on their home PCs and mobile devices. Even if you’re not doing this type of recording, chances are you’re chatting on Skype or Google Hangouts.

However you’re talking to your PC, you want to be heard – and heard well. The number-one thing that most affects the quality of your recording is the microphone you use. The better the mic, the better you’ll sound.

For computer-based recording, you need a microphone that connects directly to your PC’s USB port. While you can use mics with traditional XLR or 1/4″ connectors, going direct to USB is the best way to get that audio signal into your computer.

So how do you choose the best USB mic for your needs? Well, the best mic isn’t always the most expensive one. Let’s look at the top 10 USB microphones on the market today, and see which are best for your own recording needs.

 

Choosing the Best USB Microphone for Your Needs

When you’re recording your voice or instrument on a computer, the easiest way to connect is via USB. Most computers simply don’t have the XLR or 1/4″ inputs used by traditional recording or stage microphones. (XLR is a round, three-pin connector; the 1/4″ connector looks like any regular plug.) So you can either use an XLR-to-USB converter (which we’ll discuss at the end of this article), install some sort of outboard pro sound box (or internal audio card), or just use a microphone equipped with a USB connector. Naturally, the USB microphone is the easiest (and lowest price) of these alternatives.

How does a USB mic differ from a traditional microphone? In addition to the USB connector at the end, a USB mic contains its own preamplifier (not relying on an outboard preamp) and an analog-to-digital (A/D) converter. Aside from these unique components, a USB microphone contains all the normal elements found in a traditional mic – capsule, diaphragm, and the like.

Using a USB microphone is easy. All you have to do is plug it into an open USB port on your computer and you’re ready to go. (You may have to install a device driver for the mic, but that’s easy peasy.) USB mics are ideal for podcasters, voice actors, recording musicians, and anyone wanting better sound than that provided by their notebooks’ built-in microphone.

When you’re shopping for a USB mic, you want the highest quality sound at the lowest possible price. Obviously, different needs require different quality levels, and everyone has his or her own specific budget. Still, it’s the sound quality that matters, whatever your price range may be.

Most USB microphones are condenser mics, like those used in professional recording studios. A condenser mic captures sound waves via a thin conductive diaphragm. Condenser mics create a detailed sound that’s good for vocals, acoustics guitars, and other low- to medium-volume sound sources.

(The alternative to a condenser mic is a dynamic mic – although there are few dynamic USB mics. A dynamic mic works via electromagnetic induction, and is ideal for use on stage or where higher sound levels are present.)

By the way, many traditional condenser mics require an outboard power source (dubbed “phantom power”) to operate. A USB condenser mic derives this phantom power from the computer it’s attached to, via the USB connection.

All that said, let’s look at the 10 best USB mics for your recording needs, presented in alphabetical order.

 

Audio-Technica AT2020 USB

Audio-Technica is a Japanese company that produces microphones, headphones, and similar audio equipment for both the professional and consumer market. A-T mics are found in professional recording studios worldwide, and they’ve recently moved into the USB microphone market.

The AT2020 USB is a cardioid condenser mic, which means it’s fairly unidirectional; sounds from the side and rear are mostly suppressed. It’s a low-noise microphone, which makes it ideal for podcasting and similar voiceover work.

The AT2020 USB has a suggested retail price of $229, but you can find it as low as $99 at some retailers. Given the relatively high performance and affordable price point, this is the go-to mic for home artists concerned with recording quality.

A Streaming Media Server

There are lots of ways for you to enjoy your favorite movies and music. There’s streaming services, of course, like Netflix and Spotify. But what about all the flicks and tunes you’ve downloaded from the Internet or ripped from CDs and DVDs? How can you play your local media on your home TVs and home theater systems?

The key is to set up one of the computers on your home network as a streaming media server. This server than then stream your local media[md]movies, music, and photos[md]to compatible playback devices throughout your home.

 

How DLNA Works[md]and Sometimes Doesn’t

When you want to playback media stored elsewhere in your home, look for a device that is DLNA certified. Said device might be a “smart” TV, networked audio/video receiver, or standalone streaming media player, such as a Roku box or Google Chromecast; just look for the DLNA certification in the specs.

DLNA stands for the Digital Living Network Alliance, a trade organization concerned with the sharing of digital media between multimedia devices. DLNA certification means that the given device can find and play compatible media stored elsewhere on your home network. It’s all about interoperability for digital media devices.

A DLNA-certified device uses Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) technology to recognize and control the playback of your digital media. In theory, you should be able to use your DNLA-certified device to navigate to any shared folder on any computer on your network, and open the files found there. That’s in theory, anyway.

Sometimes it all works as promised, with the playback device accessing and playing your local media with no problems at all. In other instances, however, UPnP doesn’t work completely as promised. Some DLNA-certified devices are limited in the types of files with which they’re compatible. Other DLNA-certified devices can’t access the host computer, don’t see any media files where they’re supposed to be, or will have trouble playing back the stored files. It’s not a technology standard without its kinks.

For example, you might find that a given DLNA device, like a smart TV, can’t see the media files on a given computer on your network. Or perhaps it sees the files but won’t play them, or won’t play all of them. Or maybe the playback is slow and stuttered.

In my own case, I have a lot of media files in formats that most DLNA-certified devices can’t read. While the DLNA standard technically supports just about all major media file formats, individual DLNA devices don’t have to (and often don’t) be compatible with them all. I happen to have my audio files stored in WMA Lossless format; both my Onkyo A/V receiver and WDTV Live media player will play regular WMA files, but not lossless files. So I can’t access my large digital music library from either of these two DLNA devices.

The solution is to make an end run around DLNA and use a streaming media server, instead. Media server software makes media streaming more foolproof; it makes all your files accessible to all the media devices on your network, and even transcodes stored files into formats that can be read by specific media player devices. When DLNA isn’t working for you, setting up a streaming media server on your network will more often than not make things right.