January 25, 2007

USB Microphones for Podcasters

Follow-up to More on Podcasting Equipment from Kinoeye

Sound on Sound on USB Microphones


The February 2007 issue of the British Sound on Sound magazine has an interesting and useful article on USB microphones which are primarily aimed at the podcasting community as it develops. (Here is their 'teaser' article it'll cost £1.00 to read the whole thing). As I predicted in an earlier entry it was likely to be an exopanding market in 2007 and so it would seem.

Basic principle of the USB Microphone

The USB style microphone is a combination of a microphone pre-amp to boost the sound output and an analogue to digital converter (A/D converter) to enable the computer to read the information in a digital format. All this extra circuitry is in addition to the microphone itself.

The A/D converters in these microphones apparently have a lower bit rate than conveters in preamp / interfaces. Because some of the available microphones do not have the posssibility of increasing the output or gain to these A/D converters these microphones will produce low signals unless the microphone is very near the sound source. Whilst individual podcasters propbably won't worry about this if you want to record two or more people in a round table discussion you may find that the microphone is not picking up the sound very clearly because of the loss of resolution.

Another potential disadvantage of this type of microphone is that much of the available audio software only recognises items which give both input and output signals. Normally microphones by their very nature are input devices. Microphones like the Rode_Podcaster_mentioned elsewhere on this site have a microphone input which can circumvent the problem.

There are other more technical issues which the  Sound on Sound article covers as well.

The Range of USB Microphones so far 

Sound on Sound report that the first USB microphone they looked at was the Samson CO1 U which they reviewed in June 2006. This article notes that it was "an unashamedly budget mic" and they also note that it was "rather noisy unless used close up". They note that Samson have released a USB version of their CO3 mic using a similar A/D converter to the CO1 U. They don't comment on the quality of this product. 

The Rode Podcaster

The Rode Podcaster has already been mentioned on this blog but this is the first serious review I have seen about it. It notes that the frequency range is optimised for speech. The article notes that it can handle a high maximum input "making it suitable for close-miked speech and vocals". The headphone input is in fact a mini jack. It will work out of the box with both Windows and Mac. There is additional software which is a free download which usfully provides metering, a mute button and recording level control. The reviwer found that the mic didn't work well with his voice. A point that highlights that there are always a large number of variables involved in finding the best equipment for any individual. Obviously on-line buying limits the opportunity to test items out first.  The normal retail price in the UK is around £150 however one advert is offering it for £124 so internet prices are beginning to become competitive as more products hit the marketplace.

MLX USB.006

The MLX USB. 006 is a low cost affiar but is "a true capacitor mic with a large-diaphragm cardioid capsule".  The is also a three position gain switch which helps  set the mic up for mid and close range work notes the reviewer who also notes that there was no technical specifation included. tonally the mic was "very warm in your face and radio DJ friendly". The ability to raise the gain made it just about possible to record two people in discussion but "it doesn't have the gain needed for recording group discussions , where the distances involved  are likely to be much greater." Current UK retail price £79.

SE Electronics USB2200A

At £222 UK retail price this mic was the most expensive featured in the review. The sound was big and flattering suitable for radio style voice-overs. The gain had two settings and there is also a pad which can reduce the impact of very loud sources. This model has the advantage of an analogue connection to a mic preamp unit which makes it more flexible than the other models mentioned. This comment on the internet notes that it played straight out of the box with the Linux operating sytem. Here is a link to a more technical announcement about the launch of this mic.

SE USB2200A

This link goes to a useful microphone blog which reports on the release of this SEUSB mic and has some useful archives.  Link here to IT Review on this product.

Conclusion

Given that this market has been going for much less than a year there is plenty of opportunity for more models to enter the markeplace soon. all these models look to be good value within their various price brackets and as they save the lone podcaster the necessity of buying mic preamps, interfaces and mixers all of them offer a good route into podcasting. Nevertheless if you think you may wish to record more than one voice at a time the USB route seems to be a less flexible option for the moment.  The Rode Podcaster and the SE USB2200A both offer headphone monitoring which makes a lot of sense and seem worthwhile saving up for. 


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