What Microphone Should I Buy For A Basic Home Recording Studio – A Look At USB Condenser Microphones
Starting a recording studio on a budget can be tough. Actually, it's a serious problem for cash-strapped home users starting their home setup from scratch. With recent advances in microphone technology accompanied by a drop in prices, being able to obtain a high quality microphone may be easier and more affordable than you think.
Depending on your budget and personal requirements, you may just require a good quality microphone, but not just any microphone. If you are a serious audiophile, I can already feel the glaring stares and disgusted shaking of heads, but more and more home recording studios are making the switch and some are already using USB Condenser Microphones.
To make sense of this, you need to understand what a condenser microphone is and what makes it different from other microphones.
The Difference Between Dynamic And Condenser Microphones
When you think of the traditional microphones you see on television and live events used by rock stars, vocalists and public speakers, chances are almost all of them are dynamic microphones. And it is with very good reason they are so popular. Dynamic microphones are robust, reliable, resistant to very high volumes and even able handle more extreme weather conditions.
There are however, a few important components you never see, but are always used to help make a dynamic microphone produce the quality and sound you hear. To understand this, we need to look at its fundamental design:
A dynamic microphone consists of sturdy diaphragm with coils wrapped around a magnet behind it. The air moving the diaphragm,makes the coils around the magnet vibrate, creating an electric signal that is too weak to be processed on its own. For this reason it needs a mic activator to boost the signal, before being passed on to the preamps of the audio interface or mixer for further processing and amplification.
Don't get me wrong, a good dynamic microphone is still superior in many ways and is still the microphone of choice for a majority of recording professionals. The complete setup just tends to be quite expensive and intimidating for the home audio user, and this is where the condenser microphone come into play.
The condenser microphone can be seen as a microphone with a pre-amplifier built into the microphone itself. In other words, its basically a "powered" microphone. Let me explain.
A condenser microphone uses a much thinner and sensitive diaphragm that is electrically charged and move against back plate (grid) as it reacts to the sound waves. The electrical power to the diaphragm is called "phantom power" and is carried within the microphone cable. The result is that a much stronger electrical signal is created that may not require the assistance of a mic activator.
Advantages Of The USB Condenser Microphone For A Basic Home Recording Setup
Many years ago, the USB condenser microphone was still in its infancy and not even a blip on the radar of the general music and recording industry. They were big and bulky, not very reliable and extremely expensive. The sound quality produced by these early microphones wasn't too great either and described as "muddy at best" by early users.
Fast forward to the present, and these early microphones are unrecognizable in their current form. Today's USB condenser microphones are compact, in many ways deliver superior quality to their dynamic counterparts and are also much affordable than a few years ago. As a bonus, you really are also spoiled for choice as there are literally hundreds of makes and models available. From less then 50 dollars to well over 200 dollars, you really have a wide variety to choose from, depending on your budget and preference in quality.
Although we are focusing on the USB condenser microphone here, just remember that the condenser microphone that is used in a professional recording setup, is normally connected to an audio interface via traditional XLR cables. It also draws its power from the "phantom power" supplied by the audio interface. (If you are interested, you can find a better explanation of the more traditional condenser and dynamic microphone setup in this article.)
Just one important note. The USB condenser microphone I am describing and recommending here is not meant to replace the more professional XLR-based condenser or dynamic microphone for a home recording studio.
This is for the benefit of anyone who never wanted more than a high quality microphone to connect to their computer to deliver high quality audio for their podcasts, voice-overs of vlogging.
But why a USB condenser microphone? There are quite a few compelling reasons to seriously consider this microphone:
With the quality of higher end USB microphones like the Rode-NT-USB and Samson G-Track Pro, studio quality sound is now available for less than 200 dollars. Acceptable realistic vocal and instrumental sound can even also be obtained by a few microphones below a 100 dollars.
Off course you get very high-quality condenser microphones with the traditional XLR audio interface as well. The problem is that you don't just need a simple audio interface (with XLR ports) to connect it to a computer for recording and editing. You need one that are able to supply the microphone with phantom power. Remember, a condenser microphone needs electrical power, and although all USB cables supply power to all connected devices, not all traditional audio interfaces have functions build in to supply phantom power. You can see how quickly the use of a conventional audio setup can become a very expensive exercise.
2. Accessibility And Ease Of Use
Most of us already own a laptop or desktop computer. Using your current system or just doing a few upgrades to make it compatible with Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software requirements, and you have functioning recording setup.
As basically all USB devices are now Plug&Play, you can just plug your new microphone into the USB port and drivers will automatically be installed and integrated with your computer system. This makes installing and start using your microphone a fairly painless process. (Yes, you may have to adjust a few settings in your DAW software or manually install drivers, but these are minor and easy to fix issues.)
3. Quality And Compatibility
As I already mentioned, modern condenser microphones are as good or even better in some aspects than their dynamic cousins. If you are not a recording professional or have a highly trained ear, you will be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a high-quality condenser microphone and top-end dynamic setup. Also, sensitive and soft/distant sounds are more accurately picked up by condenser microphones.
If you are under the impression that you have limited yourself to direct computer use only, you can rest assured. A variety of USB to XLR converter cables are available to let you connect your microphone to a standard conventional audio recording setup.
Taking all of the above into consideration, I would highly recommend looking into a USB condenser microphones, especially if you are on a tight budget.
As you would have gathered by now, I am hugely in favor of of these microphones, and can wholeheartedly recommend them. Having said that, just be aware of a few limitations.
- They are more fragile and not as robust and durable as dynamic microphones. If you are planning subjecting it to extreme conditions and rough handling, rather stick to dynamic microphones. And no dramatic "mic drops"!
- Due to their sensitivity and ability to pick up background noises, they are most suited for use in studios and other controlled environments.
- Although much improved, condenser microphones are still prone to damage by very high noise volumes. (It is not the ideal microphone to be placed next to a drum-set of a rock band.)
Otherwise, for normal vocal and instrumental recording, I think you will love the company of a high quality USB condenser microphone.
Until next time, feel free to leave me any comments or suggestions you may have. Remember to join my Mailing List to be informed whenever a new article is released, and share new developments and helpful hints & tips.