USB Microphone vs Audio Interface Head to Head

In this post I’m going to look at the difference between recording with a USB microphone, rather than an audio interface. So this question of, should you buy a USB microphone or an audio interface when you’re doing your first recordings in your home studio is a common one.

What I’m going to do is I’m going to directly compare using the same microphone, the USB version and the XLR version of the Audio Technica AT2020. I think we can look at some of the advantages and some of the disadvantages of each approach and see which one is right for you. The only real difference between these two microphones is one of them is the USB version. So this one can connect straight up to your computer via USB. Next one is the XLR version. And so to connect it up to your computer, you are going to need an audio interface. So this is a great way of directly comparing two recording scenarios that you might be considering.

Let’s start with the USB microphone. So the USB microphone is a completely self-contained device. This is a microphone that has, built into it, the capability to take your sound source and turn it into a digital audio stream so that it can be connected straight up to your computer via USB, without any other equipment. Now, this microphone comes also with the desktop stand which connects via a little mic holder and it also comes with the USB lead. It’s a plug and play device, so you literally get it out of the box, plug it into your computer, select the device as your recording device and your output device in either Windows or on your Mac using the control panel or the sound preferences. And you’re good to go.

This microphone also has a headphone out port. So the only other thing you’re going to need is a set of headphones so that you can listen to your computer sounds and to your sound source as you’re recording it through the headphone port on the microphone. So it’s an input and an output device. We look on the front, you’ll see that you can adjust the volume of the headphones here and you can also choose whether you completely listen to the sound of the microphone as you’re recording, or whether you completely listen to the sound coming out of your computer when you’re monitoring software and so on, or whether you do some mix of in-between. The benefit of this USB mic is it is cheaper because it’s a completely self-contained unit. That’s all you need to buy. And it is simpler. The final benefit of this one is also that it’s really portable. All this stuff is going to fit in a little zip case. And so if you want to record on the move, this would be all you’d need to take with you, along with your Mac book or PC, laptop and you’d be good to record on the move.

So let’s move on to the XLR version. Now, the XLR version does not have any built-in way of connecting this directly to your computer. You can’t connect this microphone directly to the microphone port on your computer. You need to get an XLR lead and you connect it to your computer via an audio interface.

 

It has two microphone inputs, special inputs on the front that will take the other end of the XLR lead. You can adjust the gain. So it’s got a built in pre-amp. It’s also got built in phantom power, so it can power the mic as well. And then this box does the job of what the inside of the USB microphone does. It takes the analog stream from the microphone, turns it into a digital audio signal that can then be transferred to your computer and recorded into software. The main disadvantage of this setup is obviously going to be cost because as well as buying the microphone, you’re going to need to buy the interface. You’re going to need to buy an XLR cable. You’re going to need to buy a microphone stand. And you’re also going to need to buy a good quality set of headphones, or you’re going to need to buy a good quality set of studio monitors to listen to what you’re doing.

The other disadvantage of this compared to the USB mic is it’s more complex to set up. Often, you will have to install drivers for the interface. Even if you don’t have to install drivers, you often have to install a control panel. It’s a little bit more complex to get it set up in software. And so if you want a simple, cheaper way of recording, then your USB microphone is going to do the job. However, there are a number of advantages to going down this microphone and interface route. So let’s have a look at those.

Now, the thing with this USB microphone is it is actually a bit of a one trick pony. It is good for setting up quickly and recording one audio sound source. So one voice, or group of voices, or a guitar, or some other acoustic instrument that you’re playing and whatever you’re playing all at once, you can record as one audio stream with this microphone.

With the microphone plugged into the interface, you’ve got the option of recording multiple things at once, because you’ve got multiple inputs. So you could connect two microphones. You could connect a microphone and a guitar, say or you could connect, because this is a four channel interface, you could connect a keyboard to the two line inputs on the back. You’ve got midi in and out as well on the back. And then on the front, you could connect your microphone. So you could connect up to four things at once or two stereo sound sources and you could record them at the same time on different tracks. And so this ability to be able to record multiple things on multiple tracks, is a good reason why you would want to go down the interface route, rather than just relying on a USB microphone, which will only record one thing at once.

Now, the other benefit of going down the XLR mic route is once you have bought this XLR mic, you are not confined to just using it with a computer. This USB mic is only ever going to work with a computer because it’s only ever going to work when the USB lead is connected, so it’s going to have to be connected to either a computer, or a mobile device with the appropriate connector. So that is the only way you’re going to be able to use it.

With the XLR microphone, I could connect it to a mixing console, connect it to the mic input and then play it over speaker. So I could use it live. If I wanted to, I could use it with this loop pedal. So if I look on the back of that, I’ve got a microphone input so I could connect this microphone to that. It provides phantom power, so I could use it to loop with. So I’ve got multiple options of how I can use this microphone. I don’t just have to use it to record on my computer. So my XLR mic and my interface I can use together, or I can separate them out and use them for different things. So it is much more flexible. And that’s one of the benefits of spending that little bit more money, now.

Now the final advantage of the XLR microphone with the interface over the USB microphone is recording quality and resolution. Our USB microphone is only a 16-Bit device, so you’ll only ever be able to record at 16-Bit and it has two sampling rate options of 44.1 kilohertz or 48 kilohertz. Now that is CD quality and this is a good quality recording microphone. So that resolution may easily be good enough for you to do good voiceovers, good vocal tracks, to record your instruments and you’d be perfectly happy with it. The benefit of going down the interface route, this interface has the capability of recording at 24-Bit. So immediately, you’ve got a lot more head room and it has a sampling rate available of up to 192 kilohertz.

Now the higher the sampling rate, the more you can represent the sound digitally. And so you get a much better representation of the original sound. So it is well beyond CD quality. And if the quality of your recording is super important to you, then the interface is the obvious route to go.

On top of that, our interface Scarlett 4i4 has really high quality pre-amps which are going to be better than the one built into this interface. And so you’re going to be able to get super quiet, super clarity recordings via this interface, compared to using the USB microphone. Even though the microphones themselves are identical.

So in summary, the XLR mic plus audio interface is a more flexible recording solution. You can benefit from multi-track recording and you’ll get better recording quality but it will come at a higher cost and it is a bit more complex to set up.

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