Are you interested in recording at home? It can be done, but it requires some special equipment.
The most obvious first purchase is a microphone. A good microphone can be dauntingly expensive. A USB microphone promises an easy way to get started at less cost—or does it? Let’s find out.
- Low cost. A USB microphone is typically quite affordable. Furthermore, no digital audio interface (DAI) is required to connect it to a computer, further cutting down on the expense.
- Simplicity. Plug the mic into the USB port on your computer. Done.
- Portability. USB microphones are powered by the computer, eliminating the need for a phantom power source. This cuts down on the amount of gear you have to haul around when you are recording. The mic, the stand, the cable, and the computer are all you need.
- Doubtful economy. A cheap USB microphone will yield unsatisfactory results, guaranteed. The price of a truly good one will typically buy a decent XLR microphone and an audio interface. If you buy cheap to begin with, you will soon spend more on a replacement. Be careful to read plenty of reviews to avoid the cheap trap!
- One at a time. You can typically only record with one USB microphone at a time and get good results. A digital audio interface allows for recording multiple instruments at once with multiple inputs; even the most basic interface will typically allow for recording both one XLR signal and one high-Z signal (for plugging in electric guitars).
- Latency. Most (but not all) USB microphones have latency problems. In other words, there is a delay between the time the sound enters the mic and the time it exits your headphones. Most audio interfaces are designed with low latency in mind.
- Reduced sound quality. USB microphones tend to sample at bare-minimum rates (many are designed for podcasting), resulting in a considerably less professional-sounding recording. And this does not even take into consideration the all-too-common cheap inner workings that add noise to the mix (pun intended). A little more cash outlay can get you a quality digital audio interface that is specifically built for high sampling rates and top-notch sound.
- Reduced control. The USB microphone will do whatever it is built to do, end of story. Little room for adjustment here. Hooking a microphone up to some type of audio interface opens up new options, depending on the interface. The interface adds an extra element of control over input levels and mixing.
The bottom line is that a USB mic may appear at first glance to be an attractive choice for a beginner’s home studio—after all, it’s so cheap! However, there is typically a reason for this. Cheap parts equals cheap sound.
If you are going to the trouble to do your own recording, you will want to record high-quality sound. Yes, it is possible to achieve this objective without breaking the bank. Spend the money it takes to obtain quality equipment—just don’t purchase unnecessary features.
You will want to start out with an XLR microphone and a digital audio interface for best recording results. Note, however, that cheap versions of both of these items exist—these inferior products have absolutely no advantage over a good USB mic. Research carefully to find the best bang for your buck. You may need to sacrifice a few inputs and gizmos to maximize quality without breaking the bank.
Home recording is not an inexpensive hobby. To do it well requires investment. Don’t throw your money away buying cheap!