If you’re thinking of buying a USB condenser microphone, you need to read this.
I am by no means an audiophile, nor do I profess to be; what I am is a gadget freak. Some time ago I went crazy for portable Bluetooth speakers and ended up buying half a dozen or so. Recently, I got a fad for USB condenser microphones and after much research and testing, I’m going to share my experiences with you good folk.
It must be noted that this guide is not meant for audiophiles who pretty much know what they want anyway, but rather for those newbies who are delving into this technology for the first time.
USB Microphone Terminology
First off, let’s get acquainted with the common terminology.
Polar Patterns: dictate the directions from which a microphone will pick up sound. There are three main types of polar patterns:
- Cardioid: picks up sound from the front of the microphone. Because only the front of the microphone is picking up sound, this pattern will effectively mitigate background noises and is the preferred pattern for commentary in videos
- Omnidirectional: as the name suggests, this pattern picks up audio equally through 360 degrees. This pattern is most suitable when multiple participants are involved
- Bidirectional: picks up audio from both the front and back of the microphone while mitigating sounds from the sides. This is the preferred pattern for two participants and is also used quite a bit for recording music (eg, simultaneously recording a guitar and vocals)
The number of patterns available differs from microphone to microphone but in the vast majority of cases, and especially for newbies, cardioid is the main and most important pattern.
Shock Mount: is a piece of equipment connected to the mic stand that uses elastic suspension to keep your mic protected against vibrations. Most microphones do not include a shock mount as standard and it is far from essential for the newbie
Pop Filter: improves recordings by reducing or eliminating plosive sounds made from harsher consonants such as P, B, T, D, K, and G. Again, not essential for the newbie
Headphone Jack: this is to connect a headphone set so the mic’s output can be monitored in real-time and is purely optional
USB Microphone Volume
This, my friends, is the most critical aspect of USB condenser microphones – the volume level is generally rather poor. You can safely ignore most YouTube demonstrations of USB microphones which sound plenty loud enough. These guys are generally audiophiles in a studio environment who are enhancing the volume via additional hardware and/or software.
Please do not place too much faith in editorial microphone reviews either. Read the user reviews and you will soon see that a common complaint is… the volume is not loud enough. This is true of even the most touted USB condenser microphones, such as the popular Audio-Technica AT2020+ USB. That’s because without those additional enhancements, the average Joe is relying solely on their Windows operating system, and Windows sucks at managing microphone output.
If I can give you one critical piece of advice when purchasing a USB condenser microphone, it’s to CHOOSE ONE THAT INCLUDES A VOLUME GAIN KNOB.
Not many do, not even more expensive models. And don’t be fooled if you see a “volume” control knob on the microphone. That will usually be only to control the volume for connected headphones, not the mic’s output volume.
Philex USB Condenser Cardioid Microphone
This is the first microphone I bought. It came as a kit, complete with a shock mount, pop filter, and a terrific telescopic stand with a substantial base, and the microphone itself has a nice weighty feel to it, all for a little under $50.00(AU). What a bargain. I excitedly assembled all the pieces, connected the mic to a USB port, and tested it out. Guess what… low volume. And it did not come with a volume gain knob.
I followed the advice of an audiophile on YouTube who recommended free software called “EqualiserAPO” which includes a volume gain control. It’s an impressive piece of software alright but there is one small problem – turning the gain control all the way up to maximum had little to no effect on the volume – it was still too low.
Maono AU-PM461TR USB Microphone
This one came with a common tripod stand, no shock mount, no pop filter, and the microphone itself is fairly lightweight compared to the Philex. This one also cost a little under $50.00(AU). However, it did come with a volume gain knob and the difference in volume level is palpable – the Maono, with the gain control knob turned to about two-thirds of maximum, is around twice as loud as the Philex. Plenty loud enough.
The Maono mic fits nicely into the shock mount that came with the Philex mic so, with the Moana mic plus the Philex stand, shock mount, and pop filter, I ended up with a pretty good setup.
Forget about price and reputation, and ignore the experts – just make sure you buy a USB microphone that includes a volume gain knob. Even an el cheapo brand with a volume gain knob will do a better job for the newbie than a more expensive brand without that volume gain knob. That is, of course, unless you are prepared to outlay for hardware enhancement.
As always, comments are welcome, and especially from any experienced audiophiles out there. I’d love to hear your thoughts.