In this article, I’m going to be explaining why USB microphones don’t need an Audio Interface, what an Audio Interface actually is, if you should actually purchase a USB mic or if it’s smarter to go for an XLR mic and audio interface setup, and much more.
So, without any further ado, let’s get started!
Do USB Microphones need a dedicated Audio Interface?
USB Microphones are designed to work on their own without the need for a dedicated audio interface, but they generally can’t record more than one track at a time. If you only need to record one voice at a time, a USB mic will do what you need.
USB Microphones already come with a built-in audio interface that is responsible for converting the analog signal into a digital one to allow your computer to record that signal, which completely negates the need for an external audio interface and allows you to simply connect the mic to the USB port on your PC and record.
Not only that, but usually all USB mics are plug-and-play, meaning that you don’t need any additional drivers to make them work: As soon as you connect one, your OS recognizes it automatically.
Some USB microphones do come with additional software, such as the ElGato Wave 3 and the Rode NT USB Mini, which add a couple of really useful features, but they can still be used without it.
In order to understand why a USB Mic doesn’t need a dedicated audio interface, we first need to know how interfaces work:
What is an Audio Interface?
An Audio Interface is a device that works by converting the analog information coming from your recording equipment (microphones, guitars, and other instruments) and converts it into a digital signal that can be recorded to the computer.
Dedicated or external Audio Interfaces are devices that do that plus they come with mic inputs, D.I. inputs, Line inputs, Multiple output options, maybe S/PDIF, ADAT, etc., but this doesn’t mean that only these kinds of audio interfaces do digital-to-analog and analog-to-digital conversion.
Other devices, such as USB microphones, USB mixers, portable recorders, and even some preamps, all come with built-in audio interfaces that allow you to connect them to a computer without the need of using any additional gear.
This is why, technically, a USB microphone also works as an audio interface since it converts the signal coming into the mic into a digital one that gets sent to the PC over the USB cable.
Why go with a USB Mic instead of an Interface + Mic setup
There are two main reasons to go with a USB Microphone over a dedicated Audio Interface and XLR microphone setup: Initial Cost and ease of use/practicality.
A standard affordable Audio Interface costs anywhere from $60 to $200 (low- to mid-tier), and then you also have to take into account the cost of the XLR microphone which is also about $100 extra, and lastly, you need to purchase an XLR-to-XLR cable which should cost about $20.
This totals to about $200 if you’re lucky.
USB microphones, on the other hand, are generally more affordable: You can get a great-sounding one, such as the Audio-Technica AT2020+ USB or the Rode NT USB Mini for $99-$130.
So, as far as the initial cost goes, USB microphones are much cheaper.
Note: There is something to be said about upgradeability and total cost of ownership: Upgrading from a USB mic means replacing it with an Audio Interface and XLR microphones (if you want to be able to record multiple simultaneous tracks). This makes it more expensive in the long run if you plan on upgrading at some point.
Ease of Use
As I previously mentioned, USB microphones just need to be plugged in and that’s it.
This is not the case with any dedicated audio interface since you need to download and install the drivers, maybe even reboot the system for the changes to take effect, and you may need to go into the sound settings of your OS to assign the input and output to those of the audio interface.
In addition to this, USB microphones are much more portable, especially if you purchase a small one such as the Rode NT USB Mini (if you buy a Blue Yeti then that concept flies out the window because it’s HUGE).
USB Microphones are good for:
USB microphones are just as good as their XLR counterparts and can do anything they can. However, I think that they are more practical for a couple of specific applications, such as:
- YouTube Videos.
- Voice-Over work.
The reason I think they are so good for these applications is because of how easy they are to set up and use and also because anyone who uses them for any of these purposes really only needs to record one track at a time.
Of course, you can do all of this with an Audio Interface and XLR microphones, but if you only need to record one track at a time, USB microphones make much more sense.
What if you want to record more than one simultaneous track?
As I just mentioned, USB mics can generally only record a single track at a time and won’t allow you to record a podcast, for example, where you have three additional guests using a different microphone.
Note: I say “generally” because the Rode NT USB Mini comes with included software that lets you connect up to four Mini’s to the same computer, but almost no USB can do this.
This is where you will need to consider either going with an Audio Interface, or with a Mixer that lets you record multitracks (this is important for you to know because most cheap USB mixers don’t allow for multitrack recording and take all the different inputs, or mic signals in this case, and sum them up to a stereo channel).
The simplest and most affordable way is to purchase an Audio Interface that provides you with the number of inputs that you need (They generally offer one Input, two Inputs, four, eight, and so on) and then get the number of microphones that you need as well.
This, of course, can be quite expensive, but it’s the only way of increasing the channel count (again, you could go with a USB Multitrack mixer but those cost a lot more).
USB Microphone Recommendations
I reviewed multiple USB mics over the years, tried them out, recorded vocals, and guitars, tested out their built-in features and included software, and there are a couple that really stand out (I know a lot of people keep recommending the Blue Yeti, but with all the different options available today, I wouldn’t recommend buying it at all!).
Here are the ones I’d recommend:
- Shure MV7: The Shure MV7 is the most expensive mic I’m recommending but it features USB and XLR connectivity, making it a good choice for people who might need to upgrade later on. In addition to this, it comes with included software that lets you adjust the level, tone, and more. Lastly, I would recommend it mostly for podcasting or anything voice-related and not so much for recording instruments.
- Rode NT USB Mini: The NT USB Mini is the most affordable of the options (slightly under $100) and is great for recording spoken word, singing, and even recording instruments, plus it features the Rode Connect software that comes with included effects (great for streaming) and which allows you to connect four of these mics to the same computer.
- Audio-Technica AT2020+ USB: This is one of the most reliable and great-sounding USB microphones out there, be it for voice-related applications, recording music, streaming, etc. However, it doesn’t come with any additional software for the post-processing of the signal.
USB microphones are much more portable and easy to use than the audio interface and XLR mic combination.
If you only need to record single tracks at a time (great for gamers, streamers, voice-over artists, YouTubers, etc.), then USB microphones are the way to go.
I would still encourage you to think of whether or not you may need to upgrade down the line since doing so means ditching the USB mic and purchasing the Audio Interface and XLR mics anyway, making the entire process more expensive.
I hope this was useful!
Have a great day!