USB Microphone or Audio Interface. Which should you use?

With the rapid advancement in technology, the market is constantly  throwing  new options in our face, which is a good thing, but it can also get confusing real fast.

As soon as USB microphones became a thing, people started wondering whether or not to buy them or to keep using the XLR ones through an Audio Interface.

This actually happened to me years ago. I almost bought a USB mic but then realized that i would need something a bit more versatile, because i wanted to record songs at home and one mic alone wouldn´t cut it.

So i borrowed an Audio interface from a friend (Firestudio Mobile, by Presonus) and a couple of Mics (a Shure SM57 and an Audio-Technica 3035) and I realized that in my case, this was the way to go.

So, which one is best for you?

A USB mic plugs directly into the computer and is ready to be used, with the downside that only one track can be recorded at a time.

XLR Mics have to be connected to an Audio Interface which has to be connected to the PC via USB or Fire-Wire.

This whole setup is more expensive, but you can record more than one track at the time (as many as the interface will allow).

Let´s start by comparing the two types of microphones;

The first question that you need to ask yourself is, if you want a plug and play microphone (USB) or if you want a setup that will allow you to do more than a simple one-track recording..

The USB Microphone

What are the pros and the cons of the USB Microphones?

Pros:

  • No Phantom power required.
  • They are more consistent across all computers, since you simply plug them in, adjust volume, maybe download a driver ( in most cases you don´t need to) and you are ready to go!
  • They are Usually the cheaper option

Cons:

  • Multi-track recording on-to a single computer is complicated ( you can record different tracks onto different computers, but since the internal clocks of the computers might be slightly different, there might be some syncing issues).
  • You need a computer to be able to use them ( can´t simply record onto a portable recorder like with the XLR mics).
  • They are more difficult to troubleshoot, since you can´t simply replace individual parts of them, like the cable, etc.

Related: Here’s a list of the 15 best USB Microphones currently available.

The XLR Microphone

And what are the Pros and the cons of and XLR Microphones?

Pros:

  • They are connected to the PC via an Audio interface, which means you can do multi-track recordings without any syncing problems.
  • Easier to troubleshoot ( you can change the cable, try them on a different interface, etc).
  • More versatile;  you can record onto your computer through the interface or maybe onto a portable recorder. Even recording onto a camera, with an adapter is an option.
  • Can be used for live performances (can be connected onto any PA system).
  • More models to choose from.

Cons:

  • Requires Phantom Power ( if you are using a condenser microphone).
  • Way more cables are needed.

Related: Here’s a list of the 16 best Home Studio Microphones currently available on the market.

Which microphone is the right one for you?

It all comes down to preference and needs. If you need a really simple setup, like recording vocals and an acoustic guitar at home (where the guitar and the vocals are recorded just to that one track), or for doing something like product reviews for a YouTube video, or maybe just talk over Skype, etc, then  the best option for you is to get a USB microphone, plus you won´t have to deal with all the cables.

But as soon as you want to record more than one track, let´s say a podcast, with multiple guests, or even for something as simple as vocals plus an acoustic guitar, where you want a mic for the vocals and another one for the guitar,with a USB microphone it gets tricky, to say the least.

That´s where i recommend getting an Audio interface plus some XLR microphones.

What is an Audio Interface?

The easiest explanation i can give is that an audio interface is the translator between the microphone and the PC. It takes the audio signal coming from the mic and translates it into something your computer can understand. Basically it converts the analog signal to digital.

Features of an Audio Interface:

  • 48v phantom power, to power condenser microphones ( most of them at least ).
  • Gain control for the XLR input channels.
  • Headphones output for monitoring ( depends on the interface ).
  • They connect to the PC via USB or Fire-Wire.
  • Multiple analog inputs, for multi-track recording.
  • MIDI inputs.

Depending on which brand / model you get, they may have more or less features, but the important thing to note here is that when going for an Interface plus some XLR mics, your setup becomes more versatile and simply better, but the cost is significantly higher.

If you are considering the Audio Interface option, you can check out this article about two really affordable ones: Focusrite Scarlett VS Behringer U-Phoria.

Conclusion

In my honest opinion, unless you really only need a single microphone, you should consider buying an interface. Maybe just get one XLR microphone to begin with and then start upgrading and buying additional ones when you require them. But if you want to get quality recordings, specially in a multi track setting, the ideal option would be an Audio Interface.

You may also be thinking if what you need is an Audio Interface or a Mixer, which is a very reasonable question to ask.

You can read this article on that exact topic I wrote.

I Hope this was Helpful! hope you have a good one!

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