So, you’ve got a great microphone that was either given to you as a gift or simply too good of an offer to pass up. Unfortunately, the mic has an XLR or other analog plug that doesn’t appear to be readily compatible with your computer. You might be able to get away with plugging it in to the analog audio in on your PC, but the interference and lack of power can have an adverse effect on your overall sound quality.
One advantage USB has over traditional analog ports is that it can provide a cleaner audio signal. USB is also a powered port, making it possible to provide phantom power to your device without having to plug anything extra into the wall. Granted, this doesn’t work in all cases, but it s a useful feature if you can take advantage of it.
Audio quality is extremely important, even with amateur productions. Conference calls, podcasts, screencasts, machinima, and full-fledged video productions require decent audio. In reality, many of your viewers will listen to the majority of the content in the background while getting other things done. Shouldn’t the one thing they can concentrate the most on be as clear as possible?
So, how do you convert virtually any microphone to USB? There are a number of different ways to go about it, and here are some of them.
USB Mic Converter
If you have an XLR microphone, you’re probably going to want to take a look at one of the simplest solutions out there. An XLR to USB signal converter plugs directly in to your microphone and provides a USB connection directly to the computer. From there, your system detects a USB microphone and your built-in system drivers take over from there.
The great thing about these adapters is that they often provide 48V phantom power to the microphone. Many XLR mics, especially large diaphragm condenser microphones, require phantom power to generate clean audio that comes across a sensitive capsule located within the frame. Sound waves don’t actually do a lot of pushing, so some microphones need a little extra energy to amplify that signal and send down audio. This is a good thing.
One option available to you is the Icicle from Blue. Blue makes an excellent line of microphones including the Yeti and Snowball. The Icicle is essentially a single piece that connects to the bottom of your XLR microphone and provides a USB port on the other end. No special drivers are required, and you can use it with Mac, PC, and Linux. A single analog volume knob on the device makes fine-tuning your volume levels easy. You can find the Icicle for around $40 fairly easily.
A good audio interface will provide a clean, crisp signal from source to PC. Many of them feature multiple audio in ports including 1/4 in. TRS and XLR connections. In a sense, these interfaces act as very basic mixers that give you control over volume, sending audio to your PC in a single or split-track format.
This is a favorite among podcasters as it doesn’t come with the high cost of entry of a full-fledged mixer while delivering excellent sound from multiple sound sources. Any decent interface should also have a toggle that enables 48V phantom power delivered to the microphone.
One audio interface I use as a primary audio input for my primary production Mac is the M-Audio MobilePre. This interface delivers excellent 24-bit, 48 kHZ audio to the PC. Two combination XLR/TS jacks on the front make it possible to connect two microphones or instruments at once. If you’re dealing with other audio sources, two line-in ports on the back are also available. The MobilePre also comes with Pro Tools SE which offers professional-level audio production on a Windows platform. The MobilePre itself works great on Mac OS X and Windows.
If you have an unusual microphone, multiple audio sources, or simply want to provide the best audio possible into your PC, you’re going to want to pick up a mixer that connects via USB. A mixer allows you to fine-tune the sound well beyond simple volume controls. You can even provide a mix-minus for live monitoring prior to it going to your computer. A USB mixer is a perfect go-between from analog to digital and will give you maximum control over your output.
One notable USB 2.0 mixer out there is the Helix Board 12 from Phonic. This board allows you to send up to 10 independent channels to your PC or Mac simultaneously. It also works great as an analog mixer, providing you a number of different audio recording solutions. Two monitoring channels are available which allow you to run a mix minus to a remote host so they don’t hear themselves on a delay.
Without a doubt, a full-fledged mixer is the solution you’re going to want to turn to if you intend on taking an audio-heavy production to a professional level. Most podcasters can get by just fine without it, but there’s no real substitute for the fine-tuning available on a good mixer.
Most analog audio devices hold up very well to basic adapters you can find at your local electronics store. The real trick is taking an analog signal and turning it into a clean digital output. Most pre-made USB all-in-one solutions do the same thing as every mic is inherently analog, even those.
Analog output solutions have provided excellent audio for generations. The problem is getting clear audio on consumer priced equipment. Audio in ports on PCs are subject to tons of distortion, hum, and static both on the motherboard and the cable as it passes close to the power supply. Going digital with your audio is a great way to avoid the static and hum and provide clear audio for your listeners.
In virtually any media production, audio is the one determining factor that can make the difference between success and failure. Your audience will appreciate every step you take to make the production as easy to listen to as possible. A loud hum or persistent static can throw off a good production. With the right tools, you can put that excellent microphone that’s been gathering dust to good use.