You've just purchased your first USB microphone and everything's new and exciting. You start researching everything home recording can offer, but you start to realize something...
The term "audio interface" comes up a lot. You see audio junkies singing praises to their personal favorites.
But, isn’t a USB microphone all you need? Should you go out and buy an audio interface? What are the differences? Do you need both?
The answer is: It depends!
But before you start tearing your hair out, let’s walk through the technical jargon and see if we can’t help simplify the answers for you.
I promise, by the end of this article, you’ll know what to do.
A USB microphone has everything you need to record, built right into it - the microphone(duh!), the preamp and the AD converter (analog to digital).
The signal goes into the PC through the USB cable et voilà! The computer receives the sound.
An audio interface is everything you just read except the microphone. The interface is the bridge between the source (guitar, microphones etc) and the PC.
You can’t plug a USB microphone into an Interface, because audio interfaces don’t accept USB as an input. They’re meant to be an all-in-one recording solution for improved quality on a budget.
So technically you DO NOT need an audio interface with a USB mic. In fact, it’s impossible - it just won’t work.
But is a USB mic the best solution for your situation?
Or is an audio interface with a separate microphone the best way to go?
Let’s explore that a little further.
What Are Your Recording Goals?
If you’re a musician/songwriter on a budget looking to record just vocals or an acoustic guitar or maybe you want to be able to record podcasts, interviews, voice-overs, etc.
Then here's the good news:
You can certainly get away with a just USB mic
Most people in these situations don’t need extreme levels of quality to get the job done, thus the USB mic is sufficient.
However, if you’re looking to up your game and quality is important to you, then an audio interface with a separate microphone might be the better option. This route also gives you more options down the road (more on that later).
Still not sure?
Let’s explore both these opportunities a little more to see what might be the right decision for you.
The USB Microphone
This device is merely a microphone that connects to your PC via USB. It does all the digital conversion work an audio interface would do but in a compact solution.
There are lots of reasons why you'd buy one.
The fact that you can find these in all price ranges, from cheap to expensive, makes it a more natural choice. If you're on a budget, these can be a convenient way to record with excellent quality.
Also, a USB microphone uses just one cable whereas an interface requires multiple, making the USB option much more attractive to those who prefer simplicity.
When Buying a USB Mic Might be the Wrong Decision
The most significant upside about a USB mic is also it's largest downside - lack of flexibility. Audio taste can change over time, and you might feel stuck if one day you don't like the color or quality of the recordings.
An interface lets you upgrade the mic while leaving your recording setup as is. A much more efficient way to "grow" your sound.
Sure you can toss away the USB mic and invest in a better setup, but that requires double the effort and additional time to learn the new gear.
Ain't nobody got time fo dat!
So if you’re planning on sticking this out for the long run and quality is your ultimate goal - be it now or later - you should look at bypassing the USB mic. Go straight to the audio interface and choose a good quality mic.
Options, Options, Options…
Like everything else in the modern world, there’s a ton options for USB mics.
Still, the top tier priced options can’t compete with a good interface + mic, so in my opinion I wouldn’t spend a lot here. More than likely you will outgrow this mic, even if you don’t plan on it.
Trust me when I say that once you get caught with the audio bug, it’s hard to shake.
Going the cheaper route will still get you a decent sound but will also give you an escape plan when you finally make the decision to invest in a better setup.
A nice feature these mics offer is the built-in supports that allow them to easily sit on top of your desk. This means there’s no additional gear to buy in order to start recording!
The Audio interface
An audio interface captures sound from a source (guitar, bass, microphone) and feeds it to your computer. It transforms the sound to a digital format which the computer understands and can work with.
It lets you connect external monitors (you're not listening to your masterpiece from the PC speaker are you?!). Plus it gives you a set of inputs, outputs, gain control and volume knobs. It is a more complete solution than the USB mic.
If you want to record instruments and vocals than the best choice would be to upgrade to an audio interface.
Many reasons back this up.
- You can plug in your guitar or bass to it as if it were an amplifier.
- You can record your incredible singing or any sound a microphone can capture. (don't get carried away, just sayin').
Get what all the fuss is about?
The flexibility of it makes it a better choice over the USB microphone.
Keep in mind that the prices are considerably higher and you need to factor in a microphone or instrument(s) into your budget.
Plus, they're not exactly plug and play, where a USB mic is.
Audio interfaces come in a variety of models. You can choose single input or multiple input to record more than one instrument or voice at the same time.
Most of them are USB while some use Firewire. If you're wondering what that is then stick to the first. Most computers don't even have Firewire ports anyway. Not worth it.
Options, Options, Options…
Just like the USB mic, there are a ton of options for Audio interfaces. Assuming cost is important to you, here are some great options that won’t break the bank:
If you can, try to get the 2i2 (a bit more expensive), it has 2 inputs which open up new scenarios like recording 2 tracks at the same time. If you want to save every penny and don’t mind a single input then go for the solo.
Another great idea would be to start off with a high-quality bundle pack without breaking the bank. It should have everything you need to record (including the mic!).
The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 bundle for example packs in:
- Focusrite 2i2 audio interface
- CM 25 condenser microphone
- Studio Headphones
- Pop filter
- Boom stand
- XLR cable
You can get it for sub 250$. If you don’t mind a single input, then you can grab the Focusrite Scarlett solo bundle which will come in under 220$.
These interfaces deliver great sounding recordings thanks to the crisp clear preamps. The company has a great reputation for making quality products.
Some might find all the extra perks of an audio interface to be useless. In this case, you can stick with the USB microphone you bought or want to buy.
If instead, you want to open up new possibilities then that's a different story.
Want to record different types of instruments and use different microphones? Then an upgrade to an audio interface is probably worth your while.