Whether you’re recording voiceovers, creating a VO demo reel or launching your long-delayed podcast from home, one essential item you’re going to need is a good microphone. If you’re technically averse, the USB microphone is a sound choice. There is only one wire between microphone and computer, and most have a headphone connection right on them. Some can even connect to your smartphone.
USB microphones are available everywhere and can cost up to several hundred dollars. Some popular brands to look for are Apogee, Audio Technica, Blue, Rode, Shure, and others I probably forgot.
Most have a cardioid (heart shaped) pickup pattern, but some can switch between that and other patterns like omni and bi-directional, depending upon the application.
As announcers, we use the cardioid pattern.
A microphone with a cardioid pattern “hears” the sound from the front of the mic and rejects the sound from the sides and back. If two people are recording a podcast or interview, they could put a microphone in between them and select a bi-directional or figure 8 pattern and the mic would hear the front and back and reject the sides.
If more people wanted to get in on the interview, the microphone could be put in the middle of a table and set in the omnidirectional pattern. Then the mic would “hear” everyone at an equal volume.
Some usb mics have their own desk stand and most can be mounted to a microphone stand. They can be used sitting at a desk or standing in a booth.
So how do you use one of these things? First, plug it in to the computer and mount it so that the mic can be about three to eight inches away from you when you are speaking. You might need a pop filter or windscreen.
These two devices control wind, breath, and plosives (B’s, P’s, T’s) across the capsule of the mic. We used to make pop filters out of coat hangers and pantyhose before they were commercially available, but now they are under twenty bucks!
A foam windscreen is like a condom for the microphone. It just slips over the capsule and they are cheap as well. These can also help to tame sibilance. Sibilance is the vocal quality of having very strong S’s. It can almost sound like a whistle but using a foam windscreen or pop filter can help reduce them.
Next adjust the gain. Most usb mics will have a gain setting. This is the level of the MICROPHONE going into the computer and your recording program. Some mics that have a headphone input will also have a volume control. This is to adjust how loud you like to hear yourself in the headphones.
Having a headphone input on the mic will diminish latency. Latency sounds like an echo in your headphones and is the time (usually in milliseconds) from sound to come out your mouth through the microphone, into your computer and back out to your phones.
If you are listening through your computer there is usually a bit of latency depending upon how many tracks you are using, plugins, and generally how hard your computer is working at the moment.
Once the gain is set correctly it usually doesn’t need to be changed unless your audition is very loud or soft. In most of those cases you could just ‘work’ the mic and keep the gain the same. Adjust the volume to the headphones to taste and record away.
USB microphones are easy to set up and can have repeatable results with good sound. I have friends and clients that have booked major campaigns from auditioning at home with a usb mic. These also make a great choice for a travel setup to have when on vacation or away on business. So get a usb microphone into your arsenal and start recording!
Dave Kresl is an experienced Senior Audio Engineer with a demonstrated history of working in the media production industry. He has worked on commercials and films. Visit his Facebook page here.