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With most podcasters and even emerging musicians producing material from the comfort of their home, it’s important to know how to get the most from your home recording studio. This has lead to a rise in ‘plug in-and-play’ equipment such as USB microphones allowing you to quickly make a start without spending too much money. People are therefore rightly asking do I need an XLR microphone to record vocals, and what is the difference between an XLR and USB microphone?
Well, there are differences and although USB microphones have benefits I think you should strongly consider a traditional XLR microphone over USB and I’ll try and explain why.
The 6 reasons XLR is better than USB are:
- They’re significantly more versatile
- They work in non-digital settings, so you’re not stuck to a computer
- Clearer sound quality
- Can change components unlike USB
- Better for multiple microphones
- More professional finished product
When creating your home studio, the right microphone will be absolutely crucial. We will compare the in-depth details that make XLR your safest bet. If you’re not sold by the end, then you have my permission to go buy a USB mic ;). But if you care about the art of your craft, you won’t go skimpy by the time you finish this guide.
The 6 Reasons XLR is Better Than USB
XLR cables are used by millions of recorders around the globe for anything from live shows, to studio soundtracks, to home recordings. The structure of an XLR is three pins and a connector which are used to deliver balance from the microphone to the signals.
The makings of a good microphone will be one which has balanced signals, even over long distances. The real selling point that makes the XLR so beloved by tech-nerds is that it removes the background noise you don’t want to hear while making what you do want to hear, that much cleaner.
Choosing the right microphone will save you time, stress, energy, and fuzzy material. Technically the one quality that the USB does have going for it is that it’s cheaper. But is cheaper really the way you want to start your home recording passion? Cheaper does not mean better, as most of us sensical people know.
The point and why this matters to you – the right mic in the first place could save you hours in editing fuzzy material or splicing together segments when you could have just had a quality microphone for crystal-clear recording from the get-go!
The reasons why XLR is a better microphone and equipment investment over USB are:
#1 They’re Significantly More Versatile
When you purchase a microphone for home recording, the three main types. XLR microphones fall into each of these next three categories, and the words of the description you’ll be looking for are (for more details on the differences check out this article):
- Dynamic Microphones – used by musicians and artists. Perfect for vocal fluctuations and preferred by audio engineers for high volumes
- Condenser Microphones – versatility at its finest and can be very sensitive to any sound. Not good for live performances but great for recording.
- Ribbon Microphones – old school but that doesn’t mean outdated. Today’s models are very skilled and used by studio engineers that value a delicate sound palette.
These are the categories that make the XLR so versatile and how you have so many options to explore before purchasing. It’s not a one size fits all which means, unlike the more generic USB, the XLR can be custom-tailored to your needs, your sound, and your intention in recording from home.
XLR cables even have the adaptability and versatility of being what sound engineers call a ‘phantom power.’ This means that the XLR cables allow mixing boards to deliver a power source to microphones which any other cable is not capable of.
USB microphones typically have the pre-amp built into the microphone itself. This means you are pretty much stuck with the sound. If you have an XLR mic, you have the option of upgrading your audio interface or pre-amp to get an even better different tone.
#2 You’re Not Stuck to a Computer
XLR cables are available in a vast array of different lengths from a meter to 20m or more. This means you have a lot more flexibility in your studio if you want to move around or even situate yourself in a different room or vocal booth.
You are not reliant on a computer with a USB port to record. The are several handheld recording devices that are great for doing recording such as podcast interviews on the move. But these devices require XLR microphone connections.
#3 Clearer Sound Quality
When you record with a USB, you’re usually working with unbalanced audio cables. What this means is that it will have two wires to serve as the main conductors, one to the signal and one to the output. When it is unbalanced, it can pick up nearby frequencies and sounds that were not intended to be picked up.
To get a balanced signal, it can require extra cables and more equipment that gets quite costly when you’ve already invested in the USB cable. This is why I say that they’re not necessarily ‘cheaper,’ as they can cost you more in the long run.
Point blank, XLR cables are balanced. Balanced cables are those with three wires which balance as conductors (positive, negative, and ground) which is the precise structural makeup of the XLR cable. Your prayers have been answered, clearer quality is here!
This means the positive and negative signals have balanced polarities. The breakdown of all that science in human terms is that there will be minimal to zero outside interference and the noise will be canceled out.
#4 Component Changeability Unlike USBs
Plug away with an XLR with the many inputs available and you’ll only take up one USB port because you will be most likely using a USB audio interface or a USB mixer.
You can purchase USB cables that have the same component flexibility as their XLR counterparts. However, it will not be the case with every USB mic, while the components will always be flexible on the XLRs.
So if you are going to opt for the XLR microphone, you will want to be sure that it has the three main components or triple components which are comprised of positive, negative, and ground. This will offer comparable sound quality to the XLR while using a USB mic.
Simply put, if components are not considered while making your purchase, the USB will simply not be as high quality as it’s XLR competition.
#5 Better for Multiple Microphones
This is the reason why XLRs are used for most professional podcasting or important live events. You can connect it to multiple microphones being that you’re not restricted by the small cable cords or the mixer as with the USB mics.
When you don’t have enough mics, certain voices will get left out or sound fuzzy with different proximities to the mic if the speakers are forced to shared. This is the case with USB because they can only connect to one cable.
The XLR is not restricted by this hang up so anyone and everyone can join in.
You don’t have to worry about people sounding like they’re jumping into the conversation from a different country or the layered quality of poor sound equipment. Spend a little more for this investment and you’ll be thanking yourself later.
You don’t want to go cheap with the USB and then regret it later when you want a guest on your podcast. Getting extra USB mics will only increase the issue of too much background noise being picked up and the speakers being muffled.
#6 More Professional Finished Product
This whole piece has probably felt like a trash talk on USB microphones and cables. I’d like to be clear that USBs are fine. However:
There’s a reason that XLR is the cable used by professional sound recorders, real studios, top-rated podcasts, and more. The XLR is balanced and supreme in essentially everyway, so it is even used to balance out live performances in stadiums.
This is your podcast, your album, your audible e-book, or whatever it is that you find special enough to record. Since it’s a hobby or craft which holds this much weight in your life – do it right. Buy the quality gear to have a quality product.
Of course, this won’t replace raw talent. But how can anyone notice your raw vocal skills over the static blaring of kids from the street being picked up in the background. You don’t want rookie issues like this ruining your otherwise golden recordings.
It is said as a sort of ‘sound-myth’ that USB mics even create latency problems when recording, especially when multi-tracking. This isn’t proven but it’s heavily believed by those that are deep in the technicalities of the sound world and know where quality lies through their trials and errors.
For these reasons and more, the XLR will be your failproof safe bet for an undeniably better finished product.
If you’re deep into this world of home recording, you know that cleaner sound plus more wiggle room to play within post audio channels will mean the world until they create a better standard for richer sound. Until then, XLR it is!
Which XLR Microphone is Best for Beginners?
So now I’ve put my case forward for XLR microphones over USB which ones do I recommend? Well that depends what you will be using it for, but if it is mainly vocals or podcasting here are a couple of good options.
In most cases, your best bet is to go for a condenser microphone. If you want more information on the different microphone types and why it matters check out this other article. There are lots of choices even within the condenser microphone category with large or small diaphragm options. I would recommend going for the large diaphragm over small diaphragm in order to capture a decent range of frequencies.
The Audio-Technica AT2020 is available at a very reasonable price and is a great option for beginners.
Which Microphone is Right for You?
Choosing the right microphone is clearly one of the key ingredients to a quality audio experience, podcast, or live performance.
You’ll want to make your decision based on the following –
Go for the USB microphone if:
- You want a cheaper microphone or are working on a budget
- You’re just starting out and want to see if you’re committed first
- You don’t want a bunch of cables to maneuver around
- You want something more lightweight
Go for the XLR microphone if:
- You are recording from a home studio
- You’re running a podcast or musical recording that requires multiple microphones
- You need to record from anywhere and have customization options
- You want quality over everything else
The XLR will give you the room to adapt and upgrade as it’s easy to switch out a few cables and interfaces. The complaint I hear the most about the USB is that people wish they had spent more for a quality piece and instead of being able to purchase add-ons (as with the XLR) they have to purchase an entirely new set-up.
What you will find to be agreed upon by all sound specialists is that the XLR is markedly more durable.
If you want your investment to stand the tests of time, you know what to do!