USB mics provide a convenient one-stop shop for podcast recording — but there are a few things to look out for when deciding which one to buy.
The idea that one simple device, connected to your computer via good old-fashioned USB, is all you need to turn your computer or tablet into a podcasting studio has undeniable appeal. And it's pretty much true, too, certainly for all the devices you'll see compared in our USB microphone round-up later on. Whereas even a modest music-recording setup will probably be based around an audio interface of some kind — which can mean tethering a rack unit to your computer, or having a desktop device taking up valuable space, not to mention a power supply and a nest of cables tucked away somewhere — podcasting really does just require a microphone and something to say.
But, in truth, USB microphones are audio interfaces; they just hide all the 'interface' stuff within the familiar form factor of a microphone. They pretty much all come with neat little desktop stands, too, so you don't even need to invest in peripherals like mic stands or boom arms. None that I've come across require a separate power supply, either, so provided your laptop or iPad has decent battery life, you can podcast from absolutely anywhere. If you plan on podcasting from an iPad, however, do be aware that not all USB mics are iOS–compatible.
Some of the earliest USB mics were nothing more than a microphone with a USB port where the XLR socket used to be. These were fine for recording, but not so good if you actually wanted to hear what you'd recorded — which presents problems when it comes to the editing stage of podcast production, adding theme music and stings, and so on. And while it's fair to say that podcasting is less demanding of foldback monitoring than recording a musical performance is, it's still very much advisable to listen while you're recording. It can be easy to miss a distracting background noise, or a low-frequency thump from bumping against a table leg while you're recording, and there's nothing more frustrating than having to set up all over again just to re-record a small passage. Thankfully, the world has moved on, and all of the USB mics you'll see on the next page have got headphone sockets built in.
Back to my point about USB microphones being audio interfaces. Just as with conventional interfaces, latency — that is, the time it takes for audio to pass through the mic, into the computer, and then back out again — can be an issue, in that it can be remarkably distracting to hear a delayed version of yourself while you're speaking....