USB Mics: Emerging Technology Grabs Ever-greater Market Share
While in certain MI product segments there’s rarely all that much in the way of truly “new” developments which serve as game-changers (think Band & Orchestra), that reality does not apply to pro audio. Digital audio technology is advancing at such a pace that – much to end-users’ frustration – gear purchases made mere months ago become, in some respects, obsolete.
While traditional microphones – based fundamentally on advances dating back to the 1920s through ‘40s – aren’t likely to be lumped in that category anytime soon, the relatively recent emergence of USB mics, which can connect directly to a console/computer, is beginning to seem like a watershed moment in the world of both home and professional recording.
We recently spoke with some suppliers of microphones to get their thoughts on the benefits of USB mics, and where they see these products going…
MMR: When did your company begin offering USB microphones?
Tony O’Keefe: Early 2008.
Jim Mona: The original award-winning MXL USB-006 was released in August 2006, followed up with the release of an entire series of microphones dedicated to USB. The USB.007 offers stereo recording, while the USB .008 offers a large diaphragm condenser to the microphone offering true studio quality sound. We added the USB.009 with a LDC, a quality 24-bit/ 96kHz converter with an equally beneficial headphone input.
Mark Menghi: In 2005 Samson released the C01U USB Studio Condenser Microphone, and today it sells better than ever. We now offer an extensive line of USB mics, which includes the Q1U, C03U, G-Track, Go Mic and the all-new Meteor Mic.
Thomas Stubics: Our Perception 120 USB is now available since April 2010. It is part of our successful Perception Series launched in 2005 – A completely new series of microphones showing legendary AKG Sound & Quality at an outstanding price level.
Cliff Castle: June 2008.
John Nady: 2008. We also offer our UIC series USB interface cables and also the UIM-2X USB interface module, which can all be used with any wired mic, mixer, or other audio source to provide real-time recording and monitoring of pre-recorded or background music with easy plug-and-play connectivity between the audio source and any computer via any USB port. The UIM-2X interface module is compatible with any audio source and provides a 16-bit, 48KHz USB 2.0 link and features a headphone output, allowing for real time recording and monitoring. These units are all compatible with all computer audio software programs.
John Maier: With the introduction of GarageBand in 2004, Blue Microphones received a request to create a microphone to complement this pioneering new digital recording platform. Taking the professional know-how from the long line of high-end studio microphones, Blue debuted Snowball – the No. 1 wired, condenser USB mic on the market – in 2005. Snowball, now available in white, brushed aluminum and black, features a dual condenser capsule design that enables recordings in three settings (cardioid, cardioid w/ 10 dB pad, and omni-directional). A plug-and-play mic, Snowball is compatible with both Mac and PC with driverless installation.
Gary Boss: Audio-Technica began selling the AT2020 USB in February 2008.
MMR: What do you feel are the advantages to end-users?
MM: They’re easy to plug into computers and are really convenient when you don’t have a lot of recording gear around.
CC: Convenience, portable nature, simplicity.
John M: The digital platform introduced by GarageBand made professional quality recording accessible to the end-user. Now, with just a computer and a USB mic, the average user has the recording tools and capabilities that used to cost thousands of dollars in a recording studio. Blue Microphones understands that quality of sound capture is critical to maximizing the potential of digital recording for the end-user. With this in mind, Blue Microphones developed the highest-quality sound capture in USB mics through a unique combination of tuned capsules, high quality electronics, and intuitive design. Because the mechanical, analog, and digital components of the USB microphone are designed together, the user is guaranteed consistent high performance without any complicated setup or tuning. As the end-user became well versed in the potential of digital recording, Blue took USB mics to the next level by including professional versatility features like pattern selection, gain control, digital mute and more.
While professional-quality recording is key, USB mics offer the portability and simplicity that a studio setup cannot. Connected to a laptop or an iPad, USB mics allow the end-user limitless opportunities to record on the go or on location with ease, allowing the flexibility of taking studio quality recording wherever they go.
TO: It afforded all end-users the ability to gather high quality audio and easily plug and play/record directly to the computer.
TS: The USB is a widely known interface for audio equipment like sound cards, active monitors and outboard equipment. With the widespread USB standard and its ease of use, this new model allows users without any recording experience to make professional-quality recordings from their home. You do not need any extra equipment like microphone preamps, mixers, power supplies, or phantom powering units. Now you can focus on what counts: Capturing the emotion at best sound quality. Moreover, the installation procedure is much easier with USB. The AKG Perception 120 USB is a real plug-and-play device without requiring any installation or drivers, enabling customers to do podcasts, voiceovers and studio-quality rehearsal-recordings quickly and easily. The Perception 120 USB comes complete with everything you need: a tripod table stand, a swivel mount, a quick start guide and an USB cable. In its class, the Perception 120 USB is the only USB microphone with an integrated analogue-to-digital converter with 24-bit and 128x oversampling. Instead of usual one-chip-solutions the high-quality analogue-to-digital converter provides convincing sound quality and low noise.
JN: USB microphones make computer recording simple by connecting via the computer’s USB port, eliminating the need for a mixer or external adapter, even a preamp. Plug it into the USB port, and the computer will automatically recognize it as a new input device. The USB port provides all the power these microphones need, and no device drivers are necessary. These features make USB microphones ideal for portable computer-based music recording and podcasting, both stationary and remote. The USB-24M features a neodymium cardioid dynamic element and an attached 10’ cord and is perfect for recording vocal tracks or voice-overs on the computer or for online communication. The Nady USB Series–USB-1C, USB-5H and USB-2S–are large diaphragm condenser studio mics, all offering high-quality audio performance. The USB-5H offers an added headphone output for real time recording and monitoring, and the USB-2S features dual elements for stereo recording.
Jim M: MXL USB microphones offer many advantages to the end users. Communications with the current promotions toward VOip this will make your laptop the next telecommunication device. USB microphones offer quality sound that is intelligible and interactive.
Additionally: portability while on the road. Whether you are in business or making music, a USB microphone will help get the job done quickly. No more waiting for studio time or hassling with telephone connections.
Educational uses with USB are found today among the educators teaching music. The lessons are recorded with the student and sent home on a USB stick. The student can now practice along with the lesson without the teacher. Once the student performs the lesson they can record it and send it off to many family members.
Broadcast and Bloggers all benefit from the ease of use, compatibility with third party software and the sound quality is far superior to the microphone included in their laptops.
Professional musicians can now get a 24bit 96 kHz USB microphone to record a wide dynamic range and deliver professional studio results.
GB: In a nutshell, convenience. They are true plug and play products. For customers who want to capture audio on the go, it is truly the easiest way to get high quality audio into your computer. No interface required. This could be a singer/songwriter looking to capture a musical idea on the road, or grabbing a recording of your band in a bar. For the customer that doesn’t want to fiddle with a bunch of gear, USB mics are perfect. Also USB mics are useful for podcasting or Internet radio applications, where sound quality and ease of use are key.
MMR: What percentage to USB mics represent of your overall microphone sales and production?
Jim M: 16 percent, YTD.
MM: About 30 percent.
TO: Rather than talk percentages, I would say that the USB category gave CAD the ability to rapidly expand our offerings and also reach a new demographic of entry-level recording enthusiasts.
CC: Currently very small.
JN: Less than 10 percent.
TS: In respect to our large portfolio of recording microphones including top-sellers like the famous AKG C 414, D 112, D 5 and C 451 B, just to name a few, our AKG Perception 120 USB shows just a one-digit share. It is a part of AKG’s well-known Perception Series. Since its introduction in 2005, this range has become a real success story. The entire Perception line has been designed and engineered by AKG in Vienna, Austria. The microphones are manufactured in China under strict quality control by AKG. The result is unique, innovative Austrian technology and exceptional build quality at very attractive prices. They have built a strong following among musicians and engineers, proving to be among the best high-value true condenser microphones on the market today.
John M: While we don’t release specific sales figures or product share figures, we can say that the USB category has been growing as an overall share of our business and we see that continuing for at least the near term.
MMR: Are you seeing USB sales increase, flatten, or decrease in recent months?
Jim M: Increases are seen every month, as business, education and consumers are starting to embrace the ease and use of USB technology.
John M: We have been seeing big increases in USB product sales for some time now and with the advent of more and more people recording with their computers, we see these increases continuing. As an example, our classic Snowball USB mic has been out for many years and we still continue to grow its sales every year.
CC: Sales are increasing slightly.
MM: For Samson, USB microphone sales have been rapidly increasing, especially with Apple’s introduction of GarageBand as an app for the iPad. Our National and International distribution has also crossed over into the consumer markets, which has been terrific for us.
TO: We have seen a gradual increase over the past couple of years and fully expect this trend to continue.
TS: Our new AKG Perception 120 USB is received well – Professional audio magazines have reviewed it and the results are very convincing – Our customers love it thanks to the great sound quality and ease of use. We have been working long and hard on it, therefore, we now very glad to get such good feedback from our customers. Moreover, sales figures are great and we still see a considerable growth.
GB: The market as a whole is increasing, but there are now a number of manufacturers with a number of models. This is causing market share to begin to spread out. Audio-Technica still commands sizeable market share with a single SKU offering. We attribute that to offering a very high quality microphone, with great reviews at a reasonable price. It doesn’t hurt that we based our USB mic on one of the best-selling side-address condenser mics in the market, the AT2020.
MMR: What do you see on the horizon for USB mics and related technology?
MM: We envision that USB mics will become the standard microphones in all home and professional studios.
Jim M: Complete packages and kits. Our new Studio 24 USB mic and the USB.009 come as a complete recording kit.
MXL is now bundling Mix Craft LE software with certain models of our USB products. The end user now will have a portable DAW recording system starting under $200.00. I can see more musicians recording this way once they discover the benefits and that a quality USB microphone can deliver.
MXL also offers a USB mini mixer capable of using four dynamic microphones into the mixer with a USB out to your computer complete with a Headphone out to your monitors/ headphones. Multiple inputs offer many conversations to be recorded with multiple microphones, Rehearsals of your band can now have more direct feeds and recording live shows can give you four microphones to capture the performance and the audience. Fast, quick and with the right choice of microphones you will have quality results.
TS: USB-equipped microphones are going to establish as the new standard for many applications. There is still some room for improvement to make the workflow even easier for our customers. Furthermore, new technologies will add some additional functionalities to USB microphones, which allow you a lot of things which would not be possible with conventional microphones.
TO: Continued expansion of feature set, form factor and quality.
JN: USB mics with built-in DSP (reverb, multi fx, and even mic & preamp presets), better wireless USB microphones (with better video integration, and device control over 802.11 networks), and even better quality consumer USB microphones at lower prices than most professional wired mics.
John M: User-generated music and content is becoming the primary step for any emerging artist or professional. As the market continues to embrace tablets and mobile devices and as new technology platforms are introduced, the USB mic will evolve and change. Blue’s Mikey mobile recording product line will soon add digital capabilities that allows them to be used with a broader range of devices, while Blue will continue to push the envelope of digital recording with higher resolution and advanced featuresets. Blue plans to continue leading the market in bringing professional quality audio capture to these new developing platforms.
CC: As more and more portable devices become available, USB mics and mics aimed directly at that market will become more popular.
GB: We continue to see USB microphones as a convenience product. They will never totally replace standard analog mics or even a good USB interface in professional applications. That being said, there are many instances where a higher-quality USB microphone will be useful. Better transducers, higher bit rate, great build quality will be the next movement. Think of the trend towards photographers using cell phone cameras to take pictures in the field. Many of these shots end-up in print. Sometimes it is quicker to capture musical inspiration while it is happening rather that messing with a bunch of gear. Wouldn’t it be handy to be able to set-up and grab that audio at a moments notice?
MMR: Any further thoughts on the topic?
John M: Blue Microphones sees the increasing popularity of USB mics as the representation of a much larger trend: the democratization of great sound. When Blue was first founded, professional capabilities were only available at professional prices in professional studios. Today, tools like Blue’s USB microphones offer the right blend of professional capability, affordability, and simplicity that allows novice or advanced users to realize their artistic vision and create something amazing. Blue is excited to play such a major role in bringing these visions to reality and will continue to build the products that inspire the next generation of artists.
Jim M: As a recording engineer and based on the many discussions I have concerning USB Vs hardware recording I would say this; USB at 24 bit 96kHz offers the dynamic range we are looking for in a professional recording – The Nyquest theorem will remind us all of the technical reasons to purchase a 24 bit USB product. The reality and quality of HD audio recording with USB has come of age.
The other key feature that our current USB microphones offer is the addition of quality preamps and headphone jacks. The issues with computer recording and in particular latency can almost be eliminated with this valuable addition.
The largest factor I can say is to choose your USB mic based for the application. A USB 16 bit 44.1 kHz microphone can give great results for spoken word and where the dynamic range is very limited, ideal for conferences and computer communications. Musicians and broadcasters may need the 24 bit USB microphones to capture more of the passion and dynamics of their recording session. Choose well and you will be extremely happy.