In order to set up a computer recording studio, you will need some sort of interface between your microphone and your computer. The simplest and cheapest way is to plug a dynamic microphone (for a review of the difference between dynamic and condenser mics, see our post here: What Are The Different Types of Microphones?) directly into the sound card of your computer. But you’ll never get professional quality audio from that kind of set-up. Usually I teach that the next best set up from the mic-directly-into-sound-card situation is to get a USB mic and plug it into (you guessed it) the USB port of your computer. If you want clean, clear, accurate and rich sounding audio though, your USB mic is going to have to be something a bit better than the ones on head-sets that cost $25 bucks. You don’t have to spend THAT much more though. You can get into pro audio with larger USB mics starting around $50.
But even then, I find that a USB mic doesn’t always give the best audio. My recommendation is to move to a set-up that is the foundation for the best possible audio quality, a condenser microphone going into an interface unit (containing a mic preamplifier and analog-to-digital converter), which connects to the computer. These interface units usually look like boxes of some sort and connect to the computer via USB (the most common), PCIe, or Firewire. This set-up is not all that mobile, the interface boxes being, as they are, difficult to stuff into a laptop bag or even your pocket.
Enter the CEntrance MicPort Pro, which is a high-quality microphone preamplifier (or mic preamp as the cool kids say) that you literally CAN put in your pocket. This gives you an incredible ability to be mobile and be able to record on the go.
But rather than being just another version of a “USB-to-XLR adapter” such as the Blue Icicle or MXL MicMate, I think of the MicPort Pro more as audio interface that happens to connect to the computer via USB, just like it’s larger cousins such as the M-Audio Fast Track and its ilk. The thing that makes it different is primarily the zero-latency monitoring headphone connector. With plain USB-to-XLR adapters, you still have to monitor via the headphone jack on a computer, which will add a delay to what is being recorded and what you are hearing, which is called latency. That is not an issue with the MicPort due to the headphone input along with its volume control.
Other things that make the MicPort stand out are the preamp gain knob and the phantom power (driven by USB power) for your condenser mics. The 24/96 (24 bit recording and up to 96 KHz sampling rate) analog-to-digital (typically written as A/D) converter allow for high quality recording.
So How Did It Work?
Setting it up was an absolute breeze. I plugged the XLR cable from my mic into the MicPort, then plugged the included low-noise USB cable from the MicPort into a USB port on my Windows 7 machine, though it is compatible with Mac OS X 10.4 and above, and Linux. Windows detected it and installed the proper CEntrance MicPort Pro drivers automatically in seconds–true plug-and-play.
I had Reaper open already and didn’t even have to close it down before the MicPort was available as an audio device in Options. I was ready to rock in less than a minute.
Next I simply unplugged my Rode mic from the E-MU and plugged it into the MicPort, then plugged my Sennheiser HD-280 Pro Headphones into the MicPort and turned up the headphone volume. Then I changed the audio device in Reaper to MicPort and set out to record the same passage. The first thing I noticed was that even with the MicPort’s gain control know all the way down, the input level was way too hot. I think the Rode was too much car at the normal output setting. Fortunately, the Rode has 2 pad switches (-5 dB and -10 dB) to lower its output. I switched to the -10 pad and things were much better. I still only had to turn the MicPort’s gain knob to about 25% to get the right level. I then proceeded to record. Here is what the MicPort recording sounded like:
Now tell the truth, if you did not know which was which, would you have been able to tell the difference? Actually, when previewing this page, I thought I had accidentally put the same audio file in twice! I had to listen to each recording like 10 times before I found a place where I read them differently enough (where I say “the thing that makes it different”). I swear I am not making that up! There was no mistake. Pretty awesome right?
Each recording received the same treatment I give all my voice recordings, noise reduction and a little p-pop elimination, both done in Adobe Audition. One thing I noticed while doing this was that the MicPort recording had more low-level noise across the EQ spectrum. It wasn’t a lot more noise than than the E-MU recording, but it was present at more frequencies (low, mid and high). But since the noise was very low level, the noise-reduction took care of it with no audible artifacts, so in the end it really doesn’t matter much at all.
If I had to suggest any improvements it would be to make the MicPort self-powered instead of relying on USB power. It would have to be made a bit larger to fit a battery, yes. But it would allow you to use it with other devices that don’t have enough USB power to drive phantom power requirements, such as the iPad.
To Sum Up
This thing pretty much rocks! I didn’t find the quality of the MicPort to be much different from that of the E-MU, which costs quite a bit more. And of course the MicPort is amazingly portable (not much bigger than a lipstick), which the E-MU is decidedly not. This thing could easily be your primary home recording audio interface, especially if you mostly do voice over recording. And the portability of it just adds to the awesome and makes it a no-brainer if you ever have to do any recording while traveling. Check it out here: CEntrance MicPort Pro.