The difference between a USB microphone and an XLR microphone

Hi friend and Welcome!

Today I’m going to be comin’ at you with a super informative post about the difference between a USB microphone and an XLR microphone!

So sit back, relax, and grab a bowl of popcorn, because…

You’ve come to the right place!!

The XLR Conundrum



noun: conundrum; plural noun: conundrums
  1. a confusing and difficult problem or question.
XLR male to female

XLR male to female

I’ve seen this dilemma come up so many times throughout my research and in reading reviews on the internet. People get really intimidated when they hear certain words that pertain to XLR. These could be any of the following:

  • XLR microphone
  • XLR cables
  • audio interface
  • 48v Phantom power
  • external sound card
  • TRS cables

and probably a whole slew of other terms that I can’t even think of right now! 🙂

The Good news

The good news is that setting up an XLR mic isn’t quite as complicated as people make it out to be.

All it requires are a few extra accessories, but in no way are these things difficult to set up. When I was first building my home studio, I was really overwhelmed because I thought it had to look like one of those places you see in magazines and on TV.

You know, the huge room with like a zillion knobs? What does it all mean bazzle?

Luckily, setting up a home studio and utilizing an XLR setup isn’t difficult at all.

The set up goes something like:

Your DAW

This stands for “Digital Audio Workstation.” A lot of people tend to spread misinformation about this term. It does NOT mean your sequencer, or what program you use to lay down tracks and vocals. Your sequencer IS a component of your DAW, but a DAW is comprised of 3 parts.

  1. Your CPU
  2. Your Audio Interface
  3. Your sequencer

Audio Interface (The external sound card)

focusrite scarlett 2i2 usb 2 audio interface

focusrite scarlett 2i2 usb 2 audio interface

This is the meat and potatoes of the setup. As we know now, your computer contains it’s own internal sound card, but often times it’s the overlooked feature of the computer. It doesn’t record very well, emanates sub-par sound, and doesn’t suffice at all in a quality home studio set up.

This is where the audio interface comes in. A good one will be really easy to use and have some cool features, while also being affordable.

How it works

The interface will come bundled with a USB cable. Simply plug one end into a USB port on your computer, and plug the other end into the back of your interface.

Your computer should in theory instantly recognize it and begin installing the drivers that the unit came with. Just make sure that your operating system is compatible with the interface before you go purchasing it. 🙂

The Microphone

This is perhaps the reason why you are reading this. A mic set up with XLR is very simple, but requires one thing:

An XLR cable

One end of this bad boy simply plugs into your mic. The other runs into the front of your interface.

That’s it.

A simple diagram illustrating how you would hook up various components of your rig to the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2

A simple diagram illustrating how you would hook up various components of your rig to the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2

What people get confused by

I’ve read countless reviews on amazon from people who bought an XLR condenser mic, and then actually gave the product a bad review because they didn’t pay attention to what they were buying. The bad review went something like this:

“Bad product. The mic didn’t come with a cable. It doesn’t work. I could not plug it into my computer. Stay away!”

This is precisely the difference between an XLR microphone and a USB microphone. The USB versions are plug and play. XLR versions are not.

What that reviewer, and many others didn’t realize is that they needed an audio interface but didn’t research the matter before hand. He saw some good reviews for the mic and went for it. A key component of his set up was missing. What was it really though?

48v phantom power

Samson C01 with the Scarlett 2i2

scarlett 2i2 paired with my Samson CO1 Condenser. The Red light signals that the 48v phantom switch is powered on.

Another issue that I came across in reviews was that the person had an interface, but still couldn’t figure out why the mic wouldn’t work.

Why? Because they didn’t initiate the 48v phantom power switch on the interface. This is what enables your mic to be powered ON. Make sure to hit that button!

But what is 48v phantom power?

Simply put, it’s the power inside of your interface that gives the microphone enough juice to actually be heard! It amplifies the sound to a level that can be perceived by your brain (and ears :P). Instead of your computer doing all the work (USB), your interface does!

For more info on how your computer sends and receives data, check out my article on Bit depth vs. sample rate!

What’s also amazing is that the end goal of your interface is to send and receive data, by converting the analog signal into digital, and vice versa.

When you scream obscenities into the mic, your computer becomes sad and offended, 🙁 but that doesn’t distract it from it’s primary goal.

The goal is to make sense of the information (your voice) in the form of 1’s and 0’s. Your computer prefers to do this mathematically, by describing it in terms of individually separate values.

Think of it like prioritizing time and writing a list. The tasks are separate and must be done on their own.

Your A/D converter (inside your interface), captures and quantizes these values (samples) at a fixed rate, and of a specified size. Each piece of data contains parameters that are used in accurately reproducing the original sound. The way your computer does this is by copying the original values, and then playing them back in the same order and rate at which they were captured.

This in theory produces an exact replica of the sound you just recorded.


Yeah, it’s pretty heavy stuff. Thankfully you don’t really need to be all that concerned with it. All you need is what we just talked about:

  • A good audio interface
  • XLR cable

    Audio Technica AT 2035

    Audio Technica AT 2035, a great condenser microphone

  • A condenser microphone
  • A mic stand
  • A pop filter (optional but highly recommended)
  • A shock-mount (optional,  but also recommended)


A Good sequencer

Cockos Reaper

Cockos Reaper

This is the final component of your DAW (Digital Audio workstation) mentioned above at the start. It’s what you need in order to actually lay down those sweet vocals!

When starting out, it can become overwhelming and frustrating to find one that is easy to use and affordable (OR FREE! 🙂

It took me quite awhile to not only find one, but to learn how to use it.

Some great resources:

  1. The best free recording software for Windows and Mac
  2. The best free music production software on the internet
  3. Top 10 best music production software – Digital Audio Workstation

One thing to keep in mind..

For the best recording software

Reaper has come up in every search I have made. A good friend of mine also swears by it, as you can learn the product over a period of 30 days free of charge, before making the decision to buy it. Highly recommended.

As for me?

I’ve used the following:

  • Reason
  • FL studio
  • Audacity (great to get your feet wet)
  • Ableton Live
  • Steinberg’s Nuendo

To Recap

Setting up an XLR condenser mic is very simple, but the process is overlooked by many people. Just know that you will need to:

  1. Plug your interface into the computer via USB.
  2. Plug your mic into the interface via XLR cable.
  3. Purchase a stand, pop filter, and shock mount for your baby (the mic :D).
  4. Download a free program, or buy a good sequencer to lay down those vocals.
  5. Learn how to use the sequencer.

That’s it!

Well that’s about it for today my friend! I hope you now have a better understanding about the difference between a USB microphone and an XLR microphone, and perhaps now know which may suit you best!

Which type of microphone sounds more appealing? Would you rather go the XLR route or the USB route? Let me know!!

If you have any other questions, or need me to clear something up, I would be more than happy to speak with you.. Otherwise..




All the best and God bless,

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Be sure to check out my Reviews and Resources page for more helpful and informative articles!!


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