Should I use a USB or XLR Microphone?

A successful voice actor wears three hats: performer, business manager, and audio technician. On the technical side, one of the first steps you’ll take in your VO career is buying the right kind of microphone.

Many different microphones are available on the market, but voice-over microphones can be divided into a few simple categories. I’ll walk you through them to help you narrow down the choices. 

The first choice you’ll have is between USB and XLR mics. The names refer to the kind of connector the mic uses, but they also have some other differences you’ll need to consider when buying your first mic. 

USB Microphones

I like to think of a USB mic as a digital mic. You plug it straight into your computer using a USB cable. You don’t need any extra gear, and you don’t need to think about converting the analog signal to a digital one. Just plug it in to your computer’s USB port and you’re ready to record. Pretty nifty!

XLR Microphones

An XLR microphone, on the other hand, is an analog mic—it plugs in the “old school” way. This microphone has a three-pronged XLR plug that connects to a special audio cable. This cable gets plugged into a digital audio interface (a sound card) that converts the analog signal from the mic to a digital one your computer can use. 

On the back of the audio interface is a USB port that sends the digital signal to your computer. Audio interfaces can also provide power to the mic

Now, USB mics also have an audio interface but it’s built-in and hidden inside the microphone housing. 

This brings us to the main difference between USB and XLR mics: XLRs require an external digital audio interface and an additional cable

Preamps

Speaking of additional components, the audio signals outputted by microphones aren’t very powerful—they need some extra juice for you to hear the quieter sounds. This is done using a piece of electronic equipment called a preamplifier, or preamp for short. All microphones need some kind of preamplification. With the XLR microphone, that happens when you plug it into an external audio interface, as the interface has a built-in preamp. On the USB mic, the preamp is also inside the mic along with the other electronics. In the $100 to $300 range, the preamp components inside a USB mic housing are pretty similar to what’s inside an external audio interface. So, modern USB mics and XLR mics sound equivalent in this price range. In fact, they both sound fantastic!

The Cons of USB Mics

The main reason I don’t like USB microphones for voice acting long term is that eventually, as you move up the voice acting food chain, you’ll be asked to record sessions via a technology called Source-Connect (which I’ve written about in another article). When you record via SC, you usually connect to a commercial studio. Those studios use analog XLR microphones. As such, those mics are considered “industry standard.” In reality, a USB mic would do the job, but studios aren’t accustomed to them. They might still record with you if you’re the right person for the job and they really want you, but if you have an XLR mic, they’ll be much more comfortable working with you. You’ll be ready to go—without any drama. 

Price

You’ll pay a bit more for an XLR mic setup. Not for the mic itself, which is priced (in the lower range of mics) similarly to USB mics, but you’ll need to buy the external digital audio interface too so you can get the sound into your computer. If you shop for audio interfaces, you’ll see that some of them also offer more features and flexibility, like extra mic inputs or a 1/4″ jack for a guitar or keyboard. So, if you’re going the XLR route, be sure to budget an extra $100 to $200 in addition to the microphone. 

Upgrading

An XLR mic with an external audio interface also gives you the option of upgrading different components of your audio chain at different times. Want a better mic? No problem, just get one and plug it in to your audio interface. (Pro tip: keep the old one as a backup in case the new one breaks down.) With a USB mic, you can’t “upgrade” it other than by replacing the whole device, so you’ll be stuck with the same components. An XLR mic takes a little extra work (and cost) up front, but then you’re set up for success from the get-go. 

The Verdict

Adding up all these factors (reliability, upgradability, versatility, and compatibility with other studios), the XLR mic comes out on top. It’s not the cheapest option, but since XLRs are industry standard, they’re the most future-proof. That’s why I recommend getting an XLR mic

Great! So, that’s one question down. We still have two more important factors to consider when buying a microphone for voice acting and voice-over. The next one up is comparing dynamic vs condenser microphones.

If you have any questions or comments about USB microphones and XLR microphones, please write them in the comments. I’ll do my best to answer them! 

My name is Lili Wexu. I’m an actress, a voice talent and an author. To learn about recording voice-overs for a living, read my e-book about Voice Acting & Announcing