Selecting an External Microphone

One of the biggest challenges of online music lessons is that we are limited to the quality of the electronic devices we use. If either the teacher or student is hampered by a poor microphone on their budget or aging device, the resulting audio quality will suffer. Depending on the device that you use, you may be able to upgrade your microphone and vastly improve the overall quality of your online lessons. We will cover some common choices for upgrading to an external microphone.

A Webcam's Built-In Microphone

If you have already upgraded to a new webcam as outlined in Selecting a Webcam, there is a high chance that you have upgraded your existing microphone as well. The built-in microphone in most modern webcams are sufficient upgrades to those included in older or budget laptops and all-in-one computers. These webcam microphones are normally unidirectional in their recording (more on recording patterns can be found HERE), and will require a quiet room and proper placement to get the best sound quality out of them. Also, webcam microphones can still have a little trouble with loud volumes because of the small size of their recording capsule (the part of the microphone that actually captures sound), so ensure that your instrument volume is set appropriately when possible.

A USB Condenser Microphone

USB Condenser Microphones are also known as podcasting microphones among consumers. They are offered by many respectable microphones brands and can come in many different shapes and sizes. USB condenser microphones offer 2 distinct advantages:

  1. The recording capsule of a condenser microphone is much larger than the microphones common in laptops, smartphones, and tablets. This allows them to handle louder volumes and extended frequencies with minimal distortion.

  2. The USB connectivity takes care of the microphone's power requirements and sound interfacing. You can simply plug in the microphone to your computer and laptop and it will work without the need of extra cables, amplifiers, or sound mixers.

USB condenser microphones can be pricey at times, and consumer/semi-professional models can range anywhere from $50 to $300 CAD. For most users, cheaper models from a respectable brands, such as Blue Microphones or Audio Technica, will suffice.

A USB Audio Interface and XLR Microphone

A USB Audio Interface is a specialized audio device that allows you to connect microphones (and other audio devices such as speakers and even instruments) to your computer for recording/playback purposes. The USB microphones mentioned previously already have this interface built-in, but you can also buy standalone units that will give you the flexibility to pick your own industry-standard microphone and other related devices.

A Steinberg UR12 Audio Interface .

USB Audio Interfaces connect to your computer or laptop (in some cases, your iPhone or iPad) and effectively replace whatever built-in speakers or microphones on that device. You then plug in your microphone and speakers/headphones to the Audio Interface for the highest quality sound reproduction. Volume and Input Gain knobs will allow you to control input and output levels of your connected devices.

Note that this option can become very expensive, and is recommended only for those who are either technically inclined enough to select/purchase/setup the appropriate interface/microphone, or would like to pursue recording in the future (professionally or as a hobby).

Focusrite Scarlett Studio package, complete with condenser microphone, XLR cable, and studio headphones.

Smartphone and Tablet Options

External microphone options tend to be limited for mobile devices such as a smartphone or tablet, but they do exist. Companies such as RØDE offer products, such as the VideoMic ME and VideoMic ME-L, for your mobile device. These devices offer the recording quality of larger condenser microphones, but in a compact and compatible form factor.

The RØDE VideoMic ME for smartphones and tablets, connected to an iPhone 6S.

Some USB audio interfaces, such as the Steinberg UR22 or Focusrite iTrack Solo, are compatible with your mobile device such as an iPad. If you plan to use an interface for your mobile device, be sure to research the compatibility with your device, or contact the Tauber Music School technical support line for further consultation.

A Lightning-to-USB 3 adapter from Apple.

The microphone models offered by Blue Microphones, such as the Snowball and the Yeti, are also plug-and-play compatible with mobile devices as long as you have the appropriate adapter. iPhones and iPads will require a Lightning-to-USB Camera adapter or Lightning-to-USB 3 adapter to use a Blue Microphone. Android devices will have to support USB OTG (USB On-the-Go) first and foremost, but if it does, you will also require a similar adapter known as a USB OTG adapter. Apple devices that use USB-C instead of Lightning will also use the same type of OTG adapter. If you are unsure of your device's compatibility, or which type of adapter to purchase, contact the Tauber Music School technical support line for further information.

A Blue Yeti connected to an iPhone XS with a Lightning-to-USB Camera adapter. (image source: Blue Microphones)