How I Made the Microphone Switch from USB to XLR

What’s in a name? Well, when it comes to microphones for voice actors, it can be a lot! As someone who constantly wants to improve in the voiceover business, I wanted to make sure I was using the best tech I could afford. But that meant upgrading and switching from a USB to an XLR microphone. So, what does that mean, and how did I do it?

From the Rode NT-USB to the Sennheiser MKH 416

Because I was a (hobby) musician for so many years and dealt with audio electronics, I’m familiar with some of the bigger names in the business, but mostly for dynamic microphones. When you start doing voiceover, you’re probably going to use a condenser microphone. So, in other words, this was a new world for me.

Before I started voiceover work, I decided it was best to not make a big financial investment in equipment. Because of my experience on camera and with public speaking, I thought there was a good chance that I would be good at it, but nothing is ever guaranteed. I purchased an all-in-one kit from Amazon that included a condenser microphone, headphones, and a swingarm microphone holder – all for the bargain basement price of $99.

Of course, there are different philosophies on how much money you should spend for your first microphone and what type of microphone you should get. Some people think you should start out with better gear to give you more chances for bookings. Some people don’t because, like me, they want to test the waters first. It’s up to you. 

The Technical Details

For voiceover, there are two types of connections: a USB microphone or an XLR microphone. The USB microphone will typically be less expensive (<$250), and will plug directly into your laptop. The XLR microphone uses the standard three-pronged cables that you see in the entertainment business. However, it has to be plugged into a piece of hardware called an interface. The interface translates the analog signal from the microphone into a digital signal that can then be transmitted to your laptop via a USB cable.

I know that technically this sounds pretty basic, and while I’m pretty good at figuring out technology, it was still intimidating! I loved the ease of just plugging in my microphone into my MacBook, and I had absolutely no idea how to use an interface. The mixer panel had a bunch of knobs and sliders that I was completely unfamiliar with. Fortunately, I’m part of a fantastic Facebook group called The VoiceOver Community run by Marc Preston, and they definitely helped me figure this stuff out.

Picking the Right Gear

Let’s get talking about the actual switch. I stopped using my starter microphone about three weeks into my voiceover career, after I started getting jobs. After considerable amount of research, I decided to go with the Rode NT-USB. Boy, was that a huge change from my cheapie little starter! It was very clear, but very bright. I was used to sounding warmer on my first microphone, if not as great, and I was worried that I had made a huge mistake. However, in the ensuing month, I booked another 12 jobs, so I figured I must be doing something right.

Then two months later, I decided to have a “report card” session with my voiceover coach. I wanted to see if I was on the right track, and if there was anything I could do to improve. He uses the Sennheiser MKH 416, and was raving about it. Then he said he thought it would be really good fit for my voice. I trust him, so I started doing the research. I have to tell you, it was almost a dead heat between the MKH and the Neumann TLM 103. I watched several YouTube videos comparing the two, and I was finally swayed to go with the Sennheiser.

But my decisions weren’t done!  Now I had to decide on an interface. Once again, Facebook groups and YouTube came to the rescue. The main things I took into consideration were ease of use, cost, reputation, and quality of sound for the $1000 microphone I just purchased. I decided on the Audient iD14, and it’s been mostly great, with only a few hiccups that were probably just due to my lack of experience. I’ll write about that in a separate blog post.

The Test: USB vs. XLR

Now for the big reveal – how does the new Sennheiser sound compared to my old Rode? I actually waited a few days after I got it before I started using it. I had a couple of directed sessions and I certainly didn’t want to deal with technical issues for those. I also was attending the virtual One Voice Conference, and was too mentally exhausted by the end of the day to fiddle with it. 

The setup was pretty simple. I just unscrewed the old microphone holder from the swingarm, attached the Audio Technica universal shock mount ($45), and clipped in the Sennheiser. Some people have said that I don’t need to use the wind sock, but I decided to go ahead and slide on because I’m something of a plosives monster, and I need all the filter I can get.

 I recorded my first audition with the new microphone this morning, and I will admit that I was a little apprehensive. Would I sound any different? Would it be worth the money I spent? And most importantly, would I sound better? Probably the biggest surprise, delight, and joy was the ability to monitor myself through my headphones because of the interface. When using a USB microphone, I couldn’t hear myself through the microphone. Cover your ears and start talking, and that’s basically what I heard. I had no idea how I sounded until I hit the playback, it was awesome to have that heads-up for any errors or noises that I could re-record on the spot.

The Verdict: USB vs. XLR

I recorded the audition and did the basic editing, and I couldn’t believe how smooth the sound was! I noticed differences right away in my waveforms, which indicated that my new microphone with picking up my voice very differently than my old microphone. I’m sure this has a lot to do with the fact that the Rode and the Sennheiser have two very different cardioid polar patterns. 

The biggest thing I noticed is that it picked up more plosives, but significantly fewer mouth clicks. I am a very clicky person. Anyone reading this with any voiceover experience knows it is significantly easier to edit plosives with an equalizer than it is to remove mouth clicks with a repair tool. I’ve done several more auditions with the Sennheiser, and it has cut down my editing time by at least 30 percent.

Finally, I decided to do the ultimate comparison. I found the script for a recent audition and I re-recorded it using the Sennheiser. I listened to both of them, the original audition with the Rode and the new audition with the Sennheiser, and the difference was very noticeable to me!  I’ve inserted both recordings below, and while I don’t know if you’ll be able to hear the difference over a cell phone or laptop speaker, I think you’ll definitely be able to hear with headphones. 

Rode NT-USB Recording
Sennheiser MKH 416 Recording

I absolutely love how much warmer and smoother the Sennheiser made me sound! Of course, everyone’s voice is different, and one microphone is not suited to every single person. But I can tell you I am completely in love with the MKH 416, and so far it’s been worth every penny.

If you’re at the point where you think you’re ready to make the switch from a USB microphone to an XLR microphone, it’s definitely not as scary as it might seem. It will take a lot of time to do the research, as you have to find the right microphone for you as well as the right interface. You don’t have to spend a lot of money like I did to make the switch! There are tons of less expensive XLR microphones that are really good. Please take advantage of the amazing advice offered in the different voiceover groups on Facebook. I purchased my gear online through Sweetwater, and the sales person I spoke to was extremely helpful, so take advantage of all their great advice!

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