$199.95 MSRP, $149.94 street
By Craig Anderton
I like USB mics. Not because they’re going to compete with high-end mics when recording instruments—they won’t—but because I use a laptop a lot. For today’s sequencing, recording, and editing programs, although the computer itself has power to spare, for audio you’re going to be stuck with some consumer-quality chip mounted on the motherboard. It’s bad enough for playback, but as a mic pre, the average onboard audio chip is going to sound more like a white noise generator (with some hard drive crackles thrown in for good measure) than a transparent preamp.
I’ve found USB mics to be a good compromise between quality, convenience, and cost. Sure, I could lug around a Firewire or USB interface with a decent mic preamp and a mic, but we’re talking size and weight—two words that I don’t like to associate with portable recording. But another issue is whether you like the USB mic or not. Wouldn’t it be much cooler to bring along your favorite mic, whether dynamic, ribbon, or condenser, and a little adapter that lets you plug it into your USB port? And while you’re at it, how about building in a quality headphone amp so you can hear the audio in style…and have it work all the way up to 24-bit/96kHz?
ENTER THE MICPORT PRO
That’s what the MicPort Pro is all about. The package is just large enough to take up sufficient shelf space so you notice it (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1: The MicPort Pro laid on top of a computer keyboard so you get a sense of the size.
Fig. 2: In addition to the USB mic adapter, you get a cable and carrying pouch.
When you open it up (Fig. 2), you’re greeted with the MicPort Pro adapter itself, quickstart guide, 6’ USB cable with a standard-sized plug on one end and one of those little mini USB plugs on the other, and a carrying pouch. The latter is a thoughtful touch when you want to toss the thing into your laptop bag.
Fig. 3: The adapter itself is compact, with an aluminum metal case so it can take a certain amount of abuse. Note the two small controls for mic level and output level.
Let’s look at the adapter itself (Fig. 3). One end has an XLR plug that goes into your mic of choice. There are also two small controls, one for mic level, and one for headphone volume. You can monitor the mic with zero latency, and/or listen to the output of your DAW. In fact, one thing I really like about the MicPort Pro is that the headphone amp sounds good—this is a great little device for getting quality audio out of a laptop, whether you’re using the mic or not.
Fig. 4: There’s a lot of connectivity crammed into a very tiny space.
All your other connections are made at the end opposite to the XLR connector (Fig. 4). This has a headphone jack, the mini-USB connector, and a 48V phantom power pushbutton switch. There are two particularly cool features: Because of the way the connectors are laid out, it’s virtually impossible to hit the phantom switch accidentally when everything’s set up (an orange LED glows to let you know when phantom power is engaged). The other is that there’s a clear plastic ring around the XLR connector’s base that glows white when the device recognizes that it’s connected to USB. It’s actually bright enough to be a miniature nightlight when you’re in a dark environment.
USING THE MICPORT PRO
I tested the MicPort Pro with Windows, and like most other devices of this type, it can work with the “plain vanilla” Windows audio drivers. The advantage of this approach is true plug-and-play—you plug in the USB cable, Windows installs a generic USB audio driver, and you’re ready to go as soon as you select “MicPort Pro” as the I/O for your application. You don’t need to worry about latency, because you can monitor the mic with zero latency through a small mixer built into the MicPort Pro. However, also note that ASIO drivers are available from the company's web site.
In use, although you can plug the mic directly into the MicPort Pro, your mic will feel different because of the extra weight on the end. Also, the mini-USB plug doesn’t feel particularly substantial. For doing something like podcasting, where you’re just narrating into a laptop, it’s fine the way it is. For more demanding tasks, such as sampling or field recording, I’d recommend carrying around a short XLR cable so you can detach the mic from the adapter and place the adapter itself in a secure location, like on top of a table, in your pocket, or whatever.
If you’re not recording and just using the USB adapter to get audio output from a laptop, the MicPort Pro is exceptionally easy to use and convenient. As the adapter itself is about the size of a giant cigarette lighter, it can pretty much sit anywhere you want as you listen on headphones.
DO I REALLY NEED A USB MIC?
Maybe, maybe not. For the video work I do for Harmony Central, sitting in a hotel room late at night after a show and editing/narrating with a laptop, this is a great little device: I can bring the mic that flatters my voice the most (yes, it needs all the flattery it can get!), and on the flight to wherever I’m going, I can write songs in Reason or Sonar and hear quality audio. And when I call home with Skype from exotic locales where the phone bill would otherwise cost more than the airfare, people at the other end tell me I sound like I’m in the room with them.
Okay, that’s pretty utilitarian. But once you have a USB mic, you start finding other uses. Got an idea for a song? Quick—plug in the mic, call up a recording program in your laptop, and start strumming before the inspiration goes away. It’s also great for recording rehearsals where you don’t necessarily want to bother with a full-blown recording setup. If you’re a laptop-oriented DJ, MicPort Pro will provide a higher-quality audio feed and let you use a mic, too. On a more mundane level, it’s handy for presentations and letting your laptop serve as an audio notebook. There are even special drivers available from the CEntrance web site that allow using multiple MicPort Pros if you’re into stereo or surround recording. The only caution I'd give is that for optimum noise levels, you want to place the mic fairly close to the sound source.
Overall, I’d say that this definitely takes the USB mic concept up another notch. It’s not just about being able to go to 96kHz and use your own mic; the mic pre and headphone amp sound good, too. Throw in zero latency monitoring, and you have a cool little package that not only does the job, but does it well.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.