Strother Bullins on Aphex and Blue USB Mics

Truly multipurpose transducers, studio-grade USB microphones for the widest range of applications
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Audio engineers and recordists generally enjoy the option of creating a complex recording signal chain: combining microphone, preamp, and perhaps other hardware-based processing direct to digital recording software or device. That said, the simplicity of using a high-quality USB microphone is an increasingly attractive option. From easily capturing impromptu musical moments to simple communications, VOs, or announcement tasks, USB microphones are plug-and-play audio capture tools well suited for most every end-user, if not every task.

When asked about microphone options in all-purpose, digital-centric applications—desktop recording at a church or school, for example—I regularly recommend checking out a USB microphone like one of the two reviewed below. Aphex’s Microphone X and Blue Microphone’s Nessie well represent the range of USB transducers currently available, offering some unique and very attractive features at affordable prices.

APHEX MICROPHONE X USB CARDIOID CONDENSER MICROPHONE

Big Bottom and Aural Exciter, no doubt provocatively named in the height of rock ‘n’ roll largeness, have proven to be a duo with some really useful applications. The Bottom’s low-end compression-based effects and Exciter’s harmonics-based midrange emphasis effects have been heard on many sound sources, everywhere, over the years. With the advent of record-ready, USB-direct microphones and their most common purposes, Microphone X’s “one size fits most” analog effects (usually effective with thoughtful application) may be the simplest opportunity to sculpt key sound sources before hitting YouTube, demos/scratch tracks, or even final/keeper takes. And even with no extra Bottom or Excitement added or fixed optical compression applied, Microphone X-captured performances are appealing: clear and present with an overall accurate sound. Clean or “effected,” there’s a lot to like in the Microphone X.

Designed to incorporate “U-style” aesthetics, Microphone X actually uses a small diaphragm cardioid condenser and operates at up to 24-bit/96 kHz resolution. On its backside, it provides a set optical compressor (via on/off switch) and individually adjustable Big Bottom and Aural Exciter effects (with a shared on/off switch). On its front side reside input level and headphone adjustments with an 1/8in. headphone jack for artist monitoring. A USB 2.0 port resides where the XLR would normally be. The Microphone X ships with a really impressive, surprisingly adjustable desktop stand—probably the best of its kind that I’ve ever seen in a mic kit for review. It’s often simple features like this—extra effort applied in thoughtful design—that are most notable in helping a product like Microphone X stand out in an increasingly crowded market.

The USB microphone marketplace is packed with great options, but I can easily recommend Microphone X to someone who wants to grab a knob or two and dial in a desired effect, committing on the spot to it. There are many times when this is the best approach, at least creatively, capturing the moment with an immediate take on a sound source. Using the Microphone X, it can be clean or thickly enriched with enhanced bottom, emphasized crucial upper midrange, and/or a fixed vocal range-friendly compression ratio. At $199 street, it’s a useful, flexible tool, and perhaps the only large USB mic you would need.

BLUE MICROPHONES NESSIE DESKTOP USB MICROPHONE

Nessie is certainly one of the most visually striking USB microphones on the market, yet its aesthetics aren’t without functional purpose. Designed as a desktop cardioid condenser microphone with incorporated stand and a variety of useful physical features, Nessie is at home with both the singer/songwriter and on the school principal’s desk; as such, it serves well as one’s “only USB microphone.”

Key features include a proprietary 0.55in. capsule with maximum SPL handling of 110dB and incorporated zero-latency headphone amplifier with 1/8in.TRS jack, providing the user a 15Hz- 22kHz frequency range in monitoring/playback. Nessie’s base incorporates a large headphone volume pot that is backlit when connected via USB to its host CPU. Other tactile features include a well-placed instant mute button, handy “serpentine adjustable head” (thus the Loch Ness moniker) with built-in pop filter, and a three-mode recording switch; the latter offers music, voice, and flat EQ tonalities.

Most importantly, Nessie’s built-in adaptive processing is described by Blue to produce “expertly finished sound, without need for additional mixing or editing” thanks to its automatic EQ, de-esser and level control while recording. This is a particularly attractive feature for institutional use, where the end-users are likely not audio engineers, and where they may, for example, simply desire to record podcasts, phone tree announcements, etc., with “finished” results.

In use, I found Nessie an overall flattering microphone to most sound sources. It captures spoken word and sung vocals particularly well, and its adjustable head makes for perhaps the best desktop USB microphone setup I’ve used. From a visual standpoint, it looks great on a desk, and particularly great in modern, sleek offices and environments. Blue’s knack for creating artistically-styled transducers are particularly appealing in this desktop USB mic form.

If there are any drawbacks to Nessie over other similar USB offerings, it’s in its desktop design. Users won’t be, for example, placing it on a stand as an overhead ensemble microphone. Decidedly so, Nessie isn’t a USB microphone for everything, which makes it the ideal option for many niche applications.

Finally, Blue has a well-earned reputation for building great- and often unique-sounding microphones, and buyers can rest assured that they have a USB audio capture tool built for years of service. If voice capture via USB is your primary need, you really can’t go wrong with Nessie at an arguably amazing average price of $80 street.

Strother Bullins is NewBay Media’s reviews editor, AV/Pro Audio Group, active musician, recordist, and club-level sound reinforcement wrangler. sbullins@nbmedia.com

PRODUCT SUMMARY

COMPANY: Aphex | www.aphex.com
PRODUCT: Aphex Microphone X USB Cardioid Condenser Microphone
PROS: Useful built-in proprietary analog effects; build quality; flexibility
CONS: Effects are “one size fits most”
APPLICATIONS: Self-recording of voice and instrumental sound sources; desktop recording
PRICE (STREET): $199

SPECIFICATIONS

MINIMUM COMPUTER SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS: Mac OSX 10.5 and higher; Windows XP SP3 (32-bit); Windows Vista SP2; Windows 7 SP1 (32/64-bit); Windows 8/8.1
AUDIO RESOLUTION: Up to 96kHz, 24-bit
MAXIMUM SPL: 120dB
BUILT-IN FEATURES: Aphex microphone preamp; Aphex Aural Exciter and Big Bottom analog processing; optical compressor; headphone amplifier output; included stand.

PRODUCT

SUMMARY COMPANY: Blue Microphones | www.bluemic.com
PRODUCT: Blue Microphones Nessie Desktop USB Microphone
PROS: Striking, useful desktop form factor; build quality; voice-centric
CONS: Useful in desktop/integrated stand applications only
APPLICATIONS: Self-recording of voice and instrumental sound sources; desktop recording
PRICE (STREET): $80

SPECIFICATIONS

MINIMUM COMPUTER SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS: Max OSX 10.4.11 and higher; Windows 8; Windows 7; Windows Vista; XP Home Edition; or XP Professional (64-bit MB RAM minimum)
AUDIO RESOLUTION: 48kHz, 16-bit
MAXIMUM SPL: 110dB
BUILT-IN FEATURES: Blue microphone preamp; Blue Adaptive Processing with EQ, de-esser and level control; three EQ recording modes (music, voice, and flat); headphone amplifier output; integrated stand.

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