What do we imagine a studio microphone to be: perhaps a condenser mic with a large capsule, a heavy body, a shock mount and a XLR interface to begin with? And what do we imagine a USB microphone to be? Something flimsy, not really for “pros”? For a decent €160.00 you can buy yourself a Røde NT-USB, which is a robust metal quality mic with a nice large capsule, monitoring on-board and with a stand, a mount, pop screen, carrying pouch and 6m USB cable included with the device. It even supports the iPad. But is the sound any good?
The Røde NT-USB has a gorgeous design and sexy black look. It comes in a big cardboard box and once you’ve mounted the mic with the pop screen on the mount and clicked the USB connector in place, you’re ready to go. Two adjustment knobs on the side allow you to monitor your recording. The top one lets you set the mix between microphone signal and what the computer feeds back, while the bottom one is the volume knob for the headphones (connected via mini-jack).
The concept of the Røde NT-USB reminded me of another USB microphone I reviewed some five or six years ago, the USB-version of the sE Electronics sE2200A. It looked awful but it had USB as well as XLR interfaces, and you did get a great sound from it — great enough for me to buy a XLR-only sE2200A. The Røde NT-USB definitely looks a lot more professional on its included table stand — the only plastic item in the box. Even the pop screen is a metal one that will cause minimum sound deformation.
The mount that is included with the microphone has a professional tripod mount. The mounting ring can also be used as a microphone clip to attach the NT-USB to a mic or boom stand. The mounting ring has an adjustment lever to position the microphone perpendicular to your face (or instrument) for optimum sound capture. The gold dot on the front serves the same purpose. When the microphone receives enough power from the USB port, a subtle purple LED glows right above the gold dot. Optionally, you can buy the SMR shock mount, which is a professional shock mount with Rycote shock damping.
The NT-USB has been internally optimised for gain, which means that you won’t find a -10dB or other such switches on this mic. It simply hasn’t got those. It also means that I found the microphone having too low a gain out-of-the-box without adjusting the settings on the iMac. In the case of the Røde NT-USB you’ll have to adjust in the System Preferences or the OS X Audio MIDI Setup panel.
I tested the microphone with voice recordings and music playing back through a HiFi system. With the gain settings adjusted so that my voice came in at a comfortable -15dB, the microphone performed brilliantly. The voice recordings were very neutral and quite flat compared to the sE2200A/Duet iPad-Mac combination, which sounded more coloured.
I prefer my recordings as neutral sounding as possible as you can always add warmth and bass in post-production. For example, using the Nugen Audio SEQ-S linear phase equaliser in Logic Pro X, I could make the NT-USB recording sound exactly like I wanted it to.
The music recordings were nice too. The real difference between the Røde NT-USB and my sE2200A/Duet setup was the bit-depth and sample rate at which I was able to record. The NT-USB’s built-in ADC stops at 16-bit and 48kHz, while the Duet’s goes all the way to 24-bit and 192kHz.
Who is it for?
The NT-USB has a cardioid pattern, a frequency range of 20Hz-20kHz and a dynamic range of 96dB with a maximum SPL of 110dB. The sE2200A has the same frequency response: 20Hz-20KHz, the same cardioid pattern, but a maximum SPL for 0.5% THD at 1000Hz of 125dB (which is higher than normal, if I’m not mistaken). The Røde NT-USB therefore fulfils all your needs if you want to record nice and undistorted sound. With its 110dB SPL ceiling, you can even record a loud rock concert with little or no distortion.
To me — I’m more of a Bach groupie myself — the Røde NT-USB is a podcaster’s dream, but also the microphone of choice for soloists and people who want to record audio without any hassle using their iPad. The NT-USB’s quality is certainly good enough. You really don’t need 24-bit/192kHz recording if the recording is meant to convince a producer of your vocal qualities. However, for recordings that ultimately will serve to press a CD, SACD or better, I think you’ll prefer using a Duet iPad/Mac or better and a matching microphone (which could be a Røde as well, of course).
Finally, corporate movie shooters will want to buy two NT-USBs — the price really isn’t a deal breaker — for the clearest desktop interview recordings.