In my review of the Samson Audio G-Track USB mic (Tape Op #64), I praised it for its
ease of use and affordability as well as its built-in zero-latency monitoring. Without the latter, a USB mic would be pretty much useless due to the inherent delay caused by digital conversion and host processing. On the other hand, I called out the Samson's less-than-studio-quality sound. Those of you who desire the luxury of choosing any mic-whether "studio quality" or not-to plug directly into your computer should consider the CEntrance MicPort Pro instead. It's a pocket-sized, bus-powered USB mic preamp with an integrated zero-latency monitor mixer and headphone output. You can connect any microphone with a standard XLR output to it, and it can supply 48 V phantom power to condensers. A 3.5 mm headphone output is plenty loud (louder than my ears can handle) with the Sony MDR-V6 and Audio-Technica ATM-H650 headphones that I tried with it.
The MicPort Pro is not much bigger than an XLR-barrel inline pad or transformer. At first glance, it looks cylindrical, but it actually has a flat "bottom" to it so it doesn't roll and the knobs remain accessible on top. At one end is a female XLR plug with a plastic ring that glows when the device is plugged into a USB port. Unfortunately, the plastic ring prevents the male XLR jack of a mic or cable from locking to the MicPort. You can attach the MicPort directly to the bottom of a handheld microphone and cross your fingers that friction will hold the assembly together, or a better idea would be to use a mic cable so you can place the MicPort such that the cables won't be inadvertently pulled. On the other end is a 1/8" headphone jack and a 5-pin, Mini-B USB jack. The two jacks are close enough together that the headphone plug on my Audio-Technica headphones puts pressure against the CEntrance-supplied USB cable. Pulling the headphones means there's a good chance of pulling out the USB cable too. Thankfully, in use, the phantom power switch is surrounded by the inserted plugs of the headphone and USB cables, so it's pretty much impossible to hit it by accident. On top are tiny rubberized knobs for headphone volume and mic input level; despite their size, they are easy enough to turn without being too easy that they'll be accidentally bumped. Both the analog signal from the mic and the stereo signal coming from the host computer (via USB) automatically feed the headphone output, no matter what. Relative levels between the two can be set by adjusting the headphone output volume at the MicPort in conjuction with the volume level of the cue-mix feed at the host; in practice, this is easier than it sounds. You can connect multiple MicPorts and AxePorts (USB instrument DI) to your computer via a USB hub, but you get a zero-latency feed from only the one Mic/AxePort into which your headphones are plugged, unless you use an external analog mixer connected to the headphone outputs of all the Mic/AxePorts.
The MicPort's Class A preamp sounds clean and undistorted. The supplied USB cable is equipped with a ferrite choke, and I couldn't hear any EMI or RF noise on any of the tracks I recorded through the MicPort into my laptop. I had no problem using it with a variety of small and large-diaphragm condensers from my mic closet, and it has enough gain to use my Royer R-121 (Tape Op #19), SE Electronics R-1 (#60), and Cascade Microphones Gomez (#66) ribbons in speech applications. Basic installation is driverless-just plug the MicPort into any WinXP/Vista or Mac OS X 10.4+ computer and it comes up as an audio device with 96 kHz mono-in, stereo-out I/O. If you want to adjust sample-rate or aggregate multiple Mic/AxePorts on Windows, you have to download and install the free version of CEntrance's ASIO Universal Driver. (This free version only works with MicPort and AxePort.) With Universal Driver installed, I was able to dial down the roundtrip latency to 5 ms (1.5 ms record, 3.5 ms playback) at 44.1 kHz in Nuendo-pretty impressive.
If you're looking for a quick, easy, and very portable mic'ing system with high-quality sound for your laptop or desktop, the MicPort Pro should be on your shortlist, especially if you already own one or more mics that you'd want to use in this capacity. ($199.95 MSRP; www.centrance.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.