Recently, microphone maker Blue announced a $100 professional studio microphone, the Ember. So the question arose: What is this XLR thing, and how do I use it? Let’s talk about what XLR is and why you might want to use it in your studio.
XLR is pro audio. It’s what all recording and radio studios use, and it’s what you’ll see live performers using on stage. That’s because XLR cables carry balanced audio, which is essential for getting clean sound.
What is XLR?
First things first—let’s define what XLR means. It’s a pretty simple abbreviation for X Connector, Locking Connector, Rubber Boot. The “rubber boot” portion of the connector isn’t always part of the equation these days, however, as it’s no longer necessary. Despite the slight design change, the name has stayed the same.
There are currently several different versions of XLR cables available with a variety of additional pins (XLR3 – XLR7), but what we’re talking about here is the XLR3 or the three-pin style of cable. This is by far the most common type of cable.
In short, XLR is the go-to standard for high-quality audio inputs, like microphones. This is because they send a balanced signal that isolates noise. It’s simply a better type of connector for that type of application, but it’s also so robust that it isn’t necessarily something the average consumer needs to really think about using unless it’s for high-quality audio recording or streaming.
Aside from an XLR mic and XLR cable, you’ll need some sort of audio interface or mixer so your computer can see the mic. A decent audio interface can be found for as little as $40-50, but nicer units can go for a lot more. The average enthusiast will probably want to spend somewhere in the $150-200 range for a good interface—something like the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is a good place to get started, for example.
If you plan on doing home recording, you’ll also need a DAW—a Digital Audio Workstation—to capture your recording. You can use something free like Audacity, though there are also excellent options out there that don’t cost a lot, like Reaper. You can read our pics for best DAW here.
The technical side of what makes XLR so much better than other audio inputs is, well, pretty technical. Read on for all the juicy details.
The Balancing Act
If you’ve ever changed the batteries in your flashlight, you have probably noticed that there’s a plus (+) and a minus (-) side to the battery. When you only hook one side of the battery to your flashlight’s bulb, nothing happens. You need both the positive and negative connections to make the bulb light up. This is an electrical circuit. The electrons must make a complete loop from the battery’s negative pole, through the wire, through the light, and back to the battery again. Audio isn’t any different: you need the positive and negative sides of an audio signal for anything to happen. A microphone pushes electrons onto one side of the cable, the electrons are passed to an amplifier, and then back to the other side of the microphone.
The problem is that most audio systems treat the circuit as if there’s only one wire, usually the center conductor in a piece of coaxial cable, and they merely combine the other wire with all of the other electronics in the system. This creates an opportunity for several different types of noise to enter an audio signal chain:
- Ground loop noise: In my 35 years of experience with pro audio and video systems, this is the most common and annoying issue, especially when computers are involved. Mostly, you’ll hear this as a low hum, although it can also manifest as static or irregular buzzing sounds. Ground loops happen when audio takes two different paths to get to the amplifier: one path through your audio cable and a second path through your building’s wiring.
- EMI and RFI: Transformers, motors, and high-frequency electronics can create magnetic fields that induce a current in your audio wires. This creates buzz, hum, and can even carry audible radio signals if you are positioned too close to an AM transmitter.
- Crosstalk: This happens when one signal on the same system crosses to another.
How do you fix this? The solution seems fairly obvious in retrospect: you isolate both wires in the signal chain so that the positive and negative halves of the signal are carried separately from anything else. The primary benefit of a balanced audio signal (when done right) is that the audio signal never touches the ground plane of the amplifiers or other instruments in the system. So there’s no opportunity for crosstalk or ground loops.
For example, I work with a live band, and a few weeks ago, we had an issue with the “click track” generated by the music gear one of the performers used on stage. The audio from the click track was leaking through to the other outputs on his audio interface, and so you could hear “beep beep beep” in the PA system. It was quiet, but there. We disconnected the unbalanced audio cables he was using and switched him over to balanced XLR cables. The problem went away.
The other benefit is noise rejection. EMI and RFI work because a moving or changing magnetic field creates a voltage on a wire. In unbalanced signals, the magnetic field creates a voltage on the positive side of the signal, but not the negative (or maybe the other way around.) In a balanced cable, the wires are right next to each other, and so a magnetic field creates the same signal on both sides.
On the sending side, an XLR device creates a second copy of the audio, inverting it. On the receiving side of the signal, the inverted copy of the signal is summed back into the original copy of the signal. And just like in math, where -2 + 2 = 0, a balanced audio signal rejects noise from outside sources.
Finally, your opportunities for crosstalk are significantly reduced when the signals don’t share a ground plane. High-end equipment that uses a fully balanced audio chain internally has virtually no crosstalk.
Putting This To Use
So how can you put all this to practical use? What good is it?
If you’re looking at the Ember, you might be thinking of streaming to Twitch, recording a podcast, or some music. In either case, you can plug that Ember into a USB mixing console (like the Mackie Pro FX8) and use the mixer as an amplifier for the microphone and a USB audio interface. You can also add another microphone for your Internet co-star and plug in other equipment—maybe a musical instrument, another computer running Skype or Discord, or just your smartphone.
The key thing to remember is that you need a mixer or audio interface that includes phantom power (this is often indicated by a switch that says +48V). Because the microphone needs power to work, you need something that can generate that power. That’s one reason a mixer is a good choice for an audio interface since it incorporates phantom power right there in the unit. High-end microphone pre-amps may also have phantom power, and certain XLR computer audio interfaces have phantom power supplies built in.
Finally, there are other options for sending balanced audio besides XLR plugs.
TRS Phone plugs can also carry balanced signals. Cables with phone plugs are often used in pro audio gear to connect mixers and amplifiers, as well as to connect outboard effects gear, like reverb processors, equalizers, compressors, and audio recorders. While the plug looks the same (and is the same part) as the plugs used in high-quality headphones, the ring is used for the negative side of the audio signal.
You can also get some of the benefits of a balanced audio cable with a device called a ground loop isolator. This generally looks like a small box with two pairs of RCA jacks on it, or sometimes mini headphone plugs. Ground loop isolators have a 1:1 audio transformer inside, which breaks ground loops. If you are connecting a computer to a mixer or cable box, you’re almost guaranteed to get ground loop noise and AC hum. This nearly always fixes those noise problems. You might even have this problem in the car when plugging in your smartphone to your car stereo, so a ground loop isolator with 3.5mm phone plugs is a big help.
Why Not a USB Microphone?
Finally, you’re probably wondering why that trusty USB microphone isn’t good enough.
In fact, it’s just fine when you only need to record one thing at a time. I have a nice Samson USB microphone on my desk for podcasting or streaming, and it works great. But the catch with USB microphones is that you can’t use more than one at the same time. USB audio devices each have their own clock to drive the digital audio converters, and if those clocks get out of sync, you’ll start getting pops or dropouts in your recordings as the software on your computer tries to correct these errors.
It’s also harder to mix this way since you don’t have those physical knobs to work from. So when I want to do anything with more than one person at a time, I go for my desktop mixer and my trusty XLR connected studio microphones.