USB Microphones: The Bumblebee

As oral history and podcast interviewers around the world look for remote interviewing solutions for conducting oral history interviews during a pandemic, a lot has changed about the way we conduct oral history and our notion of best practices. However, there are aspects that have, indeed, stayed the same. Best practice for recording oral history has traditionally emphasized the use of external microphones instead of the microphones that come standard on the audio recorders or video cameras. Although the webcams we are using for remote interviewing have built-in microphones, the external microphone placed closer to the person speaking will greatly enhance the sound.

Since the “recorder” we use during the COVID-19 pandemic is the computer, the popularity of USB microphones is surging. The USB microphone plugs directly into the USB port on your computer. The user then selects that microphone as the source in the “audio input” or microphone selection interface in the recording software settings. If you were using a traditional XLR microphone and wanted to connect it to a computer, you would have to plug the XLR microphone into an audio interface on your computer that would convert the microphone signal from analog to digital, then send the digital signal into the computer via the audio interfaces protocol (probably USB or Thunderbolt). A USB microphone handles the analog to digital conversion, thus eliminating the need for an external audio interface. So the advantage of a USB microphone is a direct signal from microphone to computer, with very little configuration.

If you are conducting a remote interview using Zoom, TheirStory, Squadcast, or ZenCastr and are recording to a computer, you may want to think about using a USB microphone to help improve your sound. Over the next few months I will periodically review USB microphones. The first microphone I am testing is the Bumblebee by Neat Microphones.

Bumblebee Desktop Microphone: $89

Front view of the Bumblebee Microphone
Bumblebee by Neat Microphones

There are two things that first drew me to the Bumblebee USB desktop microphone:

1) The microphone has a built-in stand and boom stand that can tilt or extend into optimal recording position. Microphone position is so important for optimal recording. Having a microphone that, out of the box, can be positioned in front of the speaker’s mouth is ideal. Most other USB microphones have very small built-in stands or will require a larger stand to lift the microphone closer to the mouth. In addition, there is a built-in “pop” filter or wind screen.

2) The price: Bumblebee is $89. This is incredible. Most professional-quality USB microphones will cost over $150, but this microphone includes the base, adjustable stand, and a pop filter.

The Bumblebee connects directly to the computer via USB cable (included). It is a condenser microphone with a cardioid recording pattern, so it is designed to reject some level of off-axis ambient sound. The microphone will record a maximum of 24-bit/96kHz signal, which is in line with best practice. With an inexpensive microphone, I would expect a fairly noisy signal to noise ratio and a fair amount of self-noise. Generally, my rule with microphones is you get what you pay for. However, the signal to noise ratio and self-noise levels of the Bumblebee are reasonable. That said, there will be higher noise levels on this microphone when compared to more expensive USB microphones, such as the popular Yeti, by Blue Microphones.

Honestly, I expect a USB microphone that costs $89 to both feel and sound cheap. This microphone is very well built, and it feels solid. The boom arm and capsule tilting mechanism are tight and solid. Once they are put into the desired position, they hold their position. The microphone and the stand are attached to a heavy and solid-feeling metal base. For the purpose of interviewing in front of a desk, the built-in base and stand is ideal. That said, the microphone cannot be mounted on a different stand, so this microphone can only be used for desktop recording. Physically, the gain, presets, and headphone knobs are the weakest link on this microphone; they feel a bit cheap. In fact, if you look at my pictures closely, the headphone volume dial is missing a little rubber piece that either fell off during the unboxing (I have looked everywhere), or the unit was shipped without the rubber piece.

Again, for $89 I am expecting a pretty streamlined microphone, however, this microphone comes with a built-in “pop” filter or windscreen, the microphone has a built-in gain control dial, with the ability to configure the microphone response using switchable presets that include neutral, music, and voice settings. The microphone base also has a built-in headphone jack with a separate headphone volume dial. You can plug the headphones directly into the microphone for low-latency monitoring of your recording. The headphone amp on this microphone is a bit low-volume and a bit noisy. In most cases, the actual recording will sound better than the sound you will hear in real-time through the headphones.

As mentioned, the microphone settings can be configured with the following three presets to shape the “sonic signature” of the signal you are recording. These presets are :

Neutral mode applies no additional filters or EQ processing and represents the natural settings on the microphone.

Voice mode applies dynamic processing that assumes a more “broadcast” oriented sound. I am guessing that this involves a mixture of compression and equalization. The overall noise level is definitely boosted with a fuller sound when “voice” is selected.

Music mode “expands the harmonic field,” according to the included guide, to represent the high and low frequencies achievable with musical instruments. This setting is probably not ideal for oral history interviewing.

For oral history and podcast interviewing, I recommend using the “neutral” or “voice” mode.

So let’s take a listen to the Bumblebee by Neat Microphones. I switch the microphone back and forth between neutral, voice, and microphone presets:

For the price, the Bumblebee is a pretty amazing USB microphone. The advantages of this microphone include the price and the built-in boom stand and tilting microphone capsule, making the positioning ideal for a desktop interview or podcast scenario. Another advantage of the Bumblebee is the simplicity; it is very simple to set up, configure, and use. The recording quality and noise levels are not as good as some of the higher priced USB microphones; however, I definitely think the Bumblebee is still a professional USB microphone solution that will yield excellent results. One final note: the packaging of this microphone is, far and away, the best microphone packaging I have ever seen for a microphone in this price class. The microphone box is surrounded by a plastic faux “beehive” frame, offering a significant amount of protection. This microphone could be easily repackaged and shipped to the person you plan to interview if you want to have both sides of the interview recorded using external microphones (which is the ideal). For a desktop microphone, I like this microphone a lot, and, at this price point, it will be an attractive solution for remote oral history interviewing.

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