Samson Meteor USB Mic review

meteor mic publicity shotYep, this is going to be a review of the Samson Meteor USB mic, but first, let’s consider just a little bit of context as this helps identify which iOS musicians might find this mic most appealing ….

My generation

While it is perfectly possible for experienced music technology professionals to identify the current limitations of iOS as a music making platform, for a whole new generation of musicians, their iPhones, iPod Touch or iPad is their first close encounter with hi-tech music creation. And whatever those limitations might be, don’t expect me to feel sorry for this up-and-coming generation; an iPad is a whole lot more powerful than the clunky multitrack tape machines I cut my own teeth upon.

While iPad or iPhone wielding musicians may have iOS in common, in all other regards they are as diverse as any other sub-set of the music technology population; from thrash metal and dubstep through singer-songwriters, dance electronica and off towards classical with all stops in between. Music is a diverse art form and we all have our preferred genres so we tool up with the appropriate iOS music apps that fit our specific needs and off we go.

For me, one of the most interesting aspects of iOS is as a platform for writing and recording music. And while apps are required for this, in the majority of musical genres listed above (even if only occasionally in some), there are occasions that also requires you to record some audio. This might be something as simple as an acoustic guitar or piano or a vocal as you work up a song idea, but it could equally be any acoustic (‘real’) sound source. And for that, you need a microphone….

Take the mic

The Meteor connects to your iPad via Apple's Camera Connection Kit.

The Meteor connects to your iPad via Apple’s Camera Connection Kit.

Your iDevice obviously has a mic built-in and, while this might do for the roughest of ideas or when you just want to capture a snippet of musical inspiration before your muse clears off down the pub, for anything that you want to take a little more seriously, something better than Apple’s internal mic is probably required.

There are plenty of choices and, if you have already stumped up for a decent iOS compatible audio interface (for example, the Alesis IO Dock or the Focusrite iTrack Solo), then you can take your pick of standard live performance or studio-type microphones to get the job done.

However, if this really is your first foray into music technology and you’re not quite sure where it is going to take you, there is an alternative route that avoids the issue of ‘which audio interface do I buy?‘; a USB microphone. Many of these are designed to work with your desktop Windows or OSX computer and, while they can be used for any audio recording, they are often developed with podcasters – and voice recording applications in general – in mind.

Some models – and the Samson Meteor is one of these – also work with iOS. So, if you just want the occasional bit of audio recording, or if you are a singer-songwriter musician for whom the ability to demo a guitar/vocal or piano/vocal song arrangement is all you really need at this stage, is a USB mic like the Meteor a good starting point for your iOS music making journey?

Mighty Meteor

Samson’s Meteor mic certainly looks the part. The styling is a sort of retro-meets-hi-tech look and it will look quite at home sat beside your stylish iDevice. It also feels very solidly constructed and is reassuringly heavy in the hand; it feels like something worth its c. UK£55-65 price tag.

The rear surface features the mini-USB port and a headphone jack.

The rear surface features the mini-USB port and a headphone jack.

The mic features three neat little foldable legs that enable you to sit it on a desktop surface and angle it in a variety of ways. Equally, however, there is a standard screw mount for a mic stand at its base (5/8” size but you can easily use a thread adapter if your mic stand uses a different size).

The rear panel features a mini-USB port and a 1/8” stereo headphone socket while the front face has an LED indicator that glows when the mic is powered plus a rotary control for the headphone socket output level and a central mute button. There is no input level control on the mic itself so, if you need to adjust the level the mic is sending to your recording software – whether on a desktop computer or a iPad/iPhone – you will need an app that allows you to adjust the input gain.

As this is a USB mic, you will need Apple’s USB Camera Connection Kit (CCK) adapter to connect the mic to your iDevice (a useful accessory to have around anyway, even if Apple do charge you UK£25 for the privilege). That said, it is then plug and play and I had no problems getting the Meteor to work with my 3rd generation iPad. Very usefully – and a key point for the mobile musician – the Meteor is one of the few USB mics that can be powered directly from the iPhone or iPad. While this means you draw down your iDevice battery a little quicker, it does make for a ‘record anywhere’ setup.

The mic includes a screw mount for use with a microphone stand.

The mic includes a screw mount for use with a microphone stand.

In terms of technical details, the Meteor records at a perfectly respectable 16-bit/44.1kHz (or 48kHz) audio standard and, while 24-bit audio would be preferable, used with some common sense, the audio specification of the mic is not going to be the key limitation in most people’s iOS recording signal chain (think recording environment, other sources of noise and dodgy monitoring conditions if you want some more likely candidates). The mic features a cardoid polar pattern (essentially, it is more sensitive to sound from its front and less so from the rear) that, for recording sources such as a single spoken voice/vocal or an acoustic instrument like a guitar, would be ideal.

Press the red button

So far, so good, but how does the Meteor actually shape up in a recording context? Well, with two qualifications aside, pretty well actually. In testing, I recorded various acoustic guitars and vocals into Cubasis, Garageband and Auria. In all cases, providing I took a reasonable amount of care in terms of mic placement, using a pop shield (for vocals) and making sure my recording environment was free of other noises, the results were actually pretty good. In sonic terms, the Meteor might not sound quite as pristine as a top-of-the-range specialist studio mic, but it certainly punches well above its fairly modest price tag; clean, clear and a fairly accurate representation of what I could hear in the room itself.

Garageband allows you to adjust the input level gain for the Meteor.

Garageband allows you to adjust the input level gain for the Meteor.

And the two qualifications? First, with no hardware control on the mic to adjust its gain, you need to adjust the input level going to your recording app or DAW via software. Of the three DAWs I tested with, Garageband and Auria allow you to do this quite easily. However, Cubasis does not. Thankfully, if you adjust the input gain in, for example, Garageband and then quit Garageband itself, your iDevice retains this input gain setting and it then gets applied in Cubasis; a bit of a clunky workaround but not a significant problem.

Second, while you can monitor your recording project via either the Meteor’s headphone socket or your iPad/iPhone headphone socket, in iOS at least, the Meteor doesn’t do ‘latency free’ monitoring on the input signal (although the feature does exist and the User Guide PDF does explain how to access it when working in Windows and OSX). Essentially, what this means is that in order to actually hear the part you are currently recording, that signal has to pass into the iPad, through your recording app (you have to enable ‘input monitoring’ in the app itself; most DAW apps support this) and then back out through your headphones. And this passage through the signal chain takes time meaning that what you monitor in your headphones is very slightly delayed relative to the actual playing and/or singing.

Auria also has an input gain control.

Auria also has an input gain control.

This delay is referred to as latency and, if the system introduces too much latency it can be very distracting to the performer in terms of their timing. Dedicated recording interfaces get around this problem using a feature known as direct monitoring. This approach sends your audio off to your recording app in the same way but the same signal is also sent directly to the headphones (or speakers) connected to the outputs of the audio interface. This ‘direct’ signal has a very short route back to your monitoring system; in effect, it has no latency so timing issues are avoided.

Recording in Cubasis was a breeze once the input gain had been adjusted in another app.

Recording in Cubasis was a breeze once the input gain had been adjusted in another app.

Fortunately, the latency I experienced in experimenting with the Meteor was pretty slight. Providing I kept the in-app effects processing on my input signal to a minimum while I was actually recording (more effects means more processing time), this wasn’t a major problem. Of course, a more low tech approach simply involves just having enough level in your headphones of the other tracks that have already been recorded so that you can hear your ‘live’ track (your acoustic guitar or your vocal) over and above what you are monitoring in your ‘phones; a bit basic but surprisingly effective in many cases :-)

In summary

Given the price, I think the Meteor produces pretty good results. I’ve used it on a number of occasions with my desktop computer as a convenient way of doing voice-over work for videos. It gets that job job with minimum fuss and I imagine it would make an equally competent podcasting mic; perhaps not at the top of the audio quality food chain but most certainly very respectable.

Connecting to an iPad is equally fuss-free via Apple’s CCK and, in terms of audio quality, the results are just as good. Aside from the two qualifications made above, I had no major problems using the Meteor for some basic audio recording tasks in Garageband, Cubasis or Auria. Of the two issues, the inability to access the direct monitoring feature under iOS (although if any reader knows of a workaround, then please do get in touch) is the more significant but, if you want to develop a serious iOS-based recording system, then I suspect you will be looking at a dedicated audio I/O device anyway.

However, as a first (tentative?) step into iOS recording, or for a singer-songwriter musician who just wants to get some guitar/vocal or piano/vocal demos together, the Samson Meteor is a pretty good bet. It looks the very stylish, is sturdily built, can be used on the move, is powered via the iPad and is capable of very respectable audio quality.

Combined with a DAW like Garageband, you can lay down a couple of acoustic guitar parts, a lead vocal, a couple of backing vocals and still have a track or three left over for some Garageband drums, bass or keys. And if you pay attention to all the other elements that control the overall quality of the audio that you record, the Samson Meteor will get a quality job done with a minimum of fuss.

The Samson Meteor is available from most major musical instrument outlets online but is currently very keenly priced via Amazon. For iOS singer-songwriter or newbie recording types – as well as the podcast crowd – it comes highly recommended.

 

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    Comments

    1. The manual says it supports “zero latency direct monitoring”. Is it just that it’s not possible to enable it on iOS?

      • Hi Sam,

        that’s correct as far as I can tell…. I’ll tweak the wording of the review to clarify… but if any other readers know how the direct monitoring might be accessed via iOS then please do let me know.

        Best wishes,

        John

    2. Hey there, It’s been a couple of months since this was written and I was wondering if anyone has had luck with the zero-latency? I bought this mic and will have it in a couple days. I’m hoping the iPod 5th Generation can power the mic. Either way, thanks in advance!

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