Versatility, thy name is One.
We're assuming, in this instance, that versatility is defined as a microphone/USB audio interface made by Apogee. And it earns this label because this black ice cream sandwich sized interface allows you to connect a variety of audio devices to your Mac via USB as well as XLR and quarter-inch connectors. It supports both standard XLR microphones as well as those that require phantom power. And tucked inside is a quality mic preamp.
Compatible with any Core Audio application (including Apple's Logic, Logic Express and GarageBand as well as Ableton Live and ProTools), the One also sports a very decent built-in microphone.
How it works
Inside the box you'll find the One, Quick Start guide, software disc, USB cable and breakout cable that holds an XLR input and a separate quarter-inch input.
Install the software and restart your Mac. Attach the breakout cable to the top of the One and jack in a guitar or microphone cable. Regrettably, the box does not contain a microphone clip that fits the One. Apogee sells such a clip separately.
Apple and Apogee have a close relationship, so Apogee's gear tends to "just work" out of the box. In the case of the One and GarageBand, this is exactly the case.
To use it with GarageBand, string the included USB cable between the One and a USB port on your Mac. Fire up GarageBand and you'll be asked if you'd like it to use One as an input and output device. Click Yes and you're nearly there.
The One will now appear as the input source in any real instrument (digital audio) track and will also be used by default for guitar tracks. By default, its built-in microphone is the selected input. Also by default, it will be GarageBand's output device. You can use it that way with headphones or powered speakers plugged into the Headphone port or change outputs and monitor from another device, headphones or speakers attached to your Mac for instance.
You can change its input by clicking on the Input Source button and a small Apogee One window appears. In this window's Source popup menu you can choose Internal Microphone, External Microphone, External 48V Microphone (a microphone that requires phantom power) or Instrument. Also within this window you can adjust the One's input gain, select whether it's connected to a line-level source or instrument amplifier, and switch muting on or off.
When you switch inputs, the appropriate input icon on the front of the One lights up to tell you how the One is configured. At this point you can use the One's large single knob to adjust the device's gain. A three-stage LED tells you how high that gain is.
That large knob can control more than input gain. Press on it to toggle between the selected input and the output port. Once you've selected the output port you use that knob for adjusting the One's output volume. Press and hold on the knob for one second to mute the output. Unmute by again pressing the knob for a second.
The One supports both 44.1 and 48kHz sample rates (44.1kHz is selected automatically when you use GarageBand). You must change the device's sample rate within Apple's Audio Midi Setup utility.
Included in the software installation is Apogee's Maestro Mixer application. If you find that your music software has too much latency, you're monitoring your performance through headphones and that performance is delayed by the software, you can route it through Maestro Mixer which introduces far less latency. I didn't have any latency issues recording with GarageBand on my 2010 MacBook Pro, but it's nice to know that Maestro Mixer is there if you need it.
How it sounds
All the instruments and microphones I plugged into the One sounded great. I didn't detect any added noise and the input was clean regardless of the gain level I chose. Sound from the headphone jack was just as clean.
I conducted a couple of recording tests with the built-in microphone and was mostly pleased with the results. In a voice test I found that the One's mic is a little brighter than I like my mics to sound. MXL's USB.009 for example, produces deeper tones and plays down some of the sibilance that I heard from the One. It's also a much more expensive microphone and doesn't act as an audio interface.
I used two Ones to record my piano and I was impressed with the results. I was able to record the piano with GarageBand by creating an aggregate device in Apple's Audio MIDI setup, recording two channels simultaneously, and assigning one One to the first track and the other to the second track. When mixing the two I panned the One over the low strings hard left and the other hovering over the high strings hard right.
As a fairly bright mic, the Ones certainly picked up the ringing of the piano's high notes, but the low notes were also evident. You can hear the result for yourself in the linked audio file.
I'm very impressed with Apogee's One (and more impressed with two when miking a piano). For the price, it provides a lot of flexibility, great sound from instruments and microphones plugged into it, and good voice quality from a device that isn't designed to work only as a microphone. If you're a musician or podcaster who needs to record only one input at a time, the One is a very tempting interface.