So, I've set myself up with a brand new microphone. Previously, I was using a Blue Snowball microphone for all my recording needs. It has served me well, but my new setup is quite a step up in quality and convenience overall.
The mic I'm using now is a Neewer NW-700. It's a condenser mic that comes as part of a kit which also includes an XLR-to-3.5mm cable, a shock mount, flexible suspension arm, pop filter, and anti-wind cap. Right off the bat, the product page mentions that you will need external phantom power, and another XLR cable to connect to the phantom power box. I opted for this InnoGear 48V phantom power box plus the XLR cable also listed on that page.
First Try: PC Mic-in
The first thing I did was hook the mic up to phantom power and then hooked the phantom power's output directly to my PC's 3.5mm mic in jack.
And boy was it noisy. A constant and loud background hissing all but destroyed any otherwise high-quality recording. After some diagnosing and troubleshooting I found that the noise was on the interface side of things, where it hooked into the mic-in jack. I do not have a dedicated sound card, as I have until now never needed such a thing. I'd heard before that onboard sound chips were crap for quality recording, but I never knew it could be this bad. I also knew I didn't want to drop several hundred on a new sound card just to fix the hissing.
Second Try: SYBA USB Adapter
Since I had never had this problem with my Snowball, I surmised that going through USB would bypass the crappy onboard sound chip and eliminate the hissing. Enter the SYBA USB Adapter. This little thing takes two 3.5mm jacks - headphone and microphone - and adapts it to USB with it's own little sound chip. When it arrived I eagerly plugged the 3.5mm from my phantom power into it, plugged it into USB, and fired up Audition.
And, to my dismay, the noise was still there. Time to troubleshoot again. This time, I found that with nothing plugged into the SYBA there was still a loud constant background hiss. And, interestingly, this hiss did not go away even if I set the gain to 0 in Windows - in fact, the gain appeared to have almost no effect at all on the noise.
Again, this makes sense. The SYBA was less than $10. Quality control is certainly not going to be a priority at that price range. I was just hopeful that it would be better than my onboard sound, but alas it is not.
This is when I started to get desperate. How could I find a higher quality interface to reduce the noise problem that wouldn't break the bank?
Third Try: Behringer Xenyx 302USB
So finally, I broke down and ordered a Behringer Xenyx 302USB mixer. This thing ran me a little over $40 so it wasn't that bad on price all things considered. I also know Behringer's a well known brand with products specifically designed for audio work (unlike the SYBA), and this unit had good reviews. With the Behringer, I found something interesting - it turns out, the Behringer on USB power delivers enough phantom power over the XLR input to power my microphone. Which means I could have skipped the InnoGear box and saved about $30. Oh well.
The thing I did notice about the Behringer is that I still got a definite noise in the recording. But this noise was different - it sounded less like a static hiss, and more like ambient room noise this time. And, as far as I can tell, that's exactly what it is, most likely picking up my tower PC's fans (that thing is an absolute beast and is only a few feet away, so that would make sense). Additionally, when unplugging the mic, the Behringer records almost no noise at all. This is good, since it means that unlike the SYBA or the mic-in port the Behringer is not introducing much noise of its own.
With a bit of fiddling with the Behringer's gain knobs, I did manage to reduce noise low enough that any remainder could be completely knocked out in Audition's noise removal filter without distorting the recording noticeably (whereas previously I would have had to deal with that slight "burbly" quality in order to eliminate the noise).
I'm happy with my new setup at this point. I've noticed that the NW-700, even though it's a cheaper condenser mic and I've been warned about the quality of sub-$100 mics, is actually more sensitive and has better clarity than my Snowball did. With a bit of work it appears I can actually get a lot more mileage out of this one, despite the lower price point. And, for me, I certainly don't need this thing to compete with several hundred dollar mics - I just need it to sound decent.
Additionally, being mounted on an extendable arm which is attached to my desk is actually way more convenient. It's mounted off to the left side where it can be out of the way, and extends out when I need to record. Whereas the Snowball, just being on a tripod, always had to reside directly on a solid surface (which is a bit of a challenge with my limited desk space). Its short height also meant that I could only put it near me, whereas the extendable arm of my NW-700 can put the microphone directly in front of my face for maximum clarity :)