How Do I Connect My Microphone To My Computer? Connecting Audio Devices And Instruments To Your Computer
Many of us don't realize how lucky and spoiled we are with modern computer technology. Since USB became the industry standard for connecting devices to computers, we got used to simply connecting a new printer, keyboard and, yes, microphone with the computer's USB port. Drivers get installed immediately and the device can be used within seconds. Things are not that simple for all microphones and other audio devices though.
Microphones don't just come in all shapes and sizes, but also have different ways of connecting to your computer. Apart from using different types of interfaces than USB, some microphones and other audio devices can not even be directly connected to a computer.
There are a number of reasons why connecting these devices are more complex than we think they ought to be. We need to look back at the history of musical components, as well as the evolution of computer technology over the years to better understand how we arrived at this point.
Hopefully after the following section, you will have a lot more appreciation for the "easy" solutions available today. Trust, me things could have been a lot worse...
A (Not So) Brief History
Actually, I am going to delve a little bit more into the not-so-distant past to help you understand why there are so many options when it comes to connecting your microphone and audio devices to your computer - and how difficulties and complex things really were.
Early Days Of The Home/Office Computer
You are probably going to give your age away if you nod your head while smiling knowingly and think back with nostalgia to the period I am about to describe.
Back in the mid 1980's and 1990's computers were flooding the market worldwide and finding a home in almost every household. Although not that much of a novelty anymore, the technology were still very far from streamlined or without any technical glitches.
Keeping a computer from "crashing or freezing" were a daily battle. So was staring blankly at a frozen computer screen with that helpless sinking feeling, realizing the work you just did for the past 2 hours, are lost FOREVER...
Then you still had to make all your components work together. I can write a book, but will try to quickly summarize for those of you who luckily escaped those "pioneering" years.
The "dark art" of making PC peripherals communicate successfully with a computer in those early years were only trumped by the "magic" making these devices actually work together.
You see, printers were connected to computers using a parallel port. The mouse used a different serial interface. First generation keyboards also had their unique ports (vaguely similar looking to a MIDI port, followed by PS/2 connections). This is not to mention the "specialist" ports installed such as SCSI connections, VGA/S-VGA connections for monitors, and the telephonic ports on modems to connect to the Internet.
(No, don't try to understand any of what you have just been reading. It really is as confusing as it looks. Trust me on this!)
These are just a few common ports that constantly competed for the computer's attention. And they all had to work together in harmony to avoid the dreaded computer crash or a completely unusable piece of dead metal and circuit boards.
Heaven forbids you had 2 or more of these similar ports on the same computer trying to work together and they had the same "address". It was not uncommon to see computers standing with their covers removed in any office or home, with a "computer technician" frantically working on the inside to sort out some kind of "conflict".
(Even in the near-perfect world of the then still new Apple Macintosh where everything just worked "straight out of the box", there were also quite a few glitches, and things didn't run nearly as smoothly as they do today.)
Needless to say, a big love-hate relationships existed between humans and their computing devices. Those were challenging, yet wonderful times (when things worked).
The whole reason for mentioning this brief portion of computer history, is to make you understand how early on problems with connecting different computer parts together already started - and as you will soon learn, how this already complicated situation got made even more complicated by trying to merge it with the audio recording industry with its own emerging technologically.
Evolution Of The Recording Industry
Meanwhile across the isle, things were evolving rather quickly in the music and recording industry as well. As early as the 1960's and 70's, new developments in the recording industry allowed us to start recording and mixing in ways not previously possible.
With the emergence of multitrack recorders, especially 8-track recorders, recording individual tracks were made possible, which meant tracks could also be be edited separately which triggered the mass adoption of multitrack mixers that started becoming commonplace in any professional recording studio.
As was the case with the emergence of computers, the evolving recording industry with its various instruments and components meant that various connections had to be made between the different devices in order for them to communicate with each other.
Examples of these connections include XLR-cables, used to connect professional microphones to a mixer or preamp. The familiar MIDI-Interface was introduced to allow electronic instruments like synthesizers and drum machines to communicate with mixers and sequencers. 1/4" TRS & TS cables are used to respectively connect audio devices with each other, and electric guitars/instruments to mixers/amplifiers. These are just a few examples.
If you haven't been working in the recording industry, you will probably be completely confused by now, and that is the whole point. It is to help you understand how many different connections exist in recording industry (which is also partially responsible for the variety of different options we are presented with today).
Now, combine this with the amount of different connections that were available in the computer industry - and you will begin to understand why you have so many options today, as well as how bad it could have been if all those old connections still existed and had to be accommodated in a modern recording setup.
The Introduction Of Sound To The Computer World
In those early days computers didn't come with any noteworthy sound already integrated on the system's motherboard like they do today. In the 1980's and 90's users had to rely on dedicated sound cards to produce realistic sound for music and computer games. (Many of you will remember Creative Lab's original Sound Blaster and Sound Blaster 16 that brought the wonder of "high fidelity" sound to the humble Personal Computer.)
During the late 1990's, computers became powerful enough to be taken seriously in the recording industry, as DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software started appearing and were being seen as a viable alternative to traditional recording and mixing hardware.
During this period and in the early 2000's universal connections like the USB Protocol made connecting different devices much easier. Not just between computer components, but also between computers and audio devices. (Not to mention doing away with a lot of redundant connections and unnecessary interfaces.)
Since then, continuing improvements were made on the software and hardware side. This included more comprehensive DAW software, the already mentioned USB Protocol, Audio Interfaces and the inclusion of fairly advanced audio chipsets already included on most computer motherboards.
Professional Sound Cards For Studio Use
During this period high-end sound cards started appearing for professional studio use. With onboard preamps, connections to accommodate professional equipment (like XLR connectors for microphones and RCA ports) and high-end DAC chipsets, the cards can turn a desktop into fully capable recording studio studio.
These cards are still available today. Unfortunately they tend to be very expensive and are also limited since only the back panel of the cards are available to house a limited number of connections.
During recent years, audio interfaces have largely taken their place , since they are much more affordable, provide high-quality sounds through their preamps and also support a wealth of input and output connections.
Especially for home studio use, these high-end sound cards cannot compete with audio interfaces when it comes to price and features. They are also not nearly as accessible as an audio interface.
Therefore I am not discussing them in the following section as a way to connect to your audio devices to your computer, as they are also becoming increasingly irrelevant. (Especially for the budget conscious home studio owner.)
Things are certainly yet far from perfect, but we came a long way from those early days of rapid computing and electronic audio revolution. So where does this leave us?
The Different Ways Of Connecting
So this is where we are today: We have access to a combination of old and new technology that allow us to combine modern computer technology and professional audio equipment in a variety of ways. It can still look complicated, but is much simpler than it could have been.
I you read through the "Brief History" part, you will realize how complicated things could have been if modern innovations like the USB interface and audio interfaces didn't come to the rescue to make things a lot easier and simpler.
With that said, let's have a look at what you actually came to read, the different ways of connecting your microphone and other audio devices to your computer.
1) The Traditional 1/8" Microphone Jack
Surprisingly, the traditional 1/8" microphone jack still features on some desktop and a few laptop computers. This can be an extension of the build-in audio chipset of the motherboard, or located on the back of one of the numerous inexpensive sound cards available today (which is used to enhance the sound quality of games and other applications that require a higher quality sound. And yes, this includes various versions of Creative Lab's latest Sound Blaster cards).
If you have a good quality older microphone that still use one of these jacks, you are in luck and will be able to use it as most modern versions of Windows will have drivers to support it.
A word of caution though. These connections are disappearing fast. (Don't even try and find one on an Apple Mac). There are still a few cheap microphones using this connection available to buy if you look for it. Please rather stay away as these microphones are most often inferior in quality and with support for it disappearing at a rapid rate, you will be left with nothing to plug it into.
2) The USB Interface
The introduction and mass adoption of the USB Protocol didn't just mean doing away with a number of complex and competing interfaces.
It also allows power to be supplied to the connected device through the USB cable, a substantial increase in speed as its technology advanced, and the ability to connect devices not previously possible.
All of this made the connection of high quality microphones and other audio devices directly to the computer possible. Let's take a look at some of the best and most widely used ways of connecting directly through the USB interface:
· Standard (Passive) USB Microphone
Often bundled with computer hardware, or available at most electronic and gadget stores, is the humble USB microphone. This normally inexpensive device plugs into basically any computer and works immediately after a brief install.
It is an easy and affordable way to record sound into your computer and will work "out of the box" as every desktop and laptop comes equipped with an USB interface.
Just remember that these microphones are passive (unpowered). This means it has to completely rely on the amplification and audio quality of the computer's build-in audio chipset or sound card.
As a result, the volume and quality of the sound is normally not of a very high quality, but acceptable for everyday basic audio work. (like dictation and voice recognition software.)
· USB Condenser Microphone
The USB Interface's ability to supply power through its cable to a connected devices, has made it possible to directly connect a much higher quality microphone in the form of the USB Condenser Microphone.
It uses an electrically charged diaphragm, making it much more sensitive to sound and able to produce a much stronger signal through the the USB cable.
In a nutshell, the USB condenser microphone combines this sensitive diaphragm with electronic circuitry (housed in the microphone) to produce a much clearer audio signal at a much higher volume.
(This is a very simplistic explanation. You can read more about a condenser microphone and how exactly it works in this article.)
As a result, you can get hold of a USB condenser microphone that can almost rival the capabilities of a professional studio microphone. Prices vary from below $50 to $200 and above. (Naturally your high-quality condenser microphones for professional use will fall into the higher price bracket.)
The point is that you can use a USB condenser microphone for high quality audio work, which will sound almost indistinguishable from professional microphones to the untrained ear.
Another huge advantage of this microphone, is that you can plug it directly into your computer or laptop without the need for any additional hardware. Simply make sure the right drivers are downloaded and your microphone is ready to use.
It is also very portable, making it ideal for the traveling musician or podcaster on the move who needs a high quality, but compact microphone which can be thrown into a suitcase and used on the road for recording or live performances.
· Synthesizers, Keyboards & Digital Pianos
The USB Interface also made the connection of other audio devices possible. In the past electronic percussion instruments, keyboards, synthesizers and digital pianos could only communicate with other electronic components through dedicated interfaces like MIDI ports and RCA connectors.
MIDI ports have the limitations that it can only transfer the data of the note being played, nothing more. If you created a whole musical piece on your synth or digital piano, you needed stereo output ports like RCA connectors to capture the entire sound on the preamp or mixer.
As these were all audio specific ports, and now standard computer has support for these devices. This was a very limiting factor.
Luckily the USB Interface changed all of that. You can now record all the sound your instrument produces directly into the computer through their USB connection.
Most modern keyboards, synthesizers and digital pianos all have USB ports. The majority also come with drivers that can immediately be installed. You can literally download and install them, and your instrument is ready to be used by your DAW or its own software.
Just please play attention and make sure your instruments actually do have a USB port. Some devices still come without this important component, and can cause a world of problems when you want to connect directly to your computer.
3) The Audio Interface
If you are planning on starting any kind of home recording studio, no matter how basic, I would strongly recommend investing in an audio interface.
Basically an audio interface is a device that connects all your audio equipment and instruments to your PC. With build-in preamplifiers and DAC (digital to analogue converter) they have also taken over the functions of a professional sound card.
This means you can connect almost any traditional audio instrument and other audio devices to the audio interface. All these signals get amplified/processed and send to the computer through a digital connection, normally a USB cable, to the computer. Here your DAW software can record and edit the sound.
Even affordable audio interfaces offer a host of ports to connect to. From XLR-ports for your professional microphone, MIDI connections, 1/4" audio jacks to RCA ports are supported. This means you can connect almost anything you can think of, and the USB Interface (who can handle multiple tracks at once) will make sure all signals are delivered to the computer.
The majority of audio interfaces also come equipped with output ports for directly connecting to headphones, speakers and external amplifiers. This makes the audio interface extremely versatile and it can be seen as a very comprehensive solution for integrating all your audio and computer hardware. (You can even instruct the computer to output all sound back through the USB port to be played through the audio interface.)
The takeaway here is that if you already own a XLR microphone and other audio equipment, the audio interface will be the ideal solution for your connections problems. Additionally, it will also give you an advantage when starting your home studio with all its extended audio features and interfaces.
So there you have it. Basically 4 ways to connect your microphone and other audio devices to you computer. Yes, I went the long way around and covered a lot of detail. I honestly think it is important for you to understand why you are left with the options you have today.
If you skipped the brief history, no problem. I will really encourage you to go back and read it at some point when you have time. It will put things into perspective and help you to better understand how everything got started and ended up where they did.
Who knows, you may just find yourself in a situation some day where you are faced with some of these older technologies. Recognizing and understanding them will go a far way to help you work with them, and potentially integrate them into a modern setup.
Before finishing up, let's quickly recap the 4 ways in which to connect your microphone (and other devices) to your computer:
- Use the standard 1/8" microphone jack to connect your older microphone and a few new affordable ones. (Just be aware this is a dying technology.)
- Use the computer's USB port to connect a simple passive (unpowered) microphone directly for simple audio work. (Quality and amplitude not that great, so not suitable for high-quality professional audio work.)
- Use the USB port to connect a high quality USB Condenser Microphone directly to the computer. Provides near studio quality audio at an affordable price and compact size. (Great for the the traveling artist and podcaster/vlogger.)
- Use the audio interface when you need to connect your existing XLR microphone and audio components to your computer. (Also great to start your home recording studio with.)
As always, feel free to leave me any comments or suggestions you may have, and I will respond and try and get to them as soon as I can.
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Catch you in the next article and happy recording!