In the age of digital audio, microphones of all types must be able to connect to and work with computers. Whether you’re working on the next hit record, or just want improved vocal clarity in online conversation, knowing how to connect a microphone to your computer is essential.
How do we connect a microphone to a computer? Connecting a microphone to a computer requires an audio interface. Audio interfaces physically connect mics to computers and convert analog audio signals into digital info. USB mics contain simple but limited interfaces, whereas standalone interfaces can connect entire studios to a single computer.
Let’s talk further about how to connect a microphone to a computer in this detailed article.
For specialized information on connecting wireless microphones to a computer, check out my article How To Connect A Wireless Microphone To A Computer (+ Bluetooth Mics).
Table Of Contents
- Connecting A Microphone To A Computer.
- Types Of Audio Interfaces.
- How To Connect A USB Microphone To A Computer.
- How To Connect An XLR Microphone To A Computer.
- How To Connect A “Mini-Plug” (3.5 mm) Microphone To A Computer.
- Installing Drivers.
- Selecting The Audio Input Of The Computer Or Software.
- Using An External Microphone With Web Browsers, Facetime, And Skype.
- Related Questions.
Connecting A Microphone To A Computer
A true connection between a microphone and a computer requires the conversion of the microphone’s analog audio signal into a digital audio signal the computer is able to read. This conversion takes place within an audio interface.
What is an audio interface? An audio interface is a device that allows communication between computers and mics, instruments, loudspeakers and monitors. Audio interfaces may contain analog-digital and digital-analog converters; mic, line, and instrument inputs; USB, thunderbolt, line and other outputs, and supply phantom power.
To learn more about audio interfaces and my recommendations, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• What Are Audio Interfaces & Why Would A Microphone Need One?
• Best Microphone Audio Interfaces
Audio interfaces essentially act as improved external sound cards for your computer. When dealing with microphones and computers, audio interfaces will take in the mic signal (analog); convert that signal to digital audio, and feed that digital signal into the computer.
For a more detailed read on microphone signal flow and computers, check out my article Are Microphones Input Or Output Devices?
Types Of Audio Interfaces
When it comes to connecting microphones to computers, there are basically 3 types of audio interfaces:
- Internal microphone audio interface: these interfaces are found in USB and digital mics. They allow the final output of the microphone to be digital.
- Standalone audio interface: A standalone audio interface could be a simple inline analog-to-digital converter/adapter or it could be an interface with multiple inputs and outputs that connects an entire studio’s worth of microphones to a computer. This is what most people who work with audio tend to think of when they hear “audio interface.”
- Internal computer sound card/audio interface: the final audio interface to talk about is the internal sound card of the computer. Oftentimes cheap consumer-grade mics will connect directly to the computer’s internal sound card.
Note that these audio interfaces are defined by their location in the signal chain rather than by their function. They all act to convert the analog signal from the microphone into a digital signal that can be used within the computer.
Internal Interfaces And USB/Digital Microphones
Blue Microphones is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Microphone Brands You Should Know And Use.
The above-pictured Blue Yeti (link to check the price on Amazon) is one of the most popular USB microphones.
USB microphones (and other “digital mics”) are designed with built-in audio interfaces.
The microphone capsule takes in sound and creates an audio signal just like any analog microphone. This analog signal, still within the body of the microphone, is passed through the built-in interface and is converted to digital audio. This digital audio is then outputted through the USB output of the microphone.
For more information on microphone audio signals, check out my article What Are Microphone Audio Signals, Electrically Speaking?
To connect a USB mic, simply plug one end of a USB cable into the microphone and the other end into the computer.
These “plug-and-play” microphones are easy to connect to computers and have risen in popularity alongside laptops and the Internet.
Many USB mics also have built-in headphone amplifiers that offer zero-latency monitoring of the mic signal while it’s being used with computer software.
The downside of most USB microphones is that the interface only makes a connection between a single microphone and a single computer.
For a deeper read into analog and digital microphones, including USB mics, please read my article Are Microphones Analog Or Digital Devices? (Mic Output Designs).
Standalone Audio Interfaces
Standalone audio interfaces are put inline between analog microphones and digital computers. They come in two primary styles. I like to call them:
- Adapter-style audio interface.
- Hub-style audio interface.
1. Adapter-Style Standalone Audio Interface
Adapter-style audio interfaces are simple in design:
- 1 XLR (or other analog mic connection) in.
- 1 USB (or other digital connection) out.
The downside, again, is the interface only makes a connection between one microphone and one computer.
Adapter-style audio interfaces are built in two ways:
- Analog-to-digital converters to be put in-line.
- Analog-to-digital converters consolidated as a single cable.
Audio Interface Cable
An example of an “interface cable” audio interface is the Behringer Mic 2 USB Interface Cable (link to check the price on Amazon).
Simply connect the XLR of the interface cable to the microphone output.
Then connect the USB of the interface cable to the computer.
Audio Interface Inline Adapter
An example of a “signal converter” audio interface is the Shure X2U XLR-to-USB Signal Adapter (link to check the price on Amazon).
Shure is featured in My New Microphone’s:
• Top 11 Best Microphone Brands You Should Know And Use
• Top 13 Best Headphone Brands In The World
Connect the microphone to the input of the interface via a balanced XLR cable. Then connect the interface to the computer via a USB cable.
2. Hub-Style Standalone Audio Interface
Hub-style audio interfaces allow for multiple microphones to be connected to a single computer. These types of audio interfaces are common in both project and professional studios.
They range widely in the number of inputs/outputs, but all work similarly: One digital connection to the computer and a specific number of analog inputs and outputs.
In fact, these interfaces don’t only allow us to connect microphones to a computer. We can also connect instruments and other audio signals to the computer. Additionally, we are also able to output digital audio from the computer and have the interface convert it back to analog for use with headphones, monitors, and loudspeakers.
The popular Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 (link to check the price on Amazon), pictured above, has a USB connection to the computer. It features 2 combo mic/line/instrument inputs; left and right monitor outputs; and a stereo headphone output. This hub-style standalone audio interface can also supply phantom power via its mic inputs.
Connect the hub-style interface to the computer and connect as few or as many microphones as the interface has inputs for.
In my home studio, I have the popular Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB Audio Interface.
At the studio I work at, we have multiple small audio interfaces in the mix rooms. In the recording suites, we utilize bigger interfaces, including the Universal Audio Apollo 16 18×20 Thunderbolt and the Focusrite Scarlett 18i20 MKII USB.
I’ll restate that “hub-style” audio interfaces with multiple inputs can connect more than one microphone to the computer at the same time! This is a big advantage over adapters and USB microphones.
Internal Computer Sound Cards
Many computers, and all laptops, are designed with their own internal sound cards. These sound cards allow the digital audio within the computer to be outputted from the computer’s built-in speakers. It also allows analog microphones to be connected directly to the computer (typically via the 1/8″/3.5 mm TRRS headphone jack).
For example, the Rode smartLav+ (link to check the price on Amazon) can connect to a laptop or any computer via the headphone jack and be used to record audio.
Rode is featured in My New Microphone’s Top 11 Best Microphone Brands You Should Know And Use.
The Rode smartLav+ is a miniature electret condenser lavalier/body microphone with an omnidirectional polar pattern. It is wired and connects to smartphone headphone jacks via 3.5 mm TRRS (CTIA standard).
Note that if your computer has a microphone-only TRS 1/8″/3.5 mm input, you may require a 1/8″ TRRS to 1/8″ TRS adapter like the Rode SC3 (link to check the price on Amazon).
Now let’s discuss the necessary steps to connect various microphone types to a computer.
How To Connect A USB Microphone To A Computer
In the case of USB microphones, the audio interface is built into the microphone itself.
How to connect a USB microphone to a computer:
- Physically connect the microphone to the computer via USB.
- Ensure the proper drivers are downloaded/installed (a one-time event).
- Select the interface (USB microphone) to be the audio input of the computer and/or software.
- Adjust the microphone gain to a reasonable level.
A USB mic acts as both a microphone and an audio interface. Many USB microphones even come with a zero-latency headphone output, effectively functioning as a true input/output interface device!
The main benefit of USB microphones is they are easy to use. The setup could be as simple as one USB mic, one USB cable, and one computer. Simply connect the microphone, download the drivers, and it works!
Of course, there are downsides to USB microphones, too.
The interface of a USB mic will only allow one microphone-to-computer connection at a time. USB microphones also, generally speaking, have worse specs (quality) than professional XLR microphones (though this isn’t always the case).
For an in-depth read about microphone specifications (of analog and digital mics), please consider reading my article Full List Of Microphone Specifications (How To Read A Spec Sheet).
USB microphones are terrific for monologue recording or any other recording of a single source. They are also a significant upgrade over built-in or “mini-plug” computer microphones!
To learn about my recommended USB microphones, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• How Do USB Microphones Work And How To Use Them
• Top 9 Best USB Microphones
• Best USB Podcasting Microphones
How To Connect An XLR Microphone To A Computer
Analog microphones with XLR outputs (and other types of analog connectors) do not output digital audio. They must, therefore, pass through an audio interface (analog-to-digital converter) in order to properly connect to a computer.
Consider reading through my related article Why Do Microphones Use XLR Cables?
How to connect an XLR microphone to a computer:
- Physically plug an audio interface into the computer via USB, FireWire, Thunderbolt, etc.
- Ensure the proper drivers are downloaded/installed (a one-time event).
- Physically plug the microphone into one of the interface’s mic inputs via XLR.
- If the microphone is active, engage phantom power.
- Select the audio interface to be the audio input of the computer and/or software.
- Set the mic input as the input of a track (if using a Digital Audio Workstation) and arm the track for recording.
- Adjust the microphone preamp on the interface to a reasonable level.
Note that I’ll be using the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 standalone “hub-style” audio interface in the following examples. This interface could be swapped with any other standalone audio interface.
Professional (and consumer) microphones are most often designed with XLR outputs. XLR is the professional standard for carrying balanced analog audio signals.
For more info on balanced vs. unbalanced analog mic signals, check out my article Do Microphones Output Balanced Or Unbalanced Audio?
The standard of XLR connections won’t be changing any time soon, and so we’ve adapted for their use in digital recording with audio interfaces.
Note that, in the above diagram, a hub-style interface is required. Plugging 2 adapter-type interfaces (one for each mic) will lead to complications when it comes time to choose the computer’s audio input device.
It’s also worth noting that the active Rode NT1-A requires phantom power while the passive Shure SM58 does not. The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is capable of supplying +48V phantom power, although when activated, +48V is sent to both mic inputs. Fortunately, phantom power will not damage the SM58 nor will it alter the performance of the SM58.
To learn more about microphones and phantom power, check out my article What Is Phantom Power And How Does It Work With Microphones?
For a detailed read on active and passive microphones, please read my article Do Microphones Need Power To Function Properly?
Some consumer microphones have 1/4″ TRS or even 1/4″ TS outputs. These microphones can be connected to a computer via an audio interface as well. However, with the poor quality of these consumer microphones, I’d suggest using a USB microphone instead.
How To Connect A “Mini-Plug” (3.5 mm) Microphone To A Computer
These consumer microphones are worth mentioning briefly. New computers are often designed with built-in microphones. Older computers without built-in microphones will typically have a 3.5 mm microphone input jack.
Any computer with a headphone jack (typically 1/8″ TRRS wired to the CTIA standard) is capable of accepting an analog microphone.
There is an audio interface built into these jacks inside computers.
How to connect a mini-plug microphone to a computer:
- Physically plug the microphone into the 3.5 mm microphone input of the computer (or the headphone jack).
- Select the microphone to be the audio input of the computer and/or software.
- Adjust the input level within the computer.
For best results, ensure the computer jack and microphone plug are wired correctly. There are simple TRS (tip-ring-sleeve) jacks designed specifically for mics and there are TRRS (tip-ring-ring-sleeve) jacks designed for headphones and microphones.
Of the TRRS connections, there are 2 standards we should be aware of to ensure compatibility:
- CTIA: Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association
- OMTP: Open Mobile Terminal Platform
The CTIA standard is wired as:
- Tip: Left headphone
- Ring: Right headphone
- Ring: Ground
- Sleeve: Microphone
The OMTP standard is wired as:
- Tip: Left headphone
- Ring: Right headphone
- Ring: Microphone
- Sleeve: Ground
Check the specs of your specific gear to known whether or not they’ll be compatible together.
For more information on headphone/microphone jack connections, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• What Is The Difference Between A Microphone Plug And Jack?
• Differences Between 2.5mm, 3.5mm & 6.35mm Headphone Jacks
• Are AUX (Auxiliary) Connectors & Headphone Jacks The Same?
• How Do Headphone Jacks And Plugs Work? (+ Wiring Diagrams)
I mentioned to “ensure the proper drivers are downloaded/installed” in the above paragraphs.
What is a software driver? A driver is a software component that allows the operating system and microphone to communicate with one another. Drivers are written by the same manufacturers of the microphones/interfaces and relay data from the mic/audio interface to the operating system.
Some USB microphones and audio interfaces prompt automatic driver downloads when first plugged into a compatible computer. Others require a manual download of their drivers, which will typically be found on their manufacturer’s website. Others will even work with pre-existing drivers in your computer.
When in doubt about the specifics or your audio interface and/or USB mic, a quick Google search should point you in the right direction!
Selecting The Audio Input Of The Computer Or Software
So we know how to physically connect a microphone and interface to a computer and we know how to attain the required drivers. We’re almost there!
The computer must be set to “read” the digital translation of the microphone signal. In order to do so, the microphone/interface must be selected as the computer’s audio input.
This is the final part of connecting a microphone to a computer.
Some computers will source an audio input automatically while others won’t. Regardless, it’s relevant to understand how to select and switch between audio input devices!
In Mac OS, The Path To Choose The Microphone Input Is:
- -> System Preferences
- -> Sound
- -> Input
In this part of the menu, select the mini-plug mic, USB mic, or audio interface to be the audio input device of the computer. I use an iMac at home with a Scarlett 2i2 USB interface, and so I’ve added a screenshot above to show how I select my microphone input.
In Windows, The Path To Choose The Microphone Input Is:
- -> Control Panel
- -> Sound
- -> Recording
In this part of the menu, select the mini-plug mic, USB mic, or audio interface to be the audio input device of the computer. Once again, we’re choosing the Focusrite USB Audio Interface.
There will be a volume meter in these menu locations in order to test the microphone and ensure the signal is being transmitted!
In computer software programs, the path to choose the microphone input is similar to those paths above. Audio input settings are typically found within the “preferences,” “options,” or “setup” menu, depending on the software. We’ll discuss this later in this article!
More Information On “Hub-Style” Audio Interfaces
The term “audio interface” typically refers to these standalone “hub-style” digital/analog converter input/output boxes. Let’s discuss these in more detail.
Here are a couple of different ways to think about the function of audio interfaces:
- From a computer perspective, an audio interface is like an upgraded external sound card, converting sound to digital information and vice versa.
- From an audio perspective, an audio interface is like a preamplifier combined with an input/output device that communicates with a computer, converting analog audio signals into digital audio signals and vice versa.
Audio Interface Outputs
We’ve discussed inputting microphones into audio interfaces. We’ve also discussed the analog/digital conversion and the connection between the audio interface and the computer. Now we’ll talk about the analog outputs of audio interfaces.
USB microphones will often have headphone amps with 3.5 mm output jacks. These headphone outputs offer zero-latency monitoring of the microphone signal. We can choose to hear ourselves as we talk into the mic.
We even have the option to send audio from software programs like Skype or digital audio workstations to the headphone output. Much of the time this monitoring is either needed or, at the very least, wanted!
Adapter-style audio interfaces also often come with headphone outputs, though the cable-type adapters usually do not.
Standalone hub-style audio interfaces typically come with one or more headphone outputs. These “professional” interfaces usually offer 1/4” TRRS outputs as their headphone jacks. Those with multiple headphone outputs tend to have routing software to creating varying headphone mixes.
For more information on headphones as output devices, check out my article Are Headphones Input Or Output Devices?
Monitor outputs are the “main outputs” of a standalone audio interface.
USB mics and Adapter-style interfaces don’t have these outputs.
An audio interface will convert digital information from the computer into analog audio signals to be sent through its outputs. In professional and project studios, these monitor outputs are most often sent to studio monitors.
To learn more about the relationship between microphones and headphones/loudspeakers, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• Do Microphones Need Loudspeakers Or Headphones To Work?
• How To Plug A Microphone Into A Speaker
• How To Turn A Loudspeaker Into A Microphone In 2 Easy Steps
• Are Speakers (& Studio Monitors) Input Or Output Devices?
Choosing An Audio Interface As An Output Device
Like its input device, the computer’s audio output device must be selected.
For a deeper understanding of the relationship between computers, microphones, input devices, and output devices, check out my article Are Microphones Input Or Output Devices?
In Mac OS, The Path To Choose An Interface As The Audio Output Device Is:
- -> System Preferences
- -> Sound
- -> Output
In Windows, The Path To Choose An Interface As The Audio Output Device Is:
- -> Control Panel
- -> Sound
- -> Playback
Hub-style audio interfaces offer more options than single USB microphones. Depending on your specific needs now and in the future, a quality standalone audio interfaces could be a better investment than a USB mic.
Here is a brief list of specs to pay attention to when choosing an audio interface:
- Analog/Digital conversion resolution (bit-depth and sample rate).
- Number of inputs, outputs, and headphone outputs.
- Type of input, output, and headphone output connections.
- Quality of preamps.
- Quality and channel range of phantom power.
- Power supply: Externally powered or USB powered (externally powered interfaces are generally better choices).
- Computer connectivity: USB, Thunderbolt, FireWire, etc.
- Does it handle MIDI?
- Operating System requirements.
We’ve solidified the importance of audio interfaces when connecting microphones to computers. Now that we’ve got our microphones and computers connected, we’ll look at choosing the interface within the software.
Using An External Microphone With A Digital Audio Workstation
If you’re connecting a microphone to a computer to record audio, chances are you’ll be working with a digital audio workstation.
Digital audio workstations (DAWs) are software programs designed to record and mix audio.
DAWs have the ability to select audio input devices independently from the computer’s main audio input device. This makes for flexible routing but sometimes leads to user confusion.
For example, the operating system could be sourcing its audio input from the connected audio interface while the DAW is sourcing from the computer’s internal microphone.
Selecting the audio input device in a DAW is similar to choosing the audio input device of the computer. Once the proper drivers are installed, we can choose a microphone or audio interface as our audio input.
Let’s look at some common DAWs and their specific paths to audio input routing:
Pro Tools (Mac & Windows)
- -> Setup
- -> Playback Engine
Ableton Live (Mac & Windows)
- -> Live
- -> Preferences
- -> Audio
- -> Audio Input Device
Logic Pro (Mac)
- -> Logic Pro
- -> Preferences
- -> Audio
- -> Devices
- -> Input Device
FL Studio (Windows)
- -> System Settings
- -> Audio
- -> Input/Output
- -> Device
Once the proper audio input device is selected in a DAW, the interface inputs become available and the microphone(s) become accessible. We can now route a specific microphone to a specific track inside the DAW and record/monitor the microphone signal!
When an audio interface is chosen as the DAW’s input device, the number of input options for a track will be equal to the number of inputs in the audio interface.
Using An External Microphone With Web Browsers, Facetime, And Skype
Software and web-based applications that require a microphone signal typically source from the input audio device of the operating system, but there are some exceptions.
Web Browsers will utilize the set audio input device of the computer operating system.
Facetime will also utilize the set audio input device of the computer operating system.
Skype, however, offers some flexibility and its audio input device can be set independent of the computer’s main audio input via the following path:
- -> Preferences
- -> Audio/Video
- -> Audio Input
What is digital audio? Digital audio is audio encoded as numerical samples in a continuous sequence. Digital waveforms utilize bit depth (binary code) for amplitude values and these amplitudes are sampled at a sample rate (in Kilohertz). Unlike analog audio, digital audio can be copied infinitely with no loss of quality.
What is microphone latency? Microphone latency is the inherent delay in the processing of digital audio. It takes time to convert the analog signal (microphone) to digital info (computer) and back to an analog signal (monitors). Latency under 4 ms is typically negligible, whereas latency above 4 ms creates a problematic echo effect.
To learn more about microphone latency, check out my article How To Fix Microphone Echo And Latency In Your Computer (7 Methods).
Related My New Microphone article: How To Connect A Wireless Microphone To A Computer (+ Bluetooth Mics).
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