Computer microphones have been around since the early days of personal computers. Connecting external devices to your computer usually requires a driver, so what about external microphones?
Do microphones need drivers to work properly in computers? Connecting a mic to a computer via an audio jack will not require a driver since the computer is set up to accept audio from the jack. USB mics require some sort of driver (often downloaded automatically). The same is true for computer audio interfaces that allow the connection of mics and computers.
In this article, we'll discuss drivers in more detail and talk about their role in connecting microphones to computers.
Please consider reading my related article about microphones and computers: Are Microphones Input Or Output Devices?
What Is A Driver?
To better understand if a given microphone requires a driver to work properly, let's quickly discuss what a device driver actually is?
So what is a device driver? A device driver is a group of files within a computer that allow hardware devices to communicate with the computer's operating system. In other words, drivers enable the transfer of digital information between the computer and device.
This is an important primer: drivers transfer digital data. Microphones, by default, output analog signals. This brings us to our next point.
What Is A Microphone?
So now that we know what a driver is let's talk about microphones and see how drivers, microphones, and computers interact with one another.
What is a microphone? A microphone is a transducer of energy that converts sound waves (mechanical wave energy) into audio signals (electrical energy) via a moveable diaphragm. Sound waves move the diaphragm, and the mic uses this movement to create a coinciding analog audio signal (AC voltage).
For in-depth reads on microphones and how they work, check out my articles:
• What Is A Microphone? (Mic Types, Examples, And Pictures)
• How Do Microphones Work? (The Ultimate Illustrated Guide)
Note that some computer hardware, like webcams, may have built-in microphones.
So a microphone naturally outputs analog audio, but computers use digital audio. How do we manage this?
Analog-To-Digital Converters And Connecting Microphones To Computers
So computers work with digital audio, but microphones create analog audio. Therefore, we need some way of turning the mic's non-digital information into digital information that the computer can read.
This is done with an analog-to-digital converter (ADC for short).
The ADCs used with microphones and computers can be found in 3 main locations:
ADCs Inside Computers
Many desktop computers (though not many new laptops) come with built-in audio input jacks. This is perhaps because laptops typically have built-in microphones.
Whether the computer has a typical 1/8″ TRS (aux) audio input or a less popular 1/4″ TRS or XLR, the computer's audio input is analog.
So if the computer's audio input is analog, there must be an ADC within the computer. These ADCs are positioned in close proximity to the analog jacks.
Because these ADCs are built into their computers, the drivers should be stock with the computer operating system.
To learn more about microphone plugs and jacks, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• What Is The Difference Between A Microphone Plug And Jack?
• How Do Headphone Jacks And Plugs Work? (+ Wiring Diagrams)
• Differences Between 2.5mm, 3.5mm & 6.35mm Headphone Jacks
ADCs Inside Audio Interfaces
Digital audio interfaces are used by professional audio engineers and amateur hobbyists alike to connect microphones to computers.
Audio interfaces will have a single connection to the computer often have a multitude of inputs and outputs.
- The connection to the computer is digital (often with USB, Thunderbolt, or FireWire).
- The inputs and outputs of the audio interface are analog.
An audio interface will take in audio and send it to the computer. It will also take audio from the computer and send it to monitoring devices (headphones, loudspeakers, studio monitors). Therefore, there are both ADCs and DACs (digital-to-analog converters) within audio interfaces.
Audio interfaces are excellent because they allow for multiple mics to be connected to a computer at once. They also allow for multiple audio outputs from the computer.
This is all done with one driver since the interface makes only one connection with the computer.
Audio interfaces often come with their own routing software, allowing flexibility with the inputs and outputs of the interface.
To read more about audio interfaces and my recommendations, check out my article Best Microphone Audio Interfaces.
ADCs Inside Microphones
Digital microphones (especially USB mics) are popular choices for computer mics.
The actual transducer (capsule) in these microphones is similar to any non-USB mic. It converts sound waves into analog electrical signals.
The biggest difference between a USB mic and an analog mic is that the USB mic has a built-in ADC. Therefore, the output of the USB mic's body is digital!
This consolidation of the ADC within the microphone itself makes USB mics easy to connect to computers. With automatic driver installs, many of the USB mics on the market today are “plug-and-play.”
For more info on USB mics and connecting microphones to computers, check out the following My New Microphone articles:
• How Do USB Microphones Work And How To Use Them
• How To Connect A Microphone To A Computer (A Detailed Guide)
When Do We Need A Microphone Driver And When Do We Not?
Let's really answer whether a microphone needs a driver or not with some specific examples.
First, I'll reiterate that drivers are only ever needed when connecting microphones to computers.
Therefore, when using any analog equipment, drivers are not needed. Similarly, when using digital mixing consoles, no drivers are needed.
We mentioned that the built-in audio input jacks in some computers do not require any external drivers. These drivers, if there are drivers, are stock with the computer.
Audio interfaces do require drivers to communicate with computers. That being said, the individual analog mics that connect to the computer via the audio interface do not need individual drivers.
In other words, the mics only interact with the interface. The interface's job is to convert the mic signals to digital audio and communicate that digital information with the computer.
Analog microphones, then, never require drivers. It is only their analog-to-digital converters (adapters) that would require drivers.
USB and other digital microphones that connect directly to the computer will require drivers for proper data transfer. Sometimes these drivers are automatically downloaded, while other times, the user must manually download the driver from the internet.
The Blue Yeti USB condenser microphone (pictured) connects directly to a computer via a micro-USB to USB cable.
The Blue Yeti is featured in the following My New Microphone articles:
• 50 Best Microphones Of All Time (With Alternate Versions & Clones)
• Top 9 Best USB Microphones (Streaming, PC Audio, Etc.)
• Top 20 Best Microphones For Podcasting (All Budgets)
• Top 12 Best Microphones Under $150 For Recording Vocals
• Best Studio Microphones For Recording Singing
• Best USB Microphones For Recording Podcasts
• Best ASMR Stereo Microphones/Mic Pairs
The Blue Yeti does require a driver for proper digital information transfer with the computer. This driver will usually download and install automatically when first connecting to a microphone. If not, the driver can be manually downloaded and installed from Blue's website.
Does a headphone microphone need a driver? Headphone microphones (better known as headsets) may need drivers if connected to a computer. Audio input jacks and output jacks of computers often do not have enough connections for a headset. For that reason, USB or other digital connectors are commonly used and require drivers.
What do you plug a microphone into? A mic should be plugged into a mic input. On professional gear, this is typically a mic preamp with an XLR connection, though mini-XLR, TA5F, TRS, and even digital connections are used. These connections can supply power if needed. Mics can be plugged into any audio input but with varying results.
Related article: What Do Microphones Plug Into? (Full List Of Mic Connections).
Choosing the right microphone(s) for your applications and budget can be a challenging task. For this reason, I've created My New Microphone's Comprehensive Microphone Buyer's Guide. Check it out for help in determining your next microphone purchase.