One of our most frequently asked questions is how to connect a microphone to a PC Computer or laptop and start making audio recordings. Many computers ship with simple dynamic microphones made especially for connecting directly to the soundcard, equipped with 1/8 inch plugs (mini-jacks) that can be plugged straight in to the mic-in socket (often coloured pink on standard sound cards).
However, while this will be appropriate for beginners and those recording for their own use only, musicians and podcasters who want a more professional sound will probably be disappointed with the quality of these generic mics, and may also find the recording quality of a standard sound card is not too good either.
A really neat one-stop solution for recording on your computer, and one which will offer a considerable improvement in quality over a generic computer microphone and sound card combination, is to consider a USB mic. A USB microphone is a high quality microphones which simply plugs straight into your USB port – perfect for musicians on the move with laptops, but equally at home in the desktop music studio. Also a really good option with the iPad and other tablets. USB mics are compatible with both PC and Mac operating systems – they just plug and play so you can get started really quickly. They represent excellent value because there is no requirement to purchase any additional hardware, and are very easy to install and use.
Particularly good for the vocalists who want to record over backing tracks are the microphones which have a headphone output because you can ‘direct monitor’ through headphones – in other words listen to the track while you are singing along. These are equally simple to set up and use in this way and will produce really good recording results. If you just want to make good quality recordings one track at a time, or if you are thinking about voiceovers for videos etc then you do not need to be so concerned about the headphone output and you may prefer the features and equipment of the larger USB studio mics.
While you are choosing your mic, think about whether you need to purchase a stand, shockmount or recording booth at the same time. Unless you are using a handheld dynamic microphone you will at least require a stand, though you will find that most USB microphones come with a small desktop stand to get you started.
USB Audio Interfaces
What if you want more than just a USB mic? Maybe you want to start up a small home studio with more capability than just one microphone input. Well the next thing to look at is a dedicated USB Audio interface that is specifically designed to allow a mic (or several microphones) to be connected, and usually other instruments as well. These USB audio interfaces already have the necessary pre-amps and software to give you a really high quality recording result on your PC or Mac without the need to install a PCI sound card, so they are also great for mobile recording on a laptop or notebook and easily transferable if you upgrade your system in the future, but you will need to purchase a microphone and cables separately if you don’t already own a mic.
Many interfaces feature a mic pre-amp and line/guitar in with gain so they are perfect for vocalists, guitarists and instrumentalists. Check whether the device you are looking at has phantom power or not and remember you will also need an XLR cable to connect the microphone to the interface,and headphones or powered speakers for monitoring. The sound will come out of the interface, not your computer so if you currently listen through your computer speakers you will need to bear this in mind.
If you require an interface with phantom power (most condenser mics require this unless they are self-powered) then make sure the interface you pick does have a phantom switch or you will end up having to buy a separate power supply. While you are checking this, think about many microphone/line inputs you require, and also look at what software comes with the audio interface for a neat out of the box one-stop recording solution.
Some interfaces also have MIDI in/out so you can also connect up a keyboard or digital piano making them really versatile and multi-functional.
Common Questions: What is phantom power?
In most condenser mics, a power source is needed to maintain an electrical charge between the elements inside. Many pre-amps and audio/MIDI interfaces have an AC power supply built into them for use by a condenser mic. This is called a phantom power supply, meaning that the electrical power is carried up the cable that attaches the mic to the pre-amp or interface. Most condensor mics (apart from all our USB ones) require a phantom power supply, but dynamic mics do not.
What is a pre-amp?
A pre-amp is a device that amplifies the signal from your microphone to make it strong enough to be usable by the computer. You can buy a versatile external interface that combines a soundcard and pre-amp, connecting via the USB port, or the other option is to buy a dedicated pre-amp or mixer with the appropriate signal.