People often ask our humble helpdesk how they can connect a microphone to their computer or laptop. It’s not a weird question since, you simply don’t know what you don’t know and, if you’re a little afraid of damaging your pristine MacBook, or you don’t want to just randomly order some gear, it’s more than understandable. Luckily, there are a number of ways to do it and it doesn’t even have to cost that much.
Microphone Connection Types
- The microphone plugs and sockets you’re most likely to come across are XLR (analogue) and USB (digital).
- Some smaller or cheaper microphones can come with a small mini-jack plug (3.5mm) or standard big jack plug (6.3mm) fitted.
- There are also older or specialist microphones that use other, less standard plug types.
This makes things fairly easy since USB microphones can literally be connected to directly to a USB port of your computer. If you haven’t got yourself a microphone yet, then this is definitely the best option. For around £30 of your hard earned cash, you’ll be able to pick up a great sounding microphone. And, since there are now almost as many USB microphones available as there are XLR microphones, there’s enough to choose from. If you’re a picky beginner or think you might want to add more than one microphone as you get better and better at the recording/streaming game, then it’s a better idea to opt for an XLR model. An XLR model is also the best option if you want to use a small mixer or a desk – which is something we’ll talk more about a bit later. If you’ve already decided that it’s a USB microphone you need, then you can find some help to choose the right one here. If you’d prefer a microphone that can connect directly to your smartphone or tablet (Android or iOS), then you’ll be able to find what you’re looking for here.
For a little clarification, here’s a picture of a prime example of a USB microphone …
You can recognise an XLR by looking for the three protruding pins found fitted to a male XLR output or the three little corresponding holes in a female XLR output. These are found on pretty much any professional or amateur bit of audio gear you can find, including sound systems, mixing desks, audio recording gear and audio interfaces. As such, XLR microphones are the most flexible and perhaps universal option available. If you do want to connect an XLR microphone to your computer, you are going to need to use an audio interface (also known as a sound card) to do it. Since an XLR connection sends an analogue signal, this needs to be converted into a digital signal so that it can be sent to, and understood by, your digital-speaking computer. This is exactly what an audio interface does and is often just a little table top box that connects to your computer via USB. Of course, you could just buy an adapter that converts the XLR to a mini-jack so that it can be connected to the microphone input of your computer (if you have one) but we couldn’t advice this in good conscience since, for less than £20, you’ll be able to kit yourself out with a simple XLR to USB interface or adapter. This is literally a widget or cable that connects to the microphone at one end, and the USB port of a computer at the other and will sound so much better than the standard microphone input of your computer. Of course, if you want a little more control over your microphone, or want to connect more than one microphone or even a microphone and an instrument, then a bigger standard audio interface might be best. You can find some help to choose the perfect XLR microphone here.
Below and from left to right, you can see what an XLR input, standard 6.3mm jack input, and an XLR/jack combination input (seen at the top in the far right image) actually look like:
Below, you can see an XLR to USB adapter and on the right, a more standard desktop audio interface with more controls:
Microphones with a different kind of plug
- If you have a microphone with a small 3.5mm mini-jack plug connected, then you can probably connect it directly to the line/microphone input of your computer. We can guarantee that this will always work since it could be that the internal wiring of the plug isn’t compatble with a normal computer input. If you’re running into this problem, then you might as well invest in an affordable USB microphone. Ok, so this might mean that you’re left with a perfectly good microphone gathering dust on a shelf, but it’s going to be worth it when you get a good sounding mic that will connect easily to any computer.
- If you have a microphone with a standard 6.3mm jack plug connected to it, then you can use an adapter to convert it to a 3.5mm mini jack so it can be connected to directly to the line/mic input of your computer. However, it’s worth noting that a lot of cheaper adapters are not that stable and don’t sound as good, so we can’t really recommend this route. So, again, we do recommend paying a little cash for an audio interface or USB microphone. Your jack plugged microphone will simply connect to most audio interfaces with a standard jack input or an XLR/jack combination input (which can be seen in the image above).
- Of course, you might have a microphone fitted with an entirely different plug like a DIN or a mini-XLR. It’s likely that this microphone is pretty old or is designed for a specific kind of use. If we’re talking about an incredibly expensive, high-end mic then it’s worth finding the right adapter or using the services of an expert who can solder a new connection to your microphone. If not, then you’ll save yourself a lot of hassle by simply investing in a USB or XLR microphone – no, this is not an advert, it’s just that you’re going to be getting much better sound, an easier time and a lot more fun out of the whole experience.
Below, you’ll find some pictured examples of other kinds of microphone plugs:
Condenser or Dynamic Microphones?
If you want to records vocals or speech, most of the time, a condenser microphone is the best choice. The benefit of a condenser microphone is that it’s more sensitive than dynamic microphones so it picks up and records more detail. Condensers can usually register a higher frequency range as well, so that every bit of the low-end, high-end and midrange is captured for a full, deep and sparkling sound. The problem here is that condensers are also very good at picking up ambient sound, so even the droning ventilation fan of your laptop or the neighbours dog will be recorded in crystal clarity. Dynamic microphones, on the other hand, can handle high volume sound (high sound pressure), like super-hard metal screaming, guitar amplifiers and drums. Dynamic microphones are also often fairly robust since they’re designed to be thrown around a bit on stage. This means they can actually be hand-held without the fear of clicking, muffling contact or handling noise making its way onto the recording.
Please note: condenser microphones need phantom power to operate. A USB condenser microphone will take this power directly from your computer while XLR condensers will need to be connected to an audio interface with a phantom power function (most will have this but it’s best to check the specs), or another device like a dedicated phantom power block. If you want to know more about the differences between these two microphones, read our purpose-written blog here.
If you’ve come across some other weird and wonderful way to connect your microphone to a computer, or have just come across some unrecognisable mic plugs, let us know in the comments below!
See Also …
» What’s the Best USB Microphone for Me?
» What’s the Best Studio Microphone for Me?
» What’s the Best Wireless Microphone for Me?
» How to Choose the Right Microphone Shock Mount
» How Do I Connect a Microphone to a Speaker?
» The Difference Between Condenser and Dynamic Microphones
» Buzz, Hum and How To Get Rid of It
» Balanced and Unbalanced Connections Explained