With Gmail adding the ability to make free calls within the US and Canada, now is a great time to invest in a quality computer microphone. We’ll take some of the guesswork out of that process, and give you some tips on setting up your microphone once you get it.

Photo by visual.dichotomy.

What To Look For

There are a ton of different microphone options, and a long list of specifications for each. Which of these matter and which are just hype?

Form Factor

The biggest difference between microphones is their form factor. This should be the first thing that you decide on.

If you’re a gamer or just prefer all-in-one devices, a headset is a good choice. Headsets are headphones that have a microphone attached to them. The quality and comfort of the headphones and the microphone vary pretty widely, so read reviews of models in your desired price range.

If you already have a good pair of headphones or you just want something cheap and easy, a desktop microphone works best. These include some sort of base so that you can just place the microphone on your desk and you’re good to go.

If you’re considering doing some podcasting or other audio recordings, you should look into a professional microphone. These are larger, heavier, and are designed to be held either in your hand or in a mic stand – which can be an additional expense. The most common professional mics are either dynamic or condenser. Dynamic mics can take a beating, so if you’re rough on your electronics, they’ll hold up better. Condenser mics are more fragile, but in general do a better job reproducing sounds.

There are a few other form factors that may work better for you, like lapel mics that you can clip to your shirt, or conference room microphones that are designed to be in the middle of a table full of people. If you have a specific need, a quick web search should reveal the ideal microphone form factor to look for.


Photo by ladyada.

There are fortunately few options for how your microphone can connect to your computer; however, there are some important differences between the options.

A 3.5mm connector is the same as the plug from most headphones. Most computers – even laptops – have a 3.5mm microphone connection, so in most cases, you can just plug your microphone into the 3.5mm jack. However, the on-board sound features of most motherboards and laptops are not very high quality, so if you’re planning to do any podcasting or recording, you might need to invest in a dedicated sound card with a 3.5mm mic input.

USB connectors are becoming increasingly common. These will work the same on any computer with a USB connection, so there is no need to buy a sound card if you plan to make recordings. There is no particular downside to a USB mic, unless you’re already running low on USB slots (though in that case, you can pick up a cheap USB hub!)

Professional microphones tend to use the XLR connector. If you already have a professional mic with an XLR connector, or are dead set on one, there are XLR to USB adapters, and higher-end sound cards tend to have some method of accepting XLR input. These options are somewhat expensive, but they can be cheaper than getting a professional USB mic of equivalent quality.

There are also wireless options, if you prefer not to deal with cables. These typically connect through radio waves received at a USB dongle connected to your computer, or through Bluetooth.

Noise Cancelling

Many microphones – even inexpensive ones – offer some degree of noise cancelling. If you’re in a noisy room, or if your computer is particularly loud, this is a feature to look for. Be sure to read reviews to confirm that the noise cancelling feature works well!


Microphones can be designed to pick up sound directly in one direction – unidirectional mics – or in all directions – omnidirectional mics. If you’re in a noisy room, a unidirectional mic is a better choice. If you want to pick up the noises in the room, for instance in a conference call situation, you will want an omnidirectional mic.

Frequency Response

Many microphones will list their frequency response range (e.g. 40Hz – 16KHz). By itself, this information is not particularly useful, and you should not judge a microphone with a wider response range as being objectively better. Human voices typically fall in the 85-255Hz range, well within the capabilities of even the cheapest computer microphone.

However, if you’re doing more professional recording, then you may want to investigate a microphone’s frequency response curve.

Other Factors

Manufacturers may list other specifications, such as microphone sensitivity and input impedance, but in general these factors are not important compared to those listed above.

Like with most computer parts, there is no best choice – it depends on what you plan to use your microphone for and how much you’re willing to spend. Above all, do your research and read reviews (Amazon and Newegg are good review sources) before making your decision!

Testing Your Microphone

Once you’ve chosen a microphone and connected it to your computer, you should test it out to make sure that your voice comes through loudly and clearly. The steps to do this vary depending on your operating system.

Windows 7 and Vista

Click on the start menu and type “sound” into the search field. The Sound Recorder program should be the first option. Open it.

Note: if you have disabled search, you can find this in All Programs > Accessories > Sound Recorder.

Click on the Start Recording button and speak into your microphone, the same volume and tone that you would use while chatting online.

When you’re done, click the Stop Recording button, save the audio file somewhere, and listen to it to confirm that your microphone is working properly.

If you don’t hear anything, or if it’s too loud or too quiet, right-click on the volume control indicator in the system tray, and select Recording Devices.

Note: if you’ve hidden the volume control indicator, you can access this through Control Panel > Sound.

You should see your microphone listed. If you speak into it, the bar at the right should fill depending on how loudly you speak.

Right-click on your microphone and select properties. Go to the Levels tab and change the microphone volume to an appropriate level.

Record yourself again to make sure that the volume level is good. There are other options that you can change in the Microphone Properties box – try them out if they seem useful to you.

Windows XP

Windows XP provide a nice wizard for testing and setting an appropriate volume level for your microphone.

Right-click on the volume control indicator in the system tray and select Adjust Audio Properties.

Note: if you’ve hidden the volume control indicator, you can access this through Control Panel > Sounds and Audio Devices.

Switch to the Voice tab and click the Test hardware button.

The wizard will ask you to speak some sentences, repeating your recorded audio, and adjust the volume accordingly. Quite handy!

Ubuntu Linux

Open a terminal window (Applications > Accessories > Terminal) and type in the command alsamixer.

Check to see if the Mic entry has a reasonable volume. If not, use your arrow keys to highlight the Mic entry and raise the volume to around 50. Press M on your keyboard to ensure that the there is a green 00 underneath the bar, not MM.

To test your microphone, click on Applications > Sound & Video > Sound Recorder.

Record yourself speaking for a few seconds, then stop the recording a play it back.

Mac OS X

Note: we did not have a Mac OS X test machine available. But managing the basic sound options is similar to that in Windows using the Sound preferences.

If you have the iLife bundle, the easiest way to test your microphone is to open GarageBand, start a new blank project, and record audio. Play it back to ensure that it works as intended.

If you do not have iLife, try the Audacity program, described in the Recording Audio section below.

Using Your Microphone

Here are some tips to get the most out of your microphone.

  • Turn off your speakers. If you don’t, then the audio coming from your speakers could be picked up by your microphone, making an annoying high-pitched sound. If you need to hear audio while using your microphone, use headphones.
  • Keep the volume at a reasonable level. It’s temping to turn up the volume and the dynamic boost so that you can be easily heard, but that will cause your voice to become distorted (“clipped”) when you raise your voice.
  • Test your mic with each application that uses it. Some, like Skype, will change the mic’s volume settings; make a test call to ensure that you can still be heard clearly, and then retest when you use another application afterward.

Recording Audio

If you want to get started recording audio, whether for a podcast, commentary, or other permanent recording, we recommend trying out the multi-platform program Audacity.

When the program starts up, you have a blank slate. To record some audio from your microphone, click on the red record button.

Click the stop button when you’re done, and you have your first audio track!

You can record more tracks, or add onto the current track. Overlaying tracks on top of each other lets you add background music to your voice, or allows you to record two people separately and then combine them together afterwards.

Audacity is a powerful audio editing tool that is free and available for Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X. It can export to many formats, including MP3 (though this requires the download of an external MP3 encoder). It may be a little daunting for simple tasks like recording a message for Grandma, but if you want to start your own podcast, it’s worth putting in the time to learn Audacity!

Download Audacity, the free cross-platform sound editor