Setting your computer up to play and record sound

Step 1Step 2Step 3Step 4Step 5

Step 1: Playing sound on your computer
Hooking up speakers and headphones.

Most computers come with a set of powered speakers. (figure 1.1) This means the speakers have an amplifier inside them and you must plug them into a power source as well as your soundcard.

You will probably use an 1/8 inch stereo mini plug to plug the cable from your speakers into your soundcard. (figure 1.0)

Your speakers may be contained in your view monitor, in which case there will be a cord that will run from your monitor to your soundcard.

Most powered speakers have a small jack in the front of one of them that allows you to plug in a set of stereo headphones, and a small volume control knob to adjust the speaker (or headphone) volume. (figure 1.1)

  1. headphone jack
  2. volume controls

If your speakers are contained in your monitor, there will probably also be a headphone jack and volume control of some kind on the monitor. The newer flat screen compact monitors tend to have this feature.

speaker plug

Figure 1.0 - Plugging in your speakers


Figure 1.1 - Powered speakers

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It's a good idea to purchase a good set of headphones for recording. A good set of headphones will have large speakers with "closed" designed pads that cover your ears completely. (figure 1.2)

It's better to get a set that has an 1/8 inch stereo mini plug than the 1/4 inch stereo plug so you won't need an adapter.


Figure 1.2 - Headphones

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If you already own a set that has the larger plug you can get by with the adaptor that converts a 1/4 inch to an 1/8 inch plug. (figure 1.3)

phono mini plug adaptor

Figure 1.3 - 1/4" - 1/8" adaptor

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Hooking your computer up to your stereo.

If you don't have any speakers, or want better quality sound, you will need to run a cable from the line out of your soundcard using an 1/8 inch stereo mini plug, to the line in of your stereo using two RCA type plugs.

The cable you need will be called appropriately - 1/8 inch stereo mini plug to two RCA's. Radio Shack is a good place to look for your plugs, cables, and adaptors.

1/8" mini - RCA cable

Figure 1.4 - 1/8 inch to RCA

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Your stereo will have various inputs for CD player, cassette deck, or other auxiliary inputs. Plug the RCA end of your cable into whatever inputs you have open and select that same thing on the front of your stereo and you should be OK.

The red plug should go to the right stereo channel and the black one is for the left channel. Once your stereo is hooked up you can use the headphone jack from your stereo to connect your headphones. (figure 1.5)

back of a stereo

Figure 1.5 - stereo back side

Three kinds of levels.

There are 3 different strength signals you should become familiar with.

  • microphone level
  • line level
  • speaker level.

Mic level is the weakest level, then line level and speaker level is the strongest. You will have speaker level on your home stereo, but the speaker output level from your soundcard is not really a true speaker level. This is because the speakers you plug into a computer are powered speakers that have their own amplifier inside. You can't plug regular unpowered speakers into your soundcard and have them work. The speaker output from your soundcard is actually a line level output and can be used for running a line level signal to a stereo or some other device.

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Windows Media Player

Now that you have some speakers or headphones hooked up to your computer it's time to play some music!

Media players are one type of software that allows us to play sound on our computers. Media can be CDs, MP3s from the Internet, or audio files that you have recorded yourself. It can also be other things like movie clips or music videos that you can download from the Internet. Windows Media Player comes with your computer and to use it follow this pathway:
Start > All Programs>Accessories > Entertainment > Windows Media Player. (figure 1.6)

pathway to Windows Media Player

Figure 1.6 - Pathway to Windows Media Player

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When you open it it should look like this. (figure 1.7)

pathway to Windows Media Player

Figure 1.7 - Windows Media Player

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Now let's try to play an audio CD on your computer using Windows Media Player.

- Open up Windows Media Player
- Place an audio CD in your computer's CD ROM drive
- If the CD doesn't start to play automatically, select the correct drive from the drop down menu in the upper right hand corner of the window. (figure 1.8)

integrated sound card

Figure 1.8 - Drop down menu

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If you see that it is playing but you can't hear any sound, go to the volume control mixer and make sure that the CD Player and Wave sections are turned up and are not muted.

If you still can't hear anything, refer to the help file found within Windows Media Player in the menu at the top of the player. (figure 1.9)

This help file is very good and you can find a lot of useful information there.

integrated sound card

Figure 1.9 - Help menu

Other types of media players.

There are many other media players available. Each one is a little different and you may want to explore a number of them (i.e., Winamp, Music Match Jukebox)

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Step 2: Getting ready to record sound on your computer
Buying a microphone.

You will need a microphone for recording if you don't have one. You may already have a mic inside your computer (an internal mic) and not even know it. Many times they are placed inside the view monitor.

If you have one, there should be a separate cable coming out of the back of your monitor that would plug into the mic input on your soundcard.

Here is a photo of a common type of external mic that is used with computers. (figure 2.0)

This type of mic is inexpensive and can be purchased at most computer stores. It will work good enough for recording narration, but for singing or musical instruments you will want to get a better one.


Figure 2.0 - Common microphone

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advanced userAdvanced users:

There are many kinds of microphones. You might want to own several for different needs. For instance, you might want a wireless mic for use with a video camera. There are also very small Lavalier mics that can be clipped to a lapel for recording interviews. There are shotgun or gun type mics that are very directional and pick up sound from a distance but only from one direction. There are also mics that are called omni-directional and pick up sound from every direction. There are mics that have a pick up pattern in the shape of a heart, and pick up sound from in front and from each side but reject sound from behind. This is a common type of mic design known as a Cardioid pattern mic.

What is better, a high impedence or a low impedence microphone?

Impedence is a term that refers to the amount of resistance a electrical signal must contend with. Better quality microphones are usually what are known as low impedence mics. They use a different kind of cable with plugs that are called XLR connectors. (figure 2.1)

xlr connectors

Figure 2.1 - XLR connectors

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Here is a common professional mic that is low impedence and also has a cardioid pick-up pattern. It is called Shure SM57 and is the workhorse of the music industry. (figure 2.2)

SM 57 microphone

Figure 2.2 - SM-57 microphone

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To allow this type of mic (figure 2.3) to work with your computer it is best to buy an audio interface that will accept XLR type plugs and convert the signal to a line level signal.

This can then be connected to the line level input on your soundcard using the RCA type of cable we've discussed.

A cheaper alternative to this is to buy several adaptors that can change a low impedence signal into a high impedence signal. With the right combination of cords and adaptors it will work, but the audio interface is a far better solution. Most of the adaptors you will need can be found at Radio Shack. (figure 2.4)

end of SM 57

Figure 2.3 - SM-57 end

XLR adaptor

Figure 2.4 - XLR Adaptor

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Plugging an external signal into your computer from a CD player or cassette deck.

This is the same process as sending the signal from your computer to your stereo, but now in reverse, and you will use the same 1/8 inch stereo mini plug to 2 RCA plugs type of cable.

If you have a common stereo cable that has 2 RCA plugs on each end, you can use it with an adaptor such as the one shown in figure 2.5.

Simply plug the RCA plugs into your external unit and the 1/8 inch stereo mini plug into the line input on your soundcard. Make sure in your volume control mixer that line input is turned up and not muted. If you want to record the signal in the record mixer also select line input and adjust the level.

Important note: Many portable CD players and cassette players have a headphone output that can double as a line output if there is not a dedicated line output. You will need a 1/8 inch stereo mini to another 1/8 inch stereo mini to make this work. (or the right combination of cables and adaptors )

RCA mini-plug

Figure 2.5 - RCA to mini-plug adaptor

Step 3: Determining the type of recording you will do
There are many different types of recordings you may want to do.
  • Recording a voice for narration
  • Recording a piece of music from a CD (internally). The term used for this is "Ripping a CD".
  • Recording from an external source such as a portable CD player or cassette deck, or a reel to reel tape recorder or the soundtrack portion only from a VCR.
  • Downloading songs or audio files from the internet.

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Step 4: There are many different types of sound files

The list below shows the major file formats used for audio files. When you're ready work with recording sound, carefully consider the purpose for the sound and try to match it to the format that best meets your needs (and the resources your viewers will have available).

  • MIDI -Musical Instrument Digital Interface. These files are supported by many browsers and don't require any special plug-ins to play the MIDI sounds. The quality of these sounds can be good, however the playback quality is dependent on the viewer's computer's sound card. MIDI sounds are synthesized with a computer and specialized hardware and software. MIDI files are generally small files because they don't contain the actual audio information.

  • .WAV - Waveform Extension. These are PC files that can be high quality, are viewable on many browsers and usually don't require any special plug-ins in order to hear the sounds. You can record .wav files from CDs, tapes, mics, etc. These files tend to be large files.

  • .AIFF - Audio Interchange File Format. These are Mac files that have the same qualities as the .wav files mentioned above.

  • .mp3 - Motion Picture Experts Group-Audio Layer 3. These are compressed files, so they are smaller in size than .wav or .aiff files. Even though they are compressed, the sound quality is still pretty good. These files can be streamed so that only a little bit of the sound has to download before the viewer can start hearing it. To play these files, the viewer needs to have a helper application or plug-in (QuickTime player, Windows Media Player, RealPlayer, winAmp)

  • .ra,.ram,.rpm, or RealAudio - These files are highly compressed and are smaller in size than the .mp3 files. These files can be streamed like .mp3 files, but the sound quality is not as good as .mp3. Viewers need the RealPlayer application or plug-in to hear these files. This is a free download from the RealPlayer site.

  • .mov - QuickTime movies. You can insert audio tracks from QuickTime movies to your website. If you save just the audio track and export it as a webmovie small it will act as though it is streaming when you add it to your website. You need Quicktime pro (or iMovie to do this) and you need QuickTime player or plugin to hear them.

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Step 5: Determining the software you will need
Once you understand what you want to do, you can look for the software that can do that job. There is an abundance of software available that will allow you to do various different tasks with audio. An excellent source for this software is a website called Sharewaremusicmachine.com.


Shareware Music Machine

Figure 5.1 - Shareware Music Machine

As you can see there is everything from audio recording and editing programs, CD Rippers, to multi-track recording and software synthesizer programs. When you visit this site, if you want a description of what a particular category listed will do, just click on its link and another window will open up with a brief description, and a long list of programs available. Much of this software is free or Freeware. Some of it you can try out and then pay a small amount if you like it. This is called Shareware. Some are Demo programs that work like the full program but are limited in some way until you buy them.

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Sound Recorder
This is a very basic but useful program that you already have within Windows.
(figure 5.2)

Some applications have built in recorders that you can use at a minimal level. Usually they allow you to record, but not edit.

PowerPoint and MovieMaker are both examples of applications that have built in sound recorders.

Sound recorder

Figure 5.2 - Sound Recorder

Goldwave, Cool Edit 2000, and Wavelab

These are more advanced audio editing programs that allow you to see the waveform and do precise cut and paste style editing.


Figure 5.3 - Goldwave



Figure 5.4 - Soundforge


Figure 5.5 - Wavelab

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advanced userAdvanced Users: Digital Audio Sequencers:

There are multi-track recording programs that allow you to record many parts one at a time and then mix them all together adjusting volume levels , balance, and tone independently for every part. This is how songs are recorded in recording studios giving maximum control for each particular instrument. Here are screenshots of two popular programs called CubaseVST and Magix Audio Studio. Notice that there are many wave files shown side by side in each window, these represent the individual parts or tracks for the song.



Figure 5.6 - Cubase

Magix Audio Studio

Figure 5.7 - Magix Audio Studio

These programs are very powerful and essentially put an entire recording studio into your computer. They are referred to as Sequencing programs as well as multi-track recording programs because of their ability to also work directly with musical keyboards and synthesizers via a special connection to your computer called MIDI. (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) MIDI is also a very powerful way of recording and editing music and will even let you print out sheet music. The order of musical notes is called a sequence, so for the ability to work with both midi and waveform audio files, these programs are called Digital audio sequencers.

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© 2005 State of Hawaii Department of Education - Advanced Technology Research Branch - Questions regarding this web site can be emailed to Joanna Dunn. All inquiries will be routed to the appropriate source. Site last updated: 11/15/05 .