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How to Connect Speakers and Microphones to a Computer

by Thomas L. Atwood
Tom@SugarTreeRidge.com

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This guide shows you how to connect speakers and a microphone to a computer. The software examples are from Windows-2000, with comments about how these examples apply to Windows XP. This guide is written for the person who has little or no experience with computers. After connecting your speakers and your microphone, it also shows how to test them if your computer is running a recent version of Microsoft Windows.

Contents

Check What Kind of Connector You Have
Locate the "Jack" on the Computer
Test Your Speaker Connection
Adjust Your Speaker Volume
Test Your Microphone Connection
Troubleshooting
Other Information Resources

Check What Kind of Connector You Have

Look at the wires coming out of your speakers or your microphone. On the end of the wire is a connector that can plug into a socket or "jack" on your computer. The first thing you want to do is to be sure that this connector is compatible with your computer. Most computer speakers and microphones have a connector that looks something like one of these:

Image of 3.5mm TRS plugs

(If your speaker or microphone plug doesn't look like this, other types of audio connectors are mentioned at the end of this section.)

Technically, these are 3.5 millimeter (about 1/8 inch) diameter TRS plugs. You can see from the picture that the exposed metal part is about a half inch or 13 millimeters long. There are a couple of things you can take note of from the picture. First, the plastic jackets of these two plugs are different colors. Second, there is one insulator ring around the metal part of the lower, gray plug. There are two insulator rings on the upper, green plug.

The color of a plug's plastic jacket may or may not be significant. A standard color code used for recently manufactured connectors requires that speaker connectors be colored lime green and that microphone connectors be colored pink. Image of Connector Colors You might guess that the lime green plug shown above is attached to a speaker. The gray plug happens to be attached to a microphone, but it is older and/or its manufacturer did not follow the color code. You may conclude that if a speaker connector is lime green or a microphone connector is pink, then it follows the color code. If it is some other color, it doesn't. If it follows the code, this can be helpful in matching it up with the corresponding jack on your computer.

The gray microphone plug shown above has a single insulator ring. This is typical of single-channel or monaural connectors. The green speaker plug has two insulator rings, which indicates it is attached to dual-channel, stereo speakers. By looking at the plug you can tell something about the capabilities of the audio device to which it is attached. The computer jack into which you plug a device doesn't care whether it is mono or stereo. The computer's speaker jack works for either type of plug.

Image of Quarter Inch TRS Plug But what if your speaker or microphone connector is not like the ones shown above? Suppose you have a connector that is a different size, like the one shown in this picture. The larger plug on the bottom is a quarter-inch (diameter) plug. A speaker or microphone with this type of plug would normally connect to a stereo amplifier. You may be able to find an adapter that will make it compatible with your computer, but you should consider purchasing a speaker or microphone with the correct type of plug.

Image of USB Plug Image of USB Plug Recently, speakers and microphones have been manufactured with USB plugs, like the one shown in these images. This is a totally different type of connector, and there is no connector difference between a speaker and a microphone. It can plug into any of the unused USB ports on your computer.

Locate the "Jack" on the Computer

If you have the standard 1/8-inch audio connectors, there are two or three different places on the computer where you can look for the corresponding audio jacks (the female connectors). The speaker and the microphone jacks will be close to each other. First you can look on the back of the computer cabinet.
Image of Audio Jacks on Back Panel Image of Audio Jacks on Back Panel This first example shows a set of three color-coded audio jacks on the back panel of a computer. The pink jack is where you plug in the microphone. The lime green jack is where you plug in the speakers. With good lighting you can see a small etching of a microphone next to the microphone jack. Next to the speaker jack is a small etching representing a source of sound.
Image of Audio Jacks on Back Panel Image of Audio Jacks on Back Panel On this older computer the audio jacks are not color-coded. You can tell which jack is for connecting the microphone by looking at the small etching of a microphone next to it. But the etchings of the other two are so similar, how do you tell which is for connecting the speakers? The jack next to the microphone jack in this example is actually for use as another form of input. If it were color-coded, it would be light blue. This is for inputting a signal into the computer from an external amplifier. (Don't try to use this without making sure you have the proper voltage level from the amplifier.) It wouldn't work as a speaker output. Rather, the jack farthest from the microphone jack in this example would correspond to the lime green speaker output. Without recognizing the very minor differences in the etched symbols, the only way you could know this for sure would be to consult your computer user manual.

In addition to placing the audio jacks on the back panel, some computers position a set of audio jacks on the front or on the top of the computer cabinet as an added convenience. Notebook style computers will likely have the audio jacks located along the side, as shown in this example.
Image of Audio Jacks on a Notebook Computer In this case the microphone jack is color-coded bright red instead of pink. The speaker jack is bright green. Don't let the earphone symbol confuse you: you can plug either earphones or a speaker into this jack.

If your computer doesn't have built-in audio connectors, you will find them on your audio card (also known as a "sound card" or "sound board"), which would be installed in the card cage on the back of the computer (assuming it is a desktop model). If your computer doesn't have built-in audio connectors, and you don't have an audio card, you would need to get one and either install it in your computer or have someone else install it.
Image of Card Cage The correct jacks on the sound card at the left are identified by etched labels "MIC" and "SPKRS". The sound card below uses bright red for the microphone jack and bright green from the speaker jack. Image of Sound Card

If your microphone or speakers have a USB connector, you may find USB jacks on the back panel of your computer, on the front panel, on the top or on a USB card in the card cage.
Image of USB Jacks on Back Panel At the left is an example of a pair of USB jacks built into the back panel of a desktop computer. It doesn't matter which USB jack you use. USB jacks have the nice feature that they can identify the type of device plugged in and accommodate its electronic requirements automatically.
At the right is an example of a USB jack built into the back panel of a notebook computer. Image of USB Jack on Notebook Computer

Test Your Speaker Connection

If you haven't done it yet, plug your speakers into the computer. If your speakers have an off/on switch, turn it on. If they don't have an off/on switch, don't worry about it. If your speakers have a built-in volume control, turn the knob to mid-range.

Most computers are delivered already configured to play sounds through speakers. In this case, all you need to do is plug in the speakers, turn them on and start computing. If you can hear the sounds from playing music CDs or video clips on the computer, or even the Microsoft Windows login salutation, then you are all set and you can skip the rest of this section. Otherwise, read on.

Check to see if there is a speaker icon visible on your screen. Usually, it appears near the lower right corner of the screen. It looks like this: Image of the Speaker Icon

If you can see the speaker icon, click on it to activate the on-screen speaker volume control. You should only single-click on the speaker icon. If you double-click on it you will get a more complex and confusing volume control adjustment panel. You can adjust the speaker volume by putting your mouse pointer over the small rectangular slider and holding down the left mouse button while dragging the slider up or down to set it to the desired position. When it is set the way you want it, release the mouse button. For this speaker test you should set it to mid-range or higher, to be sure you can hear the sound.

If you don't see the speaker icon, just read on and you will learn how to make it visible.

Make sure the little mute box is not checked, or you won't be able to hear anything. You can check and uncheck the box by clicking the left mouse button on it.

Image of the Volume Slider Control

Now you need to instruct your computer to make a sound, so you can check if you can hear it through your speakers. This is a little more involved, but be patient. Patience will be rewarded.

Start by opening the control panel window. Click on the start button at the lower left corner of the screen. From the pop-up menu, move your mouse pointer over "Settings". From the submenu that pops up, click your mouse on "Control Panel".

If you computer is running Windows XP instead of Windows 2000, after you click on the Start button you can see the "Control Panel" choice immediately, without moving your mouse. Click your mouse on "Control Panel".

Image of Control Panel Activation

The Control Panel Window should appear on your display. You can see it as a background window on the left half of the screen image below. This window has a list of different computer resources you can control. Be careful not to change things you don't understand. You can usually restore things you break, but you have to know how. Your control panel display may not look like the one shown if you have selected a different view from the "View" menu. That's OK. The item labels that you can click on are the same.

Image of the Sound Properties Window

Locate the item in the control panel with the speaker icon, labelled "Sounds and Multimedia". Just find the item labelled "Sounds and Multimedia". This is shown in the picture above as item number "1".

If you computer is running Windows XP instead of Windows 2000, you should look for the item labelled "Sounds and Audio Devices".

Double-click your mouse on this "Sounds" item in the control panel window. This should bring up the "Sounds and Multimedia Properties" window ("Sounds and Audio Devices Properties" in Windows XP). What a delightful little window this is! Before proceeding, let's do a little aside about this window.

The arrangement of the items discussed here is a little different in Windows XP, but if you just nose around with the mouse a little, you should find everything. Click on the "Sounds" tab to get the equivalent view shown in this example for Windows 2000.

The "Sound Events" box ("Program Events" in Windows XP) near the top of this window contains a list of various computer events with which you can associate a sound. Typically, these are already set up and you may not want to change them. In the picture, the "Default Beep" event has been selected with the mouse. This event is labelled as item number "2" in the picture. You can see that it is highlighted. This event occurs whenever your computer feels the need to beep at you.

When you select a sound event such as "Default Beep", a file name will appear as the "Name:" item (the "Sounds" item in Windows XP), labelled in the picture as number "3". This is the name of the sound file that is to be played by the computer when the "Default Beep" event occurs. If you select another sound event, you will most likely see a different file name as item "3". By selecting different sound file names, you can associate specific sounds with different computer events.

As an example, you might prefer to hear a dog's bark or a cat's meow or a honking automobile instead of the "ding" shown in the picture. If you know how to download such sound files, where to put them on the computer and how to select them into this window, you can customize the sounds your computer makes when various events occur. However, this is not the place to go into these details. For more information on how to do this, consult your nearest teenager.

All you really need to do with this window to test your speakers is to click on the button labelled in the picture as number "4". This will cause the computer to play the indicated sound file into your speakers. When you click the mouse, you should hear the sound. In the example above, you should hear a "ding" sound. If you don't hear the sound, turn your speaker volume up and click the button again, to be sure the sound isn't getting to your speakers. If you don't hear anything, proceed to the section on Troubleshooting below.

But WAIT! Before you go, notice the "Show volume control on the taskbar" check box near the bottom of this window. Be sure it is checked, so you can see the speaker volume control icon on your screen, as described near the beginning of this section. Otherwise, you'll have to work harder to change the volume. (To check or uncheck it, click the left mouse button on it.) By the way, the "Sound Volume" slider control you see here is the same as the one that appears on your screen when you click on the speaker icon, as described near the beginning of this section. Make sure it is set at mid-scale or above. If not, set it high and go back and repeat the "ding" test for your speaker connection.

If you computer is running Windows XP instead of Windows 2000, you will need to click on the "Volume" tab of the "Sounds and Audio Devices Properties" window to see the "Place volume icon in the taskbar" check box. Make sure it is checked.

To close the Sounds ... Properties window, click on the "OK" button or the "Cancel" button or click on the little "X" button at the top right corner of the window. Then, click on the little "X" button at the top right corner of the "Control Panel" window to close it.

Adjust Your Speaker Volume

If your speakers have a volume control knob, you can adjust the loudness of the sound by turning this knob. You can also adjust the loudness by single-clicking your mouse on the speaker icon (usually near the lower right corner of the screen). This will cause the volume slider control to appear. You can control the speaker volume by dragging the slider up or down, as described early in the previous section. Make sure the "Mute" checkbox is not checked.

The volume control on your speakers, if you have one, is in series with the volume slider control on your computer. This means that if either one is off, no sound will be heard. So you need to be sure they are both set at a reasonable level. On the other extreme, you will get the loudest possible sound by adjusting both controls to the maximum volume.

Test Your Microphone Connection

Make sure your microphone is plugged into the microphone jack on your computer. If the microphone has an off/on switch on it, make sure it is turned on.

To test the microphone, you can use the Microsoft Sound Recorder utility, which comes with just about every Windows installation. To activate the Sound Recorder, follow the procedure shown in the following picture.

Image of Sound Recorder activation

First, click your mouse on the Start button in the lower left corner of the screen. Then position the mouse over the "Programs" item in the pop-up menu. This will cause a secondary menu to pop up. Position your mouse over the "Accessories" item. This will cause another subsidiary menu to pop up. Position your mouse over the "Entertainment" item. This will cause another subsidiary menu to pop up. Click your mouse on the "Sound Recorder" item in this menu. This will activate the Sound Recorder program.

If your computer is running Windows XP instead of Windows 2000, you click the mouse on the Start button and then position the mouse over "All Programs". The menu structure will be essentially the same as in the Windows 2000 example shown here.

The control buttons along the bottom are identified by the conventional symbols for players of sound or video files. From left to right the buttons are: Rewind, Fast Forward, Play, Stop and Record. However, before using this to record, we need to check the microphone volume setting. Image of Sound Recorder program
To get to the microphone volume setting, click on the "Edit" menu item at the top of the Sound Recorder window. This will cause the Edit menu to drop down. Click on the "Audio Properties" menu item, shown highlighted in the picture: Image of Sound Recorder edit menu

Look at the "Sound Recording" section of this window. Your computer will probably have a different name for the "Preferred Device" setting, but this doesn't matter. This is the designation for the hardware device that handles sound recording on your computer. This electronic device is a piece of hardware to which your computer's microphone jack is connected. This device may be a sound card or it may be built into your computer's motherboard. For example, the particular device named in the picture is a "Sound Blaster" brand of PCI sound card manufactured by Creative Labs. As you can see from the picture, this is the same device that is used to direct sound to the speakers on this computer.

To access the microphone volume control, click your mouse on the "Volume" button in the "Sound Recording" section of this "Audio Properties" window.

Image of Audio Properties window

Clicking your mouse on the sound recording "Volume" button of the "Audio Properties" window, above, causes the "Recording Control" window to appear.

You can see that the "Recording Control" window in the picture has three separate panels. Yours may have a different number of panels. The important thing is that one of the panels should be labeled "Mic Volume" ("Microphone" in Windows XP). In this example the microphone volume panel is the one on the left. The "Line In" panel is for controlling the input volume if you were recording sound from an external amplifier. The "CD Audio" panel is for controlling the input volume if you were recording from an audio CD in your computer's CD drive.

At the top of each panel is a "Balance" control. This is for adjusting the left-to-right balance for two-channel, stereo input. If your microphone is monaural, as most are, you won't accomplish anything by adjusting the balance.

The "Select" button at the bottom of the microphone volume panel should be checked if you intend to get your sound input from a microphone. Otherwise, you can talk into the microphone all day and your voice will never show up in the Sound Recorder. Again, make sure the "Select" button is checked for microphone input.

Image of Recording Control window

The microphone volume control slider shown in the picture is set for maximum volume. You can adjust it by clicking your left mouse button on the small rectangular slider and dragging it up or down before releasing the mouse button when the slider is at the desired position.

There are two other ways to adjust microphone volume: by speaking louder and by bringing the microphone closer to your mouth. One reason for setting the microphone volume to the maximum volume is that this allows you to speak more softly and to have more flexibility in the positioning of the microphone. On the other hand, if the sound being recorded is inherently loud, so that the microphone amplifier input is being overdriven, you would want to back off on the microphone volume setting.

You should understand that the microphone volume setting is different from the speaker volume setting. The first is for controlling sound coming into the computer, while the second controls sound going out from the computer to the speakers. You have independent control over each process. Two headaches for the price of one.

After you have adjusted the microphone volume and made sure the "Select" button is checked for microphone input, you can close this window by clicking your mouse on the little "X" button in the upper right corner. Then close the "Audio Properties" window by doing the same. This should leave you with the "Sound Recorder" window still being displayed. If not, go back to the beginning of this section and reactivate it.

Make sure your microphone is connected to the microphone jack on your computer. If the microphone has an on/off switch, make sure it is turned on. Click the record button, the one labeled with the red circle. You are now recording. Speak into the microphone. In the middle of the "Sound Recorder" window is a rectangular black box with a thin green line running across it horizontally. When you speak into the microphone, the green line should wiggle. It displays the sound wave patterns of your voice. If you can speak loudly enough to cause the green line to deflect vertically at least half the height of the black rectangle, your microphone is working and you are all set. If it doesn't wiggle, you have a problem. In this case, you may proceed to the section on Troubleshooting below for some suggested acts of desperation.

When you use the Sound Recorder, the computer has to have a place to store the recording. It stores the recording as a sequence of bytes in a file. This file is usually located on your computer's hard drive. When you try to close the Sound Recorder by clicking on the small "X" button in the upper right corner, it will ask you what to do with this file. If you click on the "No" button, your recording will be discarded. If you decide to save it, a window will open allowing you to specify where in the computer's file system you want to save the recording and what name you want to give to the file in which it is stored. At this point it would be helpful for you to know something about computer file systems. But, unfortunately, that is outside the scope of this document. You could read the first chapter or two of a book about Microsoft Windows, or you could look it up on-line with a search using Google or Yahoo or some other search engine. Again, consult your nearest teenager for how to get this information.

Troubleshooting

If you are reading this section because you followed the proceeding procedures and your speakers still don't work or your microphone doesn't work, then your situation has gotten more complicated. Most likely, something is wrong with either your computer's sound processing hardware or with the software driver(s) that interface the audio hardware with the rest of the computer. If you are not a computer technician, you may need help.

CAUTION: Do not attempt to access the interior of your compouter without following safety precautions. If you don't know what they are, get someone who does. Make sure the power cord to the computer is unplugged, make sure your are grounded, and don't touch any of the electronic components, circuit etchings or uninsulated wires. This is as much for the computer's safety as for yours.

The simpler of these two problems to fix, which doesn't require accessing the inside of the computer, would be if the audio driver software were not installed or the wrong driver were installed for the particular audio hardware in your computer.

First, what is a driver? The "driver" software is designed so that the Microsoft Windows operating system can interact with it to find out information about the particular brand of audio hardware in your computer, and to allow Windows to transfer information to or from the hardware device. There are lots of different hardware devices in a computer, and each one may have a specific software driver created by the device manufacturer.

Windows comes with a large set of different drivers for many different types of hardware, but there is no guarantee that the driver for your computer's particular audio hardware is among them. When Windows detects the presence of a new piece of hardware, it will usually perform an automatic search for the correct driver and install it, unless you direct otherwise.

But it may happen that Windows doesn't contain a suitable driver. In this case, you have to rely on the manufacturer of the audio device to provide a suitable driver. You can usually download the correct driver from the website of the audio device (sound card or motherboard) manufacturer. Often this requires you to be able to identify the particular model number of the audio device type on your computer.

After you have the correct audio device driver downloaded to a file on your computer or available from a device manufacturer's CD, you can direct Windows to install the new driver. Consult your Windows manual or some other technical book about Windows for this procedure. Better yet, find a friend who knows how to do it and offer him or her a free dinner in return. Once the new driver is installed, retest your microphone and speakers as described in the earlier sections.

After you have verified that the correct driver is installed, if you still have inoperable microphone or speakers, you need to start getting suspicious of the audio hardware itself.

If your audio hardware is a sound card, you may want to consider replacing it. If you can find another of the same make and model, which you know to be working, you can substitute the working for the non-working one. If the working one fixes the problem, then you know you need to replace the old sound card. (Usually, the working one came from somebody else's computer and you have to give it back.) You would only perform this replacement test after you had already confirmed that you had the correct driver installed. Otherwise, the working sound card might not work in your computer due to a faulty driver.

If you don't have access to a duplicate, working sound card, you could try this replacement test with a different brand or model sound card. In this case you would have to let Windows install a driver for the new card, or it wouldn't function correctly. Again, if the new card works and if you can't keep it, the old one probably needs to be replaced.

As an alternative, you can invert this test by taking your suspect sound card and installing it in another computer where the sound is known to be working. However, this jeopardizes the working computer, in case you get the driver configuration messed up. It is usually safer to test on the malfunctioning computer, since you are not likely to screw up something that already isn't working. But a test on a working computer is more definitive, because you are only replacing a single component. If the sound stops working and you didn't screw anything up making the replacement, then you know that your sound board was bad, even if your computer had other problems in addition.

If your potentially malfunctioning audio device is built into your computer motherboard, replacement is less of an option. You would probably need a computer technician to handle this situation. Sometimes there is a jumper setting on the motherboard, or else a BIOS setting in the computer's CMOS setup where you can disable the audio hardware. Usually you can check for such a jumper by going to the motherboard manufacturer's website and downloading the board specifications. Then you merely change the setting to enable the audio hardware. (A reason for this disable setting is that you may wish to install a fancy sound card, and you don't want the audio hardware built into the motherboard to get in the way. The motherboard manufacturer was just being considerate.)

An easy solution if you are having problems with this type of built-in sound (in the motherboard) is to install a sound card to replace it.

Other than an incorrect jumper or CMOS setting, what could cause your audio hardware to fail? The objective with most computer and computer peripheral manufacturers is to make the hardware at the lowest cost possible. Why use an expensive capacitor when a cheap one will do? Sometimes, cheap capacitors short out of their own accord, and the entire device fails. A voltage surge can cause the failure of even a high quality capacitor, or fry a transistor junction. Sometimes a shorted out power supply or a failed hard drive can take other components out with it. Sometimes a novice will open up a computer and touch the insides after walking across a carpet and building up an electric charge. This is not a problem if you keep the case closed and don't touch any of the exposed connectors. But touching a circuit board which expects to see no more than five or twelve volts during normal operation can zap it with many thousands of volts. You hardly notice the little spark, because the current transfer is tiny. But, goodbye circuit board! Whether any of these types of events could be responsible for your audio problems depends on the history of your computer. When in doubt, seek help.

Other Information Resources

Wikipedia is a useful resource when you want to know more about computer hardware and software.

To learn more about plugs and sockets, you could start at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_plug on the Wikipedia website.

To learn more about sound cards, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sound_card on the Wikipedia website.

To learn more about the color coding of plugs and jacks, try http://weblogs.mozillazine.org/gerv/archives/2004/09/colourcoded_con_1.html.

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