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Question – "Can I record audio by plugging into my computer's audio input?"

An RP visitor is trying to record using the audio input of his computer, and it's all going horribly, horribly wrong...

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A question from a Audio Masterclass visitor...

I'm having a hell of a time getting recording to be sensible on my home computer. I've been patching everything analog from the main mix outs to the line input of the motherboard sound (Realtek AC'97 codec for that).

I record in Audacity, normally 1.2.6, but I'm migrating to 1.3.3b. In either version of Audacity I have to keep the levels of everything ridiculously low. Windows XP (SP2) gain has to be set as low as it will go on the line input, and then the main mix knob, the individual channel knob, and the gain knob on that channel on the mixer itself have to be set to almost minus-infinity setting. The level on the mixer is so low that no level lights ever light up.

Back in Audacity I have a hell of a time keeping the recording from being a mess of clipping even at this low level. What's worse is when I do record a very quiet instrument and actually do need to turn the level up some, the response is nowhere close to linear. A small turn of the knob on the mixer (and no level lights on still) will jump very quickly to a hellish mess of clipped garble. So what in the world do I do?

- Sean Lowrie

Wow what a tale of despair! But fear not, the solution is a lot simpler than the question...

In summary, you are connecting analog audio to the audio input of your computer, and it's not working for you.

To find the solution, you must first recognize that computers are complicated. Ten years ago, I knew what every file on my hard disk of my Macintosh was there for, including the system files. These days, I wonder if anyone on the planet could say that.

Audio professionals don't mind things being complicated, but only as complicated as necessary.

So a large SSL mixing console might look complicated. It is, but every control is there for a reason that is directly connected with getting the job done.

The computer however is a multipurpose device. Some people use computers to control their knitting machines to make woolly sweaters with nice patterns on them.

And somewhere inside your computer is a tiny file that helps do that, but doesn't do a thing for audio. The same for all the other million-and-one things that people use computers for.

And because computers are such incredible multipurpose machines, audio is not prioritized. Most people, outside of pro audio, are happy if they can get sub-telephone quality for a bit of online chat.

There is no reason to expect a computer to intrinsically be capable of good audio quality.

So what would a pro do?

We first of all, if a seasoned sound engineer who had previously worked with dedicated sound equipment suddenly decided to move over to the computer, he or she would take a look at what other pros are doing.

Either that or go to pro audio dealers and seek demonstrations.

To cut to the chase, you can't expect to connect audio directly to a standard computer and expect good results.

You need...

A pro audio soundcard, or an audio interface.

You could buy a relatively inexpensive audio interface and suddenly your audio will sound great, almost of its own accord.

So, get yourself even a moderately decent audio interface - you can see examples here - and your problems will all instantly go away*.

*Well nothing's for certain with computers, but you are giving yourself your best chance!

By David Mellor Thursday November 30, 2006
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