7.2. Sending Sound into and out of Your PC
No matter how your PC houses its sound circuitry , you always end up with three main audio- related ports:
Microphone . Plug a microphone in here, usually to record your voice.
Speakers . This lets you hear your PC through headphones or a pair of stereo speakers.
Line In . The microphone port records natural sounds (voices, birds chirping, and so on), but this port records sounds emitted by another gadget. For instance, connect a cable here from your analog or digital camcorder to record its soundtrack (Section 5.8.2). This port also lets you record sound from a VCR, TV, record player, or radio.
Figure 7-3. External sound adapters make for easy, no-screwdriver-required installation. It's also easy to move these adapters between several different computers, including a laptop. As an added bonus, these sound adapters sit directly on your desktop, where they're easily accessible when you plug in accessories or want to quickly adjust the volume. Although they're not very portable, plug-in boxes work with laptops as well as with PCs.
The rest of this section describes these ports in more detail, describing how to best use them.
Microphones offer a way for you to not only talk back to your PC, but have it record you as well. Few PCs come with a bundled microphone, but nearly all PCsincluding laptopsinclude a spot where you can plug one in. Many people happily ignore this function; others find microphones indispensable , using them in a wide variety of programs:
Talking with friends in instant messaging programs
Talking to people spread across the globe using Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) gear (described in the online appendix, "Other Cool Things You Can Do Online," available on the "Missing CD" page at www.missingmanuals.com) like Skype (www.skype.com)
Adding narration to movies or slideshows in Movie Maker (Section 5.9)
Recording comments with dictation software
Cackling to the opponent you're blowing up in an online game
Singing along to MP3s with karaoke programs
Recording classroom lectures on a laptop
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Those Other Sound Connectors
Most sound cards come with a tightly packed row of 1/8-inch jacks (Section 1.8.7) on their outside edges so that you can plug in front speakers, rear speakers, microphones, camcorders, and other doodads. But buried inside your computer, sitting along the sound card's top edge, awaits another set of connectors for spelunkers to discover. Shown in the figure below, the connectors often bear these labels:
CD In (Compact Disc In) . Years ago, a thin, four-wire cable carried sound here from a CD drive's analog connector (Section 10.15). Newer CD drives ignore this connector, piping sound straight through their main connector cables.
CD SPDIF (Sony-Philips Digital Interface) . Yet another PC relic, this connected to a thin, two-wire cable that carried numbers from a CD drive's digital connector (Section 10.16). Newer CD drives ignore this connector, too.
TAD (Telephone Answering Device) . Some fancier modems come with built-in answering machines. A connector runs between here and the PC's built-in modem, letting the sound card play back and record messages.
SB 1394 . The "1394" moniker refers to the tech world's awful official term for "FireWire" (Section 22.214.171.124), a port used by digital camcorders and some iPods. If your PC offers a FireWire port along the front of its case, a wire from that port probably connects to this port on your sound card.
Aux In . Yet another leftover from days gone by, this let you grab sound from a second CD drive's analog port; today, it's rarely, if ever, used.
Rows of pins . When you see two long rows of little pins sticking up from the card, they're probably meant for a daughterboard a second circuit board containing all the stuff that wouldn't fit onto the regular sound card. A cable plugs into the daughterboard; the cable's other end holds a connector with two rows of holes that mesh with the card's pins. Some daughterboards fit into a drive bay (Section 1.3), placing the sound card's ports along the front of the PC's casean idea greatly praised by the headphone contingent.
Very few people record anything but their own speaking voice on a PC, so the voice-recording circuitry rarely sounds better than a telephone. Feel free to buy a fairly cheap PC microphone, like the $10 model shown in the top of Figure 7-4.
Tip: Microphones usually plug into the sound card's pink port.
Many microphones bypass the microphone port altogether and plug into the ever-versatile USB port. People who use their microphones for communication rather than dictation sometimes prefer headset microphones with attached earphones (see Figure 7-4, bottom). Since the other person's voice comes over the headphones, rather than out through your PC's speakers, these headsets cut down on feedback.
Figure 7-4. Top: PCs don't record in stereo sound, so save your money and buy an inexpensive mono microphone. To meet different needs, some microphones come mounted on a stand for your desktop; others attach to your monitor (or come built into the monitor). A few even attach to your collar with a clip.
Bottom: Combination microphone headsets, handy for talking to others during instant messaging and other conferencing programs, plug into a computer's USB port or come with two cables, one for the microphone port and the other for the speaker port. They're popular for folks working in offices and construction sites since they filter out outside noise.
Almost every PC offers the same type of headphone jack as your iPodthey both dish up stereo sound and neither jack's powerful enough, by itself, to drive its sound out to a pair of speakers. To compensate, speaker manufacturers build power into the speakers that they make for PCs (that's why they're often called powered speakers ). Some speakers also contain tiny battery-powered amplifiers , creating a battery gobbler with tinny sound. The better ones plug straight into the wall, just like a home stereo.
Some cheap speakers bypass the PC's headphone jack and plug straight into the PC's USB port, drawing power straight from the USB port. That leaves them more susceptible to electrical interference , unfortunately , a phrase that, loosely translated, means a constant background whine .
A big step up in quality and price gets you a large subwoofer a box-like heavy speaker that dishes out desk-shaking bass tones. The subwoofer plugs into a wall outlet to power its built-in amplifier , which routes the sound to satellite speakers smaller speakers you strategically place around you. Most subwoofers come with both analog and digital ports to connect with whatever signal your PC's sound card dishes out.
Tip: Unplug your PC's speakers and plug them into the headphone jack of your iPod or other music player to fill the room with music.
A single pair of speakers works fine for most people's needs, and all sound cards support them. Game players and movie watchers often invest in more expensive sound adapter and speaker combinations, placing different speakers around the room for "surround sound," where the music emanates from all edges of the room.
To make Windows XP start using your current speaker setup, choose Start Control Panel Sounds and Audio Devices, and choose Advanced in the Speakers Settings area. Windows XP lets you select your current speaker setup from a dropdown box, shown in Figure 7-5.
Figure 7-5. Windows XP handles a wide variety of speaker settings, from those built into a laptop to those resembling a home theater. As you switch between settings, Windows XP displays a handy picture showing where to position each speaker. Some sound cards come with their own speaker selection programs that work much like the one shown here in Windows XP. If you select a speaker setup in your sound card's bundled program, avoid potential problems by making sure that the program automatically updated Windows XP's settings to match.
Most people choose one of these common speaker configurations:
Pair . Place a pair of speakers on your desktop, one on each side of the monitor. (To keep from being shot at from an unexpected side, be sure to put the left speaker on your left and the right speaker on your right.)
4.1 (surround sound) . In addition to the pair of speakers at your monitor's sides, place the second pair behind you, letting the ghostly voices move around the room.
5.1 sound . If you watch DVDs on your PC, it makes sense to upgrade to 5.1 sound, the same as found in home theaters. This arrangement contains the same speakers as you get with 4.1 sound, but you mount an additional mono speaker above your monitor to represent sound coming directly in front of youdialog in a movie or game, for instance.
6.1 (also called 5.1 EX) sound . This works like 5.1 sound, but with an extra speaker between the two rear speakers. The spaceship fires directly from your monitor and the blaster ray beams directly over your head, shattering the wall behind you.
7.1 sound . Found in a few games , this dizzying setup places three speakers along the front, a pair in the back, one speaker along each side , and tosses in a few navigation problems as you try to maneuver past all those speaker cables on your way to the PC.
Note: The subwoofer, a chunky speaker that plays only low-frequency , desk-rumbling bass, counts as the ".1" in the 4.1, 5.1, 6.1, and 7.1 combinations. It's sometimes called the LFE channel, as it plays Low Frequency Effects to simulate explosions. Place the subwoofer in a corner, up against the walls, for maximum rumbling.
It looks pretty cool when you have eight speakers surrounding your PC, but unless a sound technician designed your room, you probably won't notice much difference between 5.1, 6.1, and 7.1 sound.
Tip: When setting up 5.1 speakers, you usually need to connect a single digital cable between your sound card and your subwoofer.
Your PC includes a built-in synthesizer, but you needn't join a 70s revival band to make use of it. Nearly every computer game creates its soundtrack by using the synthesizer. The more expensive the sound card, the more realistic the synthesized sounds are. Also, some annoying Web sites greet you with a burst of sound that leaves you reaching for your speaker's volume knob; credit your PC's synthesizer for that, as well.
To give your PC's built-in synthesizer a listen, fire up Windows XP's Search program, find a file called onestop.mid on your C drive, and give it a double-click. Slipped into Windows XP as a test file for programmers, the song plays a wide range of instruments through your PC's synthesizer.
| UP TO SPEED |
Analog vs. Digital
Your PC's sound circuitry boils down to two converters: a Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) and an Analog to Digital Converter (ADC). Analog refers to natural things with constant motion: ocean waves, for instance, and waves of sound. Digital refers to numbers: static entities that never change, like the 1s and 0s that are encoded on your audio CDs.
Since PCs understand only numbers, the sound card's two converters constantly translate between the two formats. The better quality the converter, the better the recreation of the horn player's solo in the studio.
It works like this: the horn player sends sound waves through the air, and the engineer records the sound to tape using streams of magnetic waves. The CD factory's Analog to Digital converter converts the tape's waves into numbers and stores them on a CD.
Your PC's Digital to Analog converter reads the numbers on the CD and converts the sound to waves of electricity, which it sends to your speakers. The speakers vibrate, recreating the horn player's original sound waves.
Your PC's Analog to Digital converter lets you record through a microphone, or even from a radio or TV (Section 7.2.1).
And the point to all this? Most sound cards come with a digital port and an analog port, and they contain completely different types of information. Don't try connecting a cable from a digital port to a speaker system's analog port or vice versa; you only confuse the converter, and you won't hear anything.
Tip: When choosing between two PC's sound cards while shopping, play the onestop.mid file on both of them. The song's wide range of instruments makes it easy to tell which PC recreates sounds more realistically .
7.2.4. Audio In
Called Audio In, Aux In, or Line In, this port lets you record stereo sound from a wide variety of electronic gadgets, including TVs, camcorders, and radios. Most ports on your PC stay constantly connected to a particular deviceeither speakers or a microphone, for instance. Items that you plug into this port, by contrast, change according to what you want to record at any given time.
Today, many people connect their record players to this port to convert their records to CDs, a chore described next .
7.2.5. Copy Records onto CDs and MP3s
Many music fans still cling to their old record collections. Some can't find CDs to replace their cherished Herb Alpert LPs. Others loathe paying twice for the same recordings. Fortunately, pretty much any PC nowadays lets you convert your old records into a variety of digital formats. You can hire a professional for the job, or do it yourself with your own sound card and CD burner . Both have their advantages.
Professional . Professionals charge around $20 per album, tacking on another $10 or so to remove the pops and clicks. Some charge yet more fees for "extra" services like separating the recording into individual tracks, scanning in the album cover for the CD's case, or shipping the finished CD back to you. Check Magic Sound Restoration (www.lp2cd.com) or LightSound (www.lightsound.com) for price quotes.
Do it yourself . You can use your PC's sound card and CD burner to record your LP and burn it to a CD. The big question is whether you have enough time. Converting LPs can take about 90 minutes per record, even longer for especially dirty vinyl. Some turntables require a preamp (a small amplifier), available for about $50, along with sound-editing software (between $50 and $100). Finally, you may need even a larger hard drive: sound recordings consume about 10 MB per minute , or almost a gigabyte for each Herb Alpert album.
If you choose the do-it-yourself route, follow these steps:
Clean your records, and install a new needle in your record player .
You'll be hearing the version you play for a long time, so make it worth hearing by cleaning up the sound as much as possible. Kab Electro (www.kabusa.com) sells many record cleaners, ranging from a $25 brush/liquid combo to a $700 motorized model.
Turntable Needles (www.turntableneedles.com) also sells cleaners, as well as a wide supply of needles . If you can't find a replacement needle for your record player, buy a new cartridgethe box-like holder on the end of your record player's armand a new needle to fit it.
No record player? They're still for sale at stereo stores, Amazon (www.amazon.com), and eBay (www.ebay.com).
Connect your record player to your PC .
Most record players send sound through a cable that has a pair of RCA jacks on the end. Your PC, however, accepts sound only through a tiny, 1/8-inch port (Section 7.2.1)the same as an iPod headphone jack.
Since the two can't directly plug into each other, connect them with the Holy Grail of PC cable adapters: the RCA-jack-to-1/8-inch-stereo port cable, shown in Figure 7-6. After connecting the record player to the adapter, plug the adapter's small end into your PC's Audio In port. (That port's sometimes lime green.)
Figure 7-6. The Holy Grail of stereo-to-PC adapters, Radio Shack's little spaceship-shaped connector (Part #274-369) lets you connect VCRs, TVs, stereos, and record players to a PC. Connect your record player's two RCA plugs to this little adapter's two RCA ports. Be sure to match the colors; the red jack carries the stereo signal's right channel. Then plug the adapter's small end into your PC's Line In port. (An icon next to the port [Section 1.8.7] usually shows an icon of an arrow pointing inward.)
Run your recording software and record both sides of the vinyl, saving each side in its own file .
Here's where professional software saves you a lot of time. It automatically adjusts the recording levels, records your album, removes any pops and clicks, and separates the recording into individual tracks called "WAV files."
Check out LP Ripper (www.cfbsoftware.com), MAGIX Audio Cleaning Lab (www.magix.net), Diamond Cut (www.diamondcut.com), and BlazeAudio (www.blazeaudio.com).
If your record player lacks the oomph to make the recording loud enough, you need a preamp to boost its signal. They're available from Amazon (www.amazon.com) and most home stereo stores for around $50. (BlazeAudio sells a preamp software combination.) Connect the preamp between the record player and your PC.
Tip: Tell your software to record at "16-bit file at 44.1 kHz," which is the standard for CD audio.
| GEM IN THE ROUGH |
A Makeshift Preamp
Instead of buying a preamp for your record player, you may be able to borrow the one inside your stereo. Look on the back of your receiver for a pair of RCA jacks labeled Tape Out, shown at right in this photo.
Your tape recorder normally records from your stereo through the Tape Out jacks, so they're perfect for sending sound to your PC as well. Leave your record player connected to your stereo's Phono jacks, shown at left in the photo. Then connect a pair of RCA cables from the Tape Out jacks to the adapter shown in Figure 7-6.
Important: don't ever connect your stereo's speaker wires to your PC, or you'll blow up your sound card.
Burn the individual WAV files to a CD .
Windows Media Player handles this task (Section 10.5.2), although CD burning software works much more easily. Once you've burned the CD, convert (rip) it to MP3 files, if desired, so you can groove to your old vinyl on your iPod.
Once you burn the WAV files to CD or convert them to MP3 files, feel free to delete them, freeing up your hard drive for other projects.
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Connecting a PC to a Home Stereo
If your PC is in the same room as your stereo equipment, nothing beats hearing a PC routed through your stereo's big speakersor even your surround soundpumping home theater system. PCs connect with a stereo in either of two ways, depending on the sound card.
Digital . If your sound card offers digital output, connect it to your stereo's digital input, the one normally used by your DVD player. Your PC will route its 5.1 sound through all your home stereo's speakers, including the subwoofer.
Analog . Push the adapter shown in Figure 7-6 into your PC's Line Out or Speaker port. Then connect a pair of RCA cables between the adapter's RCA jacks and the RCA jacks on your stereo's Aux, Line In, or Tape jacks. Doing so only sends sound to two speakers, but they probably sound lots better than your PC's little speakers.
Once you connect your PC to your stereo, turn its Input knob to the ports you've chosen , be they DVD, Aux, Line In, or Tape.