If you want to record music or spoken word on your Mac, you’ll want a high-quality mic. You can get a microphone in dozens of styles. The most popular are headset mics (often called “gaming headsets”), USB microphones, and standard XLR microphones that connect through a digital pre-amplifier.
In this tutorial we will show you how you can set up an external microphone on macOS.
Connect the microphone
Depending on the type of microphone you have, it will connect to your Mac in different ways. Regardless, all connections lead to the same place: the USB port.
The easiest type of microphone to connect to a computer is a USB mic. You simply plug the mic’s USB cable into any open USB port. These mics have a small pre-amplifier chip built into their chassis, allowing them to take in audio and output a digital signal.
Headset microphones that are compatible with macOS will connect over USB or the headphone jack. Either way, it’s a plug-and-play operation. There should be no configuration required to get the microphone to pick up audio. Just make sure you select the microphone as your input (see below) before using it.
The more standard microphone connector is called XLR. This three-pin circular connector takes an XLR cable. Observant users will notice that computers do not have XLR ports. That’s what you need a USB pre-amplifier for.
The pre-amplifier, or “preamp,” is an outboard USB device that can accept an XLR connection. It also powers the microphone, if the microphone uses “phantom power,” and converts the mic’s analog signal to digital. Preamps, also known as audio interfaces, can range widely in price and quality. The Focusrite Scarlett line is popular, inexpensive, and effective.
Connect the preamp to your Mac through the USB port. Typically, the device will connect with a “printer style” USB 2.0 Type B connector. Plug that into your preamp, then plug the other end of the cable into your Mac.
Some audio interfaces also connect via Thunderbolt. These interfaces function no differently from the USB-style audio interfaces. They just use a different connection protocol and connector style.
Configuring the audio interface
Once you have all your devices connected and turned on, it’s time to configure the audio interface. While Windows requires drivers for audio interfaces, macOS typically does not require a driver. It’s simply plug and play! That makes your life a lot easier, but you’ll likely still need to flip some switches to set things up the way you want.
Open the “Sound” preference pane in System Preferences.
Within that preference pane, you’ll see two tabs: “Input” and “Output.” Click on the “Input” tab and find your microphone or audio interface, and set it as the system input. While most digital audio workstations allow you to select your input from within the application, setting the input at the system level streamlines the recording process. To set the device for input, click on it within the list of available audio interfaces.
If you do not see the audio interface in this list, first make sure that the audio interface is turned on and connected properly. Make sure it’s plugged directly into your Mac rather than a USB hub.
You’ll also want to set your output device appropriately. If you will be monitoring your mic from the headphone jack on your audio interface, make sure the audio interface is selected in the “Output” tab of the Sounds preference pane. If you will be connecting headphones to your Mac’s headphone jack, make sure “Built-In” is selected as the audio output.
Don’t try to record without headphones. It’s dramatically more difficult to get clean audio that way, and you’ll have no way of double-tracking if you so choose. Even cheap earbuds are better than nothing.
Connecting your mic to your Mac is a simple process: it’s basically plug and play! If you are having trouble getting the microphone or audio interface to connect, check with the manufacturer’s installation process to ensure there aren’t any special steps or software you need.
With the mic physically connected and configured, you’ll need the appropriate software. Audacity is a popular open-source choice, and the new Voice Memos app for macOS can make simple single-track audio recordings as well.