Connect Your Sound Equipment to Your Computer

Edited by Alexander Avdeev, Eng, Anonymous

...More

It is a great pleasure to see you at VisiHow! We put a lot of effort into giving you the most relevant and recent information. The article will show you how to select microphones, mixers, sound cards, and other equipment to guarantee high-quality sound. Your voice and other instruments will be recorded well. We will be happy to read your questions or comments about this article or any other sound-related questions in the comment section below.

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Alex Avdeev AAudition1.jpg

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Getting Started

This article is for those of you who want

  • just to plug in your microphone and join some serious conference calls;
  • to start recording your playing guitar;
  • to record a song and either share it with people or send it to a label in hopes that you might be signed onto it.

The first requirement on your way to get high-quality sound is always to experiment. Experimenting will give you more determination to perfect your own sound. My years of studio work and home recording have shown that there is always space for something new: what seemed great in the past might be deemed amateur as some new ways are found.

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What do we need to start?

  • A personal desktop computer or even a laptop or notebook with an operating system (Windows 7 and higher is preferred).
  • For sound cards and audio interfaces, always keep the drivers for the operating system updated.
  • Adjust playback and recording sound card bit/Hz preferences:
  1. 1
    For Windows operating systems, go to "Control Panel" from the Start Menu.
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  2. 2
    Click "Hardware and Sound".
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  3. 3
    Click "Sound".
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  4. 4
    Right-click on output ("Playback") device (usually called "Speakers").
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  5. 5
    Click "Properties".
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  6. 6
    Click "Advanced".
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  7. 7
    Set a value for playback.
    I suggest 16-bit 44,100Hz, as this will be surely supported by your card. You can, however, go higher; and it will be better.
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  8. 8
    Click the input ("Recording" tab) devices (usually called "Line-in").
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  9. 9
    Click "Properties".
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  10. 10
    Click "Advanced".
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  11. 11
    Set the same values as in "Playback".
    If the recording device bit/Hz properties are missing (mostly for on-board or built-in cards), then just ignore it. You will set it up in the recording software.
    Alex Avdeev SoundSet2.jpg
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Buy a good pair of headphones. Avoiding headphones with microphones might be a good idea too. Look for headphones without such labels as "Bass boost" and "Gaming". Sennheiser headphones, Audio Technical, Grado, Focal Spirit, etc., are all excellent choices. You can also use good three-way speakers when you speak or sing over the microphone, but it might catch the sound from the speakers and produce feedback (a loud high- or medium-pitched background noise) in an infinite loop.

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Choosing and Installing a Sound or Audio Card

The early '90s, when neighbors used to call the police as they heard some weird warfare noises in your house, are long gone. So did the times when we used to choose between the internal speaker, Adlib, Sound Blaster, Gravis Ultrasound, Disney, Tandy, and other cards. We strove for hours to eradicate incompatibilities and set up the card. Nowadays, choosing and setting up a card is much more simple.

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The first step of recording sound is knowing your computer. Your computer might have:

  • a built-in (on-board) sound card;
    these cards have chipsets right in the motherboard and have inputs and outputs on the back of your computer or at the side (for laptops); the colored inputs and outputs are usually for 3.5mm jacks;
  • an installed internal sound card;
    these cards might have outputs and inputs in front or in the back. The outputs can be for 3.5mm jacks (most common), but there are various other types;
  • an external sound card;
    those utilize the USB port of one's computer.

It is easy to tell whether your desktop computer has the either type of sound cards.

  • Internal: the outputs are in one line and are located on the back, going across the width of the case, of the desktop PC. Some of the cards sport taking out the output and input module as an external device connected to the internal card.
  • Built-in (on-board): the outputs are usually grouped in a rectangle and are near the USB, PS/2, and other peripheral inputs and outputs of the motherboard, usually on top or in the middle of the back of the case. Notebooks and laptops have those too.
  1. 1
    Built-in (on-board) sound cards.
    Built-in cards can be decent if the motherboard or the whole computer was purchased during the last 4-5 years. Old or cheap built-in sound cards may even pick up the electric noise produced by the electrical changes produced by the movement of the mouse. This will create audible high-frequency sounds, which might be a nuisance. These cards can be used along with noise gate filters that are used in post-processing.
    Alex Avdeev BuiltinCard.JPG
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  2. 2
    Internal sound cards.
    To avoid any trouble, I suggest always buying an internal sound card for a free internal slot of your motherboard. Sometimes, it may even make your system faster, as the software sound rendering or a weaker processor is loading the CPU a bit more.
    Consult your motherboard or computer-brand manual or take a look inside the computer to find out whether you have the capacity to connect a sound card.
    Most cards use PCIe slots (x1 multiplier for the PCIe slot is enough but can be higher). Other internal cards may still use the old but still market-wise-"barely alive" PCI slot.
    Alex Avdeev PCI.JPG


    If you used a manual,
    • define the availability of the PCI (for older cards) or PCIe (for newer cards) slot on the motherboard (it depends on the sound card);
    • note the position of the slots;
    • open up your computer case;
    • see whether the slot is free and there are no other cards going over it, as some video cards tend to be huge and take up up to two, three, four, or even six slots above or below them;
      Alex Avdeev MotherboardManual.JPG


      If you opened up the case,
    • install the card into the free slot as shown in the sound card manual (push the card into the free slot and fix it with a screw);
    • once the card has been installed, close the case;
    • you can install its drivers for a specific operating system that you are using. This ensures that the sound card is fully operational.
      Alex Avdeev InsideCase.JPG


      To read more on the choice of dedicated cards, please refer to this article: Get_Better_Sound_from_Your_PC_with_a_Dedicated_Soundcard.
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  3. 3
    External sound cards (and audio interfaces).
    External cards are great for notebooks and laptops but can be a very good but expensive idea for desktop computers too. The price range might bite if an audio interface is chosen. An audio interface is an external sound card with a built-in mixer and effects. These completely avoid any internal electromagnetic interference and are recommended for sound recording.
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Now, let us peruse some technical data for the sound card or audio interface of your choice. You might find it confusing because of the abundance of technical information; so, here are some recommendations and explanations.

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  • brands;
    • Creative Sound Blaster are all-round cards that have been used extensively; 'EMU'-series cards might have larger input jacks and a constant need of a mixer plugged in.
    • ASUS Xonar cards are a good choice;
    • There are audio interfaces such as Steinberg, M-Audio, Tascam, or Axelvox. Those already have built-in microphone amplifiers, XLR inputs, mixers, and effects. If you are predisposed to purchase those, you can ignore the section with the mixer choice. Be wary that those audio interfaces might have XLR, RCA, and TRS inputs instead of standard jacks, so there might be some trouble connecting your guitar;
  • inputs and outputs;
    • please see the previous bullet point for the basic information on inputs and outputs; also, you might need only a stereo card (only outputs for two speakers); 5.1 or 7.1 are irrelevant for the current goal, as we are not recording our voice revolving around the listener. Still, it is all right to use a 5.1 or 7.1 card;
  • price range;
    • cheaper cards tend to be worse than good and recent built-in cards; cheaper motherboards with sound chips are appalling in sound quality;
  • resolution in bits;
    • this parameter can be ignored. Every card has a 16- or 24-bit resolution these days. Both are good enough;
  • sampling frequency;
    • anything at and above 44,100Hz (CD quality) is fine. In my experience, CD quality is enough for all purposes. For studio mixing, however, we can use superior resolutions and sampling frequencies only to down sample the ready result in the end;
  • accessibility or convenience of inputs and outputs;
    • internal cards are inconvenient to plug your devices into, even though some models do have external plug-in panels that can be placed onto the case of a computer. They are also exposed to interference inside the case, which is, as one might conjecture from comparing samples, negligible.
  • ASIO support;
    • this is how your sound signal travels to the hardware of the card. It skips all software to eschew any distortions. I would suggest ignoring it unless you are recording studio sound;
  • USB, PCI-e, or PCI connection;
    • USB - external cards; PCI or PCI-e - internal.
  • EAX support;
    • That is mainly used for games to add special effects, but it can be used in altering one's voice in real time.
      Alex Avdeev InternalIO.JPG

Choosing and Connecting a Mixer Board

Are you bored or tired? Do you want to feel like a DJ, but you miss that little something that you can rotate handles and buttons on? There is a solution for you... A mixer board! Not only it can make you feel like you are on stage with fans in front of you, but you can actually make your dynamic microphone produce sound at last! Mixer boards also help with providing extra power to your microphones or connect your guitar in a convenient fashion to you PC.

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At some point, you might always come to the conclusion that purchasing a small mixer board is not a minute improvement but rather something of necessity. This is inevitable. I have always shopped at local or online music stores to buy mixer boards that will work well in my computer-to-instrument connection chain. A good and relatively cheap solution can be Behringer or Mackie. When choosing a mixer, one should always pay attention to

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  • availability of at least one XLR input with a gain control;
  • availability of at least one pair of 6.3-mm inputs;
  • availability of at least one pair of 6.3-mm outputs;
  • optional availability of the phantom power (required for some microphones);
  • external power specifications that match your region (the plug type, frequency, and voltage).

Theoretically, it is enough to obtain a mixer that has 1 XLR (microphone), 1 line-in, and 1 main-out.

Alex Avdeev MixerBoard-1.JPG

In my practice, the absence of a mixer board LED to impasses. For example, I could not connect my E-MU 4004 to my amplifier, line-in input, and microphone without making (not buying!) three or six special cables that would split into two connectors at one end. That LED to buying connectors, wires, soldering equipment, etc. The less sophisticated solution for me was a mixer board. It was as easy as plugging two 6.3-mm jacks into the card and into the mixer. The only downside for mixer boards is having to turn them on all the time along with the computer.

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Steps to connect your chosen mixer board to your computer.

  1. 1
    Look for the main-out channels on the mixer board.
    Alex Avdeev MainOut.JPG
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  2. 2
    If the main-out channel is split into left and right channels, then choose one of the following:
    • take advantage only of the left channel of the mixer and use a mono or stereo 6.3-mm jack - 3.5-mm jack cable;
      you can postprocess the mono sound and make it stereo (I am always apt to do this);
    • make one stereo cable by buying an adapter for two mono 6.3-jack cables;
    • make one stereo cable by soldering contacts of two mono jacks to the contacts of a stereo jack that runs into the computer.
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Choosing and Connecting a Microphone

Shouting into your built-in laptop microphone can make you feel good - it can also make you sound like a rebel with all those static noises on air - until a serious conference call comes in, and you have to be loud and clear. What should you do? You have two ways:

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  • choose a good headset (cheap, but good for conferences only)

or

  • choose an external microphone and connect it through a mixer (good for conferences and creating your audio works)!

I always go for dynamic microphones owing to their universal qualities and the price-to-quality ratio, but I recommend making your choice yourself. Shure make good microphones, which you can place on a microphone stand and use while recording something. I always opt for instrumental microphones like Shure SM57 so that I can record both guitar and vocals when needed.

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Alex Avdeev Microphone.JPG

There are

  • condenser microphones
    • those have a high sensitivity and are usually in our headsets; some of those models, especially the tube microphones, might require extra power, which is phantom power on our mixer board.
  • dynamic microphones
    • those are low in sensitivity and always require adding gain on the mixer board.

All of the microphones split into unidirectional and omnidirectional microphones, each having its own approach to recording.

There are some ruses and tricks to recording one's vocals.

  • Sometimes, with unidirectional microphones, you might resort to altering the angle at which your voice is directed at the microphone head.
  • With omnidirectional microphones, a windshield (a piece of foamy cloth) is almost a necessity, as the air pushed out of the lungs when pronouncing some consonants might turn a song or speech into a popping and hissing disaster.
  • If you record your microphone too loudly, you can hear a high-pitched sound. Turn down the gain or volume to avoid that. Refer to "Software and Recording" within this article for more details.
  • For a tube condenser microphone, always make sure that the tube is fresh (change it every five years of use) and that the microphone is suspended, as any touch or extra shake might distort the recording.
  • For headsets, choose a headset with a noise-cancelling microphone. This will only be good for conference calls, but recording your songs or other audio tracks will need a different microphone.

The following list includes the steps to connect the microphone to the PC:

  1. 1
    For XLR microphones, buy an XLR male-female cable.
    Plug the female end of the XLR cable into your microphone and the other end into the mixer board.
    Alex Avdeev XLRCable.JPG
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  2. 2
    Ascertain that the mixer output and sound card inputs are matching the cable ends.
    That means, generally, that a jack 6mm �" jack 3.5mm cable is required for most cases. Whereas in other cases, we can attach an adapter at either or both ends of the cable. For example, an adapter from jack 3.5mm to jack 6.3mm.
    Alex Avdeev Jack63to35Adaptor.JPG
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  3. 3
    Plug one end into the mixer.
    Plug the other end into the line-in input of your sound card. Sometimes, line-in and microphone inputs are one in the sound card. You have to choose the line-in input later on in the software mixer in this case.
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Connecting a Guitar

You might strum your unplugged electric guitar as hard as you can while endeavoring to position the microphone correctly, but it simply is not going to work out well. Your strumming might be appreciated by some rural connoisseurs of art, but there is little buzz coming out of an unplugged guitar! In the end, you will have to put up with the cruel fate and create an equipment chain to link your guitar to your computer with various cords, contraptions, and wires.

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  • Always spend as much money as possible when it comes to audio equipment. Spending more money once will keep your sound better for years. As a result, a good shielded cable with well-soldered connectors will keep a lot of useful signal intact. Well-shielded cables usually are thicker than other similar cables.
  • (Optional) a guitar with passive pickups requires a lot of shielding inside. This might be done at a luthier.
  • Your computer, mixer, pedal, and amplifier have to be grounded too.
  • The best solution for home recording is active pickups in a guitar with a fresh 9-volt battery.
  1. 1
    The next step in the sound chain is a unit that alters the sound.
    You have to buy either a DI box (direct box, direct unit, direct pedal) or a pedal, combo, preamplifier, or amplifier with a DI output. For example, Roland Cube 15 or Control Damage tube pedals. How to know that a pedal or an amplifier has a DI unit? You can look at the output panel and find anything that has "DI" or "Direct Out" or "Direct Recording" either on the panel or in the specifications.
    If you do not connect through the direct output, the sound will be sand-like, weak, and not rich in overtones. Always include that in your chain!
    Alex Avdeev DIBoxOut.JPG
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  2. 2
    If you have an equalizer on the pedal or the mixer, I suggest putting every frequency setting to the middle values, as you can postprocess the sound with software plugins for various sound programs.
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  3. 3
    From the choice of sound cards, you know what cables you need.
    If you need a TRS cable, for example, you can find one online.
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  4. 4
    Buy two jack 6.3mm �" jack 6.3mm mono cables.
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  5. 5
    Take one cable and run its end into the guitar output and the other end into the free input of a pedal or DI box.
    Alex Avdeev GuitarJack.JPG
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  6. 6
    Plug the other cable into the direct output of the pedal, amplifier, or preamplifier and run it into the free line-in channel of the mixer.
    Take the left channel if the input is stereo.

    Skip step 7 and step 8 if you have completed the previous part and connected your microphone to your PC.
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  7. 7
    Ascertain that the mixer output and sound card inputs are matching the cable ends.
    That means, generally, that a jack 6mm �" jack 3.5mm cable is required for most cases. Where in other cases we can arm either or both ends of the cable with an adapter (for example, from jack 3.5mm to jack 6.3mm).
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  8. 8
    Plug one end into the mixer.
    Plug the other end into the line-in input of your sound card. Sometimes, line-in and microphone inputs are one in the sound card. You have to choose the line-in input later on in the software mixer in this case.
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Software and Recording

What happens if your room is distended with cacophony as your cats, dogs, neighbours' rats, and family members suddenly go from suspiciously quiet to boisterous, destroying the entire work on your audio track? Fear not, for thou can resuscitate thine woeful work! You can just edit out certain pieces in your audio track or rerecord it wholly! For that, you will have to resort to the means of good recording software.

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Not only can you choose to edit instructional videos as stated above, but you can also start recording your own singing and instruments! If you decide to do the latter, prepare for some learning curve! There are always general tips and tricks, but learning on your own is essential as well. The learning curve includes applying the right filters, finding your own techniques of recording, adjusting volumes and frequencies, mixing, mastering, etc.
Below is the list of some ideas to use when recording or picking up the sound.

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  • To use advanced techniques and record a song or any other type of advanced audio track, you will have to use multitrack recording:
    • you record one track,
    • you switch to a free channel and record one more track while the other recorded tracks play.
    • Then, you repeat the process until you have put in all of the arrangements.
    • Then, you mix the tracks. This includes post-processing of each track and merging all of the tracks in one.
    • Lastly, you master the ready track (final post-processing).
  • Recording with adaptive real-time noise suppressors might keep a lot of noise at the beginning of the tracks. To avoid that, use a standard noise gate with analyzing a sample of nothing but noise.
  • It is a very good idea to use a compressor for the voice; but do watch out for overdoing compression. As singer, you will move the microphone or from the microphone to sound quieter or louder.
  • For any effects, you can either buy pedals that you can put in the effects loop chain of your mixer board or just use a software effect, which can be bought as a VST or a DirectX plugin for a wide range of software.
  • Both VST and DirectX plugins can be detected within a number of recording and mixing programs, VST being more popular.
  • ASIO recording gives some more clarity and less latency to the sound, yet the problem is that only one program will be able to access the card; so, it is only good when you are recording a sound project. ASIO monitoring can be quite hard with setting up separate inputs and outputs and latencies.

If you don't have time or patience on mastering ASIO controls, which are individual for each driver, software, and card, you can record the sound directly through the standard I/O (line-in):

  1. 1
    Open the software mixer for the sound card and select line-in as recording source.
    You can enable line-in monitoring as well by removing the "mute" function on the output.
    Alex Avdeev LineInMixer1.jpg
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  2. 2
    Download or buy software to record.
    There are Audacity, which is a free program, Adobe Audition, which is a great small piece of software that can be used even in studios, Cakewalk, Cubase', and even the standard Windows Sound Recorder.
    Alex Avdeev AAudition1.jpg
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  3. 3
    Set everything on the mixer board to the middle.
    Adjust the microphone gain and volume values to the value color-monitored by software. Make sure that the signal does not go red and stays green or yellow. The red bar means that the overload is in effect; therefore, turn down the gain on the mixer for the microphone or the output volume.
    Alex Avdeev Middle.JPG
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  4. 4
    Remember to keep your drivers and software updated.
    Alex Avdeev UpdatedDriver.jpg
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  5. 5
    Some sound cards have a mixed microphone and line-in input, so software mixers may require you to switch from the microphone mode to the line-in mode.
    Alex Avdeev Mixer1.jpg
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  6. 6
    Launch your recording program.
    Start a new file with the same resolution and frequency as you use in the system. Refer to [Getting Started] section for more details on that.
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  7. 7
    The last thing that you want to do is to use a hard limiter and noise gate on the recording of the voice.
    Guitars might need just the noise gate. Be sure not to use the adaptive one, as stated above. Scan the audio wave for a pause where only noise can be heard. Analyze it and use the noise result to filter the noise out of the entire recording.
    For more information on noise gates, refer to our VisiHow article called Remove Background Noise with Audacity.
    • Use a hard-limiting effect from your software on the vocals to make sure that the dynamic range (the difference between the the most quiet and the most loud sounds) is wide enough to be natural and narrow enough to sound good to your ears. The value may be 0.1 or even 20, so I cannot recommend any definite value.
    • You can use both effects in real time for conferences, accounting for the small lag that might occur with processing. To apply those effects, you will need special software or hardware. You can use Creative Headsets for Sound Blaster cards or you can download and install other software like [Voxal Voice Changer] to alter your voice live.
      Alex Avdeev AAuditionNoiseGate1.jpg
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Conclusion

This VisiHow article resolves a range of problems arising from decision-making when thinking about how to connect a microphone or electric guitar to your computer. You must always be aware that your decisions might vary, as there is always space for creativity. If you discover something interesting or wish to share your ideas with us or other VisiHow readers, then please submit your commentary into the comment section below.

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Links and References from the Article

1. Creative Sound Blaster common cards
2. Creative Sound Blaster audio cards
3. Behringer: choosing a mixer
4. Mackie: choosing a mixer
5. Shure: choosing a microphone
6. Roland Cube 15
7. Damage Control Womanizer preamp
8. TRS guitar cable
9. Remove_Background_Noise_with_Audacity
10. Get_Better_Sound_from_Your_PC_with_a_Dedicated_Soundcard

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