Using a Headset to Record on a MacBook Pro (2010)

I am in charge of producing some short 5 minute screencasts to introduce some VLSI CAD tools for our Coursera course. Our resident audio/video (AV) expert recommended that I use an external headset to do the recording to get the best possible sound. The particular headset that he had? The classy Califone 3066Av, as shown below (mine comes in beige, which is even more old school).

Now as you can see from the photo above, there are two cables: a red one (mic) and black (headphones). Intuitively, one would expect to plug the red cable into the “audio in” on the MacBook Pro and the black cable into the “audio out”. Here’s what I did initially:

Unfortunately this did not work! My MacBook Pro was not able to pick up any audio signal from the microphone. This caused some initial confusion because I thought that the headset was broken. I verified that it was indeed working by trying it out on a Windows machine which had a dedicated sound card.

So, what could be causing it to not work on a MacBook Pro?

There are two interesting things that I discovered:

  1. The audio-in jack on the MacBook Pro requires that the signal is amplified before coming in. If you are using the audio-in jack for sound recording through some amplifier, then you are OK. However, it will not work for a normal pheadset.
  2. The audio-out jack on the MacBook Pro can sometimes function as an dual audio-in and audio-out. This seems to work for the iPhone headset. Plug the iPhone headset in and you can use it both for recording and for listening.

But neither of these discoveries help me solve my problem.

The only other solution is to get a USB headset. Those have been known to work on the MacBook Pros. However, according to our resident AV expert, most USB headsets are designed for VoIP applications and, thus, contain active noise cancellation. When used for audio recording, they produce muffled sound, or as he would call it “truly shit recordings”.

What was the final solution?

Because I didn’t want to produce “truly shit recordings”, I needed to find a different work around. Fortunately, I found an old Philips PSC805 Aurilium external sound card lying around. I plugged the USB connection into my USB port and connected the headset to its mic in and headphone jacks, like so:

UPDATE: Turns out that the Philips PSC805 Aurilium had actually stopped working for the microphone. So I bought a Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Go! Pro (now that’s a mouthful) instead. The nice thing? This external soundcard is about the size of a USB thumbdrive – it’s tiny! There’s no driver for the Mac (and it claims to not be Mac-compatible) but it does work when you plug it in.

The conclusion: if you are using an external non-USB headset with your MacBook Pro, you might want to consider getting an external sound card or something that can amplify the audio signal. It’s not that the headset doesn’t work; it’s that the MacBook Pro by itself does not amplify the signals through the audio-in jack.

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