How to Fix a Delay in a USB Microphone
By James T Wood
The delay in a computer microphone, known as "latency" among the audiophile set, is usually not a big deal when video calling Grandma in Duluth. But when it comes time to record a podcast or sync up musical tracks, the latency can become more than just an annoyance -- it can ruin your hard work.
Causes of Latency
Microphones connected to a computer via a USB port have to first convert the audio information into digital code that the computer then re-converts into audio through the sound card and then speakers. The time it takes for that conversion to take place shows up as a slight delay. The more software that gets between the microphone and the eventual output, the greater the delay is likely to be. Computers can have enhancements to the audio -- like reverb, or equalization -- there can also be programs that monitor the audio for voice recognition purposes. If you're recording multiple channels of audio through one USB 1.1 input you may experience latency due to the bandwidth limitations of the older USB specification, a 2.0 or 3.0 USB port allows for the higher bandwidth necessary for recording multiple tracks at the same time.
The first place to check for any software delays is in the operating system. The audio properties for recording devices allow you to see what settings are in place for the mic. Disabling enhancements can help reduce delay. There may also be an option to listen to a microphone so you can hear, through headphones, what sound the microphone is picking up. However, this also causes a slight delay in the audio. Make sure that any such listening option is disabled.
Higher-end USB microphones may have proprietary drivers created by the manufacturer to interface with the computer. Operating systems have built-in, generic microphone drivers that will suffice for most USB mics but may not have the fine-tuning capabilities possible with a driver written specifically for that microphone. Check with the manufacturer to see if there are hardware drivers you can download to work with your microphone.
If you can't solve the problem on the hardware side, you can likely fix it using recording software that adjusts for latency. You can test the length of your latency with a simple recording and then go back into the recording settings to adjust the latency to compensate. So, if you find you have a 500ms latency with your USB microphone after testing you can tweak the software to recognize that and sync up the audio to the correct time. Ultimately, though, if you can't get the delay out of your USB microphone it might be time to upgrade to a higher-end mic that connects directly to your computer or to an external mixer so you don't rely on your computer to process all the audio itself.
James T Wood is a teacher, blogger and author. Since 2009 he has published two books and numerous articles, both online and in print. His work experience has spanned the computer world, from sales and support to training and repair. He is also an accomplished public speaker and PowerPoint presenter.