Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning we get a small commission if you make a purchase through our links, at no cost to you. For more information, please visit our Disclaimer Page.
Computers have come a long way over the years, starting as relatively simple machines that took up a lot of space to perform some basic tasks for us. Today, however, developers and manufacturers can pack a lot of computing power into very small packages. We’re used to working with desktop PCs and laptops, but even smartphones have transformed calling technology into tiny computers that do a million other things.
Part of the way computers have developed over the years is in what information they can input and output, and audio information is just one type that many computers will process.
Some users might wonder about terms like audio input or output and how the two work, so we will discuss these in detail in our article below.
We’ll tackle audio input first. While we’re mostly focusing on computers here, it is worth noting that pretty much any kind of audio device you can think of will have at least one form of input or output, although not all of them have both.
This is in the very nature of how audio equipment functions. When we talk about audio input, we’re discussing something that is supposed to send a signal to a device, and that signal includes information that the device needs to interpret in a meaningful way.
We will break down input and output separately in their own sections, but they are related processes that rely on each other.
Having said that, it is a good idea to remember that input and output work differently. If you need to set up your own audio devices, input and output can’t get mixed up or be used interchangeably. If you do, the device simply won’t be able to produce audio in the way you expect.
When we discuss audio inputs in relation to computers, we’re talking about devices that will send signals to the computer for processing. To make it easier to understand, we’ll talk about a few common audio input devices that connect to computers. One of the most common ones that you may already know is the microphone.
There are a couple of ways microphones might act as audio input devices for computers. You can use microphones in conjunction with computers to record or dictate messages, but you can also enhance their functions depending on what programs or software you’re using them with.
For example, face-to-face chat software programs make use of your computer’s microphone in order to allow you to talk to other people. The microphone inputs your voice as audio signals that it then sends to other output devices that we will cover later.
Since we’re discussing microphones, it is worth noting that they provide us with a distinction between most types of audio equipment that supports both inputs and outputs. A microphone is also a device that is just for input. It isn’t a speaker or any other kind of accessory that needs an output. The sound waves go into the microphone and are processed for output through another device.
Other software packages may use audio input devices to record sounds or music, and inputs like MIDI-in settings for some devices allow users to add several musical instrument tracks to one song or other type of sound recording. On a related note, some sophisticated audio hardware for computers can include multiple inputs that you might not use with standard computers.
For example, if you want high-end recording equipment for a home studio, you might set up an audio interface that is designed for just such a purpose. In this case, you will have access to the usual microphone inputs, but the interface will also come with other kinds of audio inputs that you can use.
As you can see, there’s a lot that goes into audio input and the devices associated with it. However, if you want to keep things relatively straightforward, you can just think of audio input as anything that might send a signal to an output device. The output is a sort of “end product” for any audio you might be producing, and we will cover it in the next section.
If you think of audio input as signals going into a device, then audio output is something that translates an input signal into workable audio. All of this may work slightly differently from one computer to the next, but computers have hardware related to audio output that we will discuss in the following section.
If you consider that the microphone is an input device that takes sounds and sends them somewhere, you know that you need an output device in order to produce something that makes sense out of those signals. If you don’t have an output device, there is no way to check if the signals are going anywhere or how they are working.
As we touched on previously, some devices have only output, even though most audio equipment you’ll run into has support for both input and output. For example, your standard MP3 player is an output device. The source of the signal an MP3 player uses originates from elsewhere, such as a file or the radio.
The signals from a music file are processed through the player, but, since its function is to play music for you rather than allow you to send audio of your own, there is no need for any kind of input interface for the device.
Another common example of audio output is a speaker system. Speakers are one of the major ways most people listen to audio. These can range from built-in speakers on your laptop to external speakers that are connected to your device as a peripheral accessory. Headphones are a second piece of hardware on which you’ll find output for listening, although they are essentially speakers in a different form.
Many modern headphones are actually headsets that include built-in microphones for audio input as well, and here we circle back to audio equipment that has both input and output.
It’s worth noting that audio is something you’ll produce whether you’re working with input or output. In input, you turn your voice or other sounds into information that enters the computer.
Once this is processed by your PC or another machine, the finished signal is sent to the output device to produce intelligible sounds or noises. This may be why some people setting up their own audio stations might have trouble differentiating between input and output, but having a proper setup means knowing the difference between them.
Although we’ve discussed the differences in audio input and output generally, the process can work a bit differently with computers. For the most part, we can create clear lines between audio input and output devices themselves, although some have both input and output pathways.
Things can get a bit more complex for computers, and we will touch on that when we discuss specific devices for each thing later.
While computers may be more versatile than some other forms of technology, the input and output for audio both remain relatively straightforward. An input for computers is any pathway by which an audio signal can get into the computer.
For this reason, microphones are still one of the most common and easy examples to use here. Much as with any other audio device, microphones will send audio signals into a computer.
Conversely, an output is any path that allows those signals to travel back out of the computer. Sockets or connectors for headphones or external speakers can be examples of audio output for a computer.
These are some of the easiest ways to understand audio from a computer, but it can get more nuanced when we factor in some desktop setups. The combinations can vary from one model to another, but many desktop setups will have different sockets that conform to different levels of either audio input or output.
This is a design feature of desktop PCs. For example, you might see sockets for both microphone IN and line OUT connections, or line IN along with headphone OUT. There are more physical connections on a desktop PC, and users will have more opportunities to connect a greater variety of input and output devices.
To make this easier for the computer to understand, there are different high or low connections you can make. In a laptop, the hardware will sense what you plug into it and act accordingly.
Audio input and output devices for a computer are relatively the same as you might find with most other equipment, with one or two exceptions that we will talk about.
You know that input devices send sound signals into the computer. Similarly, we’ve discussed that output devices convert those signals into what we might say is usable audio that you can listen to and understand.
Computers that deal with audio operate along the same lines, although you might find specialized setups that are designed primarily for audio production only. In these cases, the computer might have extra hardware that is not found in your standard setups.
These additions might include audio interfaces with special buttons, dials, and levers, or they might feature keyboards and pad controllers for audio. This is why, although keyboards are not typically audio input devices, they can be part of the audio input if they are a piece of the right setup.
Still, for general setups, you can think of things like the microphone as an audio input, while headphones or speakers represent audio output. One other important part of the computer hardware that deals with audio is the sound card.
The sound card on a computer takes information it receives from digital files and converts it into electronic sound signals. This is what we mean when we talk about the computer processing signals that it gets from an input device before sending them along to an output device.
Sound cards don’t play sounds by themselves, but they do output audio signals. For this reason, some people might consider sound cards part of the audio output device setup of a computer.
Sound input and output have both come a long way since early days of audio devices. Despite the complexity that bubbles beneath the surface, the basic principles of sound production still remain the same for computers.
Some specialized equipment may break sound input and output down further for more customization or control, but this equipment still achieves the overall goal of any input/output setup.
One device receives or inputs a signal to the machine, processes it, and then sends the signals to output devices to be recorded, heard, or enjoyed by all.