Introduction: Universal Chat Mic -- DIY Gaming/Comm Headset
I enjoy talking with people online and have headsets for Skype, chatting in multi-player online games, etc. But I also have nice headphones I'd much rather use due to better sound quality, comfort, and in some cases, fold-up portability.
So I set out to design a way of attaching a microphone to an existing set of headphones in a way that:
- Works as well (or better!) than commercial gaming/comm headsets
- Stays in position during use, but is easily removed
- Causes no damage to my favorite headphones, completely reversible
- Looks OK/good
- Inexpensive to make ($5-10) and simple to build
After a lot of ideas and about a dozen prototypes, I settled on a boom made of solid copper wire with built-in loops to hold the microphone cable (no tape is required). The boom is flexible enough to bend into any position you want, but is rigid enough to stay put. The boom can be flipped out of the way easily and the whole thing detaches when you want to use the headphones normally.
You can build the design as is, but there are *many* ways to customize things to your own taste. So along with the cookbook instructions, there's a section with additional ideas/options/trade-offs, along with some tips on mic position and level adjustment in Windows, so you can sound your best.
Please feel free to suggest additional ideas in the comment section and if you build it, be sure to post pictures!
FYI, a company called AntLion makes a commercial product called the ModMic which is basically the same thing, but they have a nice little magnet instead of my washer/Velcro arrangement.
[UPDATE] I created a 3D Printable Headset Microphone Boom with magnetic holder on thingiverse.com for those of you with access to 3D printers. It's a little less funky looking...
Step 1: Tools and Materials
- Needle nose pliers (nice to have 2 pair of pliers to get sharper bends)
- Wire cutters
- Wire Strippers
- Clamp or vise
- 1/4" drill
- fine-tooth saw
- black spray-paint (optional)
- Microphone: Neewer Lapel Microphone 5-pack these are about $1 each and do a great job
- 12 Gauge Solid Copper Wire, about a foot required for one mic boom
- 8-32 x 3/4" flat-head machine screw - qty 1
- 8-32 hex nut - qty 1
- 1/4" x 1" Fender Washers - Qty 2 (if you only have 1 fender washer, a #8 or #10 washer would do)
- 8-32 knurled knob, brass (8-32 wing nut would do)
- Scotch Extreme Fasteners 1"x3" pkg (Scotch Outdoor Fasteners or Industrial Velcro would do)
- Short piece of 1x2 pine (or similar) about 8-12" in length
- 1/4" hardwood dowel rod - enough for 5 dowel pins, a foot is more than enough
- wooden pencils might be a substitute
Note on the Microphone: Almost any small microphone you can attach will do here. The Neewer lapel mics sound good, have a handy little plastic tab that makes them easy to attach and they are *dog-dirt-cheap*, about $1 each on Amazon in quantities 5 and up. The cord is bit short (6') so you might need a 1/8" extension adapter if you need a longer cord. Also, it's an omnidirectional mic,*not* noise-canceling, so you won't want to use this in a super noisy environment, but it works great for Skype and gaming in most rooms .
Note on copper wire: 12 Gauge *solid* copper wire is just about right for this project.
- Stranded, wire won't keep its shape, it has to be solid.
- Lighter gauge solid copper (14,16, etc) is too flimsy
- Heavier gauge solid copper is too thick and hard to work with
- Light coat-hanger wire is harder to work with and not as adjustable as copper
Hardware stores sell 12 Ga solid copper wire by the foot, current price is about $0.25-0.30/ft.
Note on Scotch Fasteners: I've been a long-time fan of Industrial Velcro for many, many uses, but recently discovered the Scotch Extreme fasteners product line. It's really greatstuff (advertised as 3x stronger than velcro). Unlike Velcro (hook and loop), both fasteners surfaces are identical and use little knob-headed bristles to interlock. The resulting connection is tighter and has less play than velcro. Scotch also makes a lighter weight version that would work, sometimes called Scotch Outdoor Fasteners (1.5x stronger than Velcro). I prefer the 3x stuff though!
Step 2: Build Bending Jig (optional)
You don't absolutely have to make the bending jig; all the bending *can* be done by hand with only needle-nose pliers, if you have the skill and patience. However, the jig will make life a lot easier and the result will be neater. If you plan to make a few of these for yourself and/or your microphone-challenged friends, go ahead and make the jig.
- Start with a short length of 1"x2" pine about 12" long so you can clamp it to a desk or bench.
- The dimensions are not that critical.
- Draw a line along the center of the 1" side (really 3/4" if you're using standard dimensioned lumber)
- Mark 5 holes: the first pair are 1/2" apart and the remaining are 1" apart.
- You can change these dimensions to suit your taste once you understand the purpose of the jig, this is all down to preference.
- Drill 1/4" holes that go about 3/4 of the way into the wood, but don't go all the way through
- Cut 5 lengths of 1/4" wooden dowel rod and place them in the holes
- there should be about 1/2" (or less) of wood sticking out of the board when the dowel rod is all the way in the hole
- if the dowels are loose, put a drop of glue in the bottom of the hole
- Clamp the jig to a table or fix it in a bench vise.
Step 3: Bend the Boom Pivot
Start by bending a 1/4" loop into one end of the bare copper wire -- this will fit over the 1/4" pin in the jig and eventually be the pivot for the boom.
- If the wire has insulation, remove it in short sections (around 2") using the wire strippers until the wire is completely bare.
- Grip the end of the wire firmly in the pliers. Bend the wire with a combination of force from your thumb and turning the pliers. Frequently re-position the pliers as the loop forms.
- Copper is pretty forgiving, so if your loop looks crazy, flatten it back out and start again, or just work with it until it's right.
- Place the pivot over the end dowel in the jig (the end with closely-spaced pins).
- The reason for the close spacing is so the mic cord will be as close as possible to the existing headphone cord (assuming you put the mic boom on the same side of the headphones as the existing cord).
Step 4: Bend the Wire Guide Loops
Now we'll bend the loops that will hold the microphone cable in place (wire guide loops). If you're not using the jig, try to make a piece that looks like the end result photo (I built the first few prototypes this way).
- Use your fingers to do a complete wrap of copper wire around the next dowel in the jig.
- putting pressure on the wire closer to the dowel will give you a tighter bend
- repeat until you have 4 wire guide loops along with the 1 pivot loop
- You should have about 1-1/2" after the last wire guide loop
- The excess wire will be used to mount the microphone
Note: The mic mount will totally depend on which microphone you plan to use. The method shown here is for a specific lapel clip mic made by Neewer (amazon link) which has a small plastic tab. For other microphones, the length of wire and the shape you bend will be up to you to figure out. For example, you might want to wrap the copper wire around the body of a microphone, which will take more material -- experiment.
Step 5: Turn the Wire Guide Loops
Next, the wire guide loops need to be twisted by 90 degrees so they can open up and hold the microphone cable . In fact, we're actually going to grip the loop with pliers and bend the wire on either side, but the effect is the same.
For each wire guide loop (not the pivot loop):
- Grip the body of the loop firmly with a pair of pliers
- using second pair of pliers (or fingers) bend one side at a 90 degree angle to the loop body (see picture)
- do the same for the other side of the loop (so that the main stem of the boom still forms a straight line)
- repeat for all 4 wire guide loops
At the end, the boom should look more or less like a straight line. Use pliers to adjust the wire guide loops to be parallel, and straighten out the boom if necessary. Again, copper is very forgiving and with a little patience you can make it look good.
Step 6: Bend Mic Mount Loop and Attach Mic (Neewer)
Now we'll attach the Neewer lapel mic to the boom wire. If you're using a different mic, do whatever makes sense.
- Grip the wire on mic end of the boom (opposite the boom pivot), leaving at least 1/4" outside of the pliers
- Turn a tight "U" in the wire. There should be about 1/8" wide gap, about 1/4" long. Make sure the bend in the U isn't too sharp, we want the plastic mic tab to slide all the way in. If anything, the bend should be a little *bigger* than the width of the plastic tab.
- Test fit the mic tab and adjust the bend as required (remove the mic each time, the tab won't stand up to much abuse). The fit should be just slightly snug, do not force the tab into the slot.
- Gently squeeze the top of the "U" to capture the mic firmly
NOTE: The little plastic tab on the Neewer lapel mic could snap off easily if you put too much pressure on the wire. If you have trouble getting the fit right, then secure the mic to the boom wire with a drop of epoxy.
Step 7: Thread Mic Wire and Adjust Mic Angle
Now we'll thread the mic cable through the 4 wire guides and adjust the angle of the mic so that it points slightly in toward your mouth. Note that the Neewer microphone is *not* directional (picks up equally in all directions), so this is mostly for aesthetics and psychology (we tend to think we're supposed to talk into the end of the mic), so don't get too carried away.
- Thread the mic cable through the 4 wire guides. Adjust the wire guide openings if necessary.
- Adjust the mic angle by gripping the boom wire just behind the mic with the needle-nose pliers and gently turning (the other hand should be holding the boom, not the microphone!!).
- Bend a 45 degree (or so) angle using only the force from the pliers and the boom. Do NOT apply any force to the microphone by grabbing it for stability, etc. Otherwise you will break the microphone tab, it's made of plastic and is just not up to being torqued like that.
Again, you may want to put a drop of epoxy on the area where the copper captures the plastic tab on the microphone. I haven't found this necessary though.
Note: once the microphone cable is threaded through the loops, you might want to close the openings with needle-nose pliers so the cable won't come out so easily.
Step 8: Assemble the Boom Mount
Next, we'll assemble the mount that attaches the boom to the outside of the cup of your headphones.
- Put the 2 fender washers together with the 8-32 x 3/4 flat-head machine screw and 8-32-nut.
- The reason for using 2 fender washers is that a single washer isn't thick enough and the nut won't tighten on the screw. You can use a smaller washer on the side with the screw threads if you prefer. The important thing is, the side with the head of the screw must be as flat as possible.
- Tighten the screw and nut very well (maybe use super glue or loc-tite to be sure) because you don't want it coming loose in the future -- the head will be hidden by the fastener material and it will be a pain to re-tighten.
- Trace the outline of the 1" washer on the Scotch Extreme Fastener material and cut with scissors
- Stick the adhesive backing onto the screw-head side of the assembly and give it about 60 seconds of pressure from your thumb to ensure a good bond.
- Naturally, the washer had better be clean, dry and oil-free in order to have a good bond.
- If you don't like the plain steel, a quick shot of black spray-paint on the mount will improve the looks somewhat.
- use a quick-drying flat black paint made for metal and make sure the piece is clean first
- follow common sense, doing this all well away from your great and with proper ventilation, etc.
Step 9: Attach Boom to Boom Mount
Next we'll attach the boom mic assembly to the mount
- Place the boom pivot loop over the threaded screw of the boom mount.
- Take care about which way it goes onto the screw, otherwise the mic will point away from your mouth.
- Adjust the loop with pliers so that the fit over the 8-32 screw is snug, but free to turn.
- Thread the knurled brass knob (or wing-nut) onto the 8-32 screw and tighten to capture the boom
At this point, you're almost done!
Step 10: Cut and Place Scotch Extreme Fastener to Your Headphones
Now we'll attach some of the Scotch Fastener material to your headphones so the boom mount has a place to attach. Select the area for attachment, considering:
- Try to choose a flat (-ish) area the same size as (or slightly bigger than) the 1" circle of the boom mount.
- if the surface curves away from the flat circle on the bottom of the boom mount, there won't be as much surface area for the fastener material to hold onto.
- in extreme cases, you might need to bend or shape the washers in the boom mount to match the headphone shape better.
- If possible, place the boom on the same side as the existing headphone cord
- this is so you don't have cords hanging from both sides
- if the headphones have cords hanging from both ear cups, choose whichever side you prefer for the mic
- Make sure the boom mount won't interfere with any part of the headphone
- make sure your fingers can turn the brass knob, since you'll need to loosen and tighten it often to re-position the boom.
- Example: on my AKG K240s, the fastener material had to be moved forward on the left ear ear cup to avoid the K240's cord connector (green arrow points to it). The green oval is where I put the fastener material.
Once you've selected the area for attachement:
- Cut the Scotch Fastener material to shape and dry fit (i.e. without removing protective layer)
- Clean the area thoroughly with an alcohol wipe to remove dirt, oil, grease, etc.
- Remove protective layer and fix the fastener material to your headphones, applying pressure for about 60 sec
- Some pressure sensitive adhesives recommend 24 hours to firmly set before use
Note: Depending on where you end up putting the fastener material on your headphones, you *may* need to make the boom longer or shorter than shown here (about 5").
Note: The adhesive on the Scotch fasteners is very strong, but I've been able to remove it with no damage or residue left on my headphones.YMMV, so be careful on expensive headphones.
Step 11: Attach to Your Favorite Headphones
For the final step, attach the boom to your headphones.
- Press the 2 mating fastener material areas together so the mic boom mount is mounted onto the headphones
- Adjust the position of the boom by loosening the knob, positioning and re-tightening
- you can also gently bend the boom to desired position, but make sure you can still move it to an upright position when you don't want to use the mic.
At this point, you are basically done! Plug your headphone and mic into your computer and try it out!
Step 12: Variations on the Boom and Mount
Dozens of Variations
This is a fun project because there are *so many* ways to do the same basic thing: securely hold a microphone up near your mouth, in a way that can be reversed without damage to the headphones. Here are a few of the variations I tried, but I know there are *many* I haven't thought of. Please post in the discussion if you have any good ideas you want to share. Photos are great too!
1) "Quick and Dirty" Simplified Boom
If you want something functional and much easier to make, just use a piece of straight 12 gauge copper wire. Strip enough insulation off each end to bend the pivot loop and the microphone mount. Then use electricians or duct tape to attach the mic wire to the boom. Not as pretty, but works fine.
2) Boom Mount from an Elevator Bolt
There's a special type of bolt called an "Elevator Bolt" that has a big, flat head. I've found them online and in the specialty hardware trays in local hardware stores as well as the big box stores. You can make a good mount if you can find:
- 1/4-20 x 1" Elevator Bolt - qty 1
- 1"x3/8"x3/8" Nylon Spacer - qty 1
- 1/4-20 Wing Nut
Just assemble them as shown in the picture above, attach the scotch fastener material and you're good to go.
3) Magnetic Boom Mount
If your headphones are made steel (Vmoda Crossfades?) or don't mind gluing a washer (or other steel disk) to your headphones, you could use a magnet to hold the boom. The hole in the steel cover on the magnet in the picture above had to be enlarged a bit for the 8-32x3/4" machine screw, but it works really well.
Using super glue to attach a washer to headphones worked (see picture), but it's *ugly* and would ruin the looks of an expensive set. Painting the washer and using epoxy might improve the looks. Using double sided tape might avoid damaging the headphones cosmetically and make the whole thing reversible.
It would also be interesting to do a mount using small rare-earth magnets.
Step 13: A Word About Microphones
You might want to experiment with different microphones, and there are a huge number of options. Above (left) is a Radio Shack desktop mic that sounded horrible mounted to a monitor (picked up way too much room noise), but adapted as a close-in boom mic it sounds great! (Similar Audio Technica Mic)
Electronics surplus houses are a great source of cheap, high quality mics too. Above (right) is a high quality car speakerphone mic from an online electronics surplus house (cost $2). The original mount on this one was a rubber boot that fit over a little plastic ball, so by bending a ball-shape in the end of the copper wire made it easy to mount to the end of the wire boom.
Finally, if you can solder, broken headsets are a great source of good microphones (and a good way to recycle)
Most small microphones mounted on the end of a flexible boom are called "Electret Condenser Microphones" (a.k.a "condenser mics" or "ECMs"). They come in 2 basic pickup patterns, unidirectional and omnidirectional and have some very important differences worth understanding.
- Unidirectional mics are very sensitive to sounds coming into the front of the mic, but the sensitivity drops drastically as you move toward the back of the mic. When you see "noise-canceling" in a mic's description, it means it's unidirectional and usually has a cardioid (kind of heart-shaped) pickup pattern.
Noise-cancelling is a great thing, but there's a trade-off: this type of mic boosts low-frequencies drastically when the source is very close (like your mouth at 1"). This is called "Proximity Effect". This isn't a problem, per se, but information in speech (intelligibility) is primarily in mid-to-higher frequencies. Boosting lower frequencies can actually hinder spoken-word intelligibility (horrible to listen too as well).
- Omnidirectional mics are sensitive to sounds coming from all directions, which makes them susceptible to all kinds of noise in the room -- keys clicking, paper rattling, fans, etc. While picking up room noise is generally bad, omni mics are not subject to proximity effect and maintain their frequency response regardless of distance
So by placing an omni mic very close to your mouth (off to the side, never in front!), your voice will be much louder than the other sounds in the room and there's no unwanted bass boost.
So which one is better? Try them for yourself and see, but in general if the environment is especially noisy, unidirectional is preferred. For a reasonably quiet room, I like the sound of an omni better. Bottom line, both can sound very good.
Step 14: Final Tips
Using Headset with a Smartphone, Tablet, PS4, Xbox One, Wii U or Laptop with a single audio connector
If you want to use your headset with a device that has a only single 3.5mm (1/8") for stereo and microphone, then you need an adapter that converts the standard PC 3.5mm headphone and mic plug into a 3.5mm TRRS plug (TRRS=tip ring ring sleeve, i.e. 4 barrels or contacts). The one in the first picture is from Radio Shack, but there are many online like this one, that are more of a short cable style.
Take care, because there are 2 standards for these smartphone plugs: The older OMTP standard used on Nokia and older Android phones, and the newer CTIA, used by Apple, newer Android phones and newer laptops with only one audio port.
All of the next-gen gaming consoles (PS4, Xbox One, Wii U) use the CTIA version to plug into the controllers (Xbox One requires an adapter) so if you have something that works with Apple devices, it will work on the consoles too. If you have a device with the other standard (OMTP), just look for an adapter with that pin arrangement.
It's totally possible to use this with older consoles also, but requires different adapters (lots of instructables on this, or ask).
If you don't plan to remove the mic boom very often, you might want to cut 1" lengths of twist-tie material and wrap it around the 2 cables near the boom, and possibly at intervals down the length of the wire (see picture). Electricians tape or duct tape would work too, but they both leave sticky residue on cables. Gaffer tape is a better alternative if you have it around, but it's a bit pricey.
Optimal Mic Position
Place the mic as close as possible to your mouth, between 1" to 3" away, and off to the side. If you put put your finger on the left edge of your smile and move it out an inch or so directly to the left, this is about where it should sit.
It's important to stay out of the line breath coming from your mouth and/or nose. While it seems natural to put the mic right in front of your mouth, this is guaranteed to pick up breathing and drive your listeners crazy with sonic booms from your breath hitting the mic membrane.
The best thing is to experiment and listen to yourself with a Skype test call, or record yourself with Audacity (or similar recording program) and see what sounds best.
Step 15: Tips on PC Soundcard Settings
To sound your best, you have to take control of your own sound. Without doing this, you could be either too quiet or too loud and distorted, so learn how to do this!
I've read many negative mic reviews online where the person clearly didn't understand how to control the mic input level and was blaming the microphone. Whether you're on a Windows, Mac or Linux computer, all have the ability to adjust the levels. I'll only talk about Windows here, but similar functions exist on the other systems.
Note:If your sound card has a separate 'line' and 'mic' input, make sure to use the mic input. It's standard for a line input to be light blue, mic is usually pink or red.
Here's how to adjust your microphone level on Windows 7:
- Right-click on the speaker icon in the lower right systray and choose recording devices (or playback, they open the same dialog).
- The Sound devices dialog will appear.
- You'll see a list similar to mine in the first dialog picture above, but the number of devices, names and icons will be different -- that's ok, I have extra devices so I rename them and change the icons.
- In the "Recording" tab, double left-click on the device your mic is connected to (or right-click and select 'Properties').
- the properties dialog will appear for that microphone recording device
- In the Properties dialog, select the "Levels" tab and you'll see a slider to adjust the gain.
- start with this on about 75% and test how you sound by making a skype test call, or recording yourself with a program like Audacity, etc.
- Gain Boost: Some sound cards have sliders or check-boxes that boost the gain (amplification level) of the microphone. Gain can affect the quality of the sound, where level will just change the volume.
- Try the different settings and see what sounds best, you might have to change level after changing a gain setting.
- Boosting the gain too much can lead to excess room noise, distortion, or "bleedover" where you may hear a delayed echo of your own voice
- With too little gain, you won't be loud enough, even on 100% level
- AGC: Some sound cards may have a check-box for AGC (automatic gain control) which tries to keep your voice output at a constant level. Sometimes it works well, other times not so much. Again, experiment.
Other Hints for Better Microphone/Headset Sound on Windows:
- Sound Reduction on Phone call: Turn off the "Reduce sound when Windows detects a telephone call" feature. This is located in the "Communications" tab of the sound device dialog (right-click speaker icon, select playback or recording devices). By default, Windows 7 "helpfully" turns down the volume of other programs down by 80% when it detect a "phone call", e.g. using a program like Skype.
- Sidetone/Mic Monitoring: old-school telephone handsets feed a little bit of your own voice into the earphone so that you won't feel the need to shout. This is called sidetone, and is different from a delayed echo you might hear otherwise. Some soundcards support sidetone, most don't.
- Look in your *Playback* device properties (not *recording* as you might expect). If you see a slider for a microphone level underneath the speaker level (see picture above), then your sound card supports sidetone, and increasing the mic level will give you some idea that you're talking without annoying delay or echo.
- USB Audio Adapters using the CM108 chipset support sidetone. They sound good and are inexpensive as well.
- Listen to This Device: another way to temporarily check your mic voice quality (besides Skype or Audacity) is to use the "Listen to this Device" box on the "Listen" tab in the "Recording Device" properties dialog (see last picture above). If you check this box you'll hear what you sound like, but with an annoying delay. Still, it's useful for a quick check.
- check the Listen box, apply, and see how you sound,
- Adjust gain, level, AGC, etc until you're satisfied
- Finally uncheck the box and apply.
Note: many folks mistake the "Listen" box for a way to get sidetone, but the delay is too long to tolerate. The sound card hardware must support sidetone so that there's no delay. The way Windows puts the sidetone setting under "Playback devices" is somewhat confusing.
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