Plugging Things in is Hard Sometimes

I solve a lot of problems with tech. Some problems are easy, some problems are hard, and some problems are trivial but you make them hard anyway. This is a story of one of those times.

There are a variety of problems that can occur when things aren’t plugged in, or aren’t plugged in properly. For example, if you have a desktop with a dedicated graphics card and plug your video cables into the integrated video output on the motherboard, you aren’t going to see anything on your monitor.

That isn’t particularly intuitive, though. After all, the cable is plugged in. The color and shapes match and that is all that matters, usually. But in this particular case it doesn’t actually work.

If you had unplugged all the cables from your desktop to perform the annual dust exorcism, plugged everything back in, and suddenly didn’t get any video, then you have a pretty good hint what you did wrong. All you changed was the plugs, therefore the solution is to look at what you plugged in wrong.

But sometimes you make assumptions about the problem. Assumptions make problem solving fast when they are correct, but can also lead you down the wrong path entirely.

For example, if you were building your first PC and you didn’t see video output, it might be a simple case of plugging cables into the wrong place. Or, it could be any number of more serious problems. Is the motherboard bad? Is the CPU not seated correctly? Who knows. The symptom is somewhat ambiguous, and when you have a PC that has never turned on before, you assume something – probably the wrong thing.

I have been guilty of that kind of assumption more than once. And with this most recent example, it was particularly bad.

Microphones are hard

So one day there I was, and I had a thought (and no, it wasn’t lonely, thank you very much).

I have such a beautiful voice, but nobody ever gets to hear it. Unless… I get a microphone.

So I did some microphone shopping and eventually ordered a 3.5mm microphone, for various reasons.

A few days later, the box arrived, I opened it (oops… spoiler alert), and proceeded to set it up so I could test it.

Or at least, that was the plan. But I plugged the microphone in (easy enough, right?) and… well, didn’t get any sound input. I didn’t see any bars in the Windows sound control panel and also didn’t see any waveforms when recording the audio using audacity.

Well, that is a problem. Time to troubleshoot. I did the basic steps – make sure the adapter is enabled, check the volume, make sure you are recording on the right adapter, and so on. No dice.

I had heard this particular microphone had relatively low gain (apparently this is a fancy word that basically means input volume) and that built-in motherboard 3.5mm ports might not amplify it enough to actually be audible (apparently 3.5mm ports usually have a lot of line noise issues), so I got a USB->3.5mm adapter which was the recommended fix for that particular problem. I had actually ordered it preemptively because I expected this to be an issue anyway.

So I plugged in the USB adapter and then plugged the microphone into that. Problem solved.

Oh, wait, no, not problem solved. Problem very unsolved, in fact. I still got no input on that adapter, even with full volume and 30% boost.

So I tried it on a different computer. No dice. I tried it on Linux instead of Windows and thought I had it working (albeit very temperamentally), but I eventually realized it was capturing the webcam audio instead (webcam audio didn’t show up as a recording device in Windows for some reason).

I did a lot of other complicated stuff I don’t completely remember anymore. I know I spent like 3 hours trying to get this microphone working. But no matter what I tried, it just refused to work.

Eventually I was going to return it because I assumed it was dead on arrival. I searched the web to see if anybody else had this same problem but didn’t find much. The manufacturer’s website has a few suggestions (like how to eliminate the line noise with built-in motherboard 3.5mm I mentioned above), but it is all pretty generic troubleshooting. You know, “did you plug it in,” that kind of thing. Obviously I am super-duper smart and already did everything on that checklist.

I couldn’t get it to work, so I was going to return it and then place an order for a new one. But I had a few last minute ideas I wanted to test just to see if I had somehow missed a step while I was testing the microphone.

And… I discovered it wasn’t plugged in. It was never going to work.

Now to be fair, 3.5mm is kind of terrible. It is the only connector I have ever seen that can be like 95% plugged in. It looks plugged in, but if you give it a bit more force it actually goes in ever so slightly to make the full connection. If you don’t do this it either doesn’t work at all or doesn’t work very well. I think it is something to do with the various sections (separated by rings) not lining up with their appropriate counterparts. 3.5mm is pretty weird, if you ever look into it.

So my problem this entire time was that the cable was only 95% plugged in, which basically means it wasn’t actually plugged in. But the thing that got me was it wasn’t even the part connected to the computer. I was actually using a 1 meter 3.5mm extension cable, and the link between the extension cable and the microphone was not fully connected.

Once I discovered this fact and corrected the mistake, the microphone worked perfectly.

Turns out things work when you plug them in.

Who would have thought?

So the moral of the story is, sometimes assumptions turn a 5 second problem into a 5 hour problem.

I guess that is the conclusion. TL;DR: Don’t be dumb and make sure your cables are actually plugged in.


Jacob Clarity


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