I'm having trouble finding a compression level for recording on an ASUS Q400 laptop.  

I've tried high rates and low rates and they all sound the same -- barely audible on playback.

Any suggestions?

Also, is there any other way to find a compression level other than this tedious trial-and-error method?  

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Have you turned on the microphone boost?

Yes, that does help.

I'm using Microsoft 44.100, 4 bits, 21 kB, but it's not as bright a sound as I've had in the past.

I have an ASUS laptop, but it's not the Q400.

Here are the settings I am using, and they sound great:

PCM

8.00 kHz, 8 Bit, Mono

Hope that helps.  What mic are you using?

I just realized how old this post is!  Sorry for the late response

Go to control panel, sounds.  There will be a window with playback and record.  Click on record.  Adjust the levels of the recording higher.  Also you can click on Microphone Enhancements and move the boost up.  If it still is not good enough, you may consider getting an external USB mic.  I have one from The Sound Professionals.  You just plug it into computer at job, go to control panel, sounds, choose the new USB mic, click on Levels, adjust, click on Microphone Enhancements and move the boost up or down.  It is powerful so I use about 10 boost.  Hope this helps.

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