Sunday, 28 February 2021

Improve the Audio Quality of Your Video Calls with Seven Easy Steps





Written by Robyn T. Braley

The New Reality

Video conferencing has become a matter of necessity due to the COVI9-19 experience. As it became commonplace, we began to better understand the communication needs of the virtual space. 


Whether you speak to an audience of 1 or 100, your sound quality makes a statement about you. If people can't understand you, they can't engage with your ideas and opinions.  


Audiences will make allowances for poor visuals but will not tolerate shoddy audio. My purpose in this post is to help you improve the sound of your voice on video calls. 



Sound Troubles

Some audio gaffes are human-made. We can't blame technology. 


We've all experienced awkward moments when someone on our call forgot to mute their microphone. We've heard people muttering incoherently for no particular reason or suddenly taking a bathroom break punctuated by the sound of a flushing toilet. 


I've witnessed people nodding off to sleep accompanied by the rhythmic sound of snoring. Quite frankly, the snoring expressed the feelings of many about what the boss was saying.  


The most disturbing example involved a team member forgetting where they were and what they were supposed to be doing. At that moment, they began a private - and somewhat disturbing - conversation with their cat. Only in Zoomland!


The Details Matter

You can fix some problems by merely paying attention. I learned a terrible lesson about how details matter in the virtual audio world. 


During my career, I have been a radio and T.V. host. Now I am a media commentator, podcast guest, voice actor, and keynote speaker. I've recorded music albums, was a concert artist and produced significant events. I record radio and TV commercials and video tracks. I know all about the importance of microphones – or so I thought! 


The Speaker Committee

I have been a Rotarian for 22 years. My primary area of service has been on our Speaker's Committee.

 

Most weeks, our club has a speaker share a relevant topic at our meetings. You can put many hours into finding the right speaker for the right occasion.


In November 2020, our club decided to have a Canadian Football Leagues Grey Cup Championship celebration even though COVID-19 had cancelled the season. Holding our annual Grey Cub party would be our statement of faith in the future of the league. 


Our Grey Cup meetings are always fun. We wear hometown Calgary Stampeder Jerseys and ridicule those who dare to show up wearing our sworn enemies' gear – the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Edmonton Es. 


The E.E.'s were formerly known as the Eskimos but are in the midst of changing their name due to historical Inuit sensitivities. Whatever their new name will be, Stampeder fans will not like the team any better! It is a tradition.    


I searched for a speaker who would reflect the event's stature and express the sadness of not having the 2020 game and all that goes with it. 


The Perfect Speaker

Doug Mitchell, O.C., A.O.E., Q.C., is a former football player who has also served as the league commissioner. He distinguished himself as a nationally renowned lawyer and is often sought after by professional and amateur sports leagues for advice. He agreed to be our speaker. 


Mr. Mitchell and I arranged two telephone conversations to prepare for the meeting. He asked that we produce his presentation as a television interview, with me asking him questions. I did background research, prepared questions that he agreed to, and got ready for the big day.  


On the day of the virtual meeting, many club members turned out wearing full regalia. Several visitors also joined us. 


Everything was going well when disaster struck! Despite all my preparation, I had plugged my earbuds/microphone combo into the wrong jack on my laptop. 


When it came time to introduce him and launch into the interview, my audio was garbled and barely understandable. I didn't know it that time and only discovered the problem when I received a meeting video. 


I was devastated! Details matter, and garbled audio can erase hours of preparation in an instant. 


Step 1: Location, Location 

Do you remember watching an expert on T.V. who sounded like they were in a cave or the empty water tower in your town? 


Choosing a different location can often fix the problem. The physical elements of every room differ.


A space with concrete walls or large plate glass windows may cause other-worldly echoes and reverberations. If setting up in a room with heavy curtains is an option, check that out. Curtains will absorb the sound waves. 


If you are using a mic on a desk stand, drape a sweater or piece of foam behind it, making sure it doesn't touch the mic. 


Finally, some choose to video call while outdoors. I'll discuss the lighting issues in a future post, but the sound problems are predictable. Cars passing, fire sirens, barking dogs and the wind blowing are just the beginning of what can go wrong. It's generally a bad idea. 


Take time to test location options. Set up a rehearsal call with a friend and ask them to record it so you can hear what others hear. 


Step 2: Check Your Connection

A poor WiFi connection may cause a garbely sound or the sound of your voice to cut in and out. If this is a recurring problem, hardwire your device into your internet hub. 


If that isn't an option, try setting up closer to your router. My laptop signals me if my connection is weak. 


Step 3: Control the Sounds Around You 

Random background noise is the curse of virtual conversations. Choose a space where such sounds can be excluded or controlled.


It does not matter how fantastic your audio quality is if a screaming child, yappy dog, or intermittent buzz from the air conditioner detracts from your conversation. 


Quiet – Broadcast in Progress!


Find a private space and put a sign on the outside of your door! 



There is a mic that will improve the quality of your sound that is right for you. 


Step 4: Choose the Right Microphone

Your goals will dictate what level of microphone that you need. As every situation is different, you must take the time to test the audio gear you have. How does it sound to others? Decide whether the quality level of your audio will help you achieve your goals.


Video conferencing is one thing, but if you feel Podcasting, producing videos, teaching tutorials or doing radio or T.V. interviews are part of your future, investing in quality equipment will only help you. Purchasing a quality microphone will eliminate stress for all applications. 


Your Phone Mic 

If you have purchased a new computer or mobile device, the built-in microphone and speakers may be all you need. The quality improvement has been remarkable. 


However, your speaker and microphone may cause feedback squeals or make you sound like you are talking underwater. The sound from your speaker will loop back through your mic a nano-second late, which causes the problem. 


Sound can also be affected by the distance between you and the microphone. You may be the perfect distance away from your camera and look balanced and - well - like a T.V. star. But, space may compromise the sound. 


Moving closer may have unintended consequences. If you are close enough to improve the audio, your camera may distort your head's size or show too many nose hairs. The key is to test, test, test, and then test again. 


Wired Phone Buds/Microphone Combo

In most applications, the earbuds and microphone that came with your phone or IPad will be all you need. If they aren't quite what you need, you can quickly and cheaply upgrade. 


However, if you choose to use them with your laptop or desktop, do online research for tips about hooking them up to your particular computer brand. 


If seeing the cord onscreen bothers you, trail it down your back. If that makes your cable too short, purchase an extension connector.


WiFi Ear Bud, Air-Pod/Microphone Combos

Bluetooth earbuds and Apple Air-Pods fit snugly inside your ear. They are wireless, which means – you guessed it - wires are eliminated. 


The microphone is inside the earpiece, which mystifies me. How can it work so well located so far from your mouth? But it does. 

 

Bluetooth connections can be compromised, causing them to sound garbely if the connection is weak. Again, test, test, test.


You can also upgrade the quality of earbuds if you are comfortable with this microphone option. 


Headphone/Mic Combo

My favourite is a Sennheiser headphone/microphone unit that offers an excellent all-in-one solution. I put it on my head, plug it in, and log into my meeting. 


This type of mic is called plug-and-play. It connects directly to a USB port and is ready to go. The first time you use it, your computer will automatically download its drivers. 


Mine cost about $80.00. You can purchase various brands for between $30 and $150. If your audio quality matters, I highly recommend investing in a better option. 


  • The headphones are usually smaller and less visible.
  • The mic arm extends from the headband to the side of your mouth.
  • The proximity to your mouth eliminates most random sounds.
  • As the mic is beside your mouth, plosives (below) are eliminated.  


Clip-on Lavaliere Mics

An excellent option for video conferencing is a Lavaliere mic. Lavalieres are tiny mics that attach near the top of your shirt, jacket or blouse using an alligator clip. Most are plug and play.


They are used extensively by T.V. News anchors and for many video interviews. If hardwired, you can run the mic wire under your shirt or jacket to your mic jack. Lavalieres are hard to spot and provide excellent quality. 


You may need to use headphones or earbuds if you are operating too close to your device's speaker. 


I have a Sony model which cost around $300.00. I don't use it as much for video conferences as I'm too lazy to rig up the cord, etc. I use it often for filming videos.


You are never wrong to choose a brand name like Sony, Sure, or Sennheiser. However, there are excellent new brands offering quality at a lower price. Among them are Rode, Comica and Boya. 


Prices range from $50.00 to $150.00 for entry-level Lavalieres. Broadcast quality units start at around $300.00 and go up. 



DeskTop Mic

A free-standing mic will allow you to take a giant leap forward in overall audio quality. The dramatic increase in Podcast production has brought a variety of relatively inexpensive and surprisingly good quality microphones. 


While you can buy them online, I have noticed that excellent brands are also available in T.V./Computer stores like Best Buy. Prices range from $100.00 to $500.00. 


If you are uncertain, go to your local music supply store. Their staff are often very knowledgeable and can help you make a decision that is right for you. 


Condenser vs Dynamic

There are two kinds of microphones: condenser and dynamic. Condenser mics offer the best quality for video calls. 


However, more expensive doesn't always mean the better option for video conferencing. Please let me explain. 


I am also a voice actor and record narration tracks for videos, radio and T.V. commercials. The studio-quality microphone I use is a Neumann TLM 102 studio microphone which costs around $1,000.00. I love it – for the purposes intended! 


However, a condenser mic that is of recording studio quality is often too sensitive for video calls or tutorials. They can pick-up subtle sounds that are difficult to hear with the average human ear. 


They become apparent during the editing process. These mics can also sound 'bassy' and require adjusting, which can be a nuisance if all you need it for is a quick conversation.  


Brand Names

New brands making a name for themselves include the Blue Yeti, the Blue Snowball Ice, Rodes, and Audio Technica condenser mics. Traditional brands like Sure, Neuman or Sennheiser, known for concert or recording studio quality, have introduced cheaper models to compete with the new competition. 


Mic Stands

The type of mic stand you need will be determined by how you plan to use it. A simple 12-inch desk stand may be all you need and will cost about $25.00. It can be placed out of camera range, and the mic will pick up your voice well.  


If you are Podcasting, producing videos, or teaching tutorials, you may want to invest in a boom-arm that fastens to your table or desk. They are made from two sections of metal arms with a joint in the middle. 


The mic attaches to one end and can be easily moved in front of your mouth. Springs create tension, allowing the mic to be moved to many positions until you find one that is comfortable for you. 


The fact that a boom attaches to the side of your desk eliminates cords and mic stands from your desk surface, freeing up the space for notes, etc. 


When not being used, the arm/mic can be pushed up and out of your way. Your mic doesn't need to be taken apart and reassembled before each use. 


Some like to show their boom arm and mic in front of them. There is a bit of cache; they make you look like a talk radio host. You can even order a vanity foam windsock (below) with your name on it. 


The more sensitive the mic, the more you will need wind protection. 


Step 6: Wind Screens Control Your Plosives 

If you have a better-quality mic, you will also need a windsock or pop screen. Both soften plosives.


Plosives are puffs of wind that hit the diaphragm of your mic, causing a noticeable distortion sound. The more expensive the mic, the more sensitive the diaphragm and the more distorted the plosive will be. 


The letters P, T, K, B, D, and G are examples of plosives. Hold your hand about 6 inches from your face and repeat,


Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers.



Mic Windsocks

A windsock is a custom-cut foam jacket that fits snuggly over your mic. They are great for podcasting and video calls if you have an entry level mic or want the audience to see your mic. 


A pop filter has two metal rings that hold two layers of stretched nylon in place. When placed about 6 inches in front of your mic, it diffuses the plosive while allowing the sound of your voice to transfer through to the mic. 


Pop filters are used in recording studios. I use one when recording voice tracks.  For video calls, it works well if your mic is out of camera sight. Large ones are unwieldy looking. 

 

Step 7: Headphones 

Headphones are part of earbuds or headphone/microphone combos. If that is your microphone choice, you've killed two birds with one stone.


But, if you use a desk mic, you will also need headphones. The sound coming from your device will create feedback as it is picked up by your mic. 


You can use earbuds for hearing only, but you may want to purchase a better quality pair of headphones. However, the bigger the earcups are, the more distracting they may be for your audience. 


I have several types of headphones of various sizes. My noise-cancelling phones provide amazing sound but the ear cups are big and unsightly for video call purposes. I use a smaller, medium-quality set when I use my condenser mic for client Video Calls or Tutorials. 


As an aside, TV Anchors have an "in your ear" monitor which deliver exceptional quality sound but can't be seen unless you see their head from the side. These 


The End 


Check out the Brandit Academy on this website for speaking and webinar topics!


Your Opinion Matters. Please share your comments below. What have I missed? What caused you to think differently?

robyn@unimarkcreative.com

Websites: www.unimarkcreative.com

Twitter: @robyntbraley
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