Well, I think – sorry, go ahead… Oh, OK. I was just gonna say we should – oops… OK, how about you go and then I’ll go?Said everyone, on every web meeting call…
These days, the video and audio quality always seems to be just ‘good enough’ when I am on Zoom calls, using MS Teams, or some other web meeting tools. With COVID, I do somewhere between 3 to 8 web meeting calls every work day and often do 1 to 3 on each weekend. So, I am now on web conferences for 20 to 40 times a week, or better said as 20 to 40 hours per week. It can be exhausting and mentally draining. It is like someone reattached the umbilical cord, albeit this time its the headphone wire to my computer.
We step on each other, we trip over each other, and it can be very challenging to engage in a productive meeting. Why? Because the audio sucks!
When the media gets in the way of the message, the mind wonders off in search of something more productive to do or to be entertained. Maybe even catch up on our sleep deprivation?
What aggravates me every time on these video conference calls is the poor audio quality, it drives me bonkers. The echos and reverberations, and the forgetful folks who respond to questions while forgetting they are on ‘mute’ compound it all too. I wonder how many times a week I say, “Your mic is muted”? Way too many times, that is for sure.
So, let us review the opportunities to improve regardless of what level you are at or what budget you have to spend. We have audio options for every level:
Well, I, for one am fed up. It is time to fix the audio issues in our daily web conferences. But, what can we do?
At the entry level, meeting participants often simply make use of the builtin microphone and speakers in their computers. This is not at all ideal and is the source of most acoustic problems and annoyances. The audio is tinny, reverberating and since the builtin mics can hear the builtin speakers, it often creates biggest problems. This is when most of the echo originates. “Everyone go on mute”.
Now, a few high-end laptops do have echo cancelling and audio quality assurance capabilities. I once owned a laptop with Bose speakers and a top end directional microphone. But, these laptops are rare, expensive, and are definitely the exception.
Most laptops have a low cost omnidirectional microphone and cheap speakers. There is no fidelity whatsoever, nor is there any means to prevent echos and delays. These microphones gather all the ambient sounds to be heard, including typing on the keyboard, doors slamming, and others chatting away off-camera. They are fairly useless, yet this is how most people connect way too often. There is little argument that people using these builtin options need to stop doing it – now.
A good intermediate option is to purchase a separate microphone that has an analog to digital converter inside and a USB output to connect directly to your computer or tablet.
The Rode PodCaster is ideal. As is the Shure MV-70 microphone. If mounted on a small mic stand or an articulated mic arm, then you are all set to go. I use a PodCaster and always get told how great my audio sounds to others. These Rode microphones have a 3.5 mm jack to plug-in a headset or ear-pods for monitoring. I use several options to listen, including: Apple Air Pod Pros, one of my Bose QC-15 / 30 / 35 headsets – all with a cable connection instead of the Bluetooth to reduce the BLE delay, or my fancy Shure 535 ear-pods that offer me full fidelity and broadcast quality audio monitoring.
Most homes are horrible for acoustics so finding a good location to participate from in a web call is critical too. How often have we seen someone conferencing from their kitchen table and watched family members walk through the background, sometimes not properly dressed for a video audience to see. You cannot un-see some of the dubious half-dressed scenes that I have witnessed on web calls. Yikes! Likewise, if family members are active, they cam make unwelcome and distracting noise. So, the other members get a sideshow with pictures and sounds. It can be amusing with pets and small children, so it is not all bad.
I also have the Jabra Evolve2 85 headset and a Plantronics PLT single ear headset. Both have microphones on extender arms. I find that both of these headsets work well, but after 6 to 8 hours of daily use, they squeeze on my ears too much. They actually hurt, especially the Plantronics. I must wonder how call centre and help desk professionals endure these headset vice clamps day in, day out. Maybe, I just have a bigger head compared to the average user?
By using a separate microphone and some sort of earphones, I eliminate the potential for a negative acoustic feedback loop by preventing the microphone from hearing the speaker audio. This prevents the annoying recursive loops that cause people to struggle when talking.
By plugging your earphones into the microphone instead of the laptop, you benefit for hearing a truthful mix of your audio and the other participants sounds without any delays. So, you hear whatever they hear. This is ideal.
If you are like me and do more than just video conferences, such as podcasts or narratives for video editing of YouTube clips, then you might want to get a more serious step up with a broadcast grade microphone. It is not unusual to see video clips of your favourite host on a YouTube channel using a true broadcast grade microphone. Popular options include the Shure SM7B or the Electro-Voice RE20 microphones. Both of these are elite, directional broadcast grade mics with warm sounds that accurately capture the subtle tones of your voice with full spectrum fidelity ranging over 20 to 20,000 hertz. They are extremely quiet microphones too, meaning they do not colour the sound nor distort it in any manner. Broadcast grade microphones may have builtin ‘anti-pop’ and ‘anti-vibration’ capabilities to further isolate external annoyances and provide the best audio quality. The directionality of these narrow and medium wide cardioid patterns work to isolate extraneous external sounds. This is highly beneficial as most of us are working from home when we have dogs barking and kids playing nearby. Life does not stop just because Mom or Dad are on a video call.
Now, for most video conferencing needs, these are perhaps excessive as I do not believe that the full fidelity will be reaching the other participant’s ears. Yes, they definitely do make a noticeable difference in video call sound quality. But, if you do other tasks like podcasts and video editing, then these quality microphones are perfect. These stellar microphones will deliver pristine audio to your recordings.
Since they are so quiet and sensitive, meaning low-level mics, a pre-amplifier of some sort may be necessary. I prefer the CloudLifter CL-1. But, there are many options to be considered. The point is to buy a pre-amp that is ultra quiet and does not induce its own noise into the connections.
These professional microphones use XLR balanced audio connections meant for field recorders or mixing consoles. I use a Zoom L8 console that is compact and rich with audio features to apply EQ to my voice, blend in music for the background, and bridge in callers on the telephone. This small console also provides the requisite +48 volts of phantom power necessary for some mics and pre-amps.
Other accessories, such as the Shure X2U or the Tascam US 2×2, provide the necessary conversion from 300 ohm balanced XLR cables to the computer’s USB inputs. Some small podcasting consoles like my Zoom L8 have this XLR to USB feature builtin so they are ready to connect to my computer too.
Whatever level of video meeting participant you pursue, there are always options to improve. Audio problems are the main source of disruption and upset on daily video calls, so even a small improvement is smart for you to communicate more effectively and for your authentic voice to be heard. The virus has forced us all to work in new ways, so if you are a recent graduate just entering the workforce or any old pro needing to attend a virtual board meeting, focus on your audio first, the audience will greatly appreciate it. Be sure to use a headset or earphones to prevent those nasty echos too. I cannot stress enough how critical it is not to use the builtin mic and speakers in your laptop or tablet. Why upset or annoy others on these calls? It reflects poorly on you. And, it detracts from your message.
Remember what Marshall McLuhan proposed in his lifelong studies of effective communications, “The media is the message”. So, getting the media right, greatly helps to deliver your message.
About the Author:
Michael Martin is the Vice President of Technology with Metercor Inc., a Smart Meter, IoT, and Smart City systems integrator based in Canada. He has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for applications that use broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies. He is a business and technology consultant. He was senior executive consultant for 15 years with IBM, where he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX). Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V). He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology. He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario. For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section. He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 20 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more.