Can you hear me? This is probably the most common question I have heard over the last six months. Almost every online meeting and training that I have had the opportunity to participate in started with this question. Not without reason, as the quality of the audio signal sent by use depends on whether we can communicate effectively. That is why today I will try to explain how to ensure the best quality of sound in online communication (and not only).
I have the impression that the issue of sound quality tends to be neglected. This could be seen, for example, at the beginning of the lockdown, when it was almost impossible to purchase an Internet camera, while it was not that difficult to purchase a microphone. It is quite strange, as the sound quality determines whether we can communicate.
When the topic of audio quality is raised, it usually goes down to the equipment, specifically the microphone. However, software and the conditions under which we register our voice are equally important. That is why I will focus on all three elements in this article. I will also add a few easy tips that will allow you to get the most out of what you have.
An appropriate arrangement of the environment can bring unexpected results and significantly affect the quality of our sound. Therefore, before investing in a microphone, try to start by ensuring the best possible conditions. You will need basic knowledge of acoustics. What do you need to know?
- Sound waves, when they encounter obstacles, bounce off them.
The type of surface, its shape, distance, and the angle of incident of the wave have an impact on the direction, force of reflection, and sound diffusion.
The waves collected may overlap, which will make some parts of our room louder (and other places quieter).
A recurring sound may cause an unwanted after sound or even echo.
Some materials have a better ability to absorb sounds.
In order to give our microphone as much opportunity as possible, we should eliminate the after sound and try to muffle the sounds in the room as much as possible. Therefore, large, empty, and rough interiors put us in a very difficult position already at the beginning. And it will be very difficult to eliminate the effect of poor acoustics even with good quality equipment.
Let us now summarize the list of elements that will have a negative impact on our acoustic conditions:
- large smooth surfaces of materials such as concrete, glass, metal, tiles;
- room size (the larger, the worse);
- a small number of ambient elements that absorb and disperse sounds (furniture, flowers, pictures, curtains);
- location of the microphone in the focal point of the sound waves.
As you can see (and actually hear), the training room will not always be more professional than the room in the comfort of your home. And although we are not able to find an optimum place to participate in an online meeting every time, when we have this knowledge, we are able to influence small elements that will significantly improve the final effect, e.g. by curtaining the window, placing a tablecloth on a desk or making a curtain out of the bedsheet.
Microphone (and not only)
Impedance, sensitivity, frequency, dynamic range, or bandwidth are only some parameters of the microphone that most people know nothing about. How to choose a suitable microphone that will ensure the expected quality of sound and, at the same time, will not cost a fortune?
If we choose a microphone for online meetings and not, for example, to record podcasts or films, we certainly do not need top shelf equipment that will provide us with the qualify of sounds like from a recording studio. This is because each videoconferencing program compresses a sound signal so as to ensure the appropriate quality of the connection even when the Internet connection is poor.
Almost every external microphone that we can buy will provide us with better quality than the microphone built in our computer. This is simply due to its design, size, and location.
How to choose a microphone?
Taking our needs in consideration, it is worth paying attention to three basic elements. Directionality, connector, and additional equipment/components.
In our case, the best choice will be a unidirectional microphone (which is also know as “cardioid”), which “picks up” sound from a smaller section of space. This microphone will reduce the number of ambient sounds, which will be particularly important in rooms with poorer acoustics. Obviously, it will not work if we want to use it in a few people sitting at one computer. In such a situation, we should choose a bidirectional or omnidirectional microphone.
In most cases, we can find microphones with a USB connector or a 3.5 mm jack (mono or stereo for some headphones with a microphone). And the only restriction for us is the availability of port data in our computer. However, you should know that some microphones with a jack (e.g. to photo and video cameras) will require that we use an additional TRRS adapter (microphones to computers and mobile devices do not require such a connector).
Obviously, wireless microphones are also available on the market. However, in this case, we must bear in mind that they always need to be charged. We should also pay attention to the working time using a battery, which will grow shorter over time and be shorter than in a new device.
Mounting and additional equipment
Depending on the type of microphone, we will find many solutions. Microphones on stands, should microphones, integrated with headphones or attached to clothes (so-called lapel microphones).
It is worth examining the selection in terms of our preferences, needs, and space in which we will be working. A microphone on a stand needs a bit of space and will not be as mobile as a lapel microphone. The shoulder microphone will in turn require installing.
If you only can, then the best solution will be a microphone installed on the arm, additionally equipped with an anti-shock mount. Such a structure will eliminate accidental sounds arising, for example, when you move the desk.
An additional element of the microphone may be a sponge cover that partially eliminates unwanted sounds and softens those that reach the microphone. This will definitely improve the comfort of the listener.
The final element is a pop filter. What is that? It is a filter made of a piece of mesh or fabric which is stretched on a round frame. Its task is to muffle so-called explosive consonants which, as a result of increased pressure and high air speed, produce unwanted effects when you hit the microphone.
It is also worth paying attention to the settings of the program which we use to contact our audience. Some of them give us an opportunity to change advanced options that can have a significant impact on quality.
I will use the example of the Zoom application, which I use most frequently. When you open audio settings, you can find a link to advanced settings (Settings > Audio > Advanced). You will find there inter alia:
- Suppress Persistent Background Noise (suppressing persistent noise in the background, e.g. the noise of a fan or AC);
Suppress Intermittent Background Noise (suppressing individual sounds in the background, e.g. slamming doors, typing, or moving a chair);
Echo Cancellation (noise reduction).
Audio settings in Zoom, the program for video conferencing. Author/source: Zoom application
By default, they are in Auto mode, which, on the one hand, eliminates unwanted noise, but may also distort our voice and, as a consequence, decrease the quality of our sound (e.g. lagging, breaking, or no sound at all).
If we are in good conditions and have the right equipment, we can try to turn these additions off (Disable option). If we are not convinced of this solution, check the box Show in-meeting option to “Enable Original Sound” from microphone. Thanks to this, we will be able to switch to the original sound source during the call in the application. It is worth testing this and asking our interlocutors whether they feel a positive difference.
As a fun fact, I will add that this will allow us to try to play music (or even play it live), which would simply be impossible (or rather impossible to listen to) with the sound improvement options activated.
As you can see, there are several ways of improving the quality of sound in online connections and they do not require large investments. However, the subject needs to be approached reasonably. As even purchasing an expensive, studio condenser microphone will not give us a satisfactory effect if we do not ensure proper acoustics, and the communication program additionally distorts and flat out the signal we send.
Once we prepare for the meeting properly (acoustics, equipment, software), the last factor should be taken into account. Ourselves, our own habits, and unwanted behaviors. For example, turning our head away from the microphone unintentionally, sloppy diction, touching/tapping on the microphone (which is common for lapel microphones or those built in headphones) or making noise with objects. Therefore, a good solution is to mute the microphone when we are not speaking. The Zoom application I have mentioned before has an option allowing us to activate the microphone by keeping the Space key. This is particularly useful when we speak relatively rarely and briefly.