Optimizing Your Online Meeting Audio Stream

Mike Lawson • Audio Tech • July 15, 2020

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Thanks to the times we live in, we’re all doing a lot more online conferencing these days. Whether it be on Zoom, Skype, Teams, or Meet, the need to be heard clearly and with fidelity is greater than ever before.

We’ve all been there when a conference attendee has such crappy audio that you have to strain to hear what they’re saying. Worse still is when someone is in a noisy environment with lots of sonic disturbances. It looks like online meetings aren’t going away anytime soon, and if anything, will even pick up in the future, so it’s time to optimize your audio so you’re not one of those handing out the distractions.

Be Aware of Room Reflections

I do a lot of Zoom and Skype interviews for my podcast and one of my pet peeves is people who choose to speak to me in a reflective room. Even engineers and producers whose lives revolve around quality audio make this mistake more times than I’d expect. This might not be apparent to you, but the people on the other end of the conference call with thank you if you select the deadest room you can find when it’s time to connect. What does that mean? Think a closet filled with heavy clothing. You don’t need to actually go into a closet, but you want to aim for as close to that sonic environment as you can.

The worst place? A reflective place like a bathroom or a kitchen. Usually a room that’s carpeted will work fairly well, although if you have bare walls you still might have some sound “boing-ing” around. If you clap and can hear an echo, it’s time to find another room.

Use Headphones

While Zoom has an audio setting that helps to eliminate any echo when you talk, it does mangle the sound a bit. The best way to prevent those nasty transmission echoes that make it tough to concentrate is to use a set of headphones or a phone headset.

Actually, the headset that comes with Apple iPhones work remarkably well for this, as the microphone sounds pretty good despite being a little on the sonically thin side. Regardless of what you choose, headphones will improve not only the sound your hearing but the sound for everyone else as well. Bonus points if you can convince everyone on the call to use them too.

Test Beforehand

It only takes a minute to do a check that your audio and microphone are working, and all video conference apps provide this ability in the preferences. There you can test the level of your microphone (not too hot now!) and check the audio return to make sure that you can hear the others on the call when it starts. This only takes a minute but can save you a lot of embarrassment later if you enter the call only to find that your audio isn’t working properly.

Noisy Backgrounds

Another big problem is noisy environments. That means everything from gardeners blowing leaves and kids playing, to dogs barking and garbage trucks dumping. You want to be in an environment where you have not only the fewest distractions for you, but for everyone else as well.

Kids and dogs are pretty obvious, and we all try to keep those to a minimum, but sometimes an air conditioner or heater can be sonically oblivious to you, yet can sound like a jet engine to everyone else on the call. The dull roar of incessant background noise can quickly bring on ear fatigue, especially since it’s amplified by the built-in audio compression of the codec used.

Use the Mute Button

This should be pretty obvious, but if you’re just listening to the conversation, put your mic on mute. This will spare your fellow call attendees any of the noisy problems just discussed. A cool trick on Zoom is that when your mic is on mute, you can temporarily turn the mic on by pressing and holding the space bar. When you let go of the space bar, the mic returns to mute again.

The Signal Path

If you’ve read any of my previous articles you know that the cleanest signal path gives us the best fidelity, and it’s true here as well. If you have a USB mic, plug that sucker in and get it going. If you own an audio interface and a regular live or studio microphone, fire it up, give it a test and then give it a go. It feels pretty nice when you start to get comments like, “You really sound good.”

A high-quality signal path is the way to streaming audio happiness. You may be over online video conferences already that you never want to see another Zoom app, but it looks like we’ll all be forced into doing more of these, especially as schools turn to online learning. Follow the points above and you’ll present yourself in a totally professional manner that won’t be overlooked by others on the calls.

Producer/engineer Bobby Owsinski is one of the best-selling authors in the music industry with 24 books that are now staples in audio recording, music, and music business programs in schools around the world, Visit Bobby’s website at bobbyowsinski.com.

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