How to get the best sound quality out of your videoconferences

Are you spending chunks of your day on Zoom or Teams? It's worth making a few tweaks to ensure your audio is up to scratch.
22 April 2020 | 8 Shares

Is this all that everyone’s doing right now? Source: Shutterstock

If you’re anything like us, you’ll be spending several hours a day on Zoom, Skype, Slack, GoToMeeting, and a few other video conferencing apps at present.

But many users sound like they’re calling from the bottom of a deep well, or have every other word obliterated by static, rattles and clicks.

Here’s our very own podcaster Joe Green‘s take on getting the best audio quality you can in these challenging times – ensuring that your calls remain high-quality and professional, regardless of the circumstances.

Use the room

Practically no-one has a place in their home specifically designed for audio, save a few podcasting professionals. Getting the space right is the crucial first step, and the number one rule is that ‘hard surfaces are bad, soft furnishings are good’.

That’s because sound waves reflect off hard, straight surfaces and are absorbed by soft, uneven wall coverings, rugs, and carpets. The more reflections in the room, the more tinny and generally unpleasant you’ll sound.

Cool, straight minimalist lines look very contemporary, but your audio audience won’t thank you for your sense of style.

Instead, go for a room with plenty of soft furniture and fittings, carpets or rugs, and pictures on the walls. In fact, for really important meetings and virtual conversations, you can even drape sheets or towels over flat, hard surfaces. And pull the curtains or drapes if you can.

Clutter is good, minimalism bad. Source: Shutterstock

Use an external microphone

The worst microphone (mic) you have is probably the one that’s built into your phone or laptop. If you have any alternative, stop using anything built-in, and hunt as far down this list as you can for something better.

There’s no need to spend any money, or very much at all, to make a massive difference to your audibility — at the end of the day, it’s how you’ll be getting your message over, and quality counts.

  • Use wired headphones with a microphone in-line in one of the cables. Using a wired connection means you don’t have to worry about charging up earbuds, plus the mic will hang down closer to the source of sound than round the side of your head, which is the case with Bluetooth earbuds that are terribly fashionable, but produce terrible microphone sound.
  • If you have a separate webcam that you have lying around from the days before your laptop came with one built-in, see if it has a mic. If so, try it out: most video conferencing apps will let you test your audio outside a formal meeting. The quality will, in all likelihood, be better than the tiny microphone hidden away somewhere in the laptop’s screen bezels.
  • Headsets. If you have a call-center type headset, use it. You may look like a 1980s pop icon, or someone from a stock imagery library, but the sound quality is about five times better than some of the alternatives listed above. If you have kids or are a part-time gamer yourself, use a gaming headset. Although not designed for an audiophile experience, they are at least intended to be worn for long periods: perfect for those interminable Zoom meetings.
  • Standalone mic. Like any piece of equipment, you can spend anywhere from a few dollars or pounds right up to many thousands on microphones. But for most purposes outside a professional recording studio, a USB microphone is ample quality. Sure, you can go for a separate pre-amp and audio interface if you have them lying around, but as most people will be listening to online conferences either in headphones or over tinny computer speakers, that’s probably overkill.

    A mic that will make a 100 percent improvement in the way you sound can be found for $15 and upwards. If you (or your employer) has $100 or so, a Yeti or Blue USB mic will be absolutely fantastic and give years of reliable, first-rate service.

Background noises

Like the advice given to anyone who’s video-casting for any reason: keeping activity in the background of a shot to a minimum is wisdom that also holds true for audio.

Avoid sudden, loud sounds, including TVs or radios playing in the background. Other people’s conversations also creep easily into audio streams: this is just the type of noise that the audio processing algorithms in GoToWebinar and Skype are attuned to and optimized for.

Some background noises are actually OK, typically long, drone-type noises like lawnmowers, air conditioning units, or a distant vacuum cleaner. That’s because those clever audio algorithms work like those found in noise-canceling headphones: they “learn” those noises and can actually filter out most annoyances on-the-fly.

Conclusions

If you’re going to be spending significant amounts of time in virtual meetings, it pays to invest a little time and energy (if not a few dollars, too) in making sure you’re heard at your best.

As every type of human interaction now seems to have to take place online, it’s one way to make sure that everyone can hear your carefully-crafted messages at their best.