I’ve been working remotely for about five years full-time. Over that time I’ve talked with colleagues pretty much every work day, so being able to communicate clearly by audio has been crucial. Bad quality audio can quickly turn a good conversation into a frustrating one when you struggle to hear the speaker, or keep needing to ask them to repeat themselves. Videoconferencing is lower bandwidth than in-person communication; I’ve tried to get as good quality when videoconferencing so I can catch as much of what the other person is communicating.
I studied as a musician, and accumulated several pieces of audio gear and knowledge about working with audio which have been very useful for working remotely. A friend asked me for advice about getting some audio gear so I sent him an email. That turned into a post on our company wiki, and now I’m posting it here publicly.
In my experience, for remote videoconferencing to work well, the following things are very beneficial:
- A fast, stable, and reliable internet connection
- A quiet space free of distractions, and without too much echo
- A space you’re able to comfortably talk in during work hours
- A good microphone close to your mouth and a set of headphones - Hearing yourself echo on someone else’s call makes it hard to have a conversation.
Improving audio quality when video conferencing
Here are some tips in rough order of importance for improving audio quality when videoconferencing. You can keep going down the list with diminishing returns of audio quality, stop whenever you and/or your team is happy with the quality you’re getting.
- Get really close to the mic. It should be no more than an inch or two from your lips. Having a mic far away from your mouth makes everything else more difficult. A stand on a desk is better if it goes up to your face, having the mic at desk level will pick up lots of other noises and echoes.
- Plug your computer in with Ethernet, or make sure you have really strong Wi-Fi. I always prefer to use a cable to remove a potential weak link.
- Find a quiet room to talk in. If you can’t find a quiet room, or you are on a call with more than 3 participants, I’d recommend muting yourself when you’re not talking.
- Find a room that doesn’t echo. Clapping your hands will help you spot echo quickly. You especially want to avoid sitting in any spot where you hear ringing after a clap. Blankets, couches, other soft surfaces help deaden echo.
- Get a decent mic. You should be able to get something fine for $70-$200 USD. Your first choice is whether to use an XLR mic + USB audio interface or a USB mic. An XLR mic will last a long time, especially in office use. My mic is about 10 years old now and still running fine. I’d personally steer clear of mics with a built in USB connection. Because they combine active electronics with the mic, the electronics may break or become obsolete even when the mic is still good. However, they don’t require an extra audio interface which is one less moving part and they will still sound fine. Getting a USB mic wouldn’t be a ‘wrong’ decision, this comes down to your comfort with audio gear and how much stuff you want on your desk. Marco Arment has a good overview of mics. Microphones have different polar patterns which control where they pick sound up from. If you want to be able to play meeting audio through speakers instead of wearing headphones, then look for a mic with a cardioid polar pattern to only pickup sound from the front of the mic. Dynamic microphones are often in a cardiod pattern. Condenser microphones are often bidirectional and pick up equally well front and back, which will not work well when combined with speakers.
- If you have an audio interface or USB mic, watch that you’ve set the input levels correctly. If the gain is set too high, you will get terrible sounding digital clipping. If your interface has lights, watch them while talking loudly and make sure they don’t turn red. You can also look at the input levels on your computer and make sure they aren’t hitting the very top of the input scale as this may also indicate clipping. When in doubt, set the gain levels a little lower; video conferencing software usually has some gain leveling built-in to match you with the other speakers.
- Get a pop filter, this takes the plosives out of your speech, a mic picks these up much more than a person does.
- If you don’t get a USB mic you’ll need a separate audio interface. https://marco.org/podcasting-microphones#interfaces has some suggestions. Anything over $80 USD will be fine. You only need a 1 input audio interface, but often 2 input interfaces will be about the same price. Look for one with a USB connection, you don’t need Thunderbolt for single channel recording. USB-C and/or USB 3.0 would be ideal for longevity, but they cost a little bit more, and USB 2.0 is just fine for a single recording channel.
- Once you’ve got echo in your room under control, you can look at treating it with acoustic panels to “deaden” the room further. You can make these yourself, or purchase them from lots of places online. My office has a wooden floor, and drywall roof and walls which created lots of unpleasant echoes. The person I bought my foam panels off suggested I target ceiling/floor reflections first, I mounted four panels on my roof, and this was enough for me. Acoustic treatment is a whole science in itself and is very room dependendent, so do some research for your space.
- If you’re not able to avoid echoey or noisy room environments, then you can look at processing your sound with noise removal software. I have used SoundSource (disclosure: a friend made it) and SPL De-Verb Plus to remove room noise on the other end of calls which turned them from painful to tolerable. I also tried Krisp but didn’t get great results from it. Your mileage may vary though.
- https://sixcolors.com/post/2016/11/a-podcast-studio-for-under-100/ has more general gear tips.