Quarantined? Confined to working at home? Have to do constant Zoom calls for your business or profession? Well, at least you can still work thanks to the power of Zoom (not to mention if you’ve held its stock for the last few months). But not everyone has the good sense to sound or look good while doing these video streams, and using a built-in laptop speaker or (heaven forbid) phone microphones is A/V Suicide. This article will give you some simple settings and information (even some gear suggestions) for you to look and sound your best while using Zoom calls.
Doing video calls of any kind can reveal that we’re not exactly prepared to do Hollywood sterling standard methods of production from our bedrooms or kitchens. Worse, the equipment we’re using in the form of laptops, phones or worse are horrific for audio. Add to this the requirement of most conference call software to highly compress our A/V data so they can save cost on data streaming makes this whole business of “online conference calling” very difficult for participants to see and listen to. And since we know that even a 1 dB difference in the decibel of audio can have people actually like our content better, if we could get a 50% improvement in the quality, level, and clarity of our audio, we’d have an unfair competitive advantage in the marketplace of conference calls.
How do we do it?
If you’re in a highly reverberous kitchen, livingroom or other chamber, it’s going to be very difficult for your sound to seem professional. Moreover, the automatic noise cancelling and anti-echo algorithms of Zoom and other software will have to burn more processing power to filter out those echoes – and even the echo of your own voice in the speakers of the laptop (if you’re doing video conferencing without headphones). On newer computers this isn’t that big of a deal, but on anything older than 2013 machines, this can cause significant delay, latency and dropped frames and audio – which makes you seem super unprofessional. Those same algorithms can even misdiagnose those echoes and reverb signals as your voice and haplessly cut your voice off errantly.
Ultimately, you want to be in a quiet, dead (devoid of echo/reverb) room. No matter what gear you have, if you don’t have this most basic aspect of good recording, getting a professional result is going to be really difficult. Have no shame in using your walk-in closet. It’s small, insulated with clothes and will have near-zero reverb/echo. Just put up some kind of sheet or barrier so your office-mates don’t realize you’re actually in a closet.
Things to Never Use:
Your phone. The phone companies had to cut corners somewhere – and since the main purpose of your phone is to take pictures (not make calls), audio was the first corner to cut. Built-in microphones and audio connections on all modern phones are sub-par for professional use.
Your built-in laptop microphone. The computer manufacturers had little choice on your laptop but to put the microphone in a position that exacerbates room noise, echo, and bad fidelity. It’s not their fault. But don’t you use them!
Your microphone on the white earbuds of your phone. While you’ve heard me say that the microphone there is better than the one on your phone, it’s still a far cry away from professional quality. Plus, showing up on a professional call with silly looking white buds doesn’t “raise your stock” with anyone.
Your built-in camera on your laptop – unless your computer is raised up off the table. Why? Low-angle cameras reveal double-chins and look up your nose which is wholly unflattering. Use a dedicated USB webcam like the Logitec C920 we use at Cinema Sound on a gooseneck and position it so it’s slightly above your eyeline. Without tilting your head to it (which just has it look up your nose again) raise your eyes to meet the camera lens. This will give you a “thinner” look and most features made to look chubby and unflattering will be slimmed and helped.
Things to Always Use:
Good: Headphones and USB lavalier. We have to use headphones in order to full stop any and all echo issues from happening. When the built-in laptop speakers output the voices of the others on the call, your microphone (heaven forbid the laptop mic) picks those sounds up and re-transmits them to the call. Algorithms in the software take computer processes to intercept these signals and “erase” them from the stream – many times also causing undue fidelity issues in your voice stream. Having audio go through headphones completely eliminates this issue.
Having a USB lavalier (the one we use is this one from Saramonic), removes the standard, sub-standard on-board laptop microphone and brings the microphone right to your face (or at least on your lapel). This allows the computer audio software to turn down its input – and in so doing – turns down exterior noise while enhancing the sound of your voice. It creates a powerful, strong and clear sound for the software to easily transmit to the stream.
Better: Headphone/headpiece mic combination. This option is better, because the microphone, attached to the headphones, is placed directly in front of the mouth. This forces the software to drop the input volume of the mic even further and further reduces background noise and ambience. Here’s an example of an inexpensive combo from Amazon.
What Settings Should We Use?
Just because a microphone/headphone combination is “plug and play” doesn’t mean it really is. We must ensure that the input to our software recognizes and uses our microphones and headphones. Many times these settings can be found in the system preference of the computer itself, but in the case of Zoom, they must be set uniquely there. Also, it’s a good idea to restart your computer before hosting (or joining) any session to make sure that nothing in the CPU background might interrupt the session.
To activate your specific microphone, go to the Zoom Preferences and select the Audio tab at left.
Here you’ll find the Video, Audio, General and the other preferences of the software. With your headphones plugged in, select the “speaker” output pulldown that corresponds to them. With your microphone plugged in (via usb) select it in the microphone pulldown. If it isn’t present, be sure the microphone was plugged in before Zoom was booted. If you’re using an audio interface, you’ll see the interface there. Be sure your microphone is plugged into the first input of the interface otherwise Zoom may not see it without further configuration from the system audio preferences of your computer.
You can use the “Automatically adjust microphone volume” check box if you wish. Otherwise, use the “Input Volume” slider to ensure that your loudest speaking volume just barely “ticks” the highest right “light” on the meter near the speaker icon. Headphone volume will almost always be found directly on the QWERTY keyboard of your device or on the side of your phone so using the setting here is superfluous.
For video settings, as mentioned, be sure the camera is slightly above your eye line. Enable HD and use the “original ratio” to cut down on unnecessary computer processing. Mirroring video allows you to see yourself on your screen in a way that makes it easier to interact with picture.
Under the audio tab is also the “advanced” button under which you’ll find the “Echo Cancellation” button. Here, you’ll want to leave this on “auto” unless you’re committed to doing your calls without headphones (using your computer speakers to hear participants). If you are, and don’t do this – but if you must, set it to “aggressive.” Do not use “aggressive” if you’re using headphones to monitor your session.
Under the recording page, you’ll want to set your preferences to have “optimize for 3rd party video editor” checked so that you can easily bring in your resulting video files into a program like Premiere Pro for further editing. With this not checked, it’s a difficult to import these files and you’ll have to transcode them. You’ll also want to make sure the “record video during screen sharing” is checked otherwise your recording will pause while you show your screen to participants. Unless you’re doing a conference where you need to have separation of participants audio (as in the case of folks with really bad audio which needs to be separately cleaned) uncheck “Record a separate audio file for each participant.”
I recommend doing a test stream AND recording at the same time and monitor your bandwidth. Ensure your computer and internet connection has at least 50% resources/bandwidth left over so that you don’t drop frames or have other unfortunate events occur during your stream.
When doing a stream, it takes less computational power if you move less and use simple backgrounds. It also happens to be less distracting. Stay still and be sure to focus your gaze on the camera itself – instead of looking at yourself.
A “perfect setup” would include a nice 3-point lighting setup as we describe in our “Do Auditions which get you cast” education, but it might be overkill to set up for every Zoom call. Nevertheless, you’ll want to make sure that you have a key light – or a light which is in front of you (not just overhead) to light your face. Otherwise, the camera/software will compensate with “gain” and turn your picture into massive grain or otherwise unsavory visual artifacts will occur.
The Final Result
Generally, if you do your conference calls/casts/streams in a quiet and dead room, with a good microphone/headphone combination, and use a nice LED light just to the side of the camera and use a camera that is elevated just above your eyeline – while using the right settings, you should be able to get a powerful advantage over the rest of the folks in your conference. In fact, when you pull up the gallery of videos in your conference call, you’ll notice a powerful difference in yours versus the rest of those who haven’t done these simple steps.
Let us know what other steps you’re doing to make your streams and calls look and sound great!