Improving Sound for Meetings: Microphones and More
A skilled editor can salvage poorly recorded video using digital processing with overlaying photos, B-roll, or other visuals. However, even the best video is intolerable if its sound is awful. We’ve all seen these on YouTube. We close them quickly and search for something better.
Good sound is crucial for online meetings, especially if we play a critical role and need to speak. As I say often, any barrier to communication gets in the way of our success. People mentally leave teleworking meetings more often than they physically disconnect.
I used what I learned from more than a decade of amateur video and professional podcast production when setting up my home office. My audio quality is good, and my space doubles as a podcasting studio. Except for a rare Internet connection issue, I don’t have problems with sound quality.
It Starts with a Good Microphone
When it comes to microphones, most of us use whatever came built into other technology. Many laptops, monitors, and webcams include built-in microphones. They are all horrible when compared to a good microphone dedicated to the purpose of recording sound.
Some people opt for headsets. These direct sound into our ears and position a small microphone in front of our mouth. They are a simple solution to the challenge of sound. If you’re in a hurry, they’re perfectly adequate for most meetings.
The rest of us want a better solution. Many of us don’t like cords or the way we look on camera with a headset. Wireless solutions have issues too. For us, there’s nothing quite like a high-quality, hard-wired microphone. Like most people I know, I use a Blue Yeti microphone. It connects to my computer using a USB cable, so it’s easy for non-engineers to use. It also features multiple pickup patterns that you can read about on the manufacturer’s site. Its competitive pricing and high quality have made it a popular choice among amateurs and professionals alike for the last decade.
You can find many other USB microphones with an Internet search. Any of these will likely beat microphones built into your other hardware. I’d love to hear your experiences with any of them. The Apogee MiC+, which leads many competitive reviews, is at the top of the list of microphones I’d love to try (among others).
Positioning and Mounting
A good microphone, placed directly in front of you on your desk on its factory stand, may still result in sound problems. The issue is primarily the distance between your voice and the microphone. Avoiding the physics of sound propagation and response curves, you want the microphone close to your mouth. This placement creates the highest input levels and best sound. Positioning is one advantage of using an external microphone.
A mounting solution is a boom arm. This boom might be spring-hinged and attached to a desk surface or a traditional floor-standing boom. Either solution allows you to position the microphone directly in front of your mouth. It can also be placed close for video considerations but still just out of the camera’s field of view. The floor-stand option provides a lot of flexibility and portability, but I find it gets in the way in my small office. The articulating arms can be easily moved around and repositioned but only work when I’m seated at my desk.
I use two different desk-mounted booms that I find equally good: The Blue Compass and the Thronmax S3 Zoom. Both feature cable management and internal springs for easy positioning and movement. Both clamp to your desk or, for solid surfaces that you don’t mind damaging, can be bolted in place.
Every keyboard or mouse click is picked up clearly by your microphone. Keyboard presses, finger taps, hand smacks, foot knocks, and more transfer to microphones as loud booming sounds. Any of these will overwhelm your voice. They’re enough to drive sound engineers crazy, not to mention those listening to what you’re saying in your meeting.
If your mic is in any way connected to your desk, even resting on it, you need to isolate it from vibrations. In a pinch, I’ve used several mousepads to isolate desktop microphones. That helps, but it’s much better to plan and buy a shock mount dedicated for this purpose. Even inexpensive options work surprisingly well.
Most shock mounts feature a ring that attaches to the microphone using a standard mounting screw. This ring connects to another (outer) ring using an elastic material that dampens vibrations. The outer ring then attaches to virtually any microphone mount, including booms. Some manufacturers offer podcasting kits that bundle a boom arm, shock mount, and microphone.
Save the Popping for Corn
Ideally, a microphone accurately responds to sound waves from your voice to produce a clean electrical signal. The signal is then digitized to produce audio used by sound recording software or online meeting apps.
However, when you speak certain consonants, your microphone will also respond to the explosion of air that emerges from your mouth. These sounds are called pops or plosives. They’re most noticeable for consonants such as P, B, T, or K. Try it for yourself. Place your hand directly in front of your mouth and say, “Pop.” The pulse of pressure you feel on your hand will just as abruptly move the pickup surface of the microphone.
The resulting output sounds like loud thumping. At best, the noises are annoying. At their worst, they can make your audio even less intolerable than a low-quality microphone.
Again, there are physical explanations and solutions. Both geometry and microphone placement can help. A more straightforward, convenient, and inexpensive solution is a pop filter. These are typically small, flat screens made from two or more layers of a porous fabric that you position between your mouth and the microphone. They diffuse your plosive air blasts, making them virtually disappear for those listening to you in meetings.
A good microphone, appropriately mounted, isolated from vibrations, and protected from plosives, can produce good sound. All can be yours for less than $300USD, but there are also bargains to be found.
There are other issues to address for good sound, primarily related to your physical workspace. We’ll save that for a future article.
In the meantime, happy teleworking—and thanks for reading!