How to Improve Your Audio, Video, and Lighting for Remote Meetings
Monitoring, Data, Analysis
In 2020, many of us very quickly had to get used to virtual meetings, using a variety of online meeting software, including Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts, and GoToMeeting. As someone who has recorded over 80 podcasts and has been working remotely for years, I thought I’d share some tips on how to improve your audio, video, and lighting when meeting remotely.
Audio is a part of most virtual meetings, so it’s important to hear and be heard. The first consideration is your environment. While meeting software can potentially lessen background noise, the best quality is going to be in a relatively quiet environment. It’s possible to have a virtual meeting in a public space, but that requires a microphone that doesn’t pick up much background noise or one that suppresses background noise. It can also help to have noise cancelling headphones, such as the Sony WH-1000XM4. There are headsets that do both, such as the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. Good noise cancelling headlines cost $300-400. There’s also the challenge of not disrupting others in a public space. Background noise can be distracting to everyone else on the call, so it’s a less than ideal configuration for a normal meeting.
At home, you have more control of your environment, but there may be acoustics to keep in mind. For instance, hardwood floors are really nice to have, but they also reflect more sound than carpet, potentially creating an echo effect in a large room. Walls often don’t keep out as much sound as we’d like. There are options like acoustic foam and ways a wall can be sound-reinforced, but those can get costly, so odds are most people will want to make the best of their existing space.
The most basic configuration involves using a built-in microphone and the built-in speakers on your computer. This is a perfectly acceptable option for many people. It doesn’t require extra hardware, the quality may be more predictable than a cheap headset, and it looks clean if you are on a video call. However, there is a chance of feedback between your speakers and microphone, the speakers may be distracting if others are in the house with you, and your meeting will be less private.
Many headsets and earbuds combine headphones with a microphone. The microphone may be on a boom, or may be integrated into the wire or the headphone hardware. That distance from your mouth can reduce the possibility of picking up mouth noises like breathing, but also may pick up more external noises or have issues with the volume. Expensive headphones are much better at balancing these issues than a cheaper headset. Also, cheaper headsets are more prone to wires getting a short, which could cause static or destroy the signal altogether. Depending on your computer’s audio jacks, you may be able to use a 1/8” headset with mic and/or a USB headset with mic. Some headsets can use both a 1/8” and USB port, and if not, there are adapters available. There are also Bluetooth devices, which are without wires, but are susceptible to battery issues and disconnection issues.
Using a separate microphone and headphones is also an option. There are multiple advantages to this. Quality tends to be better for dedicated headphones and microphones for the cost, and it tends to be easier to identify the top options at each tier. Separate equipment may be more durable for the cost and isn’t a single point of failure (i.e., your headphones breaking doesn’t affect your microphone). It is, however, more to manage. Computers may not automatically configure your audio devices the preferred way. It is a bit less portable. Your equipment also has to fit with your head, which might be an issue with a separate boom mic and headphones.
How your headset looks on camera also matters. Headphones for music or gaming tend to be larger, which can work in some situations, but look unwieldly in other situations. That was a consideration for me in figuring out a home audio configuration. While I wear studio headphones and use a large condenser microphone when podcasting audio, that is less ideal for a Zoom meeting, since it obscures my face. For my home configuration, I settled on a pair of over the ear earbuds along with a separate microphone. When doing a video presentation, I like my head to be unobstructed. These earbuds aren’t visually distracting, but also allow for privacy and ease of hearing.
I’ve tried using the built-in microphone on my laptop, but that can pickup more noise and it’s easier to be too close or too far away. I’ve tried using the built-in microphone on the earbuds, but the quality is so-so, distance can be a factor, and it’s harder to tell on my end if a short develops. I thus prefer to use a separate microphone. There are microphones that can be used on a microphone stand, but that can be visually distracting. I settled on a boom microphone that fits on the ears, coupled with earbuds. The Shure WH20 doesn’t pick up much background noise and can be placed near my mouth. It’s also a really good microphone that should last for years. Professional microphones like the WH20 have XLR connectors, which aren’t standard on computers. For around $50, I bought an external sound card called an audio interface. It connects to my computer via USB, and has an XLR input and 1/4" input. If you need some audio flexible, getting an audio interface is a nice option.
While also relevant for audio quality, your internet connection is much more important for video due to the increased bandwidth requirements in both directions. There are multiple speed testers online, such as www.speedtest.net, which can tell you how fast your internet connection is. The amount of internet usage in your neighborhood is sometimes a factor, but you want to pay special attention to your home network. Someone watching Netflix while you’re on an important call could reduce the quality of your connection. If you are connected to a virtual private network (VPN), then that video call is routing through your home network and the VPN, which can also degrade performance.
Not all computers are designed to be workhorses. You may also want to close unneeded apps on your device. The amount of memory (RAM), computer processor, and video card are also important, and more important for quality video than audio. Built-in webcams are adequate for many people, but a separate webcam can achieve better quality video and can be positioned more creatively than a built-in webcam.
You have at least three options for your background. Meeting software like Zoom has the option to select an existing image background or to upload an image of your own. For the latter, you want it to be a landscape-oriented photo, rather than portrait. It’s best to test your configuration before going live on a meeting, and that includes testing your background. It is advised you don’t wear the same color as your background, unless you want to disappear! The drawback of backgrounds is they can bleed into the presenter, which looks odd and feels less professional. In general, a simpler background will be easier for software to manage than a complex background.
There are also physical backgrounds that can be attached to your chair or placed behind you. None of these options are particularly cheap. Simpler options are $50-100, and it goes up from there. While it’s possible to have a background unroll from below, above, or from the side, two of those generally would require permanent installation, and the other isn’t cheap. There are free-standing backgrounds, using one or two stands, but those involve some cost and you need a place to store it. Room dividers are an option that can be moved to the side when done, but they are at least $70 and most aren’t easily portable. If you have a place to attach a screen, sheet, or curtain behind and above you, that may be a DIY option, but most of us don’t have that option.
The last option is to make use of your current space. What do you want to be visible? Is there anything distracting? Many of us probably hope that our space just serves the purpose, but also consider how it can positively reflect on you. An interesting book or painting could be a conversation starter. The orientation also matters. When at a desk, it’s a more straightforward visual, but if you are sitting on the couch or floor, make sure we are getting a view of you that frames you well. It’s a good idea to spend some time before you get on an important video call to do some testing with the video camera on to see how your lighting and background looks. Ask your friends or co-workers to help and give you some feedback.
Lighting will be the biggest visual factor for the space showing in your video, and has multiple challenges. Be aware that, if there is light behind you, the backlighting will be proportionally brighter and you will be proportionally darker. Sometimes a window in the background can be distractingly bright. It’s best to avoid this if you can. Some ambient light on the sides or above can add to the warmth of the room.
If there isn’t a source of light in front of you, you will be darker and not just less visible, but it will tend to be a lower quality visual, so you need a light source in front of you, though it doesn’t have to be directed at you. If you are at a desk near a wall, you can point the light at the wall so it can reflect back at you. You also can use a lamp with a diffusing lampshade at an angle in front of you. If you wear glasses, you’ll want to avoid having a light source reflecting or directed right at you, as it will reflect off your glasses. To deal with this, you’ll need to have the light be at a different angle than your glasses, and a diffuser can also help. While not as ideal, you also can look up or look down to avoid the glare.
There are now inexpensive lights for $6-20 designed for computers that can lighten your face. Some even have different intensities, different warmth, or different colors. You may want these at an angle if you wear glasses, and there are ways to diffuse a light with cloth (if the lights aren’t hot). You could also use a desk lamp pointed away from you or a lamp, or a combination of all of these. Test it out and see what works for you.
Be aware of the color of lights as well as the brightness. Too much light can be harsh. Standard incandescent and fluorescent lights are different colors. Be careful with colors like red, blue, or green unless you have tested them out. The color of your surroundings can also be reflected onto you. Generally, make sure people can see your face and that it’s sufficiently flattering. Lighting makes a bigger difference than you think!
Those are some ways to optimize your remote workspace for online meetings. All it takes is a little preparation and a small investment in equipment. Once you’re happy with your setup, you’ll be quickly on your way to being more productive and making a better impression with your audience.
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