Optimizing Sound and Video for Online Open Mics
Zoom and other similar platforms offer us opportunities to share live music with each other from the comfort of home. But if you want people to be able to appreciate your music in the best quality possible, a little preparation is needed.
There are several key factors to get better audio/video quality for Zoom…
- Hardware (a USB microphone and a decent webcam)
- Zoom audio/video settings (Original sound, etc.)
- Internet connection (a good, strong wireless signal, or a hardwired ethernet connection)
- Positioning (framing the shot)
- Testing (record yourself)
Let’s take a look at each of these in detail…
Hardware Recommendations – Audio
The microphones built into most computers are terrible. A USB microphone (available for around $30 on Amazon) provides vastly improved audio if set up properly.
Here’s one example of a decent USB microphone that won’t break the bank. For other options, just go to Amazon, search for “USB microphone” and look for the products with the highest ratings.
A multi-channel USB audio interface (starting at around $70) is helpful but not required. An interface allows you to control the audio level for your mic(s) separately from your instrument(s). Here’s one example of a fairly affordable unit. For other options, go to Amazon and search for “USB audio interface.” Again, look for the highest ratings.
Performers should use headphones if possible so that Original Sound (explained below) will not cause feedback and echoes. Many options are available for headphones, so choose whatever works best for you. As one example, here’s a fairly good set of over-the-ear headphones from Audio Technica.
Hardware Recommendations – Video
Just like the microphones built into most computers, built-in cameras leave a lot to be desired. Granted, video isn’t as important as audio for an open mic, but if you want everyone to see a clear, crisp image, you may want to consider using a separate USB webcam. The Logitech C920X is a great option at an affordable price. All you need to do is plug it into your USB port and select it as your active camera in Zoom. Nothing to install or configure.
Zoom Audio/Video Settings
The default settings in Zoom use automatic background noise cancellation. This is good for meetings where you want to filter out any background noise in the room. But it’s not so good when you’re playing music because Zoom mistakes certain parts of your audio as background noise (especially something like acoustic guitar playing).
To get the best audio quality, we need to change some settings. These changes ONLY apply to performers. Listeners do not need to change anything.
Go to your Zoom Preferences and go to the Audio tab. On that screen, there are three settings to change:
- Make sure the checkbox for “Automatically adjust microphone volume” is unchecked. This allows you to manually control your input level as needed.
- Under “Audio Profile,” check the box for “Original sound for musicians (recommended for studio environments)”.
- In the same section, also check the boxes for “High-fidelity music mode” and “Echo cancellation”
Refer to the screenshot below for a reference, but note that this screen layout may change from time to time as Zoom updates their software.
Important Note: Configuring the settings as shown above turns on the option for Original Sound. But you still need to turn that setting on each time you join a Zoom session when you will be performing. Once you have enabled the option in audio settings, you will see “Original Sound for Musicians: Off” in the upper left corner of your Zoom window. You’ll need to click on those words, and it will change to “Original Sound for Musicians: On.” That means it’s enabled, and you should be ready for optimal sound!
After changing these settings, performers should record themselves in a Zoom session prior to the open mic so they can check their own audio quality and sound level before performing. Just start your own Zoom meeting and record it to your local computer. Then you can play it back and see how it sounds.
The importance of a very good internet connection is difficult to overstate. Even if you do everything above, if you don’t have a good Internet connection, the results will be poor. The reason for this is that transmitting audio and video takes a lot of bandwidth. If your Internet connection struggles to keep up, Zoom responds by compressing your incoming data. As a result, two things happen:
- Both audio and video quality drop significantly. If it gets bad enough, the audio stops entirely and the video freezes.
- When bandwidth is poor but not poor enough to cause the audio and video to stop entirely, Zoom will compensate by adjusting the speed of the audio and video. It will slow things down a bit to give the signal a chance to catch up, but then it needs to speed everything up to “get back on track” with the timing. This doesn’t cause much of an issue with normal Zoom meetings, but with music where timing is so important, it can cause the illusion of the musician having poor rhythm or timing.
Therefore, in addition to having the right audio/video hardware, it’s important to make sure your Internet connection is as strong as possible. Even if your connection seems fine for normal web browsing, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will perform well for an open mic. If you can plug in an ethernet cable and bypass your wifi, that’s usually preferable. If you use wifi, get as close to your wifi router as possible.
To check the performance of your Internet connection, head over to https://www.speedtest.net/ and run a test (it’s free to use). After the test finishes, you’ll get three values:
- Ping (ms) represents the latency of your connection. You want that to be around 25ms or less.
- Download (Mbps) represents your download speed. It should be at least 5-10 Mbps, but this one is less important than the third setting.
- Upload (Mbps) represents your upload speed, and this is the one that will most impact the quality of the audio and video you send during the open mic. You’ll want this to be at least 2 or 3 Mbps, but higher is better.
Aside from having the right hardware, it’s also important to set up your environment so both your instrument and face can be clearly seen on camera. This usually means moving back from the camera at least a few feet.
This can sometimes be a bit of a challenge. If you’re sitting a few feet away, the microphone also needs to be moved. For those using desktop mics like the Yeti microphones, this may involve getting a mic stand with a boom arm, like this one, for example.
Another consideration is whether you need to be able to see your music/lyrics. Some like to have this on the computer screen, so moving farther away would create a challenge. One option is to print out the music and put it in front of you. For those with an iPad, consider putting your music into an app like OnSong. Then you can mount your iPad to your mic stand using a holder like this one.
If you’re playing a guitar and can’t get the whole instrument in the view, try to at least get the upper part of the neck in the view so people can see what you’re playing.
Once you have everything set up properly, it’s very important to do some testing. Start a Zoom session (no need to have anyone else in the session). Make sure your Original Sound is on, and do a test recording. Then playback the recording and see how everything looks and sounds.
- How is the volume level? If it’s too loud, you’ll hear clipping and/or distortion. If it’s too quiet, you’ll have a hard time hearing it even with your headphone volume turned up. Play a song from Spotify or some other music service and use that as a reference for volume.
- How is the balance between your instrument and vocals? Does either one need to be louder or quieter?
- How is the framing of the video? Can your face and instrument both be seen throughout the recording?
Need Some Help?
If you’d like a free consultation to help improve your audio/video setup, just fill out the form below. We’ll reach out and schedule a time to talk.
Thanks for a great re-organization of how to sign up to perform. While this has been a traditional way of signup, having our own info page and a section to request a slot to perform. I also would like to thank you for the disclaimer that “not all can be accommodated “. I also like the idea of letting us know who’s performing and what timeslot they are in, who is before them and who follows them. It’s a good idea to also warn the next performer with an “On Deck” announcement so they can have their instruments tuned and can take the stage and start “sorta on time”!
Yes. And of course we always have the old issue of time. Some songs are short and sweet like the old AM radio records, others can seem endless. The old “two songs” rule is useless if the songs are way too long or if the performer spends 5 minutes talking before they start and another 5 minutes talking between songs. A time limit is better, though difficult to enforce. It’s really a matter of communication and courtesy. If everyone understood going in that time is limited and people are waiting to go on it might go more smoothly.