14 Ways to Make Remote Audio Better

I can’t stand bad audio. It makes me want to chew off the end of my big toe.

I started my career in audio processing. I worked for the premier maker of microphones in the US and spent 3 years developing a teleconferencing processor. It was a fun place to work, but it’s ruined me when it comes to audio and teleconferencing. Bad sound drives me nuts!

Good audio is rarely noticed. When done well, the audio in a conferencing setup disappears into the substance of the meeting. People talk as if they are in same room together and the remote connection melts away.

I’ve put together some tips on how you can get better audio in conference calls and online meetings. Any one of these things will improve your remote meetings. If you combine a couple of these tips, you may just save my big toe the next time we are on a call together.

1 Use a headset

If you are joining a remote meeting alone, use a usb headset. Make sure that the headset is currently selected by skype or whatever voice software you are using. Check your preferences, tap on your microphone (before the call) and watch the meters bounce.

2 Test your audio

Always test your sound before every call. Skype has an easy to use call testing service. If worse comes to worse, call your mom and ask her how it sounds. Don’t make others wait while you figure out how to enable your microphone.

3 No cell phones

Avoid joining a remote meeting via cell phone. Cell phones have made calling from anywhere second nature, but the sound quality from even the best cell phone is far below that from a land line. If you don’t have a land line, use skype or google to call with a headset.

4 Use the mute

Mute yourself when you are not talking. There are dozens of things that can happen to disturb the call when you least expect it. Your cat meows; your cell phone rings; or maybe your kid walks up to the computer announcing a dirty diaper. Control your mute button and you’ll be doing everyone else a favor. Use the mute button inside your calling software, not the one on your mic.

5 Hardwire

Plug into an ethernet port. Sure wifi is fast, but it’s not bandwidth that kills you on internet calls, it’s latency. Too much latency causes people to talk over each other because they don’t hear right away when someone else begins to talk. The latency on a hard-wired ethernet line is at least an order of magnitude better than on wifi.

6 Hands off

Don’t touch the mic when it’s hot. Handling noise is very disruptive. If you need to move a mic or adjust a headset, mute it first, move it, then unmute it.

7 Noises off

Turn off background music and other noise. Even if you think it’s not too loud, it will cause difficulties hearing on both ends.

8 Don’t use your internal laptop microphone

It’s noisy because it is so close to all the electronics of your computer. It is also too close to your keyboard. Every time you type it sounds like you are calling from the infield of Churchill Downs at the start of the Kentucky Derby.

9 Don’t double dip

Don’t open up two connections to the same call in the same room. This causes a very unstable feedback situation that will quickly have everyone’s speakers screeching and all of the participants covering their ears. The one exception is if you both have headsets.

10 Stop the pop

Get close, but not too close to the microphone. When the mic is too close, your "p’s" and your "b’s" (consonants called plosives) cause a very undesirable popping sound that can actually damage speakers or someone’s ears. Headsets should sit off to the side of your mouth, not right in front of it for this reason. If your microphone has a foam windscreen, use it, even indoors. Here is a good test: Hold your hand where your microphone is and say "pop." If you can feel your breath, the mic is too close.

11 Pad the room

Do what you can in your room to soften the surfaces. If it is soft to the touch, then it is good for absorbing sound. Carpet, drapes, and drop ceilings all reduce ambient sound and echo and make you easier to understand.

12 Is there an echo in here? echo in here?

Echo happens when someone on the remote end says something, the audio comes out of your speakers, back into your microphone, and back down the line to the other end. The result is that the remote speaker hears his or her own voice again. It’s nearly impossible to keep talking in this situation. Most conferencing systems and software have some echo cancellation built in. You can help the system out by getting the microphone as far away from the sound system speakers as possible and by not moving the microphone once the call has begun.

13 Make an investment

You get what you pay for. A little investment in conferencing goes a long way. Get a USB audio device, and invest in a decent microphone. These are great for conference rooms.

14 Learn about your microphone

Understand microphone polar patterns: Know what you have and what it means for where you should address the mic.

Doug Bradbury, Software Craftsman

Doug Bradbury is a maker, a thinker, a craftsman, and a learner.