Improve Your Audio to Boost Remote Team Efficiency

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Woman on conference call with microphone and headset to improve audio.

During my first remote gig, I attended daily meetings with the client team over WebEx. On the other side, 6 or so team members would gather in a tiny room with empty walls and plop an old conference mic on the center of the table. Rarely could I ever understand what anyone was saying; I had to constantly strain to decipher something sensible out of their low-fi, reverberated voices. I swear, my ears would be sore at the end of each call.

This struggle convinced me that I would do whatever I could to make sure that I would never unintentionally put others through that. From now on, my remote teammates would always hear me loud and clear. Sure, people certainly get away with suboptimal audio, but maybe they just can’t appreciate the benefits of quality audio until they’ve heard how good their voice could sound through a better setup.

Now that it’s clear that most of us aren’t going back to the office right away, it’s time to talk about optimizing how we work together remotely, and improving audio is an easy first step!

Great audio makes for better remote work

While my poor experience with a remote client might something of an exception, I think we’ve all been through occasions where background noise and similar issues caused disruptions during remote meetings. These experiences made me realize just how much work the human brain performs when speech isn’t clear.

When speech is muffled, echoey, distant, or dominated by background noise, the brain does extra work to clean up that signal and turn it into patterns of language. Even if an audio signal is comprehensible, the human brain must do extra work to correct for ambiguity between phonemes caused by low-fidelity. This is one area where meeting in-person has an advantage over remote meetings; when you are speaking face-to-face, you can always hear the other person clearly (unless they’re a low-talker!).

If we can stop our brains from doing unnecessary work in the background, that leaves us more capacity to think and be creative.

Perhaps more important than giving our heads a break is the benefit of feeling like our coworkers in the same room with us, even if they aren’t. It may be just me but, when someone’s voice sounds really clear over the internet, they feel more “real” to me than if they sound like they’re speaking through an old telephone. A clear voice sounds more alive. In a time when many of us are have no choice but to work from home, the rich harmonics of a fellow human voice can make your day. I’m confident that a team with quality audio will work better together than those with lousy audio.

How to sound awesome

I’m not an audio engineer or much of an audiophile in general, but there are many things I’ve learned about what it takes to have above-average digital audio. There’s a lot of existing advice out there on what hardware and software to use, but much of it tends to be heavily opinionated or not applicable to remote workers.

In this blog post, I’ll distill down for you my research and tell you what I think will be most useful for you, the WFH person. Since everyone has their own unique home office situation and preferences, take the following more like a set of ideas you can pick and choose from rather than treating these things as rules.

Microphones

The best first step for the average person to take is to get the right microphone. A basic mic upgrade doesn’t need to break the bank, either.

Although this isn’t a complete overview of microphone technology, the information here should instill a general sense that will help you make the right choice.

Condenser vs Dynamic

There are two primary technologies used in any variation of microphones: condenser technology and dynamic technology. They both have benefits that will depend on the recording environment and the kind of sound the user wants to achieve.

Condenser microphones are extremely sensitive because they use what’s called a capacitor to detect sound waves. Every time a sound wave hits that capacitor, it vibrates the thin electrically-charged conductors, altering the electromagnetic field of the capacitor, thereby turning the sound into an electrical signal. Condenser microphones are advantageous in that they are very sensitive while requiring little power, which is why most general-purpose mics are condenser mics. They don’t require very much skill to use and are pretty much guaranteed to capture your voice loud and clear. The downside to condenser microphones is they are not very selective in what sound they detect, so they may pick up more subtle noises than you want in your recording.

While a condenser microphone uses a capacitor, dynamic mics use a powered induction coil suspended in an electromagnetic field to pick up sound; this allows them to only pick up as much sound as is permitted by the electric current, thereby giving them a greater affinity for sources of sound that are close by. Their design tends to make them very directional, which is why they are often used by singers.

Dynamic microphones have some caveats. Since they select for sound from close sources, the person using the mic needs to be closer than they might need to be if they were using a condenser mic. This is good if the user had good microphone skills and needs to filter out background noise, but it would be bad if the user wanted to capture far-away sounds or another person in the same room.

Dynamic mics are extremely directional, so you have to be extra aware of the direction that you’re projecting your voice to. A dynamic microphone will still pick up your voice if you speak away from it, but it will be fainter and less crisp. In professional content creation, it’s common to monitor one’s voice through headphones to make sure that they’re being heard properly through the mic.

The vast majority of dynamic mics use what is called an XLR interface, which provides power to the microphone components used to translate the output of the mic to an electrical signal. In other words, most off-the-shelf dynamic mics are not plug-n-play; you need to own extra equipment and learn how to use it. However, there are benefits to XLR mics.

Because an XLR interface contains all of the digital components required to use the mic, XLR compatible mics(and incidentally dynamic mics) tend to be more robust since they contain fewer parts that can break. XLR interfaces also make it more practical to capture multiple high-quality sound sources at once and go beyond the limits of what can be done with USB cables, like recording from several mics at once.

Personal Preference

Whether you should choose a condenser mic or a dynamic mic is mostly up to preference. In a perfect setting, they can both sound equivalent to each other. For people who don’t know which one to go with, I would suggest a condenser mic as a default option, in part because condenser mics tend to be less expensive and more portable. If you are stuck in an echoey room, or an office setting, a dynamic mic may perform better but might cost you more.

Headsets (The biggest bang for your buck)

We’re all familiar with headsets, and they’ve been becoming increasingly popular with the proliferation of online multiplayer gaming. If you have been using your laptop’s built-in mic or that lousy little mic on your cheap-o earbuds, an investment in a proper headset would be a good consideration.

Your wallet doesn’t need to go on a diet? No problem! For a tight budget, I recommend the Mpow 071 headset, which is available for $35. Both the earpiece and microphone quality are surprisingly good for hardware of that price, sounding comparable to more expensive options. My sister uses this headset and gets compliments for how crisp it sounds. Although I will be discussing other microphone options, this is the best deal and is good enough for most people.

A team member of mine uses the Sennheiser Game One headset, and I can verify that he always sounds crystal clear through it during our remote meetings. It’s much more expensive than the Mpow 071, but it might be worth the money to someone who is into gaming since that is what it’s designed for. I cannot verify whether the Mpow 071 would also be compatible with gaming consoles like the Sennheiser Game One.

The benefit of a headset is clear in that the mic is conveniently attached to the headphones, and you don’t have to worry about keeping your mouth positioned near the mic once it’s been adjusted. However, some people don’t prefer the “sportscaster” look and feel of a headset.

A Word About AirPods and other Bluetooth devices

I love wireless headphones as much as the next person, and I do own a pair of Apple AirPods, yet I don’t recommend them for their microphones. That’s because Bluetooth technology inherently limits the amount of audio data that can be sent between devices simultaneously, so while you can hear full quality audio through them at 44,100 Hz, mic input is limited to 8,000 Hz. Many people use AirPods to voice chat, and they work okay, but your voice won’t sound as good through them as it would through the Mpow 071.

You can certainly do worse than AirPods, but just because they’re expensive or have the Apple logo doesn’t mean they’re going to do your voice justice. I’m sure there’s probably a standalone Bluetooth mic that exists, but I’m not familiar with them; perhaps they have better sound quality. Because I like the freedom of being cordless, I do use my AirPods as an audio output device, but I use a separate microphone.

Lavalier Mics

A lavalier(or lapel) microphone is a little mic that you clip on to your suit or jacket under your chin. They’re often used for interviews outside of a studio setting because they don’t require a fixed stand or boom. These are for people who want a good sounding hands-free mic but don’t want a headset and are primarily used in public speaking and interviews. There isn’t much else to be said about lavalier mics other than that they’re just small microphones; although they have reasonably good quality, they won’t beat a larger microphone in terms of having a natural sound and directionality.

Average lavalier mics tend to pick up a little less treble than other mics. There are some very expensive lavalier mics that more closely approach the quality of larger mics, but I’d question whether someone should be spending over $80 on a shrimpy little device like that. I don’t have much experience with lavalier mics, but the EIVOTOR appears to be popular and has good sound in reviews.

Studio/Broadcast Microphones

These are what you picture in your head when you hear the word “microphone”. A studio-style mic is intended to be fixed to a stand or boom of some kind, and generally capture the best sound in contrast to smaller counterparts.

To those familiar with independent content creation(i.e. podcasts and YouTube), the Blue Yeti is an obvious choice. It’s popular with amateur content creators because it provides excellent sound, giving you that “radio voice”, has different modes such as cardioid and bi-directional, requires no external audio interfaces, and is fairly affordable compared to competing microphones. Plus, its design has an appealing “broadcast” look to it.

There are smaller variations of the Yeti such as the Yeti Nano and the Snowball, which are less expensive than the Yeti and have fewer features but, in reality, their sound quality is comparable. I recommend the Blue Yeti if you have an established home office with modestly good acoustics, especially if you ever plan on recording yourself for other purposes like presentations or making a podcast. It’s a great multi-purpose mic that is as plug-in-and-go as you can get.

Here is a sample recording I’ve made using the Yeti mic:

However, the yeti can be extremely sensitive! After a while of using it, I began to notice that it would pick up every snap, crackle, pop, and lip-smack while I was speaking. This was true even if I moved further away. I had to sit very still in my chair so it wouldn’t capture the slightest leather-crinkle coming from my chair!

After some research, I knew that I needed a dynamic microphone, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to spend the extra money on an XLR sound interface. Although they are useful for serious productions, I humbly just want to sound good over video calls and the convenience of having a mic I could plugin using USB. I couldn’t justify spending more than the mic itself on an extra piece of hardware I’d have to lug everywhere and need to plug into an outlet. Unfortunately, most dynamic mics require an interface and don’t support USB.

But I was in luck because a renowned microphone company called Shure recently created a dynamic mic called the MV7 which is compatible with both USB and XLR. Unlike many other dynamic mics, you can plug the MV7 directly into your computer and hit record without the need for interface hardware. However, the mic still has a separate XLR connector in case one ever wanted to upgrade to an XLR interface.

This is the microphone I use today because it captures the richness of my voice, does a better job at biasing against sound that I don’t want(meaning I don’t need to pad my room like a room in an insane asylum), and leaves all the doors open to further improve my sound setup.

Here is the same sample of my voice but through the Shure MV7. (I recorded through both mics next to each other at once)

Under perfect conditions, the Yeti and the MV7 both sound pretty good and aren’t that distinguishable from one another. If you compare these two clips, you may notice that the Yeti picks up a little more of the subtle room reverb than the MV7 does. I have some acoustic foam on my walls(which I will talk about shortly), so I would bet that the reverb, in that case, would be more apparent through the Yeti than it would be through the MV7.

This MV7 is not cheap! It’s beyond necessary, but I’m extremely happy with it. Even if you don’t take my exact recommendations, the knowledge of condenser mics vs. dynamic mics will better help you find the right one for you.

Shotgun Mics

Shotgun mics are composed of a long cylinder with slots on the side that are designed to cancel out sound coming from the sides, allowing it to primarily capture audio in the direction it’s pointed. Although a regular mic can have a level of directionality, a shotgun mic adds another method of noise cancellation on top of that, making them suitable for capturing directional sound from further away. For this reason, they are often used in film and television production.

Although they can be used for remote collaboration, they aren’t made for general close-range use and can be too directional. Shotgun mics are much better suited for video production.

Addressing Room Reverb

If you’re inclined towards having a spartan living space like I am, you may notice that your voice will have a merry ol’ time bouncing off your walls, causing significant a noticeable echo. Although a dynamic mic helps with reverb, when your room has little furniture and nothing on the walls, there’s only so much any mic can do.

To help reduce the reverb, the first question you should ask is whether it’s time to visit IKEA. Seriously! If you could use a bookshelf or two, their presence can help absorb and deflect sound waves, reducing echo. Putting up some art or a decorative rug can help as well. A cheap hack to reduce room echo is to put up some curtains on your window if you don’t have any already. Blackout curtains work great because they are thicker.

Many content creators go further by strategically placing specialized acoustic foam tiles on their walls. Acoustic foam comes in different shapes, but all these shapes are designed to trap and absorb sound. You may find some disagreement online as to the effectiveness of consumer-grade acoustic foam but, in my experience, it’s fairly effective and sufficient for the average person.

You don’t need to blow hundreds of dollars by covering all of your walls entirely with foam. I’ve experimented with putting foam on my walls and I would say that 70 square feet is the most you need for an average room, assuming you have bare walls and not much else that would diffuse sound. Beyond that amount, the improvement diminishes unless you increase the thickness and quality of the sound-absorbing material.

Post-processing

If you want to go the extra mile, you can easily tweak and enhance the sound coming from your mic using free software. Because my main use is for remote video chat and streaming, I find most of the free post-processing software is way too complicated for my needs. I like to keep it simple.

For this reason, the primary software I opt for in processing my audio is called OBS, which is short for Open Broadcaster Software. While OBS was designed for video streaming in mind, it is perfectly sufficient for basic audio processing. One reason I run my audio through OBS is that I already use it for streaming my presentations at tech meetups, so I like that I can use the same software for both audio and video. On top of that, it’s free, open-source, and cross-platform. An audiophile might suggest something more powerful, but OBS alone is more than enough for most people.

After installing OBS, you must set your mic as the first Mic/Auxiliary Audio under Global Audio Devices in the settings.

A screenshot of the OBS audio settings window.

To use OBS as an audio processing proxy, you will need software to act as a virtual audio source on my laptop. OBS doesn’t do this out of the box, so I use something called VB-Cable, which acts as a virtual audio source that audio in OBS will be piped into. Then, you can set your system to treat VB-Cable as if it’s a real microphone, allowing audio from OBS to be used anywhere.

Once you have VB-Cable installed on your system, you will then need to go into the Audio settings in your installation of OBS and set the Monitoring Device to output to VB-Cable. This setting will route all audio from OBS to VB-Cable. After you perform a restart post-installation, VB-Cable should appear as a microphone to any app you use to voice chat such as Slack or Zoom.

A screenshot of the monitoring device setting in OBS.

Now you can tweak the sound to your liking by using filters.

In the OBS audio mixer, click the gear icon and select Filters.

A screenshot of OBS audio source menu.

You can then add and configure built-in filters as well as 3rd party VST plugins.

A screenshot of the audio filters menu in OBS.

Here’s what I am using in the order of configuration:

  • Noise Suppression: This is my secret weapon! When set to use RNNoise, background noise will be further cut out, but the audio will still sound crisp. VST plugin versions of this exist so that you can use it in other software besides OBS.
  • Graphic EQ: I use a free VST plugin called TDR Nova, which allows you to adjust the prevalence of frequencies in your audio signal. I have mine configured to give a boost to the bass(lower frequencies) while lowering the treble(higher frequencies) a little bit to give my voice a bit more body.
  • De-ess: Another free VST plugin I use, called SweetVox, allows me to “de-ess” my audio, which makes the spoken letter S sound less harsh. This is barely needed, but I have it turned on gently so that, when I say words with the letter S in them, those S sounds are a little softer.
  • Echo: This is just for fun and totally unnecessary. I have a VST plugin called ValhallaFreqEcho that adds an echo effect to my audio output.

Here is a before-and-after sample of RNNoise in action while my 3D printer is creating noise in the background:

Accessories

This will pretty much exclusively apply to fixed-mount mics like the Yeti and the MV7.

Arm Stand

Many mics come with a desktop stand, which allows for some portability but can get in the way if you need to use your keyboard or read copy in front of you. An arm stand, when mounted to your desk, can make it convenient to properly position your microphone without it getting in the way of your hands or what you’re trying to read. I have the cheapest one on Amazon and it works just fine.

Windscreen & Pop Filter

No one likes the sound of wind hitting the microphone sensor when you speak! For that, a simple piece of acoustically-transparent foam can be placed over a microphone to diffuse any rogue gusts of air. Many microphones come with a windscreen out of the box. A windscreen may not strictly be necessary, but there’s next to no drawback to using one, especially if it’s made of the proper foam material.

If you prefer to speak close to your microphone, a standard windscreen may not do enough to eliminate plosives, otherwise known as the powerful gusts of wind that happen when we make the P-sound. The sound of plosives can be hard on the ear and distracting. Standing further away from your mic can prevent plosive sounds as well as strategically aiming your mouth away from the mic when making the P-sound. While those strategies are employed in certain recording scenarios, they’re not really appropriate for remote work.

Rather than being constantly mindful of your mic technique, you can use a special windscreen called a pop filter, which is a circular piece of fabric designed to block and cancel out plosive sounds. They’re very effective, but they tend to be large in diameter so they can also be a little annoying to use in that they can get in the way of what’s in front of you.

Shock Mount

You don’t need this. They look fancy, but they’re not worth the money for the average person. Shock mounts are intended to help eliminate any low-frequency sound coming from vibrations in the building you’re recording in. If you’re working at home then I doubt you will need one. Don’t go buying a shock mount unless you have some low-frequency noise you can’t eliminate by other means. Shock mounts are mostly for professional sound recording where eliminating noise is critical.

Conclusion

I hope this blog post has given you some ideas that you can use to improve your voice chats and recordings, whether that’s for remote work or for any audio-related projects you might have. Although I suggested some expensive solutions, even the cheapest recommendations in this post has the potential to drastically boost your sound quality and make you sound much more clear to your team members.

DockYard is a digital product consultancy specializing in user-centered web application design and development. Our collaborative team of product strategists help clients to better understand the people they serve. We use future-forward technology and design thinking to transform those insights into impactful, inclusive, and reliable web experiences. DockYard provides professional services in strategy, user experience, design, and full-stack engineering using Ember.js, React.js, Ruby, and Elixir. From ideation to delivery, we empower ambitious product teams to build for the future.