Face to face meetings are the best.  It’s humans doing social things that makes us the top of the food chain and the masters of our domain.  Sadly, there’s this little tiny biological pain in our rear called COVID-19 that is going around robbing so many of us of the delightfulness of human connection and interaction.  Everything has gone virtual…from work to conferences and now even schools and sporting events.  So let’s make them suck less by doing our part to have the best possible audio and video setups in our home offices so we close the virtual gap between us in this season of electronic social gatherings.
The team at the Big Data Beard has spent the last 2.5 years researching and testing audio and video equipment as we seek to develop great content for our listeners.  As it turns out, the best practices and tools we have landed on as our weapons of choice may actually be the things that make all this virtual meeting nonsense just a little less painful.  I get asked from fellow participants in Zoom meetings all the time “what on earth are you using to sound so good on this conference call?”
Well, this blog will give you the answer to why I sound so buttery on the other end of the line while so many others punish us with their noisy lines, crappy mics, and whack video setups.
We’ve upped our standards; so up yours!
Let’s start with audio and I will cover the video setup in a later post.
While I am going to give you some strong opinions on mics and gear I like and use, do keep this in mind…
Any reasonably good quality (read that as decent known brand of USB mic of a price probably more than $35) is better than what’s built in to your computer and if you can get it 6-10” from your face, your going to be 90% of the way to MASSIVE improvements in sound quality for your friends on the other end.
Let me say this one more time…get your mic 6-10” from your mouth!!!
No matter what mic you use, get a stand or boom that get’s the mic up and near your face.  You can spend all the money you want on one, but this super reasonable one from Pyle has been attached to my desk for 2+ years and works like a charm.
Pyle Pro Suspension Boom Scissor Microphone Stand (2.26')
While you may spit a little corona-infused slobber on it, hopefully you’re not sharing it as you are quarantined at your house.  But that proximity is critical for the mic to function.  It also helps the intelligent software that most modern web conference platforms use for noise-reduction by bringing the level of your voice well above the background noise in your office.
The simplest solution is a USB mic and I generally recommend dynamic over condenser mics for a home office for a bunch of reasons, but the decreased sensitivity means less noise pickup.  Our go-to mic and the one we ship (we own 4 of them) to guests for our show is the Audio Technica ATR-2100.
This microphone is durable, has excellent sound quality but is also super versatile as it supports both direct USB connection to your laptop or iOS device (with an adapter of course) as well as an XLR output should you go the mixer route later (more on that in a minute).  The other really excellent feature of this microphone is the headphone output jack included, which means you can plug headphones in to it and not only hear your computer audio like the other participants on the web conference you are on, but you can also hear yourself speaking as if you had a monitor speaker in front of you or as if you had no headphones on at all.  That’s a huge deal for a lot of folks who, when they put on headphones and are asked to speak, they complain about not being able to hear themselves resulting in it being harder to speak normally.
The side benefit of the headphone jack is that using headphone jack available encourages using headphones, which is the next pro tip.
We like the M20x from Audio Technica and have 4 pairs for when we do onsite interviews in noisy spots.  They are light weight, fit a large range of sizes, have great sound quality, a super long cord for those of you who move around, and are pretty cool on the ear to where for extended periods.
Audio-Technica ATH-M20x Monitor Headphones (Black)
While most modern web conference platforms will seek to avoid any echos of the sounds of your computer being picked up by your microphone, the don’t always work.  The best solution is a set of over the ear headphones.  I say over the ear because having the noise isolated from what comes out of the headphones further helps what we are trying to do around avoiding the dreaded echo…we’ve all been there and it frankly sucks for everyone.   Avoid it!
There.  I said it.
I don’t want this to be true, but it is.  I have tried setups from Apple AirPods to high end Jabra sets and they just all fall short.  Whether it’s interference, crappy mics, massive noise pickup they just always seem to leave me seriously disappointed.  You may believe otherwise and you are fine to go on punishing your peers with your use of them, we just won’t endorse any of them here.  This is your home office we are talking about.  Not you running between flights and meetings…that’s how you spread the corona and that’s exactly what we are trying not to do.  Don’t ask me about Bluetooth again.
If you really want to step up the audio game on the input side, you can add a USB interface to the mix.  The idea here is to be able to use industry standard microphones that use an XLR connection with your computer.
Those USB mics we talked about before have an encoder built in that converts your vocal inputs into digital signals your computer can handle natively.  The interfaces do that job, allowing you to use higher-end mics usually reserved for the music or professional audio production industry.  There’s a ton of these to chose from (just google search “USB microphone interface”), but I have been using the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 for a long time and absolutely love it.  This thing allows you to plug in two XLR inputs (think one for your sitting desk and one for your standing desk…or maybe plugin your electric guitar and wow you co-workers with your musical skills).
Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 USB Audio Interface (2nd Generation)
On the XLR microphone front, you can spend an absolutely ridiculous amount of money on some incredible microphones.  The most popular microphone I see in the professional podcast circuit is the Shure SM7B, but at $400 it is a pretty big investment.
Shure SM7B Vocal Microphone
Our team opted to go a bit more budget friendly with the Shure SM58 and the sound quality is just incredible.  This microphone is the most broadly used piece of equipment in the music industry and they are super durable and rugged, which is awesome if you want to take your show on the road.
Shure SM58-LC Vocal Microphone
While all of what I outlined so far is based on the actual setups I use, I feel I would be remiss if I did not tell you the setup I long for…the one that I just have not yet funded but will soon.  I am talking about a properly professional broadcast headset from Audio Technica.
Audio-Technica BPHS1 Broadcast Stereo Headset
This setup combines your headphones with a high-end mic attached to a boom landing it perfectly in front of your mouth for not only perfect audio pickup, but also incredible avoidance of unwanted noise.  If your office is noisy (think air conditioner noise or loud traffic nearby) then this is the setup for you.  It’s what broadcasters use at sporting events and frankly I think you’d look super cool wearing one on your next Zoom meeting.
Remember, the products in this post are what we use or really wish we could afford, but what matters most is that you use whatever you have correctly.  The single most important thing to remember is to get that microphone close to your face.  Your coworkers will thank you with comments on how clear you sound and in this time where we all lean so hard on virtual platforms for communication, its the least you can do for your fellow human.  Good sound is an act of respect for others and that’s what the world really needs right now.
Stay safe out there friends.
Let us know how your home studio setups come together by tagging #bigdatabeard in your Twitter and LinkedIn updates.
Your bearded friend,