Check 1, 2: Tips for sounding good online (Dan Bendrups)

The author, hard at work in the recording studio
Over the last few weeks, most academics’ responses to COVID-19 have involved the transformation of teaching material to be delivered remotely, and adjusting to the new web-based normal for graduate research supervision, meetings, and other gatherings. For me, fragments from years of professional development sessions in online learning have come flashing back as I’ve rushed to get fully online, though I’m sure I’m probably missing some crucial points, and I’ve got a new appreciation for colleagues who have this as their normal way of working.

Now that the pressure of the initial scramble is receding, I’ve been thinking about some of the finer details of web-mediated interaction, in particular, the importance of sound. Teaching and meetings are fundamentally verbal activities, and our students and colleagues glean a great deal of subtle information from our tone of voice, our pitch, intonation, timbre, volume, and overall vocal delivery. These things are affected by the online environment. Vision is also important, but as many will attest, when the bandwidth gets narrow, the video feed is the first thing to go. So, there’s something to be said for taking a moment to think about how to improve what we sound like online.

As a popular music academic and recording artist, I’ve spent my fair share of time hanging around people who know a lot about sound quality. I’m no audio engineer, but there are some principles of studio recording that can be applied easily and without much (or any) cost in the online teaching and meeting environment.

Here’s three steps to get you going:

1. Get familiar with your tools

The digital environment is set up to be ‘plug-and-play’, and most devices have inbuilt ways of handling audio that are designed to eliminate user error and make life as simple as possible. Under normal circumstances, this might be fine, but if you are now spending an increased amount of time dealing with electronic audio, it may pay to learn a few new tricks.

For starters, you may want to think about how to control and monitor the audio input and output levels of your device, and experiment with turning off any automation. Each new session is a new recording environment, so you probably can’t ‘set and forget’ your audio – instead, think about developing your own method for making quick volume adjustments at the start of a new session. This may mean taking a moment to simply ask other participants how well they can hear you (and adjust yourself), and getting them to also speak - known in the industry as doing a ‘line check’. Something as simple as this can make a big difference, especially at the start of a long session.

Some software packages have additional features that you might want to explore. For example, Zoom has inbuilt audio correction algorithms that can be turned off in the program’s advanced settings, and doing this may result in more realistic and sensitive audio capture. Even music education professionals are engaging with these processes, as demonstrated in this YouTube guide from the Danish Royal Academy of Music.

The other really useful function in Zoom is the ability to record your feed, and I’d recommend using the software recording capacity to test out (and listen back to) how you sound at different volumes, in different locations, and with different audio settings. That way, you can develop a real understanding of what your audience hears, and you may be able to identify potential audio problems and solutions ahead of the classes or meetings you need to run.

2. Manage the recording environment

You don’t have to resort to lining your walls with egg cartons, 90s garage band style, but it is worth thinking about the sound characteristics of the space you are working in. As a general rule, hard, flat and shiny surfaces ‘reflect’ more, leading to an echoey sound. Rooms that are square, overly large, or with nice even walls reflect more sound too (so don’t broadcast from your tile-lined boxy bathroom).

You can make simple improvements by bringing in a rug for a hard floor, or by drawing curtains across a window. Even just adding a few soft surfaces (e.g. a tablecloth over a table) or breaking up the symmetry of a room (e.g. a decorative screen across a corner) can make a surprising difference to the sound. This is why recording studios are often filled with weirdly shaped angular foam furnishings (not because studio designers are frustrated cubists).

3. Control the microphone

Recording engineers give considerable attention to two things when setting up a studio for recording: microphone selection and microphone placement. Chances are you are using a device (tablet, laptop or desktop computer) with an inbuilt microphone, so you may not have much choice about mic selection, but you can still think about placement. Do you know where the mic is on your device? Might it be blocked by a cover, or by other things on your desk? Do you know how the sound changes if you move towards or away from the mic? With a little bit of experimentation, you’ll work out what works best for your device, and you can be a little more deliberate in your desk setup.

If you are likely to spend a lot of time in online delivery mode, consider investing in a simple external microphone and/or decent set of headphones. As a general rule, you pay for what you get when it comes to pro audio, but pretty much any commercial mic on the market will be better than the one built in to your device, and has the advantage of being able to be moved around for improved placement, which may reduce the strain you didn’t know you were putting on your voice. Similarly, even entry-level monitoring headphones will provide better feedback than your standard in-ear buds, and using different options may help with your endurance if you have to be online and broadcasting (or listening) for hours at a time.

Dan Bendrups is a Senior Lecturer in the RED team.  His disciplinary background spans anthropology, cultural studies, and creative practice, and he is known internationally for his work concerning Rapanui (Easter Island) cultural heritage. As well as researching in these domains, he also provides broad-based doctoral supervision in ethnographic methods. He has a particular interest in doctoral supervision and leads the RED supervision portfolio.