Video conferencing has become a hot topic in the past few weeks due to the happenings around the world. Video conferencing is the same concept used in video podcasting and remote interviews that you see on news outlets. The technology needed to make it sound and look good is simple and would not break the bank. Obviously, there are numerous options available that run from not very expensive all the way up to extremely expensive. In this post, I am going to talk about the lower-priced option and the next step above that.
In watching a number of newscasts where the journalists are working from home, it is very clear they are not consulting anyone who has knowledge on how to do this at least to a basic level. Often times you will see bad lighting, choppy audio & video, scratchy or very tinny sounding mics, and grainy video just to name a few things. What makes me shake my head is this is coming from professional 24/7 news organizations that should have the right equipment available for their journalists. It does not take a huge rig and a ton of equipment to have audio and video that sounds and looks pretty good. This post is not dealing with the pros and cons of the different video conferencing platforms but rather what it takes to make it look good. There are many great platforms out there for video conferencing and you need to find what works best for your needs.
The first step is to not use wireless internet when doing a video conference unless you have absolutely no choice. WiFi is very inconsistent in its connection. Just the slightest hiccup in the wireless connection can cause all sorts of video and/or audio issues. If you can connect your laptop through a physical network cable do it as it will fix most issues you see in a video conference. If you are doing a professional video conference this part is a must. If you are doing a video meeting with just family or friends do what you need but plugging in your laptop will get you halfway there for having a good quality video conference.
The second step is your video. Below is a quick image from my MacBook Pro. The image on the left is from the built-in webcam and the image on the right is from a USB LG Webcam I picked up off Amazon.
You will notice the image on the left is very grainy compared to the one on the right. Just a simple USB webcam can immensely improve the quality of your video. If you plan to do a lot of video conferencing the other piece that will make your video really good is lighting. In the images above it just used the natural lighting in my living room but if you pick up two $8 lights from Walmart and use soft white lightbulbs it will make your video look even better. Eventually, I plan on purchasing LED lighting that is made for video instead of using desktop lights. I am a huge fan of Logitech webcams and find their quality to be very good for the price. The only issue is due to the demand in video conferences at this time it is just about impossible to find a Logitech webcam available anywhere. They usually range in price from $100 to $250 but they just like many companies have much higher priced models. I have a nice 4k camera that can do clean HDMI out which makes it similar to a webcam and I found very little difference in quality. My suggestion for great video is a decent USB webcam from Logitech and good additional lighting. That will give you a nice professional look for very little cost.
The next part is the most important part and that is your audio. People can get by seeing choppy and grainy audio but if your audio is really bad, it is very hard on the listener and you might find a lot of people leaving because it is just hard on the ears or hard to follow. Below I have two audio clips reading the first sentence from the Star Wars: A New Hope crawl and you can easily hear the difference. The first is using the built-in mic on my laptop. The audio is very “tinny” or bright sounding as it has much more highs in the audio, very little middle sound, and hardly any low end which gives it that “tinny” or bright sound. The second audio clip is using my external microphone. At the start of this post I mentioned I will talk about the lower-priced options and the middle of the road priced options. The mic I am using for the second clip is on the upper end of the medium-priced options.
If you go do an Amazon search you will find pages upon pages of mics to choose. There are two types of microphones, the first is USB which will plug directly into your laptop. The second type is an XLR mic which requires an interface to go between the mic and your laptop. The mic would plug into the interface and the interface would connect to your laptop. The option is definitely the simpler of the two options and the cheaper. My suggestion for a USB mic is called the Blue Yeti, it is considered the standard for podcasting and video conferencing for USB microphones. It will cost around $130 but you might find some deals around $100 if you shop around. In that price range, it is a really good mic and will give you excellent audio.
If you are interested in the next step up which is using an XLR microphone you will spend around $600. The first item you need is a USB Audio Interface which allows the mic to communicate with the laptop. The go-to standard is the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 which runs about $160. When you start getting into this range of microphones I would go to YouTube and listen to someone that is the same gender as you to hear how the microphones sound. I am very partial to the Heil Pr-40 and think it sounds great. That is what I used in the clip above for the external microphone. The other standard for doing a podcast or video conferencing audio is the Shure SMB7. Both of these microphones will cost you about $400 so combining that with the audio interface and having to buy an XLR mix cable which will allow you to connect the mic to the audio interface you are looking at just under $600 for a real professional sound.
What many might be asking is why can I not just use those earbuds that have a mic built into the cable? If you go watch an interview where someone is using a similar setup the audio will be barely better than the audio from a built-in laptop mic. The other issue that drives me crazy is if the individual moves around you will hear a scratching sound as the mic rubs against their clothes. If you want a much lower cost option that will work but will sound a little better than laptop audio you can look at a set of headphones that has a microphone that swivels in front of your mouth. You can find some higher-end versions where the quality will be better but just like the earlier options I was discussing, the prices will be similar to the Blue Yeti and the XLR mic option with the audio interface.
The final piece to finish this all up and is probably the easiest is you need a pair of headphones. Most of the current popular video conferencing platforms have built-in features for those that are using the devices built-in mic and speakers it will try to stop the mic audio when the speakers are going and will stop the speakers when you are using the mic. It doesn’t work well, usually reduces the quality of the audio, and can at worst cause feedback. Feedback is the high pitched screeching sound that we never like to hear. To fix all of those issues, even if you are using your built-in mic, just use a pair of earbuds or headphones. If you plan to spend a lot of time video conferencing I would suggest getting some type of in-ear monitors that are barely visible to the camera. I am a huge fan of the RevoNext brand, especially their QT5 model and you can’t beat the price for $35. The audio is excellent, they are solidly built, and will barely be visible on camera. Overall just find what you like best but just use them, headphones are a must!
Video conferencing is a wonderful tool, especially with everything going on in the world right now. Having a few additional tools at your disposal will greatly help the quality of your video conference. If you have any additional questions or suggestions please leave them in the comments below. I hope everyone is doing well and staying safe!!