Audio-video setup for meetings and videos

This post is part of a series on demonstrating competence and expertise on video:

So you want to show expertise and competence on video…

Recording a technical talk? Creating a video about a management tool, to be used as an advertisement for consulting services? Working on the perfect conference talk for an online conference, hoping to gain another 1000 Twitter followers among the community using a library you work on?

These are all cases where demonstrating competence and expertise in a video, to an audience who can leave with one click at any moment, pays off. Here are tips I have found around the web and from my experience.

Setting up for quality video recording can be intimidating at first; I recommend working with someone who has done this kind of thing before to get things working well. But don’t shy away from learning – even a few hours of the basics of effective audio video setup could pay off for years to come, even if it is far from your primary job.

Microphone

Sound is even more important than the picture. Don’t rely on the microphone in your laptop (or phone); workable options include:

  • A headset with a microphone arm – effective but distracting for the viewer
  • A lavalier microphone – works very well for <$50
  • A headworn microphone – I have a $20 model which works pretty well
  • (best) A standalone microphone, with a stand or boom arm to position it within a hand-span or so of your mouth.

There is ample information around the internet about microphone choice and set up; but once you have something basic from the list above working well, it’s better to move on to other aspects of your setup and perhaps return to further microphone research later.

A headset works best for daily use, for frequent video meetings, and so on, because you can listen with no risk of speaker-to-microphone feedback. Consider moving up to one of the other options when recording a video that will be seen by more people, where you want to look more natural, etc.

Avoid “conference puck” microphones for videos that matter. These microphones are excellent for meetings, etc, but the sound quality and resulting “presence” is much worse than a normal microphone close to your mouth.

Recommended microphones include:

Audio environment

The microphone is only half the story, because it hears the space you are in. Listen carefully to a test recording, to hear how much echo and ambient noise is picked up. Then improve your surroundings, move to a different room, etc to reduce these distractions.

Both at home and work I use audio absorption materials from Audimute to help,  their products are great.

Humans conversing in a room have amazing background noise rejection, with the best tool available: a human brain. Microphones don’t have one of those, so background noise, such as pets, kids, neighbors, lawn mowers, etc will be very noticeable in a recording. If you appear on video, or make sound recordings, unfortunately a significant effort and investment may be necessary to get a quiet space to record.

(As with many other aspects of technology, gamers are leading the way here. Nvidia’s RTX Voice feature produces shockingly good results in terms of rejecting background noise. But very few non-gamers have this at hand.)

Where I work (at Oasis Digital) we have solved these audio challenges with a set of conference rooms / studios equipped with sound isolation, sound absorption, audio video equipment, etc. If you have access to something like that, it’s better than using an ad hoc room at home.

Video camera

The most important aspect of video is to actually use it. Turning video off can seem appealing, but doing so greatly reduces the personal connection you might make with viewers.

The video should show your head and shoulders; this can be tricky because many common webcams have a wide field-of-view, intended to easily show a room full of people together if necessary – much less effective for making a personal connection.

As with audio, there is a tremendous amount of information online to help select video equipment. To get up and running, a standalone webcam for under $100 generally gives sufficient results. For those taking things more seriously, a standalone camera and video capture device yield a great Improvement but are much more to fiddle with. I typically use a Logitech C920 webcam for most work, and switch to a DSLR camera plus HDMI capture device for occasional work where the result matters most.

Unfortunately as I write this in the summer of 2020, webcams are still in short supply and sometimes selling at greatly inflated prices because of pandemic-induced extra demand. Hopefully production will catch up soon and these devices will return to their long-term low prices and easy availability.

Video environment

The video camera position matters greatly; the camera should be at approximately eye level or slightly above, never looking up at you. Therefore, if you are stuck with just the camera built into a laptop, place the laptop on a box or stand to raise the camera. A camera looking up your nose is among the worst, yet most easily solved, problems.

The camera will of course see whatever is around and behind you, so work hard to declutter your environment. Something like a bookcase is best, but if that is not available, at least find a reasonably non-distracting (very ideally, interesting) background. If it’s just some portion of your home, pay attention to things like what items are laying around, anything untidy that can be tidied up, doors that can be closed, etc. These things are generally easier to control at a dedicated office, yet an office with an excessively lived-in look can likewise be improved by tidying before you start.

Be careful if your environment includes windows; seeing the outside world can be great, but it can also overwhelm your interior lighting.

Lighting

Lighting is important – make sure that you are well lit from the front. Your face and especially eyes should not be in shadow or darkness. This might just be a matter of facing the right direction where you already have light, or might be achieved with a household lamp. For better results, purchase video light panels or a ring light made for this purpose.

As with sound, the human eye and brain are very good at extracting signal from poor inputs. Cameras don’t have brains, so a room well-lit for humans in conversation could nonetheless be awful for video work. Make a test recording, and then look back at it (zoomed up as large as possible on your screen) with a very critical eye.

Recording software

Good choices include:

  • Screenflow (Mac); power-user oriented
  • Loom (multiplatform, including ChromeOS); great feature set to get good results with almost no configuration
  • Screencastify (multiplatform, including ChromeOS); similar to Loom
  • OBS (multiplatform); this open source software is extremely configurable, but you’ll need to understand it well and configure and test, otherwise it can easily produce poor results.

Keyboard

You’ll probably need to use the keyboard at least a bit during your recordings. This is not a good time for a clacky mechanical keyboard, but if that is all you have, move it far from the microphone. If you must use the camera built into a laptop, use an external keyboard and mouse so that you don’t touch the laptop and cause camera shake.

In my personal setup, for video recordings I typically set aside my mechanical keyboard and instead reach for the quiet keyboard built into my Mac laptop when recording sound.

Resources

To go deeper for audio video setup, I recommend Scott Hanselman’s excellent post.

Deeper still, this post from Matt Stauffer.

To go even deeper, completely down a rabbit hole, search on YouTube for “streamer video setup” and similar terms. These folks obsess endlessly over each nuance of difference between microphones, cameras, etc. Practically, it is unlikely incremental improvements will make a difference in the effectiveness of your results.

3 thoughts on “Audio-video setup for meetings and videos”

  1. Hey Kyle, great tips all around. An extra tip on the microphone, if you can ‘swing it’ (pun intended) mount the microphone boom arm to a wall or use a floor stand. It drastically reduces ancillary sounds from the desk, like the mouse keyboard being moved around. Even with a membrane keyboard I still seem to type with a bit of a thud. The microphone was all-to-happy to pick up the sound being translated through the desk and boom arm.

    I mounted mine to the wall with a small 2×4 cut off I had. Ugly and elegant, yet functional!

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