Some (late) video and audio advice for GUADEC online

GUADEC 2020 has moved online because of the pandemic, and that means that many of us will be streaming our voice and faces.

Seeing as I have a fancy B.A. on Communication Studies & Film, I thought I might share some guerilla film making tips for our new online reality.

Here are some tips on how to sound and look good online.

Bright pink sunset from the window seat of a plane in Lima
Pictured: Imaginary GUADEC travel (Lima, December 2019)

The executive summary

  • From most important to least: Clear voice, good framing, good big soft lights
  • Sit facing a big window, or on a light colored room with good lighting that hits your face as much as possible
  • Frame yourself in the center, and try to raise your camera to your eye level with books or boxes
  • Use your earbuds’ microphone, but keep the cable away from your body by resting it on the desk, or using some masking tape to secure it to your clothes to avoid rubbing noises
  • Tune your microphone volume to the lowest possible sensitivity that gives your clear voice, low “noise” (hums and static). Record yourself, test playback at 20-25% of your maximum playback volume on earbuds.

The best lighting

The ideal situation is to sit facing a big window. With light coming into the room, on a cloudy day. You can put the window slightly in front and to your left/right if you can’t sit directly in front.

If you have no usable window, you can use lamps. If you have tall lamps that you can point to a white wall, or white ceiling, that’s perfect. That will give you a big soft source of light.

You have lamps but no white wall or white ceiling. Try to “make” a wall with white reflective cardboard, a lot of white printer paper, polystyrene (like a pro), or aluminum wrapping if you are desperate.

You only have your ceiling lights. Sit below and behind your ceiling light. You should be able to lightly tilt your head up and see your bulb or fluorescent. White rooms with many ceiling lights help bounce light to your face.

Remember you can borrow bulbs from other rooms or lamps if you find yourself with a light that is in the perfect spot, but too weak, or too blue (“cool light”) or too orange (“warm”).

The best framing

Put yourself in the center of the frame. Sit front and center of your camera, and try not to slouch to the sides, or worse, point the camera to your ceiling or desk.

Line your camera lens with your eyes. You can use books or boxes to raise your camera. You probably know this pitfall as “nostrils cam” and “receding hair line cam”.

Cleanup your background, and some padding around it. Make sure that whatever ends up in frame is flattering, or at least not distracting, plus some “padding” around, in case you accidentally rotate your camera.

Don’t put bright lights on your background. Bright light sources like a TV, monitor, or window will confuse your camera and might make you look washed out.

Put some distance between you and the background. Otherwise it will look like you are in a cell, a dungeon, or an unmarked CIA location.

The best audio

Microphones are “simple” but full of small technical details that are out of scope for this guide. The good news is that you likely already have a good enough mic that can be made to sound slightly better or in some cases much better.

For a more in depth look into how to properly record your voice, covering mics and voice use itself, see this “How to be an online voice actor” playlist by SBN3.

I only have my laptop mic, or my phone’s cheap earbuds+mic. This is fine. You can still get good audio from this. See below.

How to set up your cheap laptop/earbuds (or any) mic

  • Set yourself up following the previous lighting and framing advice. Get comfortable
  • Pick the mic that makes you the most comfortable
  • Open your (system) sound settings, and a sound recording app
  • Set your system sound settings microphone volume to 50%. Record yourself as if you were talking across the table, plus some seconds of silence
  • Play back your recording at around 20-25% playback volume. Can you hear yourself clearly without having to raise the playback volume much more?
  • If you can’t hear yourself, raise your sound settings microphone volume some more. Rinse and repeat until you hear yourself properly

You want the lowest possible microphone volume (sensitivity) where you have clear voice, without background “hums”, “static” or “refrigerator noise”, and without having to raise playback volume above 40% or so on speakers, or 30% on headphones.

Now repeat the test with your next best option. Keep going until you are satisfied. Remember that price or looks can be deceiving. Your earbuds might as well be your best microphone.

Earbuds troubleshooting

My wired earbuds sound better, but they make “bottle noises” when rubbing with my clothes. Keep the cable as far from your clothes as possible. Any part of the cable can transmit these “bottle noises”. Let the excess cable rest on your desk, not your clothes or laptop.

I still can’t avoid the noises. Get a clothespin, or some good quality masking or gaffers tape, and secure the mic to your desk, or your shirt. You can do fine with two or three “fix points” on your clothes. Don’t overdo it or you’ll end up increasing rubs.

Also avoid “loose” clothes, or noisy accessories like necklaces or long complex earrings. And needless to say, don’t play with the cable during the meeting or call.

(Also don’t chew your mic or cable while talking. Yes, people do this)

I have a fancy mic

If you have a USB mic, like a “podcaster” mic, make sure you compare them against your earbuds or laptop mic. Specially your earbuds. While there are many good external mics, usually earbuds trump them because they are almost automatically set up at the perfect position and distance to make a good recording of your voice.

That’s not to dismiss your fancy mic, but make sure you test it after doing some tuning as suggested above.

A note on polar patterns

The ideal position of your fancy mic will depend on its particular polar pattern (the shape of the “net” it throws to catch your voice). Most “desk” mics sold for calls or podcasting are usually designed to work the best on close range.

Here’s a good visual explanation and examples of polar patterns for Shure microphones, but these are standard across brands.

Assuming you have a desk/podcast marketed external mic, that actually sounds better than your other options, here’s some advice to make the most out of it.

Put your fancy mic “one fist away” from your mouth. Most of these mics are designed for voice, so you want them as close a possible, with the lowest possible sensitivity in your sound settings.

Use books or boxes if you need to raise the mic to be at a comfortable level that also gives you good audio. Your mic should ideally be “one fist away” from your mouth, and slightly off center (slight diagonal from your mouth) to avoid most breathing and wording “pops”.

Remember this slightly depends on the polar pattern of your mic. For example, Blue Yeti mics “look” like you should “point them” to your mouth, like a karaoke mic, but actually they have to be “standing” (fully vertical) in front of your mouth (like an “old timey radio” mic).

Disable automatic gain in your fancy mic. Automatic volume/gain is a blunt tool and you don’t need it if you properly adjust your base volume as explained above.

Make sure your mic has fresh batteries, if it uses batteries. Some mics run on batteries and you’ll have weird bugs or noises if you have low enough batteries.

Check that your microphone does not “ground” with other devices. Depending on your setup, some times electricity can “loop” through your microphone causing the classic “ground” noise (that permanent electrical buzz). Try unplugging other devices, using a different USB port, or even unplugging your AC adapter. Also check that your sensitivity is not excessive.

If your mic has a “hardware” boost, it’s worth trying it out. If you have raised the sound settings levels and you are getting noise or poor voice quality, turn on the mic “boost”, lower the sound settings mic volume and try again. Some mics have very good “boosters” that produce much better recordings. But this is very hit and miss. Try it without, and then with. Compare the best two settings.

There’s an almost infinite list of tech nitpicks and pet peeves for the above, but this should put you in the right direction at least.

Let me know if I omitted a good hack, or a better explanation for any of the above. I’ll be in #guadec on if you need help or have comments.

See you at GUADEC (online)!