June 8, 2020


Remote Collaboration tips: microphone

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Gord Allott

Principal Eng / Co-founder

Here at Axiom, we are a 100% remote company, we cover ten timezones and have had to find a way of making collaboration work for us. We have found that a mix of voice/video calls for high-bandwidth communication and text messaging for lower bandwidth has worked wonderfully.

However, when transitioning to voice/video calls, as many have had to do over the past few months, problems can quickly arise. Incorrectly setup microphones can hamper and derail voice calls to the point of frustration to everyone listening.

With that in mind, we’ve come up with some tips for ensuring you are as clear as can be when voice/video conferencing, helping everyone understand each other better.

Clarity From the Source

The first one is the biggest, being sufficiently understood requires a real microphone. The one built into even the best laptop in the world is still worse than the cheapest external microphone. Yes, even the expensive ‘truly wireless’ earbuds you have sound poor.

That isn’t to say anyone should rush out and buy a studio microphone. But something like the Snowball – from Blue, helps immensely. It also helps that the Snowball is small, comes with a stand and plugs directly into the USB port on your computer.

At Axiom, we ship all new employees a Blue Snowball and require its use (or equivalent microphone) for all voice communication.

Get real close

Microphones do not work the same way human ears do; Humans are very very good at filtering out ambient sounds. Hums, tweets, and office chatter can all be beautiful background noise for your day-to-day activities, but your microphone is going to pick up every single sound. Once those sounds get boosted by the microphone and communication software, then compressed and sent to everyone else, they become an unnatural nuisance.

The best thing you can do is try and eliminate these sounds, Don’t do voice calls from loud environments, shut the doors and windows, but sometimes this isn’t enough or is not viable.

However, there is a trick to both solving this problem and making your voice much more clear. The volume of the microphone can be set very low, and you can then bring the microphone much closer to your face – as close as possible. At which point the ambient sounds are too quiet to be picked up by the microphone, and your voice comes through crystal clear.

It can be challenging to find a place for your microphone that allows it to get close to your face when voice conferencing, At Axiom, we use microphone arms that attach to our desks and swing-out/unfurl to get close.

Make your Network Strong

Many people have much worse internet connections than they expect. Specifically, they suffer from packet loss.

In layman’s terms, packet loss is when your computer wants to send some data to another computer, but along the way, some of that data gets lost.

Packet loss can happen for many reasons, but the primary way is usually lousy wifi connections. Wifi is unlike other mechanisms of data transfer, and it suffers from interference from external sources. A neighbour using a cheap microwave may cause your wifi to start dropping packets.

Packet loss isn’t a problem with regular internet use, and if a data gets lost, then the network detects that and the data is resent. However, for real-time data transmission, of which voice conferencing is an example, that data can never be resent. By the time the data is marked as lost, it’s already out-of-date, resending the data doesn’t make sense.

To others, for various reasons to do with voice audio compression, this sounds like you getting a robotic voice and eventually, if the packet loss is substantial enough, your voice cutting out entirely.

The only way to fix this is to improve your network connection, move closer to your wifi router, get wifi router with a stronger signal, remove sources of interference from your work environment. If all else fails, use an ethernet cable to connect your computer to the router directly.

A useful tool: https://packetlosstest.com/

Sum up

Following these tips gets you and your team well on the way to having clear, frustration-free voice calls. At Axiom, we have multiple casual voice calls a day, and a significant factor in that is ensuring everyone is speaking as clearly as they could face-to-face.

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