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September 1, 2020

5 Steps to Improve the Sound of Your Video Conferences

Anthony Grimani and Manny LaCarrubba

What do we know about sound? We have worked on over 1,000 projects during our combined 60 years of experience in the audio business, including key positions at Dolby, Lucasfilm THX, and the famed Record Plant studio. We have developed a bit of insight into the things that really affect the sound quality of your video conferences, and what you can do to improve it! We are all spending a lot of time in video conferences, using Zoom, or other platform, and we have some tips for making them more effective.

Check out the top 5:

1. Clean up your room acoustics

The most important thing you can do to improve the sound of your video conferences is to add an acoustical treatment package to your home office, work office, “zoom room,” or conference room.

Acoustical treatments are panels that you hang on the walls and ceiling to dramatically improve your voice clarity by controlling the sounds that bounce around the room. Your video conference participants will immediately hear the difference. That’s because more than 50% of what enters your microphone or your ears is from sound waves that have bounced around the room surfaces after leaving your mouth or your speakers! It stands to reason that you should pay some serious attention to those room surfaces. These add-on panels come in various sizes, shapes, and colors. They can even have custom artwork printed on them to match your design aesthetic. Once you add these panels, the difference in video conferencing sound quality is night and day. They remove the booming echoes that make a video conference call so annoying, while retaining the actual character of your voice in high-fidelity. Now, acoustics may seem like a complicated and confusing art form. But by following simple formulas we derived from engineering hundreds of rooms over the last 30 years, you will get great results:

• Absorption Panels

Absorbers act like sponges for sound waves, sucking up all the energy that hits them. Apply absorbers to about 20% of your wall and ceiling surface area. The absorption material should be at least 2” thick. Spread your absorbers evenly throughout the room. See below for layout recommendations for offices and for conference rooms.

Absorption Panels for Private or Home Office "Zoom Room" Acoustics
Absorption Panels for Conference Room Acoustical Treatment
• Diffusion Panels

Diffusers scatter sound waves, breaking them up into a smoother soundfield. Apply these scattering modules to another 15-20% of your walls and ceiling. Diffusion should be at least 2” deep (preferably 4-6”) and interleaved with your absorbers. Use 2D diffusion (scatters into a plane) towards the front of the room and 3D diffusion (scatters into a hemisphere) towards the back and on the ceiling. See below for layout recommendations.

Diffusion Panels for Video Conferencing Acoustical Treatment

For recommend layouts of these acoustic modules, take a look at this web page: Remember to source good quality products - appearance does not always equal performance! For more info, look at their acoustical test reports.

And for a collection of very good and cost-effective acoustical panels, go to

Recommended Layout for All Acoustical Panels in a Video Conference Room

2. Upgrade Your Microphone, Audio Interface and speakers

Many of you may be using the basic little mic in your laptop, tablet, or smart phone, and using your earbuds to listen. Have you noticed that every time you see a picture of a radio broadcaster, they have this massive high-tech mic in front of their face? That’s what it takes to get clean voice quality.

You don’t have to upgrade to one of these high-end professional mics in order to vastly improve voice quality - so you don't sound like you’re underwater - but you do need a good quality mic with a sound pattern that favors the direction it is pointing, which would be your mouth. These are called “unidirectional” or “cardioid.” There are several USB-connected mics on the market, but many of them are not ideal for a clear voice pickup in your average office or den because they are not sufficiently directional. We’ve found that the age-proven Shure SM57 or SM58, both under $100, work really well. Don’t forget to also get a small desktop mic stand to hold your mic.

The next step is to purchase a USB audio interface. An audio interface contains analog to digital and digital to analog sound converters that are much higher quality than what you've been using with your computer's built in mic. The audio interface is where you will plug in your microphone and connect your speakers or headphones. Check out the Shure X2U interface, also about $100, for a good option.

The set-up would look like this. You plug your mic into the X2U, and plug the X2U into your computer’s USB port. You plug your speakers, headphones or earbuds into the 1/8” mini jack on the X2U and you’re done.

Shure SM57

Another good and simple option is the Audio-Technica AT2020USB+ all-in-one mic, which is a capsule condenser mic with a different pickup scheme. You actually talk into the side of the mic, not the front. It, too, has a headphone/speaker output that will simplify use, as you won’t have to mess around with computer control software in the middle of your calls.

Audio-Technica 2020USB Microphone

For corporate board rooms, things get a bit more complicated since there can be several people around a table, and you can’t point on mic at all of them at the same time. Or maybe you can? There are now some “smart-mics” that can figure out who is speaking, and can form a directional beam towards the person. These mics are either on a table, or mounted on the ceiling, and require some more advanced installation and programming.  They also work best if the acoustics are under control, and if the background noise is kept low (see below for more info). See the Shure MXA 310 or MXA 910 for some of that advanced level of functionality..

The final step is to purchase some quality powered speakers instead of using your laptop's tiny tinny speakers. This will pay dividends when you can hear each participant in full fidelity. In a corporate conference room that may have many participants, make sure you have speakers that can fill the entire room with sound. At home, you may find that you are also listening to music through your speakers, so invest in a pair that would satisfy those needs as well.

Do remember to talk into the mic at a distance of no more than 12" if you want your voice quality to be good, clear, and strong.

3. Position and Aim Your Speakers

You wouldn’t believe how much the sound of a speaker changes based on its position in the room. Your goal should be to position the speakers to achieve smooth, neutral tone, so go ahead and experiment. Try to place the speakers so that they are least 2’ from any wall or corner. You can try raising them up over the work surface so that their soundwaves aren’t bouncing off the desk.

Aim the speakers towards you so that you get all of their sound. But wait, there’s more to this speaker positioning thing: Place the speaker behind the microphone, so that the sound waves emanating from the speakers will hit the back of the mic and be a lot quieter. That will reduce the work that the echo cancelling algorithm in the teleconferencing scheme has to do and will give you a big boost in overall clarity.

We know, it’s all a bit complicated, but simply follow these rules, and you’ll notice a vast improvement in how well people hear you on the other end!

Note that acoustical treatments from above will definitely help reduce the effects of placement and widen your listening sweet spot!

4. Configure and troubleshoot your system.

You will need to set up all the hardware and software configurations if you are using a headset or an external mic and speakers.

If you didn’t check these settings, chances are that you are still talking into the “little mic” and hearing the “tinny” speakers of your device, even if you upgraded to better gear. We don’t have time to get into all the variables, but here a few guidelines:

  • To make sure that your intended mic is selected, tap on it lightly and ask your audience if they hear the tapping. You can then try tapping your laptop or tablet and see if that sound is more obvious to them.
  • If you use Zoom, GoToMeeting, or any of the other popular video conferencing applications, you will see a microphone icon. Usually you can pull down a selection menu to choose the mic you want. 

  • The same goes for the speakers. Tell your hardware and your conferencing software that you want to use the upgraded external speakers.
  • The “Sound Settings” menu you may find by right-clicking on the loudspeaker icon on the bottom right of your task bar on a Windows machine will give you more advanced controls. Poke around until you find mic settings, make sure the right one is selected, and confirm that the level is either in automatic mode or turned up enough to clearly register on the level meters.

5. Lower your background noise.

A lot of background noise in your conferencing space will get in the way of your voice pickup as well as clear understanding of what is coming out of your speakers. If you don’t want to miss the sonic nuances that make up a conversation, or the tone of a meeting, you need to keep the background noise in your room at or below 40 dB (NC).

A simple test is to plug your ears with your fingers for at least 5 seconds, then unplug and listen. You will suddenly notice all the background noise. Ventilation, heating and cooling are common culprits, as are refrigerators, people nearby, traffic, wind, and other environmental sources noise. In your home office, you may want to shut down the AC during a meeting and close the doors and windows.

Bottom line? You need to get rid of as much background noise as you can if you want clear conferencing.

In the corporate workspace, to do this right, you’ll want to engage the services of good acoustical professionals to help analyze and control the noise (

Anthony Grimani and Manny LaCarrubba

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