"Hey, we can't hear you clearly."
You know that feeling when you are trying to communicate over a video call app like Zoom, Slack, Discord, etc. and someone tells you they cannot hear you properly (if they even do tell you)? This could be an important interview or a sales meeting that you are trying to nail and the last thing you want is to be muffled on the other side.
Also, one of the major contributors to Zoom Fatigue is prolonged mental strain to make sense of poor speech audio!
My original setup: AirPods Pro
I was previously using AirPods Pro for convenience. But after hearing myself back, I realised that they sound too muffled for my liking. The connection drops occasionally and they perform terrible with background noise and wind. I have a fan pointed at my desk because I work in the tropics. Often, weak noise cancellation wouldn't be effective, and strong noise cancellation will distort my voice.
Plus, I couldn't continue using them for long periods of pair programming because they would just run out of batteries!
Something else I tried: Over-the-ear headsets
Next I tried using over-the-ear headsets (a.k.a. trucker headsets). They have the benefit of being wired therefore the connection and sound quality is better. However they end up pinching my ear lobes and gave me a lot of pain and discomfort. Plus, I look stupid when using it for an important client call.
Going minimal: Built-in laptop mic
Most laptops have pretty bad built-in microphones — true enough, I sound muffled.
In my normal seated position where the video is pointed at my face, the mics are positioned about 3-4 hand spans away from my mouth. This means that more ambient noise is picked up compared to my voice, and therefore a lower signal-to-noise ratio.
I take my calls in a room with four hard walls and hard flooring. The hard surfaces reflect the sound back into the microphone and results in echo. Echo is one of those audio artefacts that you can only hear from the other side so it wasn't immediately obvious to me until I replayed my own recording.
During long sessions of remote pair programming I often shift in my seat, stand or stretch my neck to regain some comfort and this changes the volume of my voice that is picked up by the laptop mic. Also, I have a dual screen setup and I don't want my voice to undulate everytime I move between screens.
What are my options then?
In summary, these are the list of features I need in my new setup:
- Mobile: I don't want something fixed to a desk. Prefer it to track the position of my head.
- Good sound quality: Something that sounds good and have stable connection
- Standalone: I don't want to use it with a earphone or headphone
- Discreet: When using it for client calls, it should not be something too obvious or distracting
- Noise- and wind- resistant: It should not pick up too much wind noise or ambient noise
- Cheap: I don't want to spend tons of money on this solution
- Compatible with existing devices
Enter the lapel microphone!
After doing a ton of research, I decided to get a lapel microphone (a.k.a. lavelier mic)! The model I bought was the Sennheiser XS Lav Mobile Lapel Mic and for $70 Singapore Dollars (~$49 USD), this is an awesome investment.
A lapel mic is commonly used in video interviews, on-stage and outdoors. It is great for situations when you need the mic to be discreet and close to the subject but at the same time you want to pick up the subject's voice clearly. Because it is so small, it can be taped and hidden away under clothes.
When the mic is close to the subject it also has the added benefit of achieving high signal-to-noise ratio because it can be placed within 1 handspan from my mouth.
The model I have also comes with a wind muffler dome that I can attach over the mic, giving me added wind-noise reduction (almost zero!). If you don't believe me, have a look at this YouTube video review of a recording on a windy bridge
It's super easy to set up
- Plug it into your Mac's audio port. It will immediately be recognised as "External Headphones"
- Hold down the Option Key and click on the speaker icon on the top right.
- In the dropdown menu, select your desired output. If you don't, the Mac will think your Mic is a headphone and no sound will be played.
- That's it!
If you use Zoom: Make sure to check the audio settings once before you make your first call. You can test your mic as well. I just leave it as "Same as System".
What about a desktop condensor microphone?
I considered this option but there were 2 reasons why it and other similar mics don't fit my usecase:
Takes up way too much space
For the Blue Yeti to perform well, it needs to be placed right between my arms in front of my keyboard. This is not exactly an ideal situation because I type a lot.
The alternative is to put it on a boom — podcaster / streamer style — but it gets in the way of work and blocks what is in front of me! And I still look a bit stupid in front of clients with a huge boom mic. Or worse — having to spend more money on a webcam just to accomodate the boom.
Sensitive to environment
The Yeti and other budget desktop mics comes default on a stand and guess what, it doesn't come with a shock mount! This means that everytime I hit the mic or something on the table, the sound transmits to the mic and over the video call. How annoying is that?
I'm super happy with my purchase and I'm glad I can now take Zoom calls without much equipment and achieve a high level of reliability and freedom. I play the call over the laptop speakers and because it is far away from my seated position, there is no feedback into the call and I don't have to fiddle with the mute/unmute.
This is how I look during a typical video call. The lapel mic is clipped to my T-shirt near my chestbone. It is only visible when I adjust my seating. Otherwise, it is completely out of sight. Behind me is the fan spinning away (Ignore the air conditioning unit. It's never switch on during work hours to save electricity.)