How to Rid your Video Conference of Audio Gremlins

Have you ever been in a video conference with audio problems that slowly devolves into an unproductive troubleshooting session? By the time someone really starts troubleshooting, everyone has left frustrated, joined an audio bridge and the problem is no longer reproducible. Along with it goes the visual communication experience and the $20,000 investment in video conferencing equipment you just made, all at the hands of audio gremlins.

So here are several things you can do to avoid being the gremlin and to help identify the gremlin when you are on an important video call so you can properly dispose of them.

Echo:

There are many acoustic phenomena that can affect the quality of a call, but not many will drive you as mad as an echo of your own voice. What is worse is that you are probably the victim of somebody else’s gremlin causing behavior.

To avoid being the source of the echo, you have to be using an audio device that performs Acoustic Echo Cancellation (AEC) like a ClearOne Chat 150 or physically isolates your speaker from your microphone (headset or headphones and a separate microphone.) Make sure you don’t have two devices both trying to perform AEC as that can be just as bad. Additionally, this should be done for every participant in a call to avoid them being the cause of the echo.

If you are hosting or presenting to a large group you should advise far end participants to mute until question and answer time or until they need to interact. With large conferences and numerous open microphones you are bound to get some interesting noises.

Microphone and Speaker Placement:

Positioning your microphone and speakers is extremely important. In most conference rooms the microphone and speaker positions are fixed and have been installed for optimal performance in the room. Make sure to avoid impinging on this design by setting anything down on or between the microphones and the participants. Laptops and papers are likely gremlins as they can be loud and can seriously degrade the microphone’s pickup of participants in the room.

For desktop participants you should be using a headset or speaker-phone unit that is positioned as close to you as possible without physically touching you. Headsets are great if they are positioned correctly, but have the microphone piece too far from your mouth or touching your lips and the gremlins come out. The same goes for speaker-phones. They are usually rated for a specific distance but three feet is probably a good rule of thumb. With the speaker-phone, make sure the path from your mouth is unobstructed and also try to keep the phone on a flat surface with as few obstructions or noise-makers around it as possible.
Preparation:

For the true audio ghost buster, the number one weapon is thorough testing. Learn what configurations work and don’t work within your environment. While acoustics is a science, you don’t need a Masters to have successful video conferences.

Standardize as much as possible on the audio devices you recommend for participants you conference with to simplify troubleshooting. Test and certify new participants prior to having them join a large critical conference. Having first time participants in a multi-point call is a recipe for supernatural audio activity. While training and education is always recommended for new users, a simple one on one test call can prevent that future company wide video conference from succumbing to the gremlins.

When all else fails, troubleshooting:

For those of you with maintenance contracts or a video conferencing Helpdesk at your disposal this part is easy. Pick up the phone and call your local ghost busters.

For the more adventuresome DIY ghost busters, read on.

As I mentioned before there are many potential audio gremlins out there, but the one you will run into the most is acoustic echo. While this troubleshooting section focuses on identifying echo, these steps can really apply to any audio issue. Chances are the problem is being caused by one participant and just identifying them is the tough part.

Echo in conferences is caused by a participants’ transmitted audio feeding back into another microphone (not their own.) So if you are hearing an echo of yourself or any other noise, chances are you are not the participant causing it.

Here is how to identify the source. If participants are joining one at a time, it is pretty easy to identify the participant when the echo, or noise begins. Start with the most recent participant to join and have them mute to see if the echo goes away.

If you are in the middle of a call and begin to notice an echo, check with the other participants to see if they are also hearing the echo. If there is a participant who is not hearing the echo, they are most likely the source. Lastly, if the source of the echo is not easily identifiable have all participants mute and then add participants one at a time, talking to them as they un-mute. The source of the echo will be apparent when a participant un-mutes and you begin to hear yourself back.

The last step is deciding what to do with the gremlin once you’ve identified them.