Sound & Fury or: How Your Webcam Mic is Driving You Mad

Has something like this ever happened to you?

You dial into a meeting. You’re connected quickly and everything seems okay. You’re not really here to do anything of import, just listen to the conversation, only contributing if it’s absolutely necessary. At some point it becomes necessary so you un-mute the mic in your webcam, say your piece and mute the mic again.

Unwanted Projector Fan Noise
You’ll never hear it but a projector or other device near your laptop can generate unwanted noise into your laptop microphone.

Someone asks you to repeat yourself. They heard you speaking but your voice was broken and overwhelmed by the fan on your desk. You repeat yourself. Same problem. You have no idea what’s going on, and your very unhappy about it. But don’t worry, there’s a simple and inexpensive solution to your problem.

Your webcam was never built to provide high quality audio. The microphone was added as a selling point, not a dedicated tool. It’s small, positioned too far away from your mouth, and is by necessity an omni-directional microphone. That means it’s not just listening to the words from your mouth, it’s listening to every little sound in the room. The same goes for the mic built in to your laptop.

So a webcam mic is out, but that’s not a problem because you’ve already come up with a solution. Aren’t you clever. Your smartphone came with a pair earbuds that have a little microphone attached to the cable. Perfect, you think, This should solves all of those little problems. If only things were that simple.

Those earbuds solve problems like ambient noise and poor mic placement, but you’re still facing the biggest problem of all: your computer’s sound card.

Laptop Earbuds
Earbuds plugged into your laptop still use the laptop’s sound card.

Like the microphone in your webcam, your sound card wasn’t built to be anything special. It handles audio playback well enough but the mic components are often thrown in as an after-though. They exist so a user can do the most basic sort of sound recording; talking into a microphone and playing it back at a different time. Conferencing demands simultaneous audio recording and playback, which your stock sound card wasn’t designed to handle. Speakers and microphones generate sound through an analog process while your computer only understands digital signals, so the sound card has to translate these signals. To save the manufacturer money the playback and recording conversions are handled by the same circuitry. The sound card’s primary function is audio playback, so when it’s required to deal with playback and input at the same time the input quality tends to suffer.

So how do we solve this? It’s simple: don’t use the sound card.

USB headsets are designed for real time communication. The headset contains its own very tiny sound card, which uses separate circuitry for encoding input and decoding playback. You computer won’t have to do any of the processing internally, which frees up power for heavier tasks like a video conference or desktop share. Most importantly, a USB headset puts the microphone right next to your mouth. It doesn’t have to be omni-directional or boost the gain to hear your voice. You talk, the headset listens, and sends sends impeccable audio into your conference call.

USB Headset Works
A USB headset is the only web audio solution that works!

A USB headset is a simple and inexpensive tool to improve your web conferencing experience. You could stomach the poor audio from your laptop’s microphone, or wonder with increasing anger why your white earbuds don’t do the job any better. Or you could spend a little money on a headset and not have to complain again. Trust me. Go with the third option. It’ll be the best fifty bucks you’ve ever spent.


Mercuri Conferencing

Mobile vs Landline or: Wait, Can You Hear Me NOW?

In the late 1980s a major US telecom boasted their call quality was so exceptional that “you can hear a pin drop”. Twenty years later, another telecom bragged they could offer “fewer dropped calls” and repeated over and over the phrase, “Can your hear me now?” It wasn’t a gimmick, it was an honest question, and it paints the perfect picture of the shift from landline to mobile communications. No one disputes the benefits of mobile phones, but it’s undeniable that the technology trades quality and reliability for convenience.

In the past few years the prototypical cellphone has all but disappeared, giving way to smartphones, text messaging, and always-on internet connections. Mobile calls are shorter and less frequent than ever, so the diminished quality and reliability tends to go unnoticed… until you want to participate in a conference call.

Mobile Conference Call
Surrounding noise like the radio, wind or traffic will be picked up by a microphone.

Your typical conference call is an hour long, connecting five, ten, twenty or more people. In this environment call quality and reliability are paramount and cannot be assured by a wireless network. Moreover, the portability of a mobile phone means you’re seldom in a quiet place while making a call. You’re likely somewhere in public, or in the car using a speakerphone. And while your phone’s speaker maybe be louder than its earpiece, you’re using the same microphone in either mode. Your phone simply boosts the volume of the input, meaning it will pick up not only your voice, but any little noises within a few feet of the microphone. That means your radio and engine, as well as road noise, wind from and open window, and the sound of other traffic. Muting the line can help if you only need to listen, but if you’re planning to talk avoid mobile speakerphones all together.

The landline is almost a thing of the past. Consumers have switched the cable-based home phones and business is migrating to Voice-Over-IP. Carriers are constantly handing calls off to each other through cost-saving measure called Least Cost Routing and have combined their voice and data networks into a single pipe. All that considered, landlines are still regarded as having better call quality and reliability than any mobile service.

Keep in mind that every piece of the puzzle, from your headset to your phone to your service provider, plays and important role in the quality and reliability of your call. A little knowledge can go a long way to ensure a top notch conferencing experience.

Mercuri Conferencing