Get serious about Zoom
Even after the return to in-person work, at-home videoconferencing is not going to fade away. Invest in good audio and video quality to make the best impression and be a positive presence in online meetings now and in the future.
It's time, past time really, To get serious about your at-home Zoom setup.
Even after the return to in-person work, at-home videoconferencing is not going away any time soon. Investing in A/V equipment that will make you look and sound your best, and spending the time to get familiar with it, will help you make the best possible impression in online meetings and job interviews.
Think for a minute about the three modes of persuasion laid out by Aristotle: ethos, logos, and pathos. Let's focus on just the first one of these, ethos. Ethos is about credibility, trustworthiness, intelligence. In order to be persuasive, a communicator has to project these attributes. In the age of Zoom, to be seen as credible and trustworthy, appearances do matter.
What follows are recommendations based on my own experience over the past year building out my home office setup, informed by expert advice from the good and generous people at Alex Lindsay's Office Hours.
First things first: the order of operations. The single most important investment to make is your home internet connection. You will need high speed and reliable service from your Internet Service Provider. Even with high-quality sound and video, if your internet is poor, you will not present well in meetings. So, start by investing in the highest-speed internet that fits your budget. Only then, start to look at investing in a microphone and other gear to up your audio quality. Audio comes next because if you can't be heard, or heard clearly, then it really doesn't matter what you look like. Consequently, video enhancements come last.
So, in order, that's:
- Internet, then
- Sound, then
Now, we'll get into sound and video recommendations.
The microphones and speakers built into laptops are, for the most part, junk. Airpods or earphones are an improvement. A USB headset is better still. But to be a presence in meetings, professional-quality audio is what you'll need. And to get that, you'll need a professional microphone. All of these recommended microphones are condenser microphones, meaning they require a power source (more on that later) and are well-suited to capturing the human voice. They are directional, so they will filter out a lot of ambient sound. The mic should be placed directly in front of the sound source for optimal results.
These are what YouTubers and professional podcasters use. So if you want to sound like Roman Mars, invest in a professional mic.
- Shure SM7B - The industry-standard microphone for podcasters and YouTubers. It has a built-in pop filter to reduce plosives, or popping "p" sounds.
- Audio-Technica AT2020 - An inexpensive entry-model condenser microphone. It requires a pop filter. I use this in my setup with good results.
- Heil PR40 - Expensive, but some podcasters swear by these. It's the mic of choice for the long-running This Week in Tech family of podcasts.
You'll need this to get sound from your microphone into your computer. You will want to purchase an audio interface that can supply 48 volts of phantom power to your microphone if you're using a condenser microphone, otherwise, your microphone won't be powered, and it won't work.
- Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 - This is a good entry model with all the connections you'll need to plug in a condenser microphone with a USB connection to your computer. It has a button to deliver 48V of phantom power to a condenser microphone.
- Boom arm - You can set your microphone on your desk with a stand, but you'll want to get your microphone off your desk to minimize unwanted noise from vibrations and your keyboard. A boom arm will allow you to place your microphone at a distance, possibly offscreen so that it's less visually distracting.
- Pop filter - As mentioned earlier, some microphones need a pop filter to reduce plosives, or popping "p" sounds.
- Cables - You'll need an XLR audio cable to connect your microphone to your audio interface.
- Headphones or in-ear monitor - You'll need to be able to hear the Zoom conversation, so a set of headphones are required so that you can hear without introducing feedback through your computer speakers. To look your best, purchase an in-ear monitor, like an IFB, that can plug into the headphone jack on your audio interface.
No matter what camera you're using, even a built-in webcam, good lighting will go a long way in improving picture quality and making you look your best. This is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit when it comes to improving your appearance, and doesn't cost much. Before investing in a camera, work on lighting.
First, a few tips. Take advantage of natural light sources to illuminate the subject (that's you). If possible, set up your space so that you are facing a window. Avoid having a window behind you, as this will backlight you and cause silhouetting, making you look like a dark blob.
- IKEA Regolit - The $4.99 IKEA Regolit shade paired with an $11 Hemma plug-in cord and a 100W light bulb is a cost-effective way to get bright, soft key and fill lights for your Zoom setup. Hang two of them from your ceiling with Command Strips positioned behind your camera, one to the right and a second to the left of the camera. The Regolit shade does a great job at diffusing light and evening out shadows on your face. There are many professional lighting kits out there, but the IKEA solution works just as well at a fraction of the cost.
- Logitech BRIO Webcam - This USB webcam is inexpensive, easy to use and is a big improvement over most integrated webcams. Using a USB webcam doesn't require a switcher or lenses.
- Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera - The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera series provides excellent picture quality at a reasonable cost. These cameras use detachable lenses, so if you already have a DSLR camera, you can choose a model that uses Micro Four Thirds (4K model) or Canon EF-Mount (6K model). Although Zoom, Skype, and other videoconferencing services max out at 1080p, the extra detail captured by the large camera sensor will result in a richer and sharper picture even when downconverted to HD.
To make use of a professional camera like the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera, you'll need a switcher or capture device to connect the camera directly to your computer.
- Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini - The ATEM Mini is an absolute wonder. It costs under $300, has four HDMI inputs, and connects to your computer via a USB-C output. Zoom, Skype, Teams, and Google Meet will recognize the ATEM Mini as a webcam. If you have an extra laptop lying around, you can plug that into one of the available HDMI inputs and instantly share your screen or playback video by pressing a button, rather than fumble with screen sharing options in your videoconferencing software. With the included ATEM Software Control application, you can load still images and graphics, and cut or key those over your video. It has a built-in keyer, so if you want to get super advanced and build a green screen setup, you can create a custom background for yourself.
- Cables - You'll need at least one HDMI cable to connect a camera to the ATEM Mini, more if you plan on connecting a laptop or additional video sources.
- Lenses - If you don't already have a detachable lens, you'll need a lens with the appropriate mount that works with your camera. If you opt for a camcorder, you won't need a separate lens. If you are a photographer, you may be able to use lenses that you already have with your video camera. If that's the case, it's probably wise to select a camera that can use the lenses you already have. Depending on your setup, a focal length of 24mm or 35mm might yield good results and give you a good head-and-shoulders framing.
Credit due and many thanks to the panelists and participants of Alex Lindsay's Office Hours Zoom meetings and Discord chat, who have been spreading the gospel on this stuff for the past year. It's where many of these ideas orginated. If you'd like to become a ninja at this stuff, tune in to Office Hours on YouTube, where you can also learn how to join the interactive Zoom discussion.
Photo by Matthias Oberholzer on Unsplash