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Can You Hear Me Now? The Audio Engineer's 101 Handbook for Surviving Online Events

Don’t let lousy audio ruin your online event experience. Take control of the situation to maximize your participation.

Photo by Tanner Boriack / Unsplash

Webinars, virtual conferences, educational workshops, and even video calls—all these online events can be valuable tools for connecting with industry peers, socializing, and expanding your skill set.

But navigating the technical aspects of participating in them can be frustrating.

Poor connectivity, shaky audio, sound delays, and awkward silence are just some of the reasons why live virtual events fall flat. However, it doesn’t have to be that way—and often, solutions for bad audio quality are more straightforward than you’d think.

To participate successfully in online events, you need to think like an audio engineer.

Six key tips for smooth digital participation

Bad audio is a common problem for online event hosts and members. Poor internet connection, low-functioning host sites, and a general lack of knowledge can all produce extremely annoying results, especially when trying to connect with people online in real-time.

However, improving your knowledge of audio quality and the many different ways to enhance it can help you tackle online events like a seasoned pro.

Here are six top tips for ensuring that your online event experiences are smooth, high-quality, and clear every time.

Invest in an external mic

If you frequently find yourself struggling with bad audio, investing in an external mic is a great idea.

Thanks to the explosion of podcast culture and increased demand for better quality sound recordings, there are plenty of high-grade mini microphones on the market that can help others hear your voice in crystalline clarity.

Some of the best mics that won’t break your budget include the hugely popular Blue Yeti, Rode Podmic, HyperX SoloCast, and the Movo UM700, which is a more affordable take on the Blue Yeti.

External mics don’t just help with volume; they also help capture nuanced pronunciations and vocals so that your words are expressed easily and other online event members can effortlessly hear your voice.

However, according to audiovisual engineer and music producer Marc Mocasi, one of the most in-demand skills for live events is knowing how a mic’s signals work and how to connect them. Most external mics work with WiFi or Bluetooth connections, and these need to be set up and configured.

You may also need to download drivers for computer or laptop sound cards to ensure that the mic performs without any audio issues.  

Make continual learning a priority

Due to the rise in popularity of virtual events and remote working, computers and laptops with decent built-in audio recording systems are not hard to find. Many of the best laptops for day-to-day live recordings double up as great music production devices that are fine-tuned for audio perfection.

But you need to know how to use them properly, and technology doesn't stand still.

Sound engineers are always learning on the job, and you can do the same for free with courses like Udemy's Free Audio Engineering Tutorial, the Production Academy's free live sound training videos, or SoundGym School's Learn Music Production Online for Free.

Sean Walker, president at Audio Engineers Northwest LLC, also recommends the Blackbird Academy for a more mentor-driven, experience-based education.

If you brush up on the basic skills shared in these courses, you’ll know how to not only use your hardware and software but also tweak it to work at its optimum.

Adapt to your environment

Your sound should change depending on your environment. Every room and environment has different acoustics, and you need to adapt your sound to suit these.

The best way to do this successfully is to train your ears.

Ear training can help you pick up audio issues like resonant frequencies or distortion artifacts. When you can do this, you’ll know where on the frequency spectrum to make adjustments to balance the EQ.

The equipment you use also depends on your environment. Some environments only require a laptop with external speakers and a microphone, while others will need a full PA system. With live sound, there’s no copy-paste solution.

The people involved in your event also affect your sound. Quiet talkers, those with distinctive accents or deep timbres, may need a little acoustic tweaking to be fully audible. On this topic, event producer Jared Sloan says that the importance of high quality live mixing is impossible to overstate as it makes everyone involved look (and sound) professional and polished. Audio adaption is one area you don’t want to skimp out on.

Manually adjust input and output volumes

Sometimes, the problem is as simple as your volume levels not being where they should be—and it’s always a good idea to get your fundamentals right. Especially if you’re mixing vocals and music.

Don’t just check your laptop or device’s regular volume levels; check that the site or app you’re using to participate in the event has its sound levels optimized, too.

Often, these audio settings do a lot more than just increase or decrease volume; they can also be tweaked to reduce background sounds or sharpen the clarity of the audio.

If varying volume levels are a concern, apply compression to reduce the dynamic range of the audio signal to make quieter parts louder and vice versa. This keeps sound consistent and prevents loud bursts or too-soft segments.

Taking a minute to check every audio setting that impacts your experience ensures you get the best possible end result. And remember, if you really want to get your virtual crowd going with your intro music, just follow Amazon Audio Lead Austin DeVries' advice: Turn all the knobs to the right and push the faders all the way up.

Invest in an external audio interface

An external audio interface lets your computer communicate with audio devices such as microphones and wired or wireless speakers. If you decide to buy an external mic, investing in an external audio interface can further enhance audio quality and transmission efficiency.

External audio interfaces achieve this by converting your mic's analog audio signals into digital signals that are easier for your primary device to process.

All laptops and computers have built-in audio interfaces that perform the same function, but they can’t compete with the professional sound quality that an external system provides.

An external audio interface is especially worthwhile if you regularly host live events. It’s also generally easy to set up, but you need to learn what the different controls do and how to maximize their potential.

A few of the top recommendations for online events include the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 4th Gen, Audient iD4 MkII, Arturia MiniFuse 1, or Presonus Studio 24c.

Source: Audio University

Test your audio beforehand

Some people have deficiencies that affect their ability to judge the levels of certain frequencies, but this isn’t an excuse you can use when your sound goes down mid-event—or doesn’t work at all.

Sound engineers not only have good (usually tested) ears, but they are also the masters of fixing things on the fly and troubleshooting errors as they happen, and this takes practice.

Often, sound issues that arise during an online event aren’t that complicated or difficult to sort out—they just feel so unexpected or confusing that fixing them in the moment becomes overwhelming.

The more time you spend checking your audio, the more familiar you’ll become with it, and the easier it will be to fix it when something goes wrong.

Final thoughts

As engaging and educational as online events can be, technical issues like bad audio can quickly make you want to throw your laptop off a cliff. Don’t do that!

Before you give up hope, give these tips for better audio quality and smoother live digital interactions a chance.