Producing Live Events, Master Tip 5: Audio Quality is Key

Total Webcasting is a webcasting service provider out of New York that produces dozens of events a month, and thousands since its inception in 2007. Total Webcasting is unique in that it produces virtually all events for its customers, while owning the streaming server and content management system used for live and on-demand delivery, providing the complete “glass-to-glass” experience. Through their experience, the company has mastered the art of the problem-free webcast. I’ve been after company president Robert Feldman to share his tips with my readers for years; he’s agreed to share his top ten in Letterman order. This is number five.

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Though we go to great lengths to optimize video quality in every webcast, nothing is more important than the audio portion of the experience. If viewers have to strain to hear and understand the webcast then they will turn it off. Depending on the location of the webcast, we might be given a feed from the vendor providing the microphones and room sound, or we might have to deploy our own microphones if there is no separate vendor for audio. Although it is simpler and less work for us when we are given a feed from the sound board, it is not always optimal quality for the webcast. 

Like I mentioned previously about lighting, sometimes variables are adjusted for the people in the room, not the webcast. But in most cases, when we are given a feed, it is from a professional grade mixer that has multiple, adjustable outputs. It is really important to know how these mixers work and how to connect to them. Knowing the difference between mic level and line level is important and having the right cables and adapters is essential ( you can never have enough adapters in your bag of parts). But when it comes to microphones, the type can make a huge difference. 

The most common microphone we see is the Shure 58. They have been around a long time and are durable and relatively inexpensive. The biggest problem is that the speaker has to get very close to it for the sound to be crisp. Although singers and politicians know to get close to the microphone, most other people don’t. And this is where things can go terribly wrong. 

Maybe everyone in the room can hear the presenter, but sometimes you can’t get enough volume for the webcast, resulting in multiple complaints. Of course, once the webcast has begun, it’s usually too late to make any changes, resulting in lots of explaining to do. We have learned our lesson on this and now carry a compliment of microphones, like long gooseneck and boundary types that can supplement or replace a supplied feed. 

The two main takeaways are these; be prepared to produce your own audio when necessary, and make sure you know what you are doing before you touch someone else’s mixer. On the latter point, one of the first questions I ask when we book an engagement is, “where will I get the audio?” If there is a sound board on-site, getting sound from the board is usually optimal, so I ask to speak with the sound technician as early as possible. From him or her I ask whether there is an open feed that I can use, what the connector type is (usually ¼” or XLR), and where the board will be located. If it’s convenient to a camera or your video mixer, you’re in good shape. If not, you’ll need to bring a long cable with gaffing tape to tape it down. 

When working with a sound board, give yourself an extra 30 minutes or so (or longer) to get connected, and if possible, try to connect a day or two before the event to make sure you have the necessary gear. In some rare cases, you’ll need an attenuator or other piece of kit to remove a hum or buzz, and if you learn about this the day off, you may not be able to get the gear in time.

Particularly when working with singers, musicians, and other vocal performers, understand that they care much more about audio quality than video. Plus, while most viewers understand that live streaming video may not look perfect, they have learned that audio quality can be quite high. So take the time to make it so. 

Editor’s Note: Thanks for another great tip, Robert. For more on connecting to a sound board, check out my tutorial, Capturing Soundboard Audio for Live Event Video.

About Jan Ozer

I help companies train new technical hires in streaming media-related positions; I also help companies optimize their codec selections and encoding stacks, and evaluate new encoders and codecs.

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