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Musician’s Guide for Video Conferencing

Updated: Jun 5

Written by Michael Sherman for Low Down Publishing

Covid-19 is affecting everyone in the entertainment industry including musicians and music teachers. The purpose of this guide is to give you the best chance to provide a good experience for your students, class, or audience. Now that digital lessons have become the new norm for so many, great effort will be placed on quality of musical playback through video conferencing. Please feel free to share this with other music teachers or performers.


This guide will:

  • Break down best practices for video conferencing regarding hardware and setup

  • Focus on getting the best audio quality possible with what you have

  • Provide “good, better, best” recommendations for equipment to invest in

  • Give personalized scenarios for music teachers setting up your studio


This guide is not for:

  • Lecturers/students who don’t require playing an instrument for online lessons. Zoom/skype/facetime/hangouts are good enough for spoken voice

  • Those who are happy with the sound and video that they are getting

  • Those who want to put in the least amount of effort possible, as this forced online learning environment will be temporary. This is perfectly okay!


Video Conferencing Software and Setup


I tested audio and video from Zoom, Skype, Facetime, and Hangouts. All gave comparable results, however Zoom.us provides a key feature to “Enable Original Sound.” This feature drastically improved audio quality for musical playback.


Using quality noise-cancelling headphones rather than speakers allowed for more detail to be heard and eliminated many of Zoom’s needs for echo cancellation, further increasing quality. I like the Bose QuietComfort35. They are wireless (with wire included), exceptional quality, and also have a built-in mic, which make them a versatile choice for everyday life in addition to video conference calls.



Computer vs Phone vs Tablet


The best results I have had for obtaining the highest quality audio is to use Zoom.us on a Mac or PC. I don’t recommend using a phone or tablet if you are looking to get the best possible quality. Remember, we are mainly after using video conferencing to share live-performed music (including classical and jazz), which by nature has extreme subtleties. Although newer phones and tablets can do a good job, the options to add on supplemental equipment is limited, and the quality obtained from purchasing these add-on products is not worth the investment. Avoid the trap of the products here:





These are alluring because of their price point and ease, however, I believe many students and music teachers of classical and jazz music are about to find out:


These microphones are just not going to cut it.



USB Microphones (Easy)

My first choice for an easy, high quality solution with minimal investment.


The use of a standalone USB microphone is a very simple solution for drastically improved audio quality both in terms of spoken voice and musical recording. With a USB microphone, you just plug it directly into your computer. That’s it! USB microphones produce very good quality, especially considering the price point and ease, however they still will not produce the professional results in the world of classical/jazz music that a music teacher might want. These microphones can’t be used for professional recording, so your investment in a USB microphone is for video conferencing only. Still, they provide a good value.



For teaching music, there used to be several options for USB microphones. With the demand of USB microphones limited, I've adjusted my choice to a single option: the Apogee Mic PLUS. Where I think the Blue Yeti, Audio Technica AT2020, or Rode Mini may have been a better value before Covid, the prices of these microphones has almost doubled. In this price range, you might as well get the best USB mic you can for musical performance as well as interview.



  • $249 Apogee Mic PLUS - Personally, I think this USB microphone has the best sound of any USB microphone. This can be used with the Rode PSA-1.


  • $129 Blue Yeti Industry standard and #1 selling USB mic in the world. Pick any color! If you can find one for this price, I would snag it!





Field Recorders (Intermediate)

My first choice if you already own one.





I understand that making any investment into equipment can be a huge burden, and an unexpected expense. In the situation where you don’t want to spend any money, there may be some equipment that you already own or can borrow from a friend that can be used to improve your audio recording quality. Many of the audio devices from companies like Zoom and Tascam make their field recorders to double as a USB audio interface. This is great news for you! This means you can use your field recorder as an external microphone with your Mac or PC.


Here are links to video tutorials for Zoom and Tascam audio interfaces that I have found to be most common among students and music teachers within the community:


Tascam DR Series https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pzRfyUP46hg

Zoom H1N https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrJuIIRjCJ0


If you have a different brand of field recorder, I would recommend doing a Google search for “Using my _______ as an audio interface” to find a setup tutorial video.



Mounting your field recorder

There are many possibilities. Here are 3 solutions:



$20 - Benro Mini Tripod

I recommend it for instruments you can sit down at your desk and still play, such as guitar, oboe, bassoon, etc. It also comes with a phone attachment.









$20 - Neewer desk Mount (Better price) OR $99 - Rode PSA-1 (Better quality)

Mount your field recorder, microphone, OR a webcam. These arms can be versatile if you need to quickly move your audio or video source to a more catered angle for your instrument or voice. I highly recommend it for instruments where standing is ideal for playing. Make sure your desk can accommodate the clamp. (To mount your field recorder to the Rode PSA-1 you will also need this adapter.)





$15 Microphone stand with $25 ball head

This basic mic stand accommodates two attachments allowing possibility for both webcam and field recorder. However, you may find it to be limiting.





XLR Microphones with Field Recorder – (Advanced)

My first choice if you have a field recorder, microphones, or want to invest into a better sound.


If you have a field recorder that you’d like to use as an audio interface, you’re set! This would be the bare minimum to improving your quality without spending any money. However, if you already own or want to invest into professional microphones that could be used for self-recording AND video conferencing, you could purchase XLR microphones.


Purchasing XLR microphones adds a step in the process because they cannot be plugged into a computer directly without an audio interface. With some field recorders, you can plug in XLR microphones directly, as with the Zoom H4n, H5, or H6. This makes your field recorder an audio interface. These extra microphones could be placed on or near your instrument using proper mic placement which would allow for everything to be set in place.

Music teachers will notice that this yields significantly better results. However, depending on the equipment you already have, it still may also require a large investment. Also, the kind of microphone that you use matters - not all microphones are created equal.



Real talk.

I understand that spending a lot of money on additional gear may not be something that many musicians are able to do, however, I would argue that if you need to spend money on an investment, you might as well invest into equipment that has multiple uses, and will represent your brand as a musician and music teacher accordingly. Recording yourself is a vital skill for any musician or teacher, and can save you hundreds of dollars for each recording session you would need to hire an engineer for. I’m not trying to put myself out of work, I am an audio engineer. Please, hire me! But with your best interest in mind, I recommend to every musician in 2020 that they have the ability to make a quality recording of themselves. I speculate that after the societal reboot, online learning for music teaching will be catapulted into the mainstream. For those not interested or unable to spend more than $100 for a USB microphone, you can use additional guidance in this article for future research and consideration.



XLR Microphones with Audio Interface – (Advanced)

My first choice for musicians and music teachers who want to self-record


For all of the choices previously discussed, these are ways to do the job with what you have, or by spending the least amount of money. Now, let’s discuss the tools that professionals use for teaching music the right way.


An Audio interface combined with professional microphones is the ideal way to capture yourself as a classical or jazz musician or music teacher. How does it work? Here’s a routing diagram. Your microphones connect to the audio interface, and the audio interface connects to your computer. It also acts as a hub for your speakers, headphones, and volume controls for all of these things. In short, they are awesome.


Audio Interface Recommendations


There are so many choices in this field that it’s very difficult to pick a clear winner. The one constant I have found: you get what you pay for. For that reason, I am including my top 5 choices, in price order. I would go with whichever you can afford.

$159 - Focusrite Scarlett 2i2

This is the baseline 2-channel USB audio interface and would be the lowest I would go. It will do a solid job when combined with a good microphone.



$229 – Focusrite Scarlett 4i4

This will sound identical to the Scarlett above, but provide two additional line inputs and a midi input, making this a better choice for music teachers and learners who utilize a keyboard.



$499 – Universal Audio Arrow (Mac/PC with Thunderbolt 3 ONLY)

This unit is a significant upgrade compared to the first choice regarding quality of sound. It’s also small in form, and BUS powered, meaning it’s very portable and can be powered from your Mac/PC with Thunderbolt 3. You also receive some incredible audio improvement plugins that make this a very versatile choice. As far as value and versatility is concerned, this would be my first choice.

$659 – Focusrite Clarett 4Pre

This interface has a large upgrade over the quality of sound from the Focusrite Scarlett. It also has 4 XLR inputs which allows for greater flexibility, such as one microphone for spoken voice, and two microphones (Stereo pair) on your instrument.



$799 – Universal Audio Apollo Twin MKII

This Thunderbolt 2 interface has all of the same perks as the Arrow, but with twice the processing power. This flexibility can be helpful for musicians and music teachers looking to really invest into the art of audio recording, while also future-proofing themselves for years to come. The Thunderbolt 3 version can be found here.


Microphone Recommendations by Instrument


My microphone recommendations and mount vary by instrument. Below you will find a chart showing the instrument and 3 microphone choices designed as a “good, better, best” scenario. For live video conferencing, I feel that investing into better or best categories may be overkill due to bandwidth limits. However, if you plan to use these microphones for self-recording offline, you will absolutely hear the benefits. Professional microphones will record using a full dynamic range and will sound natural, and even flattering, when placed correctly.


Violin/Viola

Mic Choice 1 - Rode M5 Matched Pair - (Entry level)

Mic Choice 2 - Rode NT5 Matched Pair (Natural sound)

Mic Choice 3 - Neumann KM 184 Matched Pair (Professional sound)

Accessories:

Boom Stand

Stereo Bar

Mic Cables (2 Required)


Cello

Mic Choice 1 - Rode M5 Matched Pair - (Entry level)

Mic Choice 2 - Rode NT5 Matched Pair (Natural sound)

Mic Choice 3 - Neumann KM 184 Matched Pair (Professional sound)

Accessories:

Boom Stand

Stereo Bar

Mic Cables (2 Required)


Classical Bass

Mic Choice 1 - Rode M5 Matched Pair - (Entry level)

Mic Choice 2 - Rode NT5 Matched Pair (Natural sound)

Mic Choice 3 - Neumann KM 184 Matched Pair (Professional sound)

Accessories:

Boom Stand

Stereo Bar

Mic Cables (2 Required)


Jazz Bass

Mic Choice 1 - Rode NT1 - (Entry level)

Mic Choice 2 - Electrovoice RE20 (Natural sound)

Mic Choice 3 - Schoeps CMC6 Supercardioid (Professional sound)

Accessories:

H-Clamp

Mic Cable


Saxophone

Mic Choice 1 - Rode M5 Matched Pair - (Entry level)

Mic Choice 2 - Rode NT5 Matched Pair (Natural sound)

Mic Choice 3 - Neumann KM 184 Matched Pair (Professional sound)

Accessories:

Boom Stand

Stereo Bar

Mic Cables (2 Required)


Clarinet

Mic Choice 1 - Rode M5 Matched Pair - (Entry level)

Mic Choice 2 - Rode NT5 Matched Pair (Natural sound)

Mic Choice 3 - Neumann KM 184 Matched Pair (Professional sound)

Accessories:

Boom Stand

Stereo Bar

Mic Cables (2 Required)


Flute

Mic Choice 1 - Rode M5 Matched Pair - (Entry level)

Mic Choice 2 - Rode NT5 Matched Pair (Natural sound)

Mic Choice 3 - Neumann KM 184 Matched Pair (Professional sound)

Accessories:

Boom Stand

Stereo Bar

Mic Cables (2 Required)


Oboe

Mic Choice 1 - Rode M5 Matched Pair - (Entry level)

Mic Choice 2 - Rode NT5 Matched Pair (Natural sound)

Mic Choice 3 - Neumann KM 184 Matched Pair (Professional sound)

Accessories:

Boom Stand

Stereo Bar

Mic Cables (2 Required)


Bassoon

Mic Choice 1 - Rode M5 Matched Pair - (Entry level)

Mic Choice 2 - Rode NT5 Matched Pair (Natural sound)

Mic Choice 3 - Neumann KM 184 Matched Pair (Professional sound)

Accessories:

Boom Stand

Stereo Bar

Mic Cables (2 Required)


French Horn

Mic Choice 1 - Rode M5 Matched Pair - (Entry level)

Mic Choice 2 - Rode NT5 Matched Pair (Natural sound)

Mic Choice 3 - Neumann KM 184 Matched Pair (Professional sound)

Accessories:

Boom Stand

Stereo Bar

Mic Cables (2 Required)



Trumpet, Trombone

Mic Choice 1 - Rode NT1 - (Entry level)

Mic Choice 2 - Electrovoice RE20 (Natural sound)

Mic Choice 3 - AEA N8 (Professional sound)

Accessories:

Boom Stand

Stereo Bar

Mic Cable


Acoustic Piano - Classical

Mic Choice 1 - Rode NT5 Matched Pair (Natural sound)

Mic Choice 2 - Neumann KM 184 Matched Pair (Professional sound)

Accessories:

Boom Stand

Stereo Bar

Mic Cables (2 Required)


Acoustic Piano - Jazz

Mic Choice 1 - Rode NT5 Matched Pair (Natural sound)

Mic Choice 2 - DPA 4099 with piano mounts (Mounts included)

Mic Choice 3 - Neumann KM 184 Matched Pair (Professional sound)

Accessories:

Boom Stand

Stereo Bar

Mic Cables (2 Required)


Organ

Mic Choice 1 - Rode M5 Matched Pair - (Entry level)

Mic Choice 2 - Rode NT5 Matched Pair (Natural sound)

Mic Choice 3 - Neumann KM 184 Matched Pair (Professional sound)

Accessories:

Boom Stand - 12' Tall

Stereo Bar

Mic Cables (2 Required)

Drumset - Jazz

(Overhead mics only included here)

Mic Choice 1 - Rode M5 Matched Pair - (Entry level)

Mic Choice 2 - Rode NT5 Matched Pair (Natural sound)

Mic Choice 3 - Neumann KM 184 Matched Pair (Professional sound)

Kick Drum - Audix D6 - Great choice


Accessories:

Boom Stand

Stereo Bar

Mic Cables (2 Required)


Percussion

Mic Choice 1 - Rode M5 Matched Pair - (Entry level)

Mic Choice 2 - Rode NT5 Matched Pair (Natural sound)

Mic Choice 3 - Neumann KM 184 Matched Pair (Professional sound)

Accessories:

Boom Stand

Stereo Bar

Mic Cables (2 Required)


Tuba

Mic Choice 1 - Rode NT1 - (Entry level)

Mic Choice 2 - Electrovoice RE20 (Natural sound)

Mic Choice 3 - AEA N8 (Professional sound)

Accessories:

Boom Stand

Stereo Bar

Mic Cable


Harp

Mic Choice 1 - Rode NT1 - (Entry level)

Mic Choice 2 - Rode NT5 Matched Pair (Natural sound)

Mic Choice 3 - AEA N8 (Professional sound)

Accessories:

Boom Stand

Stereo Bar

Mic Cable (2 Cables required for choice 2)


Classical Guitar

Mic Choice 1 - Rode NT1 - (Entry level)

Mic Choice 2 - Rode NT5 Matched Pair (Natural sound)

Mic Choice 3 - AEA N8 (Professional sound)

Accessories:

Boom Stand

Stereo Bar

Mic Cable (2 Cables required for choice 2)



Jazz Guitar

Mic Choice 1 - Shure SM57 - Ideal for Amp

Mic Choice 2 - Rode NT1 - Amp or guitar body

Mic Choice 3 - AEA N8 Ribbon - Amp or guitar body

Accessories:

Boom Stand

Stereo Bar

Mic Cable (2 Cables required for choice 2)



Video


An additional comprehensive guide will be written focusing on video, so this section will act as a summary. I have found that in many cases, the built-in video camera on most newer Macs/PCs are good enough. However, here is one suggestion for improving your video capture:


A Logitech Webcam used with a Rode PSA-1 can be a great combination for musicians who require standing to play their instrument.



Summary


I hope this guide helped answer some questions for you. An infinite number of possibilities exist beyond what I have mentioned that can be utilized successfully! Did you enjoy this content? If you would like to join our email list, Click here.


Good luck and stay healthy,


Michael Sherman

VP of Technology

Low Down Publishing


For questions, I can be reached at info@lowdownpublishing.com

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