Video conferencing apps are tuned for speech. They tend to compress (or eradicate) dynamics making it difficult to hear if a student is playing loud or quiet, let alone hearing the shape of phrases. Quiet passages can be cut out entirely as software tries to eliminate what it considers “background noise.”
Turn on Original Sound
First try a potentially simple fix: click the “Turn on Original Sound” button at the top left within Zoom (move your mouse around to see it pop-up, or slide your finger around on a touch screen). If you still don’t see it, you might need to activate it… more on that below.
(Note, if you’re using the mobile app or using Zoom within a web browser you might have fewer settings available to adjust. Also, Zoom is updated fairly frequently, so settings might change over time.)
If that doesn’t help or you can’t find the button, click the little ^ symbol at the bottom left near the microphone icon, then select “Audio Settings…”:
Uncheck the box next to “Automatically adjust volume.” Then press the “Advanced” button at the lower-right:
If you didn’t see that “Original Sound” button before, check the box bellow. Disable both “Suppress Persistent Background Noise” and “Suppress Intermittent Background Noise.”
And that’s it.
If None of that Helps…
Important: These settings might make things worse if your equipment and/or environment aren’t optimized, so your results may vary. If your microphone produces a “hiss” or crackles, things might get worse if you disable the last two items. If your microphone isn’t sensitive enough, or if it’s too sensitive, turning off “Automatically adjust volume” on the previous page might make things worse. You may need to adjust your computer’s (or other device’s) microphone levels. Some devices may automatically adjust microphone volume anyway, so you might have to hunt for a setting to turn that off within your computer, tablet, phone, etc.
If possible plug your computer directly into your router with an Ethernet cable, rather than using it over WiFi. That and limiting the number of people using the internet while lessons are in progress could make a big difference for all parties in a video call. Each of the existing video call apps have their pros and cons. The extra audio settings are a definite pro for Zoom, for music lessons at least. But if your audio equipment is poor, if you’re in a noisy environment, a room with poor acoustics, or if your Internet connection is spotty, any of these may be your primary issue.
Share with Students
Send a link to this page to your students to help them improve their audio as well. In the end you just might be able to hear if they’re really playing that crescendo or not!
Protect your eyes!
For teachers (or anyone) looking at screens for long periods of time, eyestrain and even damage from high frequency light are real concerns. Taking frequent breaks from the screen can help, but here are two ways you can better protect your eyes:
If using a PC, set “Night Light” to be permanently on, or schedule it to come on during the day when you need it (search for it in the start bar). If using a Mac look for “Night Shift” under display settings. These modes shift the overall colors to be “warmer” rather than “cooler” (cooler colors are higher frequency and can damage your eyes). In general you want whites to appear amber, definitely not blueish. UV light is even higher in frequency, and more damaging still. Luckily monitors shouldn’t emit any UV light.
To minimize eyestrain, every 10 minutes or so look at something far away, through a window or in another room. Let your eyes focus at a distance, then look at something up close, like your hand. Look back and forth at the near and far objects allowing your eyes to focus from one to the other a good half dozen or more times. Our eyes aren’t designed to stare for long periods of time without refocusing. This is similar to needing to get up and move around after sitting too long… also very important!
Here’s an article on mic placement for pianos, if you’re interested in getting the best possible sound (focusing on a classical piano recording technique). You’ll need to use a mic connected to your computer to send this to Zoom, which can be a bit involved.
I stumbled upon two services that offer playing live music over the Internet. Their systems try to minimize latency as much as possible. I haven’t tried either, and there’s definitely still going to be some significant delay, but they might be worth trying if while in quarantine you’re really desperate to play music together with someone else in real time: Jamulus and Jamkazam and for information on other low latency options visit this site. Also, Internet MIDI allows people in different locations to play music together if they both have MIDI keyboards.