Optimizing Music For Zoom

Feel free to contact me at jtr@acm.org if you'd like some help with this or you'd like to share what is working for you

The latest Zoom client has a new Professional Audio Mode to improve music quality. After updating your client, look in the advanced audio settings and select "High fidelity music mode". You may also want to try checking "Disable echo cancellation" which may improve things still further but in some circumstances may lead to audible echo.

General notes
  1. Adjust the audio settings on the Zoom client you are using as the sound source. Instructions are outlined in this helpful video. Making these adjustments will make a noticeable difference.

  2. Here's another good step-by-step resource showing how to set up your audio (including on mobile Zoom clients).

  3. Use an external microphone (instead of the one built into your computer) if at all possible. If purchasing a new microphone, get one that plugs directly into your computer's USB port. Now that we have returned to in-person worship (combined with Zoom and Facebook Live) we mix all audio on our in-house mixer and run the line out into a Focusrite 2i2 which connects to a MacBook Pro and from there to Zoom. Audio from remote participants flows from the Focusrite back to the mixer so remote readers and musicians can be heard by those in the church.

  4. If you use an external microphone without USB, it is best to plug the mic into an audio interface/mixer with USB out from there to your computer. A mixer will also allow you to adjust multiple inputs (e.g., voice and keyboard) for the best blend.

  5. Unless you have very good room acoustics and well placed microphones, you will probably find the organ and piano sounds from the line out on even a relatively inexpensive keyboard to be superior to mic'd instruments.

  6. If your setup allows, adjust your audio levels and EQ while listening to a Zoom stream. Zoom tends to to bring out both more of the treble (making your sound seem strident) and bass (making your sound seem heavy) but you won't know unless you listen to the final result on Zoom. We also listen to the Facebook Live recording after each service to spot areas in need of improvement.

  7. Take time before a service to do a sound check to adjust final audio levels.

  8. When playing music, make sure everyone other than the musician is muted. Even small amounts of background noise from other participants will cause Zoom to corrupt your music in unpleasant ways.

 

Combining multiple (physically separated) musicians

  1. If you have tried this you already know that delays on Zoom make it impossible to synchronize multiple musicians. Moreover, even if there is only one musician, background noise from other Zoom participants can cause problems (see step 8 above for how to fix this).

  2.  We've had good results for hymns by having the music alternate with either reading or singing the hymn a cappella (playing through the hymn first to remind people of the setting, then reading/singing, then ending with a short coda).

  3. A small, audio-only "virtual choir" is not particularly time consuming to create if you have the necessary hardware and software. As an example, we created a three-part hymn arrangement with piano and cello in an hour or two. We first recorded a keyboard backing track in Logic Pro and sent the file to a vocalist. She recorded the soprano, alto, and tenor parts as separate tracks in Logic Pro and sent the file back where a cello track was added. It was then edited into the final ensemble and bounced to an mp3 for use during the service. Of course, more time will be needed if you have a lot of singers, some needing substantial pitch correction or other audio cleanup.

  4. We now record our individual virtual choir tracks with Soundtrap, a browser-based collaborative tool for doing at least simple virtual choirs or other music involving a few people. (BandLab looks to be a good alternative. Check them both out.) We combine Soundtrap with Logic Pro for more complex works. Note that your best results with Soundtrap recordings will be when everyone uses headphones or earbuds to listen to the backing tracks while singing to cleanly isolate their part for subsequent editing. It is also important to have each singer or instrumentalist adjust their microphone gain using Soundtrap's built-in, nearly-automatic, tool before they begin.

  5. An even simpler approach is to record a backing track and send it to a soloist to play or sing with. It's possible to get acceptable results just playing the backing track on a home stereo while playing/singing (with the blended result being captured by the computer's built-in microphone). As noted in step 7 above, check out the blend and overall level prior to the service. Just moving the computer closer or farther from the speakers or soloist will do a pretty good job of adjusting the balance. Another approach is to have the soloist share their screen, using computer audio, and mix the backing track and solo part in real time on their computer (but this may not work for all hardware and does require the soloist to first share their screen rather than just be unmuted).

  6. Finally, it's important to realize that even with extraordinary work, results will never be as satisfying as what we strive for in an in-person service. And that's OK! People really appreciate the effort and are not particularly concerned with the kind of details we, as musicians, tend to stress over. For an example of how even the best professionals are approaching this from home you can check out the 8:15 EDT Tuesday evening hymn sings from the Nashville home of Keith and Kristyn Getty on Facebook (with less than stellar audio/video quality and several kids keeping things lively).

 

 

Streaming beyond Zoom

Our purely virtual services tended to be on the small side (30-35 people). For this number, the interactivity and spontaneity are refreshing. We chat before the service where we decide who will read which passages and hymns. We also have a virtual coffee hour (often with a somewhat crazy theme) following the service. Zoom is also great because all it takes is a phone to participate. But some people find Facebook Live to be more to their tastes. Fortunately, there is a way to stream a Zoom session to Facebook Live (and Youtube for that matter). For details on how to set this up check out this video. Now that we have returned to in-person worship (with masks, social distancing etc.) we have about 15 people in church, another 12 on Zoom, and 20-60 views on Facebook each week. You can check out our recorded Facebook services here

St. John's Church   11 Episcopal Avenue   Honeoye Falls, NY 14472   585-624-4074