Do you need a fancy microphone to deliver remote lessons or CPD?

I was delivering CPD online for STEM learning and one of my delegates told me the sound was a little quiet. I had not had a delegate mention this before, so I fiddled with some settings and went away to do some investigating (what we scientists do best!)

I had been using a very good quality USB condenser microphone, but this was on the desk in front of me and not mounted at head height. A quick scout around the house revealed a collection of microphones which I tested.

I tested all the microphones using Google hangouts to video call and Audacity to make recordings.  Naturally, I kept the settings the same to make any comparison fair.

Desktop USB condenser microphone on the desk

Very good sound quality but quiet because of the distance from my mouth but quiet unless I brought the microphone within a few inches of my mouth. Increasing the gain did not make much difference and caused an echo.

Bullet USB condenser microphone on a stand on the desk

This was a smaller model but the same manufacturer as the larger mic above. Despite being slightly closer to my mouth by being on a stand, the volume wasn’t any louder than the first USB mic.

Webcam mic mounted on top of the screen

I have a cheap USB Logitech C270 webcam which has a built-in mic. This picked up sound better than the expensive USB condenser mics, probably because it is mounted at head height. The sound quality was not quite as good as the condenser mic when mounted right in front of my face but was far less intrusive. In fact, the quality was better than most of the other solutions tested…

Analogue microphone on a headset (built-in sound)

I found my Brittney Spears microphone (unused) at the back of the drawer and added this to the test. The quality was extremely good but the proximity to my mouth meant it also picked up every swallow and breath. Reducing the gain helped, but then the sound quality was around the same as the webcam mic then. I also found the socket was sensitive (and annoying having to unplug the speakers to plug in the headset jack)

Analogue microphone (on USB soundcard)

I tried the same headset on a cheap USB soundcard. The playback quality was about the same but the mic picked up a whine when the gain was turned up to a useful level, probably as a result of being in a cheap plastic case and not being shielded.

USB C phone headset

I’ve got a USB C headset for my phone (which means it doesn’t need a headphone socket). As with the desktop mics, holding the microphone in front of my mouth improved the volume/quality considerably but was impractical in use. This made me realise that phone headsets are badly designed for capturing speech and only suited to occasional use.

Laptop mic (built-in microphone, HP Envy laptop)

Whilst this was on a different computer, I used the same software and settings to test it. Like the desktop microphones, the placement on the desk meant that the volume of sound picked up wasn’t as good as other solutions. When speaking in front of the microphone the speech playback was of reasonable quality and on a par with other microphones

What am I using now?

After testing the microphones, I decided to balance the quality of audio against convenience in use. The webcam mic, mounted on top of my screen was the best overall solution as it had the best sound pickup with no cables in the way (and delegates don’t have to hear me sounding like a heavy breathing phone call pest on the other end of the call)

There was little difference in speech quality (although this could be different for music/singing) between fancy USB mics and cheap analogue mics, so use whatever is cheapest. For many people, this might be the microphone in their laptop.  Find your microphone settings (under sound in the control panel on Windows) and remember that it’s cheaper to speak a little louder than to buy a fancy new microphone!