If you follow this blog you’ll know that I’m both a professional sound engineer, and a yoga teacher. Several times recently I’ve assisted fellow teachers who were having sound problems with this new world of Zoom classes, and it occurred to me that a blog with some pointers might be helpful. It’s not something we usually have to concern ourselves with unless we’re teaching very large classes that require us to be amplified, and there’s no reason why anyone without a background in audio should be expected to have any idea of the do’s and don’ts. But bad sound can ruin a class, whether online or in person, so here are some foundational hints aimed at Zoom teaching which will help you to give your students a clear, audible, hassle-free yoga experience.
Hard and reflective surfaces like big windows and wooden floors are the enemy of good sound, as they make your voice bounce around the room and sound very echoey. The bigger the room, the more echoey it will generally be. Luckily, yoga mats are fantastic sound absorbers! For a no-cost way of improving your sound environment, ‘tile’ the floor with as many mats as you have, placed edge to edge, in the area where you’ll be teaching. For out-of-camera-shot areas, lay blankets over the floor and even hang them on the walls. If you have curtains or blinds, close them. The more you can cover hard surfaces with soft material, the better the sound.
Do I need external equipment?
Here’s some basic terminology:
Microphone / mic = picks up your voice
Speaker = lets you hear students speaking to you / lets your students hear you talking to them
Ear-buds = tiny headphones that go in your ears (basically mini speakers)
If you stay close to your computer throughout teaching, ie if you talk your students through the class and watch them rather than doing it with them, you may well find that the in-built microphone and speaker on your computer is sufficient, and no external tech is necessary. If that’s the case, happy days. But if you move around a lot and step more than a couple of metres away from the computer (as you will if you demonstrate), an external mic lets your students hear you more consistently. There are two approaches here:
1 – An ‘overhead’ mic. This is an external mic which you place on a surface near you, and it picks up your voice. This is a fairly inexpensive way of making it easier for your students to hear you as you move around. The fuss-free version is a USB mic such as the Blue Snowball (around £50) which plugs straight into your computer.
(If you’re going pro quality you can use a traditional ‘condensor’ style microphone with an XLR cable, in which case you will need an audio interface, which converts it to a USB, to plug into your computer. Note – if you’re going down this route, a hand held vocal mic like you’d sing into on stage won’t work – they are for close-up use.)
Placement matters – it’s not a magic wand! You need to have the correct side of it pointing at you, and ensure that it’s not more than a few metres away, ideally at head height. Obviously head-height varies when we demonstrate, so about a metre off the ground is a decent compromise. Simply put, get it as close as possible to the sound-source (your face) without it getting in your way. If you come up to the screen to say hello and goodbye to your students, bear in mind that you may then be on the wrong side of the mic, so move it with you.
As long as you’ve reduced echo in the environment, and your room isn’t subject to too much external noise, this is a pretty good low-cost solution which leaves you unencumbered and free to demonstrate.
2 – A headworn radio mic. This is the option I use – I teach online from a large and very echoey room next to a busy road, and so to get the best possible clarity of my voice without picking up the room echo and traffic noise, I need the mic to be right next to my mouth at all times. The set up for this is more expensive and more complex. You should read the instructions for your particular brand, but broadly speaking for a professional manufacturer set-up there will be the following components:
Personally I don’t demonstrate much so this works well for me, but if I was doing a lot of complex moving, it might feel clumsy wearing the headworn mic and beltpack. Still, Pink seems to manage when she’s flying around arenas singing and doing acrobatics, so I’m sure you could get used to it! 🙂
For a headworn radio mic kit by manufacturers such as Sennheiser or Shure, and an interface such as those by Behringer, Focusrite or Avid, you’re looking at around £400 – £500 in total for the budget ranges, and these deliver pro-quality sound. You can of course spend a hell of a lot more, but unless you actually are Pink, there’s really no need – any improvement in sound quality between budget and deluxe models is marginal for our purposes.
I’ve seen some people using little radio mics that go over one ear and have a built-in transmitter – they are cheap and may look tempting, but honestly I haven’t heard one that sounded even close to acceptable to me. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist though, so if you have one that you think sounds GREAT then I’d love to hear about it! But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because it’s cheap and comfortable to wear, and picks up your voice, that that is necessarily GOOD sound. Get a friend to jump on a Zoom call with you and compare sound quality as you switch between different options – you really can’t tell by yourself, and it’s the student experience we’re trying to enhance here.
Speakers vs earbuds
You want to keep the volume of anything coming out of your computer (ie your students speaking to you) as low as is practical, so keep your computer speaker volume low. This is because sound coming out of your computer speakers gets picked up by your mic, which is then fed back to your students, compromising quality. The best solution is not to use the speaker at all, and instead to get yourself some Bluetooth earbuds for you to hear your students – I’m enjoying my Tranya T3 buds which retail at about £45. (Be aware that if you wear both buds you will almost certainly shout as your ears are blocked from hearing your voice naturally – so this is a rare occasion when I would advocate wearing only one bud so that you can hear your own voice, meaning you speak at a normal volume!)
Incidentally, Airpods (device that incorporates both mic and earbuds) might be ok for listening to podcasts and talking on the phone, but in my experience and opinion the mic doesn’t sound good on Zoom compared with others. My advice would be to keep them for other uses.
If you are using an external mic, you will need to tell your computer that you want to use this rather than the built-in one. Go into ‘settings’ on Zoom, then ‘audio’ and you will be given the option to choose the external mic which your computer will recognise as being plugged into the USB port. Likewise if you are using earbuds, you’ll need to make sure they are connected to your Bluetooth and that Zoom has them selected as the speakers. I highly recommend getting online in good time and using the ‘test audio’ function whenever you log into Zoom to make sure you are set up correctly and avoid hassle with students not being able to hear you etc. In pro-audio world we have soundchecks for a reason – well, now you are a professional who is using audio, so it’s wise to do the same!
A word about music on Zoom
Unless you’re well up to speed with this stuff and have the equipment (external interface and mixer) that will allow you to get more than one input into your computer, please, for the love of all your students, don’t use music! (Even that option isn’t great to be honest – most students will be hearing you from their computer speakers which are ok for a voice, but pretty tinny and nasty for music.) The Zoom platform is great, but it’s not adequate to process the additional information of music playing from a speaker in your studio, AND your voice, picked up by a mic, and deliver it in a pleasant fashion to the listener. The way that the audio is processed means that the music will sound thin and robotic, cut in and out, get randomly louder and quieter, and basically sound horrible and totally detract from the whole experience. You will be none the wiser, but your students will be gritting their teeth and being polite whilst waiting for it to stop (oh PLEASE make it stop!) in Savasana. This, in my opinion, is the perfect time to learn to get comfortable with silence!
Other audio tips for teaching online
I hope these tips will help you to give your students better quality audio as you teach. If you could do with some additional help, I am offering 30 minute Zoom consultations for £25, during which time we can compare different options that you have available to you, improve your acoustics, address technical difficulties you may be having, and I can help you to get the optimal settings selected on your equipment (especially useful if you are going down the more complex route of a radio headset mic as outlined above). If that would help you, click here to get in touch!
For information, the set up I use is:
Sennheiser HSP Essentials headworn mic – approx. £250
Sennheiser SK XSW beltpack transmitter – approx. £80
Sennheiser EM XSW1 receiver – approx. £125
Avid Fast Track Duo audio interface – approx. £180