It’s a way of life these days. I’m on Zoom. A lot.
I take meetings. I attend classes. I perform improvisational theatre. It’s all via Zoom.
I learned early on, by observing how my zoommates sounded and looked, that I needed to improve my video and audio games, because, I reasoned, if my zoommates sounded and looked crappy, I probably did, too.
Here’s a rundown of my recommendations based on what I did to up my Zoom game.
SIGN UP FOR A FREE ZOOM ACCOUNT
For the purposes of testing and perfecting, I signed up for a free Zoom account. This allowed me to test my equipment while I was not attending someone else’s meeting. In addition, I was able to hold meetings myself, when needed, as they are free. Yes, that’s right! There are limits in place, but many meetings are free at Zoom.
Admittedly, video is easier to adjust than audio, because I can see what I look like via the Zoom interface whenever I’m in a meeting. By observing that image, I could improve the look. What did I do to make things better? I added lighting, and I made sure a non-descript space was behind me. (I added a greenscreen, but I only use it when I really need to do that for a special effect backdrop.) I also improved my camera.
I had a webcam from an old desktop computer, so I tried that with my laptop, but it was not great, so I ended up with this Ausdom AW615. It’s a fine camera, and looks great. Admittedly, I often just use the built-in camera in my 2017 MacBook Air, because it looks pretty good. However, the Ausdom comes in handy when I need a little extra from my video feed for an improv show, and I can put it on a tripod, if I need to get the camera away from my computer for some reason.
For lighting I had plenty of lights around, as I used to make short films, so I currently use one of my 2-foot fluorescent lights with barn doors to widen or narrow focus. I tape layers of wax paper over the light to soften it. I wouldn’t recommend that technology, though, as there are better lighting systems now.
If I had LED lighting, like these mini Neewer lights — which I don’t own, but I’ve used lights from Neewer and found them to be a good value — I could simply drape some kind of fabric over them, because LEDs burn much cooler than fluorescent tubes.
Any light is better than none, though, so test out whatever you have available. Even a little clamp light will work great, if positioned correctly. Heck, I’ve even recently taken to using the flashlight on my big Motorola cell phone to light myself without plugging anything in. Depending on your phone, this might work very well, although you’ll probably need a phone clamp and a tripod, like this desktop Manfrotto that I use.
While we’re at it, may I suggest that the fake backgrounds are annoying if not done properly? And they are rarely done properly.
If you insist on a background image, be sure to get a green screen and use it. There is a Zoom video setting that asks whether you have a greenscreen, so be sure to checkmark that. Also, for the record, the screen does not need to be green. It can be any color, and Zoom allows you to select the color from your video feed with an eyedropper. However, you must use a color that is not also present on you or anything you are holding. For example, if you are using a red backdrop, don’t also be wearing red or drink from your red coffee cup.
For the most part, though, I’d say avoid background images and find a nice natural background to sit with your back to.
There is a well-known axiom of filmmaking that states that people can watch poor video with great audio much more easily than they can watch great video with poor audio.. That’s true via Zoom, too.
Think about the Zoom meetings you’ve attended. Do you know the person whose audio keeps breaking up? How annoying is that? Do you know the person with the super-tinny audio? How much do you want to help them fix it?
While finding a balance between video and audio is surely better than not, I’d recommend that if you get one of the two right, make it the audio.
Unfortunately, audio is more difficult than video, because it’s hard to know what I sound like via Zoom. Sure, in the Zoom interface I can record small clips and listen back to them, but that’s not the same as having a live feed and hearing my audio as I make adjustments.
Zoom was made for meetings, so they probably didn’t worry much about people straying too far from their mics. However, I perform theatrical improv via Zoom, and I need to be able to move and still be heard very clearly.
Fortunately, with my paid Zoom account (and also with a free one) it’s possible to record myself and observe. So I can start a meeting with me as the only attendee, hit the record button, do some tests, including proximity to my mic and direction of the mic. Then I can watch and listen to the recording to see what works best.
I tested out a few cheaper mics, but I ended up spending more money for the quality of this AKG microphone. It has adjustable range, so I can good audio from the front and rear if necessary. And it sounds great — full without distortion, and I can still sound great from 6 feet away.
Up your game in Zoom with a (1) free Zoom account so you can do tests, (2) better lighting for your video feed, and (3) a better microphone for your audio feed. Audio is more important than video, but aim for a balance.