WebRTC: Ripples In Fabric Of Cyberspace

TheVoicePodcastOnThinkPadX1CarbonWith every passing day the news of WebRTC spreads to a larger audience. As the audience grows it becomes more diverse. It has moved beyond the developer community to those who might leverage the technology in some real manner. It’s interesting to track how the technology is being conveyed to an ever broader, less technical audience. Given that these things happen online, it’s a bit like watching ripples in the fabric of cyberspace.

Media Style and the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) in Ottawa produce a podcast known as The Voice on issues relating to business communications and marketing. The December 9 episode (#63) was entitled ”Let’s Talk WebRTC with Lawrence Byrd and Mark Lindsay.” Lawrence Byrd was previously with Avaya and contributes to the No Jitter and WebRTC World blogs. Mark Lindsay is President of the Ottawa Product Management Association.

The podcast is an interesting illustration of how the news of WebRTC is getting around. I cannot take issue with the information presented. It’s a nice intro to the topic presented by knowledgeable, well-spoken people. In fact I, commend them for the effort.

However, as fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan once opined, “The medium is the message.” In this case I’m referring to the fact that the three participants in the podcast sound quite different. The difference I found to be jarring and distracting from the content, so much so that I offer you here a copy of the podcast plotted against frequency display so that you can see the difference visually.

The recording has a sample rate of 22,050 Hz making the upper limit of the frequency display 11 KHz. To make the frequency plot a little easier to understand I’ve added two white lines; the lower line indicates 4KHz,  the nominal upper limit of a traditional phone call. The upper line is at 8 KHz, indicating the limit of a typical wideband call using G.722.

In truth, the two guests sound very good. The host states that both of the guests joined the session using Skype. I suspect that both of them used headsets as there is no taint of room-tone wrapping their voices.

Mr Linday’s voice is both the brightest and most direct sounding. Whatever headset he was using, it was doing the job well. Mr. Byrd’s voice was also very direct, indicating the use of a headset, but it didn’t exhibit the high-frequency energy of Mr Lindsay’s. His headset may have been bandwidth limiting his voice to PSTN standards.

It’s the voice of the host that is both narrowband and awash in room tone. He is quite plainly on a speakerphone of some sort. While that may be convenient for him, the contrast between the sound of his voice and the sound of the others degrades an otherwise fine and very polished presentation. This is especially apparent in the closing segment, where  his level also drops substantially even as he speaks more quickly..

This sort of thing is what drove me to write, “Can you hear me now? Headset vs Speakerphone in the home office” back in 2011. I still think that a speakerphone should be a tool of last resort, although I do accept that I am in general cranky about matters of audio quality.

To the purveyors The Voice and those who participated, please take this as intended. I admire and appreciate the work. Do keep it up! But in the future put aside the speakerphone. It’ll take the one last ragged bit out of an otherwise smooth presentation.

  • Joe Talbot

    As a broadcaster myself, I found the content to be great, but the podcast itself was disconcerting because the guests sounded better than the host, which is not the usual (or expected) situation! It’s best to use mics that are close to the speakers mouths (for Proximity effect) and in a quiet room free of reverberations. For this reason I avoid using speakerphones entirely. I also won’t use a cell phone for a conference call, and I always try to use the best quality mic possible. The differences in EQ, Mic Quality and and codec quality were very dramatically demonstrated here.

    • mjgraves

      I hail from a broadcast background myself. However, I don’t expect that podcasters such as these have gear dedicated to such efforts. They are using what they have on-hand. In the host’s case it was plainly a speakerphone. His presentation would have been consistent with the guests had he just used a headset.