Jeff Rodman on Getting Great Audio in a Video Call

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Jeff-Rodman-Wired-Ning-on-HDX-4500 copyLast week it came to my attention that Jeff Rodman, co-founder and currently Chief Evangelist of Polycom, has penned a blog post/article for Wired Innovation Insights. It’s called, “Getting Great Audio in a Video Call” and it’s well worth your time. Jeff certainly knows a thing or two about great audio.

There’s very little point to a video call with bad audio. Audio is the foundation of the entire exercise. Jeff offers seven points that highlight the major considerations. The list reads like a market requirements document for some of the fine Polycom gear that I’ve had the pleasure of using in recent years.

6. Use Spatial Sound Only When it Makes Sense

His point number six is the first time that I’ve ever seen him offer commentary about the “spatial” aspect of conference audio. Most video conference schemes support stereo audio, but I’ve yet to experience any specific spatial tricks used in video calls.

Setting video calling aside, there are currently several companies working on spatial audio tricks for conference calls. One of them, Voxeet was the guest for today’s VUC call, #471 in that series.

The spatial tricks are neat, but it’s not clear how they can be wed into meetings that engage people in a variety of different situations. Not everyone is on a PC or mobile device. In business situations some will be in conference rooms using conference phones. The spatial placement of individuals likely breaks down in such mixed situations.

Moreover, it’s not clear to me what that feature adds to the experience beyond the complexity of its management. Are meetings more productive when you can array people around your soundstage? Or is it just something else to distract from the topic under discussion? Should we not try to avoid distractions to keep the meetings short and productive?

Returning to Jeff’s article, I especially appreciate his last point about treating the room.

7. Prepare the Room to Make All Sounds Better

In my past life, which involved considerable business travel, I encountered dozens of meeting spaces at companies large and small. It’s surprising how often a meeting room is an otherwise nondescript drywall box with a table in the center.  In nice places there may be a large window, too. This is not a recipe for good acoustics.

Some well-placed acoustic absorption can make a vast difference to the people at the far-end of the call. It can be in the form of foam tiles as Jeff suggests, although I have seen cases where the addition of cloth curtains provided both an aesthetic and acoustic solution.

The placement of the conference phone can also be important. In a square room, with the table at its center, the conference phone at the enter of the table may be in a most acoustically unfortunate location. There have been times when just shifting the conference phone, or the table itself, a foot to the left or right made a big improvement in call quality to the people at the far end.

Remember that you may not hear the difference…they do. When they hear better it helps you to convey your points in discussion. It’s a Jerry McGuire moment…help them, help you.

Incidentally, while many drywall companies refer to themselves “acoustics” companies, not everyone who mounts drywall or a installs drop ceiling has a clue about room acoustics. To those who are really just in the construction trade a standing wave is something that happens at a baseball game.

It’s great to see Jeff sharing his experience at a site like insights.wired.com. I had not previously been aware of its existence. I see that it’s powered by Ning. Some of my earlier involvements with Randy Resnick’s VUC centered around a now-defunct Ning site.

Finally, this is post #1000 to www.mgraves.org. I guess that is something of a milestone. While I have numerous drafts, on diverse topics, in various stages of completion, I had been wanting something different to hit this number. Mr. Rodman and I have only met in passing once or twice at industry functions, but he has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the nicest people in the business. It may be irrational, but I’m pleased to be able to hit #1000 with something that he inspired.