Kranky & Krankier?

Statler and Waldorf
“Statler and Waldorf” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

Chris Koehncke (aka Chris Kranky) recently posed a question in a blog post. He asked, “How good is your laptop microphone?” He then laid out an experimental series of recordings using different hardware. As an executive summary he offers, “Your current internal laptop mic is probably fine.” As you might imagine, I disagree…but there’s more to it than that.

In truth, it’s not that he’s wrong, but I think that he was asking the wrong question! The question he should have asked is, “How do I best convey my voice when using this laptop?”

The answer to that question is quite simple…use a high-quality headset, preferably one with a boom-mounted microphone. When participating in any kind of conference call, or video conference nothing can touch the quality of sound delivered by using a good headset. This has long been my belief, although I accept that it may not be a widespread.

The Kranky Offering

As the various recordings Chris offers exemplify, a distant laptop microphone, speakerphone or conference phone allows the acoustics of the room to influence the sound that is conveyed to the call. The recordings can’t rightly be described as echo-y, but they do have a definite reverberant quality. They’re plainly all less than ideal.

Many times I’ve heard technologists offer up tribute to the outstanding performance of someone’s exceptional implementation of acoustic echo cancelation or noise reduction. In particular, I’ve heard knowledgeable people heap accolades upon Google for open-sourcing the GIPS media engine. This is clearly in Chris’ WebRTC wheel-house.

They’re not wrong either. The technology can be very good. As Chris has documented, Apple does a great job of these processes with their laptops & tablets. I’m told that they use two microphones. Since the microphone elements are positioned a known distance apart, they can be very effective at both noise reduction & echo cancellation.

Nonetheless, such engineering tricks are in fact remedial measures. They’re a band-aid effort intended to overcome what in reality poor microphone placement. While they may help, they will never be as good as optimal microphone placement.

In the telecom case, and for an individual, optimal microphone placement is best exemplified holding a handset, or using a headset that placed the microphone near the speakers mouth.

A Krankier Offering

Allow me to make the case by offering example recordings of my own creation. Except instead of comparing laptops, I’d like to compare the exact same voice recorded via two different mechanisms.

For this little experiment I read a passage about “Understanding” from “Are The Androids Dreaming Yet” by James Tagg. I did this at my desk using two different recording setups.

Built-in Microphone

Headset

Lenovo X-1-Carbon-VoiceMeeterDesktop-VoiceMeeter-Composite
A Lenovo X1 Carbon laptop circa 2013, recording its built-in microphone array.A VXi TalkPro SC1 analog headset connected to a my Windows 10 desktop PC.
Play recordingPlay recording
Methodology:
  • Both recordings were made using VoiceMeeter Banana
  • Set to record to an uncompressed WAV file at 48 KHz 16 bit stereo
  • Input device settings set to their best case properties
  • Recordings were level normalized in Adobe Audition, and exported as 128 kbps mono MP3

Listening to these two recordings I think my point is quite clear. The headset sounds a lot better than the laptop’s built-in microphones. It lacks the room-tone and noise that’s present in the laptop recording.

In fact, as I was recording this one of our Labradors made the trek from my office into the back yard and back. The magnets on the dog door flap make a sharp metallic sound. In the recording of the laptop microphones this is clearly heard. It’s much less evident in the recording made using the headset.

No matter how great the technology, a microphone positioned at a distance is going to sound…well…..distant! Smart, automatic gain control can help it not be too quiet, but that impression of being distant is never lost.

In contrast, using a headset makes me sound present! Without any unnecessary noise or ambience to distract, it delivers the impression that there, and further that I’m paying attention. It’s simply better!*

Why Does This Matter?

This is all about showing care and concern for your audience. Do you care that you sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher? Or would like to be heard clearly? Do you show more concern for you own convenience? Or in conveying yourself professionally to others?

Apple (and others) care enough about audio performance to design great hardware. The software guys care enough to have created the awesome Opus codec! Chris cares enough to have made all those sample recordings and written up the result in a blog post.

To paraphrase an old Hallmark slogan…”A headset, when you care enough to sound the very best!”

P.S. – I learned a couple of interesting things along the way. There’s more to come on a related matter.