Preventing and Fixing Audio Problems in VoIP Video/Web Conferences (Lync, Scopia, Second Life, Skype)
Preventing and fixing audio problems in conferencing is probably the single biggest issue in dealing with software of this sort. Meeting participants will put up with broken video, they will never put up with broken or busted audio. It is paramount that audio problems be quickly identified and either prevented or eliminated. I want to make very clear that just because a person did NOT have audio problems last time, does NOT mean they will not have audio problems this time. Each video or web conferencing encounter is a NEW day and people must be vigilant EACH time they enter a conference to prevent audio problems.
Because audio problems are so prevalent and can take a while to fix, I ALWAYS recommend that people check their audio and enter a conference AT LEAST 30 minutes prior to the actual class or meeting. Once their audio is determined to be satisfactory, they can leave their audio on, stay logged into the conference, and just walk away until the meeting begins. IF they log out of the conference, disconnect their audio device (such as a headset), or make any other changes of consequence, they will have to recheck their audio BEFORE re-entering the meeting.
There are four common types of audio problems. The first is no audio. Either the participant (we will now call the offender) cannot hear others or the offender cannot be heard by others. The second is broken audio where a person’s spoken words are breaking apart, where you can only hear some words or parts of words, and where there is clearly a problem maintaining continuous audio. The third is when a person sounds hollow or distant, definitely not clear or crisp. The fourth is when you are speaking and you hear yourself as an echo in background a second or so after you speak.
If the offender cannot hear anyone else, either they do not have speakers configured properly (usually these are earpieces on a headset), or their volume is turned down or off. First they need to confirm that someone is speaking. Most of these conferencing systems have a text messaging feature that can be used to ask someone to speak and tell you when they are speaking. There are three places to check for volume control. The first is in the conferencing software itself. Most of these apps have a slider bar that allows you to adjust up the volume. Make sure that isn’t turned off. Secondly there is the volume control at the speaker icon in the lower right of the task bar. Make sure the icon looks like it has sound waves coming out of it. Third is to identify a volume control knob or switch on the person’s actual headset itself. Some are on one of the earpieces, some are a roller knob down the line to the USB connector. If the person is using a wireless headset, they need to make sure it is both on and the battery used to run it is charged. The offender should also check inside the application software to make sure the headset is recognized and is available as a pickable choice. If they do not see it as a choice, they should remove the headset connection at the USB port, wait a few seconds and plug it back in to see if that solves the problem. If not, they may have to reboot their computer with the headset plugged in at the time of reboot.
Now what if the offender can hear others but no one can hear him when he speaks? Assuming the problem is at the offender’s level (this can actually be difficult to determine if only two people are in the conference, who is at fault), have the offender go in to the software and see what is selected as the output (microphone) device. They may also have to go back into the Windows Control Panel and see what is being used for outbound audio. From inside the software they can try to select another microphone device to see if that works. If it does they need to redirect audio out to their current headset device or reboot their computer with the headset plugged in.
Often times the problem is caused by the type of connector the person has on their headset. There are two main types, USB and dual pin. Dual pin plugs into the mic jack and the speaker jack typically on the front of the computer. USB obviously plugs into a usb port. If they have a usb headset, try plugging it into another usb port. If it is dual pin make sure the mic is plugged into the mic jack and the speakers in to the speakers jack (it is easy to get these confused). Try fiddling with the connector moving it in and out slightly to make sure the connection is accurate. Keep in mind that a dual pin device will never show in the picklist, rather it will be identified as the built-in device. This is because the dual pin systems have no ability to send its “name” back to the system through the pins, only USB headsets can do that.
When you hear someone who’s audio is breaking apart (incomplete words, missing syllables etc.) it is almost always a problem at their end. Typically their upstream bandwidth is not adequate enough to support two way conferencing. It is interesting that ISPs regularly advertise how fast they are, but what they are really advertising is their downstream speed, not their upstream capability, which is typically significantly less. To check your upstream speed, open a browser and run the following test:
A variety of numbers will be tested. The main one for this problem however, is the upstream rate. Any value less than 1Mb/s (1000Kb/s) is really too slow to adequately support all of the features of two way conferencing (video, audio, and desktop showing). Anyone having an audio problem such as broadcasting broken audio needs to run this test. Since the internet fluctuates in speed with traffic, just like the highway system around Nashville in rush hour, the test needs to be run several times and around the time of day the actual conference will take place.
So, what happens if a person has broken audio and their bandwidth is too small to support full conferencing? The solution depends on the software. If they are running a Scopia session in Windows they can adjust their default network speeds in the Scopia setup software. There is a document explaining how to do that in TechTools located here:
If they are running a Scopia session on a Macintosh there is a similar way to adjust the default network speeds. Click here to learn how:
Another approach that works on any computer on any conferencing system, such as Scopia or Lync, is to turn off their outbound video and not desktop share from their own machine. This preserves as much of their upstream bandwidth for their audio as possible. Additionally, if anyone in the household is on the internet through the offender’s router, get them to log out to release all bandwidth to and from the house to the person in the video conference. But what if the person having the problem was going to show a Powerpoint, website, or something else from their desktop? Unfortunately they can’t, however, what they can do is send their Powerpoint to someone else in the meeting who has more than adequate bandwidth and have them run it (perhaps the meeting leader or faculty member). If the videoconferencing system is Lync, the person running the Powerpoint from their desktop can actually give mouse control to the offender. If they choose not to, or are using Scopia that doesn’t allow that, then the offender just tells the person who is running the Powerpoint when to advance the slide. In short the person running the Powerpoint becomes the offender’s Vanna White. Obviously the long term solution is to get more upstream bandwidth from the Internet Service Provider but that may not be possible, and certainly won’t be possible at the last minute.
Some systems, such as Lync, allow the person to call in on their telephone and participate in the conference through the phone. This takes audio out of bandwidth contention. They then just use their computer to see what is going on and use their telephone for the audio transmission and receiving part of the conference.
You are listening to someone speak and they sound hollow and distant, almost as if they are speaking in a large room or cave. In this case the offender, the person at the other end, isn’t using a headset microphone. If they don’t have one, you will just have to put up with the poor sound quality. If they do have one and think they are using it, you need to prove to them the audio is actually coming from another source on their computer. Have them tap or scratch the microphone of their headset with their fingernail. If you don’t hear anything the active mic is NOT the headset mic. So, which mic is active? Well, if they are using an external USB webcam they typically have built-in microphones. Have the offender lift the webcam off of the computer and hold it in his hand. Then with the other hand tap around the base of the cam. If you hear the tapping, that is your source. Have them return the webcam to its place above the monitor. If they still have not identified the source of the audio, tap around the frame of the monitor, and then around the keyboard. Eventually you will hear the tapping. That will identify the active mic. They can either go back into the software and change the active mic to the correct one, or select the default option but go into the Windows control panel to reset the active mic. Most software allows the user to select from various input sources. Confusion reigns, however, when the computer selects what it THINKS is the best one (when in fact it isn’t) OR when there are two similarly named devices and the user inadvertently picks the wrong one. If, for example, they have both a Logitech USB webcam on the system with a Logitech USB headset it is easy to select the wrong choice in the picklist.
Echo of Yourself
You are already in a video conference, you are speaking and you hear yourself as an echo sometimes a fraction of a second, up to a second, later. This is extremely annoying and can totally disrupt a video conference. (NOTE: this is different than the Scopia audio test where you WILL hear yourself speaking during the test. That is normal, in fact, if you do NOT hear yourself in the test no one will be able to hear you when you enter the meeting. In that case the proper audio input device has not been selected or your inbound audio speaker volume is off. When you exit the test, however, and go into the meeting you should NOT hear yourself from that point on.)
The echo is caused by the fact that your audio is coming out someone’s speakers and is then being recycled back into their microphone for re-transmission. You speak and everyone hears you twice…once from you and once from the offender. If multiple people have this same problem people may actually hear you 3 or 4 times in quick succession.
The first step is to determine who the offender is who is recycling your audio, keeping in mind it may very well be more than one person. With some software the leader can mute everyone’s mic, turning them on one at a time and testing by speaking. If the leader doesn’t hear themselves echo back, the person who’s mic they are checking at the moment is fine. If they do hear themselves they have identified one of the offenders. It is important to not quit there. The leader must go on and check EVERYONE’s microphone since there may be more than one offender. If the leader doesn’t have the ability to mute everyone’s mic, have everyone mute their own and ask them to turn them on and test one at a time until all the offenders are known.
If the offender acknowledges that they do not have a headset they need to be told (and perhaps shown) how to turn off their microphone when they are not speaking. This is typically a software switch in the actual conferencing software. It is either a Speak button (as in Second Life) or a microphone icon by their name or in an upper corner (as in Lync or Scopia). When they click on that switch it will turn off their mic. Clicking it again will turn their mic back on. They should ONLY turn their mic on when they are speaking and be sure to turn it off when they are done. Some conferencing tools such as Lync and Scopia allow the leader to mute everyone or selected individuals. That should be used whenever the leader is running an extensive monologue.
But what if the offenders claim they ARE using headsets? What they do not realize is their mic and earpiece for the headset are not necessarily their active mic and sound device. If, when they talk they sound hollow, clearly the mic of the headset is not the active mic. (To see more about this look at the second problem this document describes.) More likely though, the sound is coming out of the computer’s speakers and are being recycled into whatever microphone is active. This could even be the microphone of the headset if the sound out of the computer’s speakers is loud enough to be picked up by the headset microphone. The easy way to check if it is, is to ask the offender to take off their headset while you are speaking. They will then be able to determine the source of the sound and quickly hear that it is not coming from the earpiece of their headset. The person needs to exit the meeting, go back to setup and make sure the output sound is coming out of the earpiece of the headset. The technique for setting the input and output sources will vary by conferencing system. Lync is different than Scopia is different than Second Life is different than Skype. It is the responsibility of each participant to know how to adjust the audio sources in every product they are using.
Scopia, Second Life, and Skype require the audio to come through their software. However, some systems, such as Lync, allow the person the option of sending their audio through the telephone system. When selecting this option be sure to NOT select an audio option for the visual part of the meeting. With Lync the user will actually enter the meeting twice, the first time through the web address in the invitation (making sure to NOT select an audio choice) and once again by calling either the 8xx number or the 615 number on their phone. By segmenting off the audio, all of the problems identified above should go away. The user does not need a headset and should have no problems hearing or being heard. They will, however, have to physically hold the headset to their ear for a long meeting or use the conference call capabilities of their phone (which may not be very good.) Also, if the person is calling in on their cell phone, not only will the audio quality be poor, the conference will consume actual allocated minutes from the end user’s plan.