Audio, IT/AV

Microphones In The Post-COVID-19 World

Microphones, Post-COVID-19 world

The need for adaptation and strategies for safety.

As I write this, we’re in the middle of—not at the end of—the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The issues surrounding the conferencing business and the rest of AV are still changing. I believe the lasting results of the pandemic remain a work in progress. However, it’s easy to speculate about the changes we saw coming and the changes that we didn’t see.

Software-Based Video Meetings

For some time, I’ve been saying that CFOs often ask the following question: “If my family can reach me on FaceTime on my cell phone and have a reasonable-quality video chat at almost any time, then why do I have to spend millions of dollars on conferencing systems so that board members can have a video meeting?” Well, as those board members have begun to acclimate to software-based conferencing from home, that question is now in sharper focus. Shelter-in-place orders and social-distancing protocols have forced executives to use the technology, and some of them are getting very used to it.

The use of software-based conferencing systems has resulted in some clients asking if we can set up their boardroom systems more like the Gallery Mode from their home-based video application. For many people, seeing group members’ reactions is just as important as seeing the one person who’s speaking. And, no, we can’t put multiple computers in front of each person in the boardroom—the ensuing audio would be a nightmare to control—but we can perhaps have a camera for each seat and software to present the room as if it were individual people, just like we’re accustomed to at home. This reverses the classic videoconferencing scenario, in which the majority of users were in a conference room and only a few were dialing in from outside. In the post-COVID-19 world, the majority of users will likely be remote, but meeting participants will want to see them as if they were together in a conference room.

I can already imagine a crowd wielding pitchforks and torches amassing outside my door. But is this really blasphemy? Just look at what Microsoft introduced with its Together Mode and you’ll understand that, going forward, this might be a preferred view.

Technical Headaches

I know that the AV teams at the big financial institutions have never been busier. They’re spending all their time trying to explain to board members, working remotely, how to connect to a video call over Zoom, Webex Teams, etc. They’re also sending out small cameras and microphones to people’s homes; that, of course, is followed by them trying to explain how to connect those devices to home-office computers. This process is frustrating because the executives, although very smart, rarely have time to deal with technical matters. This is hard and thankless work.

When considering the equipment required to bring home-office computers up to speed with software-based conferencing, please don’t forget that microphones are available in categories of “adequate,” “good” and “best.” This applies to all situations that require microphones—from a mic for a concert stage to a headset mic. There are many USB microphones and headsets available from specialized microphone manufacturers. There is no reason not to find the best you can, thereby ensuring you sound as good as possible to the person on the far end. Designing and making good microphones is an exacting task, and many companies specialize in just that. Please support them with your purchase. We need them to remain in business. You will find the increase in quality is well worth the extra couple of pennies.

Cleaning & Safety

Back in March, our office started to receive calls with people asking, “How do I clean my microphones between uses?” Knowing that, at that time, cleaning supplies were flying off store shelves, we didn’t have an easy answer. Our response was to suggest that our clients purchase alcohol prep pads from the pharmacy. These pads—generally used prior to injections—are basically moist alcohol swabs that can be used once and discarded. This method appeals to me because there’s a limited amount of alcohol fluid on the pads and it evaporates before it can do any damage to the microphone. Of course, many enterprising manufacturers out there have all manner of proprietary cleaning products supposedly designed specifically for microphones. (At some point, one would hope, a club owner might buy some of those products to clean the lipstick off their vocal microphones between each new band onstage. An aging rock star can only dream….)

There’s also been discussion about using ultraviolet (UV) light in various configurations to sterilize microphones before and after use. Although this would probably get the job done, I feel it could also damage the paint finish, glue and foam parts of the microphone, and the windscreen. At the very least, those things will discolor and perish faster following repeated exposure to UV light at that kind of intensity. We have to have more testing time before we start fitting out our microphone lockers with UV light and shortening the life of our inventories.

Another answer is obvious: Get multiple foam windscreens and replace them after each use. (One could find a way to wash and dry them before reusing.) The negatives to this approach are twofold: First, sooner or later, a wet screen will be used out of necessity; second, it might prove difficult to keep sufficient replacements on hand with some manufacturers.

Another answer came in the form of a question from a church client of mine. In short, the client wanted to dedicate microphones to specific priests. The answer was to double or even triple the transmitter inventory, while keeping the receiver count the same. This is an entirely different approach that, in its ultimate form, would require multiple system changes. Those changes could include increasing the receiver count and the digital signal processor (DSP) inputs to accommodate the increase, updating the programming of the system and training the client/operator in the use of radio frequency (RF) management software. All that added equipment and installation expense, just so that every person can have his or her own dedicated microphone—even though all of them won’t ever be present simultaneously.

We developed a more budget-friendly version of this for one church that uses two priests for each service, drawing from a pool of seven priests. The client is now operating with seven bodypack/lavalier combos and only two receivers (with strict instructions that they can only use one odd-number and one even-number pack for any one service.) They now must consider if they have an “odd-number priest” or “even-number priest” on call. What strange times we are living through….

Most assuredly, more microphones and more cleaning cycles will be the go-to solutions for some time to come as we navigate the post-COVID-19 world.

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