Whether you're talking to family on Skype or Hangouts, or you're playing multiplayer games and need your teammates to hear you, there are a few simple things you can to do make sure your audio comes through clearly. Here are a few things you can do to make sure you're heard.
Making sure you come through loud and clear is important on any internet phone or video call, whether you're talking to friends on Skype or Hangouts, doing video chat with coworkers while you work from home, or talking to your team in a multiplayer game. In every case, choppy, stuttering audio is annoying at best, and at worst, it cuts your time with friends -- or your face time with coworkers -- painfully short.
Take Control of Your Environment
The first thing you can do, without spending any money at all, is to take look around and take stock of your environment. Try to match up the audio problems other people may be reporting with a factor in your environment. Are your colleagues complaining about echoey audio while you try to record in a huge, open-air loft? Maybe you have an enclosed space, but it's noisy or right under an air vent, so all people can hear is whooshing air. Hopefully, you have some control over those factors, and we have some tips to tweak your space in our guide to the basics of music production.
For example, if you're in a space where the walls reverberate too much, consider hanging blankets or other dense material from the walls to cut down on echo. If you can, move to a carpeted room for your recording or your call, shut the vent on that loud room, or do what you can to bring the microphone closer to you. Pop on a pair of headphones -- even earbuds -- so your teammates can't hear their own voices -- or the audio from your computer -- echoing off your walls. If you can, you can add soundproofing to your space in the form of wall art.
Update Your Audio Drivers
Depending on your operating system, the first thing you should do is update your audio drivers. It may sound like a small thing, but don't underestimate it. If you've been using the same ancient USB microphone for years -- and it's worked for you -- you may be surprised to find a driver update that addresses some audio quality problems in apps that came out after you bought it -- like new versions of Skype, Hangouts or whatever voice chat app you prefer to use.
Even if your microphone drivers aren't an issue, consider the audio drivers for your motherboard or sound card. Since most people tend to use their motherboard's built-in audio chipset instead of a discrete sound card, it's possible you've never bothered installing drivers for it at all. The built-in drivers are usually good enough, but if you're having trouble with audio quality, or you just want better audio, see if there's an update for your operating system. In most cases it's as simple as going to your motherboard manufacturer's web site and filtering by your model number -- you'll see if drivers are available that were released after you bought your board. Give them a try -- you might be surprised (I was!)
Dive Into Your Audio Settings
Always familiarise yourself with the audio settings of the applications you use. If you have a favourite voice chat application for gaming (or you use the one built-in to your favourite titles), or you prefer Skype or Google Hangouts, make sure you dig through their options, make sure your microphone and audio outputs are set up, and test them. It should go without saying, but you'd be surprised how many times better audio is just a click away in Skype's settings.
Even in Windows you can boost the levels of a microphone that's coming in too quietly, tweak the sample rate on a connected microphone, and disable any other unnecessary audio devices that may be competing with your primary microphone. If you can, try recording your own audio using Audacity or another audio recording app, and then play it back to hear how you -- and your environment -- sound. Then you'll have a great idea how other people think you sound.
Upgrade Your Microphone or Headset
For many people, the obvious upgrade if your audio sucks is a new microphone. If you're using the built-in microphone on your computer or webcam, it might make sense. Of course, there's no reason those built-in mics can't sound good, but if you're having trouble or your audio sounds awful and echoey to the people you talk to, it may be your culprit. We have some suggestions for great desktop microphones, or for quality headsets with microphones, depending on what you prefer. If your needs are strictly occasional video calling and gaming, a headset will work just fine for you, but if you're recording your audio, a dedicated desktop microphone may be in order.
Of course, an expensive microphone doesn't guarantee great audio quality -- but a good microphone can help offset environmental issues you don't have control over. A good cardioid condenser mic, in the right position, close to your mouth, can make a mildly echoey space sound more intimate. Nothing's going to tune out aeroplanes landing at the airport next door, but they can minimise it. Finally, if you do get a new microphone -- or have multiple audio inputs connected to your computer, check which one is active each and every time you start a call or record a show. Even if you've set your beautiful condenser mic as your default, all it takes is an app update or other system issue to shunt the default back to your crappy webcam mic instead, and you'll never know it until someone mentions your audio isn't as good as usual.
Get or Make a Pop Filter for Your Microphone
Whether you have a headset or a stand-alone mic, we can't understate the value of a good pop or noise filter attached to it. We've shown you how to make one using an embroidery hoop and pantyhose, or out of a few sheets of printer paper. A small foam one for the microphone on your headset or a mounted one for your microphone will reduce noise, wind or any other distracting audio unless you're speaking right into it. There's a reason professionals use them, and it's not just because they're pros -- you can hear the difference clearly.
If you're really serious about reducing noise, you could build a portable microphone booth like this one, or buy its equivalent. That will definitely keep out excess noise, but it might get in the way on your desk while you're gaming or talking to friends on Skype. Those types of portable booths are useful for people who primarily record, but if you use your microphone for multiple purposes -- gaming, video calls, voice calls and more -- it may be a bit much. You may, however, consider mounting a little soundproofing material behind or around your mic and putting the mic on a microphone arm. That way, you can bring it close to you when you need it, and it gets the benefit from the soundproofing.
Use Wired Ethernet If Possible
In general, if you're on a VoIP call or multiplayer gaming, you'll want to use wired Ethernet if at all possible. The last thing you want is to ride Wi-Fi only to have your computer compete with other devices for a consistent, steady connection, or for multiple applications on your computer (especially the case if you're gaming) to compete among themselves. Consider switching to a wired connection if at all possible, especially if your audio -- or a steady connection -- is important.
Of course, if you're stuck on a laptop without an Ethernet port, you'll have to make do. Get as close to an access point as possible, shut down any other resource hungry applications on your computer, and try to single-task. In general, there's nothing wrong with Wi-Fi, and as speeds and routers improve, the distinction between wired and wireless for things like video calls and games will diminish entirely. Even so, if audio quality is important, stick to wired for now at least.
These are just a few, general things you can do to improve the quality of your audio over the internet. With luck, you don't have to run out and spend a lot of money to get significant audio improvements. However, if you've done everything else right and you just can't shake your steely, stuttering audio when you call your friends, hopefully these tips can help.