To put it simply, because of convenience. With built-in preamps, internal analog to digital converters, and simple “plug-and-play” connectivity, USB mics have become an invaluable tool for professionals on the go. Here’s how they’re raising the bar for mobile sound quality.
As published in Systems Contractor News and on AVnetwork.com, March 24, 2015
Imagine this all-too-familiar scenario: Your child comes home from school. You ask him “How was your day?” You get the usual answer: “Ok.” You ask him what he did, and get the usual answer: “Nothin. We learned stuff.” With that, he buries his head in his iPhone, and off he goes to his room.
Now, imagine the same opening question, but with this answer: “It was awesome. We had a conference call with The President of the United States, The Prime Minister of England, The Dalai Lama, The Pope, and another fifth grade class from Perth, Australia. And I got to ask the Pope a question.”
See the difference? In the second scenario, we have an engaged, interested student. That’s what the connected classroom will do for education. This is not a futuristic dream from a science fiction magazine; we have the technology to do this today. In ten years from now, almost every classroom in the U.S. will be connected.
I was recently invited to present at a conference for tech managers in higher education by Infocomm. It was a very interesting and enlightening day. In the room was a collection of tech managers from universities small and large. In some cases, the person in attendance was the lone member of the tech staff at their university. Generally, those were small campuses. In the case of USC itself, they had a full staff, as the campus is quite large.
I presented on the Connected Classroom, since that is a hot topic for today. Campuses are starting to share their lectures and classes in order to:
Article originally published in the October issue of AV Technology Magazine
Electronic audio capture is becoming more important in the classroom. With VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol), trends in BYOD, and video production in education, there is an influx of “audio novices” setting up learning space systems. While this expansion is certainly good for users, it is a difficult situation for those not expertly aware of the challenges and nuances of audio capture.
The basic goal of audio is to always get the microphone as close to the source as possible. This sounds like a simple task, but in reality is the most difficult aspect of electronically reproducing a sound. So many variables come into play. The producer has to decide how much of the mic can be shown in the picture, if any at all. When multiple mics are used, echo and pickup patterns must be addressed. There are room acoustics to account for. This means that each application is a “one-off”. There is no “one-size-fits-all” mic solution.
Quit often in education facilities, the person setting up the system may not have sufficient experience in audio. The single largest challenge today is educating the audio novice in order for them to better understand what solutions are available and how to implement them. The old adage holds true here: People will accept less than perfect video, but if they can’t hear and understand the audio track, they will shut off the program. Learning objectives will not be met.
This is a basic “how to” tutorial for the novice audio engineer.
Though we are discussing audio in this article, it is impossible to address electronics communications without mentioning video. The days of audio-only communications is quickly disappearing. However, audio is in my mind still the more important of the two, and will always be. If you can’t understand what the presenter or program is trying say, the communication is useless.
VoIP is the accepted term for audio and video over the Internet, and tends to be used for collaborative communications. A one-way program is referred to as IPTV. I think a better term for both as a whole might be IPVAC (Internet Protocol Video Audio Communications). But for the sake of clarity, I will use the accepted industry terms.
Within that term are two subcategories: one way and collaborative. As we use these in the classroom, we need to understand how audio will be integrated. Video is relatively easy to set up, all you need to do is place a camera. Audio is much harder.
This article will address the audio for VoIP and IPTV, as well as recorded programming. The three uses that will affect audio and video solutions for the classroom are IPTV, Collaborative, and the use of recorded video as homework assignments using mobile devices.
With Common Core being implemented nationwide, and the move to create the “Connected Classroom,” understanding how to set up a connected classroom is essential. Adding IPVAC to the education experience will create endless possibilities.
IPTV One-Way Communication
With the right resources and training, anyone can create their own IPTV channel. It’s a great learning tool for the students; not only do they learn how to produce a TV show, they learn about internet marketing and how to drive traffic to a web site. This technology could be used for something as mundane and dated as the “sage on the stage,” or something more engaging. The programming is limited in content only by the creativity of the programmer. A class can set up their own IPTV studio in any corner of the room. The challenge here is that the space used may not be set up as a real broadcast studio with proper sound proofing and echo management. Yet the problems faced are the same as any broadcast studio faces. The challenge comes in when you are using a space as temporary location, managed by a novice audio engineer.
IPTV is great for teaching a media class how to create a broadcast TV program. The audio solutions here are established audio devices such as shotgun mics, lavalieres, and handheld mics. I don’t see anything new here in terms of devices. The twist here is getting a fourth grade teacher to understand enough about audio to properly mic a room. The most effective solution is a wireless lavalier mic for each of the speakers and a mixer. The MXL FR-500WK is an example of this solution. Of course, this may exceed the school’s budget. If that is the case, boom mics may be the best solution.
Huddle Rooms & Collaborative Spaces
Smaller meeting rooms that utilize collaborative communications are now being referred to as “huddle rooms.” I just started hearing this term about a year ago. I believe it’s relatively new. This, in my mind, is the fastest growing trend in the history of communications. We can now have multiple people in multiple locations talking to each other, sharing documents, and seeing each other face to face. It will be a huge benefit for the classroom, as teachers and experts from all over the world can now collaborate and address a classroom, and everyone in the conference can participate in the discussion.
We start with a mental picture of the set up. Everyone in the room is facing the front, where a monitor hooked up to a computer is located. Everyone is watching the person on the monitor. The simplest solution for this application is a single boundary microphone, hooked up through the USB port on the computer. Keep in mind that echo canceling is often included in software solutions such as Lync, Bluejeans Network, GoToMeeting, and Google Hangout.
Once the number of people exceeds eight or 10, and the room expands out to over 25’ by 25’, a multiple mic solution is required. This is where things get much more complicated (and expensive). It will be challenging to get mics in front of each student. A solution may be multiple boundary mics, or individual “stick mics. Once you add multiple mics, each mic needs to have as narrow a pick up pattern as possible, to avoid the same voice being picked up by multiple mics. The goal is for the students to be able to interact with the conference. This could be achieved with a single mic that each student approaches when they have a question. It inhibits a free flow discussion. However, given the large number of students in a classroom, this may be the exact solution that works the best. Ceiling mics can be used. However, they have their own challenges, and may be too expensive and complicated to set up.
There is no perfect solution, or “Magic Bullet.” Each room is different, as are the requirements. It is recommended that the novice hire an audio expert to help design a system.
The Recorded Program & BYOD
BYOD video production is explosive in schools. Most every student has a smartphone (that records video) and computers for editing. It was once prohibitively expensive to require video assignment projects or video production in the classroom. With the proliferation of hand held devices in each student’s hands, it is now possible for everyone to be a filmmaker. But these devices by nature are limited in their ability to record a quality audio track. There are many audio manufacturers filling this need. Many are new companies and a few of the established brands are entering the field. Special products designed specifically for the hand held devices are needed.
If the manufacturer wants to be agnostic, and make a microphone work through the 3.5mm analog jack, a TRRS plus is needed. All mobile devices have this jack for audio input. If the manufacturer wants to make it format specific, and plus in through the digital port, they need either USB or Lightning jack products. Up until now, Android USB ports were only used for data and power. It was announced that next year, some manufacturers will be opening it up to audio input as well. This means that there may be more USB mics designed to work with portable devices in the future.
Mics for Apple products utilize the Lightning Port. However, the user can plug in the Camera Kit Connector, which is a Lightning port to USB adapter. With that, there are some mics that will work. At this time, the Camera Kit Connector will not work on the iPhone.
There are many manufacturers producing mics designed to work through the 3.4mm jack. Different kinds of mics for various applications include a handheld interview mic, a wired lav mic, and shotgun mics.
As these new technologies make their way into the classroom, it is important for the tech deciders in the educational environment to stay on top of new products making their way into the market. These technologies are crucial for the education of the next generation. It’s important that we make the most of them by using the best hardware available. With myriad products available and trends like huddle rooms, even the most experienced tech managers need to familiarize themselves with the new electronic landscape.
(MXL recently introduced a line of mics designed to work through the 3.5mm jack, called Mobile Media. We have a hand held interview mic, a wired lav mic, a shotgun mic, and a boundary mic. We will be adding a four channel battery powered mixer, and a series of 2.4Ghz wireless mics within the year. They have been well received by the market, and are filling the needs of both the casual user and professional who are using their hand held devices for video production.)
The progression of the Audio/Video industry is fascinating. The first broadcast medium was audio only…it’s called radio and it was used primarily in the home. The first visual medium was film, and it was video only.
When they merged video with audio in film it was big. When they merged video with audio in broadcast, they called it TV, and it changed the world.
In the electronics industry, we spend a lot of time talking about video. First it was video itself. Then it was color. Then it was the VCR. Then it was SVHS. Along came High Definition, and it changed the way we treat video. 4K, 8K, 16K, and all those Ks will keep improving the picture. Who knows what else it will do? Only time will tell. (Here’s a cool infographic on the history of television.)
Video is fun. Video gets attention.
No one really talks much about audio. The technology is old, it hasn’t changed much over the years, and it just isn’t as sexy.
But without good audio, life is a silent movie.
People will accept compromised video – grainy, shaky, or low resolution. But if they can’t understand what is being said, they will turn it off.
Whether it’s web conferencing or shooting video, proper mic’ing of the subject makes all the difference in getting the message across.
Rule number 1 in audio is to get the mic as close to the speaker as you can.
Rule number 2 is to keep the mic out of the picture as much as possible.
Rule number 1 and rule number 2 are in direct conflict with each other. What’s a poor audio engineer to do?
That is where the compromise comes in. Use a microphone that picks up the audio, while keeping it out of the picture or in an inconspicuous place. How does one achieve this objective? Pick the best microphone for the situation.
Audio In Web Conferencing
The standard practice in web conferencing seems to be a low resolution web cam with a built-in pinhole mic sitting on top of a monitor hung on the wall. Basically, that means the closest speaker is about 6 feet away from the mic and the farthest is 15 to 20 ft. away. With a low quality mic that far away from the subject, the sound will not be very good. Add to that room acoustics, people talking over each other, and paper shuffling during the meeting, and the result is a web conference that is seen and not heard.
MXL offers various audio solutions that are affordable and bring the sound closer to the subject.
A USB Boundary Microphone is the easiest way to get good sound, without a big mic sticking up in the picture. It will pick up an area of about 25 feet, 180 degrees. In most small conference rooms, that is all that is needed. Place it on the conference table, and the sounds “bounce” off the table and gets gathered up in the mic. There’s no obvious microphone in the camera view so you’re achieving the seemingly conflicting goals of close mic’ing and discreet mic’ing.
USB Gooseneck Microphones are a bit more intrusive but can be placed closer to the person speaking. This is a good solution for a small meeting of four or five people. The MXL AC-400 gooseneck can be used with up to four AC-40EXT extension mics. They look very professional and do not call attention to themselves, and they deliver the sound quality you need.
These microphones will meet the web conferencing needs of most small to medium sized businesses.
Once you get past these options, things get a bit more complicated. In some cases, there is no way around a more complex and expensive solution, especially when the room is larger and there are many more people in the meeting. In that case, a combination of table mics, ceiling mics, and a DSP is probably needed.
Our goal at MXL is to provide low cost, simple, high quality solutions for web conferencing. One thing that has made this possible is the introduction of software programs such as Microsoft Lync, Bluejeans Network, and Vidyo, to name a few. All of these programs have echo canceling built into their systems, eliminating the need for an expensive echo canceling solution built into the mic.
What makes web conferencing so popular is the low cost and simplicity that the digital age has created. It can be done with nothing more than a computer, TV, camera, microphone, and broadband connection. Check out my post on video for web conferencing.
Because of the affordability, small companies are now adding web conferencing systems to their offices. Large companies are expanding them out to all of the conference rooms and offices, instead of just one main room.
In short, if you are in the process of adding web conferencing to your office, remember that your conference is only as good as the sound. Make sure to move that microphone off of the top of the monitor and down closer to the people.
Look for two new boundary web conferencing microphones coming very soon from MXL!
Back in 1963, the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago had a working picture phone. It was two phones wired on a closed circuit together with TV cameras on both ends. My cousin and I used to go to the museum and play with the picture phones, and dream about the day that we could do more than talk to each other, but also look at each other while we were talking. It was so cool and so “Jetsons-esque.”
We got a big laugh when we talked about getting a “Picture Phone” call while we were in our underwear. “How would we answer the phone?” It was a big problem with picture phones that we weren’t sure how to solve.
Little did we know the real problems would be much more difficult to solve.
Fast forward to today. “Picture Phones” are everywhere. I have been in electronics all my adult life, and have watched the progression from a series of low resolution still pictures with live audio, to full motion video. What used to be futuristic is now everyday.
But video conferencing has a long way to go. We are still in the early stages of development. Limited bandwidth and low cost hardware delivers less than stellar picture quality. And pinhole mics built in to the web cam, sitting on top of the monitor, 20 feet away from the furthest conference participant make that person difficult to hear.
I hate those web cams that sit on top of the monitor and look down on us. It shows my bald spot. I never knew my hair was getting that thin until I saw myself on the web cam in our conference room. And on top of that, in order to get us all in, the lens is a fish eye.
But we accept this situation as the best that is available. We are so happy to even be able to see each other, and not just hear, that a bad picture is acceptable. And if the audio is a bit muddy, we learn to say “can you repeat that?” over and over again.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Right now, today, we have the technology to deliver a great picture and crystal clear sound. And we don’t have to empty our bank accounts to do it.
I call it Component A/V.
At Marshall Electronics, we introduced a new, cutting edge way of delivering outstanding video and audio. The concept is simple. Get the video and audio pick up devices down from the top of the monitor, separate them into their own chassis, and bring them closer to the participants. And use high quality HD cameras for the video.
At Infocomm 2014, we showed a new kind of web conferencing system. We used our new subcompact HD cameras, with interchangeable lenses for our web conferencing system. These are the same broadcast quality cameras we sell into the TV production industry. By running them through an HDSDI-to-USB 3 converter, it takes a broadcast quality picture and turns it into a beautiful web conferencing image.
Because the camera is so small and unobtrusive, it can be placed much closer to the conference participants, without being a distraction. Bringing it down to eye level gave the conference a much more normal and intimate feel. Also, by having a choice as to what lens to use, the picture is custom tailored to the specific need. We all prefer to have conversations looking at each other directly in the eye, not looking down on each other.
Now that web conferencing is an everyday technology, it’s time to improve the picture and sound. Companies are demanding better quality video and sound. And, with the current technology, a quality HD web cam is well under $1,000. It’s more than the $100 consumer web cam we are currently using but less than an airplane ticket and accommodations for a face-to-face meeting. As companies rely more and more on web conferencing to do business, they are willing to pay the additional cost of an HD web cam to make the picture look natural and thus the conversation becomes more natural.
And, since I don’t go to the office in my underwear, I don’t have to worry about taking calls in my boxer shorts!
There, I solved a few problems. Better picture, and no underwear calls. Next time we will talk about audio.
by Perry Goldstein
As Internet communication continues to improve, it seems the world is getting smaller and smaller. Just thirty years ago, sending a video meant putting a VHS tape in the mail. Audio messages were left on answering machines containing little cassettes. Twenty five years ago, text-only emails were the newfangled way to communicate.
Now we can transmit full motion video and audio messages in microseconds, in full high definition. We can include multiple parties, and collaborate on shared documents, from anywhere in the world, in real time. We can use the Internet to create our own TV channel and reach millions of people for the cost of a basic computer and broadband connection. It’s amazing.
Marshall Electronics and MXL have been known for some time as an end-to-end hardware solutions provider for the broadcast and pro audio markets. Over the past few years, we have found that our products are gravitating in ever increasing numbers to the IPTV and VoIP markets.
Both of these markets are growing at exponential rates. As costs go down and quality goes up in hardware and “production” related services, more and more users are entering this world. We are continuously evaluating and creating new solutions for these new media. Some are good for collaborative web conferencing, some for one-way IPTV, and some have crossover capability. It’s difficult to assign them to a specific category.
The ecosystem of these communication systems is very complex. There are cameras, microphones, switchers, encoders, computers, software, hardware mounting, to name just a few. We make many of them right here at Marshall.
Marshall Electronics recently introduced a series of mini and mid sized HD cameras, capable of multiple frame rates and resolutions. This makes them good for broadcast, streaming and even VoIP. Originally, VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) was a term for collaborative voice-only communications. Today it is accepted to include video, and is commonly known as web conferencing or video conferencing. There are many ways to use these cameras for VoIP. MXL has introduced a USB3 converter, taking either an HDMI signal or HDSDI signal, and converting it into a USB3 signal. Coming soon are conferencing system switchers that have multiple inputs for either HDMI or HDSDI cameras.
When MXL was founded, the primary microphone produced was the condenser mic, used for recording studios. Over the past five years, we have become known for our web conferencing mics. Our first VoIP mic, the AC-404, is one of the best selling and most highly regarded USB boundary mics in the market. From that start, we have expanded the line to gooseneck mics, wireless mics, audio mixers, and various audio solutions for both the VoIP and IPTV markets.
Marshall has had a line of encoders and decoders for a number of years now. As video distribution moves from satellite and cable to the Internet, Marshall offers a number of solutions to meet this growing demand.
The end user is becoming more and more sophisticated. They are discovering that a one-camera production, be it for IPTV or VoIP, is no longer adequate. Multiple cameras with interchangeable lenses will give the operator the choice of camera placement and focal lengths. This can be accomplished with an HDSDI camera with the capability of running up to 300 feet of cable, which makes this a great solution for conference rooms or TV studios. MXL will be releasing a simple-to-use, four-camera, seamless switcher in the spring of 2015. With an IR remote, the switcher can be operated remotely, which makes this a one person solution. It is also designed to be portable and battery powered.
The biggest issue in the world of electronic video and audio is the lip-syncing. Video often has latency, caused by all of the electronics it passes through. That can cause the sound and movement of the speaker’s lips not to match. We have all seen that on TV somewhere. It can be very annoying. MXL will be releasing an audio mixer capable of taking multiple mics, mixing them and adding delay to accommodate for the video latency. This mixer will also be capable of running on a battery.
It’s an exciting time to be in electronics. There is a revolution of services and products making it possible for high speed, low cost communications. Now, anyone of us can have our own IPTV channel, You Tube Channel, or professional collaboration web conference. With the growth of these services, better hardware is needed to deliver the best picture and sound possible. Marshall and MXL are dedicated to bringing unique solutions to market to enhance the user experience.
Keep an eye out for our blog posts and email updates as we announce these new products. We are excited to help bring the future to you, today.