Welcome to Zoom University, where students listen to lectures recorded through a Pringles can stuffed with tinfoil and people yell “Sorry I missed that” every 30 seconds in meetings because someone’s dog started barking.

Except, it doesn’t have to be like that. Some quick changes to your audio setup can really, really make your videos and meetings have a far more professional feel to them. In fact, audio quality makes a much bigger difference to the production quality of a video than the image quality. In other words, you’re far better off investing in a decent mic than a decent webcam if you want to make high quality videos.

Rather than get bogged down in audiophile nonsense and trying to sell $400 cables because they “have better shielding” and XLR interfaces, here’s some straightforward and generally affordable (if not free) ways to seriously ugprade your audio.

Note: if you’re a sound engineer, look away now. This is not for you.

1. Position Your Mic

This is the easiest fix you can make. Just position your mic better, about 3-4 inches away from the corner of your mouth, and the audio will sound far less distant and echo-ey than if it’s just sitting of your desk. In fact, even if you buy a nice $200 mic, it will probably still sound bad unless it’s positioned correctly. Take a listen to this mic sample I’ve recorded comparing just how much of a difference mic positioning can make.

To get the right position, you’ll of course need to use a mic that’s external to your laptop or webcam. Personally, I run a $40 Fifine USB mic, and mount it on a $40 boom arm, both purchased off Amazon. The arm lets me easily position the mic for meetings and video recording, and afterwards a quick push lets me get it out of the way. It also includes a pop filter, which helps mitigate those loud ‘P’ sounds.

2. Use RTX Voice

RTX Voice is dark magic that would tempt even Albus Dumbledore himself to join Voldemort. It does an amazing job cancelling out background noise, to the point that you can literally run a vacuum in the background and maintain relatively clear audio. It requires an Nvidia graphics card, which is the only downside, but it’s worth going Nvidia over. When using RTX Voice, you’ll direct your microphone audio into the software, and then select “RTX Voice” as your microphone on Zoom, OBS, or whatever other recording software you’re using. This will give your listeners crystal clear audio that’s free of barking dogs, screaming children, lawn mowers, or loud laundry machines. As an additional benefit, RTX Voice can also cut out other people’s background noise so that you can hear them better as well.

3. Buy A Better Mic

This doesn’t mean buy an expensive mic. As I mentioned, I achieve pretty decent results with just a $40 Fifine mic and would highly recommend it (though the price seems to have gone up due to COVID). In fact, it is leaps and bounds better than the mic on my $300 Logitech Brio webcam (in case you’re wondering, you should probably just get a C920 instead of the Brio). Here’s an audio sample comparing the two microphones.

If you’re willing to drop a little bit of extra cash, the $130 Audio Technica ATR2100x-USB is an excellent option that will do a much better job of not picking up background noise (though you really will need to postion it close to your mouth as it is a dynamic microphone). The Blue Yeti is also very popular, though more expensive. Personally, I’d recommend just buying the Audio Technica and investing the savings into a boom arm because once again, mic positioning is everything.

4. Pay Attention to Gain and Clipping

This is a big one. If you’ve ever heard audio that sounds loud and crunchy, it’s probably because of clipping. Take a listen to this sample I’ve recorded comparing the difference gain makes.

If you don’t watch out for clipping, even an expensive mic will still sound horrible. Gain is essentially how much your microphone volume is boosted. If it’s boosted too much, then the louder parts of your speech will ‘clip’ and sound crunchy. In order to control this, talk into your mic and watch the little sound meter in your recording software. As you’re talking, dial back the gain until the sound meter just barely hits the red (upper end) at the loudest parts of your speech. Some mics have built-in gain dials, so use that if you have one, otherwise use the microphone settings in Windows, MacOS, or whatever program you’re using to dial these levels back.

One catch that I’ve noticed on Windows is that programs behave differently with regard to gain and clipping, so don’t assume that just because you’ve set it to sound good in Zoom that it will also sound good in OBS.

5. Fiddle With Your Software

There are a lot of other optimizations you can make in various programs. Here are a handful of tips and suggestions:

  • Audacity: follow this workflow to give your audio that podcasty feel.
  • OBS: experiment with filters, especially the compressor. See this video for some great tips on how to do that.
  • Zoom: try turning on Original Audio, which is well documented here, and allows you to bypass some of Zoom’s own processing (don’t do this unless you already have good audio).
  • Davinci Resolve: watch this tutorial on improving the audio in Resolve. Pay particular attention to the compressor and de-esser.