Does Zoom sound suck?
TLDR: It very easily doesn't have to.
Photo by Vlada Karpovich
Zoom lessons are here to stay. What we once thought would be a few weeks of adjusting our lifestyle with working from home to flatten the curve has turned into almost two years of uncertainty.
Two years. If you have been putting off lessons because you don't like the thought of learning online, you are doing yourself a disservice!
One of the biggest hesitations students have about learning to sing online is the issue of sound quality. It's important to keep in mind that Zoom's default function is for situations that feature speaking and not music. So if you jump into a singing session with the default settings, yes, the sound is going to suck.
But, with a few simple tweaks, Zoom sound can absolutely fine and won't interfere with your ability to learn whatsoever. I'm definitely not a tech guru, so I needed to simplify this stuff for myself, which hopefully means it's easy for you to understand too!
Here are three tiers of changes you can make to up your Zoom game, from tweaks that cost you nothing, to getting a little more involved investing in gear.
This information is up-to-date as of September 2021.
LEVEL 1 - $ free
These are the basic adjustments you can make to your Zoom settings which immediately help with the sound quality when it comes to your singing. Ever been frustrated that the sound cuts off when you start to sing higher? Here's how to fix that.
Once you open Zoom, you will be on your home screen. From here, press the gear icon in the top right corner to access the settings. Go to audio and adjust the following settings.
Automatically adjust microphone volume
Make sure this box is unticked. What you instead need to do is manually adjust the volume level so that when you test the mic the input level stays around 60-75%. You'll see these as little blue bars flashing across as you sing when you click the Test Mic button.
Suppress background noise
Change this to low. Your high notes will magically be audible again! This is because the auto setting is meant for speaking and the algorithm is getting rid of noise it thinks is unnecessary. Given it's unlikely you would be singing high notes in a work meeting, Zoom mistakes your awesomeness for noise. There is no off setting for suppressing background noise, but low does a good job.
Music and Professional Audio
These are reasonably new features in Zoom and make the music experience on Zoom even smoother. Whilst you can adjust these settings, I recommend doing so when you incorporate level 2 or 3 because they shine when there is simple equipment in the equation.
Show in-meeting option to enable original sound- Turn this on, especially when using an external microphone. This applies all the settings you've previously changed. When you turn this on, you'll see a few more options.
High fidelity music mode- Turn this on, but only if you have a strong internet connection. You will enjoy much better sound quality, but it does take up much more bandwidth.
Echo cancellation- This one you may want to experiment with. I personally prefer it off, but make sure you are wearing headphones.
Stereo audio- This one isn't so necessary for our needs, so just leave it off.
LEVEL 2 - $$ minimal gear (recommended)
This is the level I would recommend if you are in the position to make some small investments which will greatly improve your Zoom sound experience. There are only three things you will need and all can be found for very reasonable prices on Amazon. Even with low and medium price range electronics you will experience quite an improvement.
Remember back to "high fidelity music mode" in level 1? The only downside to this is that it requires a strong internet connection. Unless your WiFi is stellar, an easy solution is to connect your computer directly with an Ethernet cable. You can purchase them for around $10-15.
If you're a singing teacher yourself, investing in some high quality headphones is certainly useful when listening to your students. If you're a student however, most of what you'll be listening to is speech, so if you don't want to splash out on fancy headphones, that's totally ok!
It is recommended that you use headphones however, even if they are cheapies, because the sound coming through your computer speakers will be picked up by your microphone and can interfere with things. Headphones can cost anywhere from $20, to hundreds of dollars, depending on your budget.
USB mics are incredibly simple to use and plug straight into your computer. Using a mic is one of the biggest changes you will see when it comes to your sound quality.
Why? Because your computer microphone is a) tiny, so it can fit inside your computer, but is very limited and needs to boost weird mid-range frequencies to help the voice cut through, and b) because the microphone is hidden away near your keyboard or webcam, it's far away from your mouth and needs to pick up sound from all around (i.e. omni-directional microphone), which means it captures a lot of excess noise.
Using an external microphone bypasses these issues, not to mention you also have more control over the mic's settings should you wish to further tweak your setup. You can purchase a decent USB mic for as little as $50, or alternatively, Blue Yeti is a very popular option, which is around $100.
LEVEL 3 - $$$ further investments
If you are using Zoom for music lessons on a regular a basis, and you're also are interested in recording your vocals or using a mic for live performance, you may want to consider investing in a higher quality microphone (which usually connects with a three prong plug called an XLR) in combination with a digital audio interface or mixer.
Whilst this is definitely a more expensive and complicated option, you will be able to get the highest quality sound possible, but more importantly, you have resources help you in other areas of your singing, whether it be the recording studio, or out gigging.
I use the Rode NT1-A microphone with the RME Audio Interface. But really, this is only because I also record music at home. Given the internet bandwidth being used in a Zoom session, the difference in sound quality between a XLR and USB microphone will be hardly perceivable. So don't feel you need to splash out on fancy equipment to get good results in your online lessons.
I hope this helps demystify some of the problems you may experience with Zoom sound. I promise: it's not as bad as you may think! Don't let any preconceived notions you may have hold you back from being guided in your singing journey.
If you would like to book an online lesson with me, you can do so here.
Singing for Self-Care
*I'm not affiliated with Amazon and these are not sponsored links! I'm just linking examples, feel free to purchase what you like!