For my first blog post I was originally going to write about my experiences with duet exams and why they are rare these days. However, with the current health crisis and self-isolation, I have decided to write about the problems with using Zoom for music teaching online and how to fix them. This is for complete noobs who are experiencing bad sound quality, since many of us are having to switch to online teaching at very short notice. Also, as the title states, I shall explain why I use Skype instead of Zoom.
Now, before I upset any Zoom fans out there, I believe that both the free versions of Skype and Zoom, when correctly set up at both ends of the video call are superb. Having tried both extensively on a number of devices and platforms, I would actually advise offering both if possible. For one to one music teaching my preference is Skype but for large groups (classes) I would definitely use Zoom.
A number of my music teacher colleagues have expressed concern with the quality of the video and especially the audio when using Zoom. I believe the problem with audio mainly stems from the service’s default noise suppression settings. Simply put, your instrument – a piano for instance – is detected as background noise and it’s sound is suppressed. This can result in very distorted sound.
Since the programme is tuned to favour the human voice for video conferencing, singing teachers may not experience this problem – unless they start using another instrument other than their voice of course. I am not a singing teacher so have not really tested this.
Of course, you can also improve your audio and video quality with better webcams and microphones, and by using correct lighting (a light source in front of you works wonders). I also put a lot of cushions and big fluffy towels over flat hard surfaces – out of view of the camera – to help flatten the sound and reduce echo (it worked well, but now we’re short on bath towels).
Accessing the Audio and Video Settings in Zoom
The way I access the Zoom audio and video settings is by hosting a meeting with video on. At the bottom left of the screen you will see an audio icon and a video icon. The little arrows next to them give access to menus with settings at the bottom. Click on settings.
Fixing Audio in Zoom
Here are the 3 settings that you may need to change to improve sound quality. Once set, you should not need to set them again – although checking now and then can’t hurt.
In Audio Settings make sure that your preferred microphone is selected. I found that Zoom defaulted to my webcam microphone when I really wanted to use my higher quality external microphone.
In Audio Settings ‘Advanced’ – the button on the bottom right – set Persistent Noise Suppression to Moderate. This is enough to cut out unwanted hiss etc without any major impact on instrument quality.
In Microphone Settings ‘Advanced’ set Intermittent Noise Suppression to Disable. This is the most important setting to change and really improves the instrument sound. Obviously it means that Zoom won’t cut out any loud unwanted noises – a slamming door, or someone hammering for instance – but for an instrumental music teacher it is a worthwhile trade-off.
Fixing Video in Zoom
I found that Zoom defaulted to a 4:3 standard definition video resolution. Since my webcam is capable of 720p HD and 1080p Full HD I had to check the HD box in Video Settings to change this. Once set, the video quality was much sharper. Be aware that you obviously need an HD capable webcam for this, and also that you may experience increased latency/delay when using a higher resolution due to the increased data being streamed – so far our connection has been fine with 1080p Full HD with no-one complaining of any issues with delay.
And … why I use Skype instead of Zoom
As I stated previously, if I was teaching classes, especially non-music classes, rather than one to one lessons, I would use Zoom. It is very versatile with a vast selection of conferencing settings. But for one to one lessons I believe less is more, simple is king, and prefer Skype:
- Skype’s set up for video and audio is fine straight ‘out of the box’. I have not experienced any problems. It means I don’t have to change anything and I don’t have to talk every pupil through any setting changes. However, with Zoom, if you manage to change the settings then the quality is similar.
- I much prefer the way you Video connect to pupils in Skype. You simply add people to your contact list. When it is time for a lesson you just click on their name in your Skype contact list and then click the Video icon. They then click the video icon that will appear on their screen. And that’s it. No messing around with emails, URLs, or Passwords. It can take a bit of explaining and hand-holding to get a not so tech savvy person onto your contact list in the first place, but once there it is easy.
I hope this advice proves helpful for anyone struggling with online one to one music lessons. Like many of my colleagues I had no idea how to do any of this at such short notice, but luckily my partner is a tech guy, and so I had access to both hardware and knowledge.
Good luck everyone and keep safe,