Sounding Better in 2020: The Year of the Laptop Microphone

2020 has whisked us out of our meeting rooms and into conference calls. Even when we use video calls, the focus of the meeting is always on what’s said. This has pushed our laptop mics to center stage — and now we’re remembering why we didn’t use them that often.

So here are a few ways I’ve found to make your voice come through clearly in meetings, with an emphasis on free and simple solutions.

0. How Good Is Your Microphone?

The solutions below will improve your microphone’s sound, but if you don’t know what your voice sounds like right now, it’s impossible to tell what problems you’re having or if you’re fixing any of them.

I wouldn’t recommend listening to your voice all the time, but you should listen while you’re changing your setup so you can hear the impact of the changes you’re making. Listening to your voice as you talk can be a little disorienting, so I’ll also show you how to record a sample to listen to later.

Listening to Yourself on Windows

On Windows, it’s really easy to listen to your microphone through your speakers. It’s a little trickier to record audio, though, so I recommend you download Audacity for that. After installing, make sure you have the correct microphone selected, and then click the Record button. Once you’ve recorded a sample of audio, you can click the Stop and Play buttons to end the recording and play it from the start.

Listening to Yourself on Mac

On Mac, the solution for both recording and listening to your voice is pretty simple. Open up Quicktime Player and choose “File” then “New Audio Recording” from the menu. If you want to listen to your voice in (mostly) real-time, turn the volume slider on the bottom of the screen all the way up, and make sure your system volume is loud enough. You should start to hear the sounds from your microphone routed back to your ears.

If you’d prefer to listen to your voice after recording, just click the Record button without turning the volume slider up, then save the recording by clicking the Stop button. You could leave the volume slider up, but many people find it disorienting to hear their own voice echoing back to them while they’re speaking.

1. Use Technology to Process Your Audio

Audio processing software can do wonders to increase the quality of your microphone. There’s a limitless number of ways that you can process audio, but let’s focus on a few powerful effects.

  • Compression – If you’ve ever accidentally coughed into your microphone, I’m sure you’ve felt embarrassed about how loud you were. Compression helps control volume by “compressing” your loudest sounds (making them quieter). This obviously helps negate loud sounds like coughing or dropping something on your desk, but it can also keep your voice at a consistent volume even when you’re speaking more softly or you’re farther away from the microphone.
  • Noise Gate – A noise gate is a simple tool that cuts off all noise under a certain volume level. This is a great way to control quieter background sounds (like road noise or someone nearby typing) when you’re not speaking. However, all of that noise will still be heard in the background when you’re talking.
  • Noise Suppression – Noise suppression is more sophisticated; it will process your sound to remove any unwanted noises. This is harder to do correctly, and it can leave some noise in or alter the sound of your voice, but the elimination of noise is worth the quirks.

For Windows

VoiceMeeter Banana

VoiceMeeter is a staple program for live audio mixing and effects. The program comes in three variants: Voicemeeter, Voicemeeter Banana, and Voicemeter Potato. I recommend Voicemeeter Banana as a great choice to apply some effects your voice.

The configuration can be a little tricky, but the idea is to send your microphone’s signal to VoiceMeeter, apply the effects, and then send the processed signal out to a new fake microphone labeled “Voicemeter Virtual IO.” Compression and noise gating come available with simple dial controls, and other features are available in the app for the more adventurous. Here’s a tutorial to help you through the setup.

RTX Voice

RTX Voice is a new noise suppression tool — powered by AI — that removes unwanted sounds from your microphone. It’s from Nvidia and is also available as the “Noise Removal” function of the NVIDIA Broadcast app. I was skeptical at first, but I was stunned by the performance once I saw an example of it in action.

RTX Voice and Broadcast are free, but you need an Nvidia graphics card in your computer to use them. They can be used on any application sound you hear on your computer, not just your microphone, so you could apply some noise suppression to your next Zoom call.

For Mac

BlackHole + GarageBand

Blackhole is an open-source audio routing application that that can be used in combination with GarageBand (OSX’s bundled audio workstation) to set up effects on your microphone.

Follow this tutorial to route your microphone into GarageBand and back out using BlackHole. Then use GarageBand to process your microphone’s signal with compression (tutorial) and/or a noise gate (tutorial). GarageBand is a fully-featured audio workstation, so this is just the start of what you can do.

Loopback + Audio Hijack

If Blackhole and GarageBand aren’t enough for you, check out Loopback and Audio Hijack. Loopback is a commercial alternative to BlackHole, and Audio Hijack is an effects-only app that can be used instead of GarageBand. They’re both made by Rogue Amoeba, and they’re apps with a polished and simple UX. Here’s a tutorial provided by Rogue Amoeba that shows how to use these apps together to apply effects to your microphone. These apps bundled together cost $130, but they come with limited trials.

2. Improve Your Location

A lot of your microphone’s quality is determined by where you’re located and where your microphone is in relation to you.

Put More Stuff in Your Space

Reverb is the number one enemy of microphones. It’s the extra sound you get when your voice bounces off of the environment around you and comes back to the microphone milliseconds later. This muddies the sound, making it hard to understand what you’re saying.

The ideal way to reduce reverb is with sound-dampening materials like they use in recording studios. A cheaper way is to fill your room with soft things like carpet. An even cheaper way is to just fill the room with stuff. Reverb is strongest when you have large, hard, flat surfaces, like empty walls. A spare bookshelf or a painting will help break up the surfaces and reduce your reverb.

Move Closer

Another great way to reduce reverb is to get closer to your microphone. Reverb is quieter than the original sound of your voice. When you get closer to the microphone, your voice gets louder, but the reverb bouncing off your walls doesn’t. This is easier to do with an external microphone, but sitting next to your laptop is far better than sliding it to the other end of your desk. After you move closer, check if you got too much louder, and adjust your microphone volume accordingly.

Aim the (External) Mic

You’ve probably heard someone say something like “Peanut Butter Discussion” into a microphone, and all the P’s and B’s and D’s sound boomy and distorted. This distortion you’re hearing is the puff of air your mouth makes when you say those letters. Ideally, you would hear the sounds the letters make instead of puffs of air.

People often put a “pop filter” or mesh in front of their microphone to break up the air before it gets to the microphone. An easier (and free!) way is to move your microphone. Instead of pointing your mouth at the microphone point the microphone at your mouth. You can position the microphone so that it points at you from a 45° angle. This way, the puffs of air from your mouth never reaches the mic.

Avoid Sounds

You’ve probably figured this out by listening to your coworkers, but you shouldn’t point a fan at your microphone, and you probably shouldn’t take your Zoom calls next to your running dishwasher. Ambient sounds can do a lot to muddy your voice, so make sure to listen to the sounds in your work area and address what you can. This is easiest to diagnose with a recording of your microphone.

Use Headphones

This might seem obvious, but if you don’t use headphones, the sounds from your speakers can be picked up by your microphone. If this is a problem for you, you’ve probably already had a coworker complain about it. Conveniently, conference software is pretty good at mitigating this feedback. It’s still worth keeping in mind even if you haven’t heard any complaints.

3. Buy a Better Microphone

Any solid microphone under $100 will increase the quality of your voice by leagues. Anything over that amount, and it’s hard to tell the difference, especially because the audio compression used by Zoom and the like will negate the benefits of expensive microphones. Here are three USB microphone recommendations for different budgets and concerns.

The Blue Snowball

The Blue Snowball mic has built a reputation for solid quality at a small price (~$50 at the time of writing). This microphone will likely be better than your laptop’s and will allow you to position your mic.

Audio-Technica AT2005USB

The Audio-Technica AT2005USB is a little more expensive (~$80 at the time of writing), but it excels at not picking up background noise or distant sounds. This is because the microphone is a “dynamic” microphone instead of a “condenser.” The mic offers both a USB and an XLR output, so you can use it easily with your laptop or more complex audio hardware (if you’re so inclined).

Samson G-Track Pro

The G-Track is the last microphone on this list and the most expensive (~$100 at the time of writing). Not only does this mic look the best out of these three, but it offers a 1/4″ input. This allows the mic to act as a simple mixer/audio interface if you’re interested in recording instruments.

Hopefully one of those options suits you well! I have a lot of noise in/around my apartment, so a dynamic microphone has been a great fit for my situation.

Note: No affiliate links were used, and none of these microphone manufacturers was involved in the writing of this post.

If you made it all the way to the end of this article, chances are you learned something! Take what you learned and make your microphone sound great. Your coworkers would love to hear what you learned.