The other day I got a message from Jenny “the Burce” saying that I had to get some equipment to upgrade my live streaming setup for the DockerCon dry run. Cameras and microphone and things, a list from Bret Fisher. Only problem, I soon discovered, was that nothing on the list was actually available. Somehow just after lockdown everything that people might need to live stream audio and video had been panic bought, along with the flour, toilet paper and eggs. So over the next month or so I have gradually put together a setup that works, with the aim of improving the audio and video quality.
It has also been the first time I have worked at home for long periods, previously I mostly went to the office with a few meetings at home at the start and end of the day. Given that we are all going to be homeworking for a long period, may as well make it better. Due to lack of availability all the low end stuff was unavailable, but will give some pointers and suggestions as to what is worthwhile or not, and supply chains should start to improve soon. I am lucky enough to have a reasonable amount of space, if you are working in a constrained space I would imagine choices are more limited.
Also I am lucky enough to be able to work at home, or at all in these difficult times. Tech workers are so lucky and safe compared to so many others.
1970s Danish teak desk, bought on the Holloway Road some years back. Not in perfect condition or anything, a desk for using. Hard to move around. Big, not going to fit in a small space. I don’t remember the price, it wasn’t a lot and it will last another 40 years. The lamp is a German, asymmetric one from the 1930s.
MacBook Pro from a few years back. I have been wondering about getting a desktop as, well, not going anywhere. However I want something silent and that seems really difficult now. I do have a Linux box (carefully constructed with large slow fans) and a FreeBSD FreeNAS box under the table, but although they are fairly quiet I find them too noisy when working so I mostly keep them switched off. The cloud is silent of course, a great advantage. I may go down the silent PC building route again soon, will keep you posted.
Dell 27 inch 4k monitor I took from the office. I thought it was too small on this desk, but then realised I had it too far back. I would probably get a USB C monitor now, just to get more ports nearby but this is fine. I don’t like double monitors due to the gap, I prefer a single large one.
It is going to be difficult to improve quality for live conversations without a good internet connection. Obviously there may not be much choice where you are though, so changing this can be difficult. I use Andrews and Arnold with 80/20Mbs VDSL; they are a high quality service with static IPs, IPv6, and they do not have oversubscription. It costs a bit more than other providers.
Keyboard and trackpad
Need cleaning. Apple bluetooth ones. I also have a (noisy) Hacker’s keyboard around. I much prefer trackpads to mice or trackballs now.
Realising I was about to plug in more things than the computer has ports, I got the Caldigit TS3 Plus as recommended by someone on Twitter. This provides power down one thunderbolt cable to the computer, while having everything else plug into it. It has displayport for the monitor, and wired ethernet, meaning I can avoid wifi issues. The wired ethernet goes via ethernet over mains adaptors downstairs to the router. Note that if you have the new MacBook Pro 16 inch, this consumes a peak 97W of power which is more than this delivers although maybe there will be a firmware fix. CPU peak power consumption is getting ridiculous now, 100W laptops!
I managed to order a Logitech StreamCam direct from Logitech just before all webcams sold out. It is excellent quality, see pictures below. I sit it on top of the monitor, and it has USB C. It has a very wide angle of view, but I eventually found out that the Logitech Camera Settings App allows you to modify this, with a narrower setting too. This is just a crop, so it is not as high quality. The Logitech software is much worse on Mac than Windows it seems, with far less control available; some of the Windows controls appear to be done in software with a software video out that other applications can connect to which is not available on Mac. The Logitech 4k cameras apparently have three zoom options as well as ability to set frame rates, and it looks like some stock may become available again, so these could be better for a cropped view. Actually using the 4k option is not really possible with most software at present though, and it requires lots of CPU to encode.
Having the camera above you on the monitor is way better than using the camera on a laptop, which is generally low down unless you raise it up a lot; also as you want to use a monitor generally the laptop is probably to the side, which looks strange on calls. I don’t know why Apple do not improve the quality of laptop cameras to match their phone cameras, and I have heard of people using phones to stream.
Another option a friend is exploring is using a digital camera; most recent cameras can stream video although generally only via HDMI out so you need something like the Elgato Cam Link and these are also hard to get now. With a choice of lenses and zoom and excellentpicture quality this is an option if you already have a suitable camera; you probably want to use a lens around 35mm it seems. You will need to mount it behind the monitor which needs some work. Obviously this is a substantially more expensive option and only makes sense if you have a camera already for other uses.
Cameras are way better quality with lights. You might not immediately notice, so here are some crops to give you an idea of low light versus a reasonable light. I have the Elgato Key Light, which is wifi controlled. You probably need something this bright, I had a small LED panel and it was not bright enough.
The pictures below show crops of the video in the dark without lighting, with light from the window only and lit with additional lighting.
The Key Light has a slightly annoying property of occasionally losing wifi access and needing to be reset, although it stays on during this time, so I am not sure I can entirely recommend it, although it hasn’t happened for a while now. It is also expensive, but generally good. Lights are difficult to buy. This clamps to the table which is good, as tripod type stands take up loads of desk space or floor space around.
I also have a window to the side, which provides most of the light during the day, but I use the light at a lower level as a fill light, or else the side of my face away from the window is very dark. At night I use the light as a key light, and don’t use a fill, so it is a bit like Rembrandt lighting. Look at three-point lighting to get an idea of how to place lights, you ideally want them diagonally notdirectly in front, or else it looks very flat. I place the webcam a little bit asymmetrically pointing into the room so it does not catch the very bright window. The worst setup is if you have a window behind you, when the camera will have a hard time, as you can see when having calls with people with that setup.
Audio gets complicated very fast. Your options are to use your laptop, or to use the microphone on your webcam, which is what I was doing for a while, and still do sometimes. There is another problem though about how to listen to the audio, and avoiding the microphone picking up the sound of the other party, or yourself. I had a bias towards audio/music equipment as I have used it in the past a little and it is currently relatively easily available; there are very different routes you could take here.
The original recommendation from Bret was to get the Samson Q2U, but this remains totally unobtainable. Actually all USB microphones were unobtainable. If you get a USB dynamic microphone, such as the Q2U or the Audio Technica ATR2100 which is similar but more expensive (but maybe available now) then your route will be simpler and cheaper than mine below.
So I went the traditional route. Generally the advice seemed to be that unless your room is a soundproofed studio, get a dynamic microphone not a condenser microphone, as they are more directional and likely to mostly pick up your voice not what is going on outside or downstairs or even the noise from your keyboard. I went for the classic Shure SM57 a microphone that has been around so long it has its own Wikipedia page and White House stories. I ordered direct from the manufacturer which was very quick; apparently there are a lot of fakes of these so it is worth buying from a reputable place. You can’t see it clearly in the photo above as it is pointing straight at me, as I am sitting it does not obstruct the view, but I can move it away andback on the mic stand, see below.
As the mic has XLR analogue outputs you need to plug it into the computer. The easiest way is to get an audio interface, that combines a microphone pre-amp and an analogue to digital converter. I got the Audient EVO4, which seems really nice and excellent quality. Audient is a UK company that makes mixers and other professional audio recording hardware; this is their “diffusion line” but has the same high quality hardware. This also acts as a headphone amp, and can live mix the audio from the mic into the headphone so you can listen to yourself speaking. It supports two mics, or a mic and an instrument, and there is also a four channel version, for a future world without social distancing when we are in the same room again. There is only one potential issue with this combination, which is that the microphone outputs at a very low level. The EVO4 has 58dB gain, which is quite a bit more than most units I looked at, but if you have a quiet normal speaking voice and don’t project it, even if you have the gain set to maximum, if you speak more than around two inches away from the mic it is a little quieter than ideal. At around two inches away it is fine although with some extra bass emphasis, or if you speak up a bit, but I am not really used to doing either of those most of the time on calls. I should probably get used to it; the recommendation is to be less than 15cm away.
I ended up, in the spirit of testing every option, getting a FetHead which is a tiny microphone preamp that fits inline with the mic and provides an additional 27dB of gain, powered from the preamp. This is designed for exactly this use case with dynamic microphones. Adding it suddenly shifted from having to use max gain at all times to being in the middle of the scale and having plenty of room to adjust. It also cut the small low noise level even lower. I would say if your preamp has less than 58dB of gain you would need this with this mic, otherwise you could get away without it but it gives a little more flexibility. I chose the EVO4 partly due to the fact it has relatively high gain, so you would get more choice with the FetHead as any audio interface will be fine, although the Evo4 is still a nice choice I think.
Usually you are recommended to use headphones for audio recording, so as not to record the output sounds along with input. Much software has echo cancellation built in, and the Mac has some hardware cancellation, although that may just be on the built in microphone and speakers. This means that you don’t necessarily need to wear headphones for many use cases, although they will give you a better idea of relative volume levels if you have multiple sources, and depending on your exact setup and mic they will reduce echo or noise. Your voice will sound a little different in the headphones than you are used to, but there is no lag, and you get used to it. Having the audio in your headphones stops you shouting which people tend to do with headphones as they cannot hear themselves and compensate. A dynamic mic like the Shure is also fine for recording with speakers even without cancellation, that is a normal stage recording setup that they are often used for, ideally with the speakers at 65 degrees behind the mic as that is the zone of least sensitivity. I may well set up some speakers later; the EVO4 has line out for speakers too. It is less clear where to put the speakers on the desk though.
You really want a mic “boom stand” with this setup so you can move the mic out of the way, and then place it back in the right place, as mic placement is important. I had no idea about stands and got the Neewer NB-35 which is very cheap, and it does the job but it is a bit annoying as the part that holds the mic is hard to keep at the right angle, and the whole thing moves in a slightly annoying way. I may try a different one.
I originally got the Audio Technica M30x headphones. These are not too expensive, and good quality closed ear headphones, which block out external noise well. I did find that wearing them for long periods made my ears hot and slightly squashed and they are not great after an hour or so. I ended up getting open backed, around the ear headphones, Sennheiser HD600 which are way more comfortable to wear for long periods, and sound great. As they aren’t closed, other people could hear you so you wouldn’t wear them travelling or in a shared office, but if you have your own room to work in this design works really well, if you don’t want total sound isolation and noise cancellation (you can hear the doorbell ring, which is useful). You also can hear yourself speak, although I do like a little microphone mixed in; you could use these with any kind of microphone without a mixer, and some come with built in mics.I tested recording while having music playing in the headphones, and with the Shure mic the recording level even with quite loud music is negligible with your head in the normal direction; if you point your ears at the mic it clearly picks up the sound. With a less directional mic such as the one in the webcam it picks up a quite a bit of the noise though.
Overall I would say that with a dynamic microphone you get a lot more flexibility in your headphone options. For recording something offline I would probably use the closed ear headphones or not listen at all during the recording (the EVO4 can show mic line level). For talking to other people and daily use the open back headphones are so much more comfortable that they make a lot of sense, and you can just switch from listening to music to making calls.
I didn’t make any effort to choose portable equipment, as this is lockdown, but other than the mic stand it is all relatively portable equipment. The EVO4 can be plugged into an iPod with USB C, or an iPhone if you have the Lightning to USB3 Camera Adapter which despite its name is a generic USB3 adapter that accepts input power over another lightning port to power external devices that need additional power that the phone won’t provide. I tested recording and playback on my phone with this adapter and it worked fine.
The best place I have found for buying audio equipment, other than ordering direct from the manufacturer, is Thomann. They are a German family firm but with a global online shop, and deliver fast and efficiently to the UK, and their prices are a lot lower than Amazon.
Comparing the options
Below is a video of using internal camera and webcam, and internal mic, webcam mic, airpods and the Shure mic. I used the Zoom cloud recording, so this gives an idea of what someone would see and hear at the other end of a call with me, rather than the best quality for local recording. Note that I had the window open and a motorbike goes past a couple of times, but sadly not while I was using each microphone, but I did type on the keyboard so you can hear what some non directional noise pickup is like. Overall the audio quality and resistance to noise pickup for the Shure SM57 is substantially better than any of the other options. So be nice to your co-workers and improve your audio.
I haven’t yet tested any of this equipment on Linux. I use my Linux machines as servers not desktop machines at present. The EVO4 audio is a standard USB audio device so should just work, and I think the Logitech cameras in base settings are, but there may well be no control of settings, probably including crop, as this is maybe not standard, I am not entirely sure. Probably best to check.
Is it worth it?
Well, it is not necessary. As I spend a lot of time on calls and do quite a few conference talks that will all be online for at least the next year or so, I think improving the quality is worth it. The differences are noticeable as you can see from the recordings. Audio quality makes a lot of difference to meetings, and I would make that a priority if you want to work on something. Supply chains should get better over the next few months so it should get easier to find more choices.