How Virtual Mic and Mic-Array Technologies Revolutionize Meeting Rooms and Classrooms: The Blog

WebinarHello, #AVtweeps! On June 30, I hosted this webinar with Rob Ziv, vice president of business development and strategy at Almo Pro A/V, as well as Adrian Doughty, director of North American sales at Nureva. For this webinar, we discussed how virtual mic and mic-array technologies revolutionize meeting rooms and classrooms — and this is the blog version! Enjoy!

Audio technology is treated kind of like the stepchild of the AV industry. The glitz and glamour focus on video advancements and new tech, while audio is treated like it hasn’t changed since the ‘70s. The truth is, audio technology has had multiple revolutions since then — even in the last three years. Luckily for you all, the purpose of my webinar (and this blog) is to talk about those advancements.

The Evolution of Mic Technology

There’s only one company out there that has the same mic as they did when they started over 50 years ago: Shure. Everyone else has had to evolve. Pre-pandemic, the average person didn’t really care about microphones. COVID-19 forced the world to care about mics, because suddenly our now in-person classes, meetings and events had to move to a small computer microphone that couldn’t keep up with the sudden demand. I suspect mics will continue to advance in quality and decrease in size.

It used to be that only one mic was needed for an event. Take my classroom 10 years ago: There was a podium, gooseneck mic and the audience. That was it. The major problems were distortion and movement, as I can’t stand still when I teach. We needed to counter these issues, but how?

We started to solve this problem with distributed audio, the concept of distributing the sound from more than one area. Mics were placed around the room: hung from ceilings, wearing mics, mics in the wall and others. (Nureva also has tech for this, but more on that in the demo portion.)

We then moved to voice lift technology, which allowed you to augment the presenter’s voice/content above other audio in the room. We still do this today with mixers. We can individually control sounds (such as singers, drummers, speakers, etc.) when we want.

Another adaptation was to just mic everybody. This allowed for full room coverage, no matter if someone is moving, sitting, standing or anything else. This is important for the flexibility of a room — especially through COVID and the home office.

All of these advancements also led to the exit of the live AV tech. When all of these advancements have sound working correctly, we don’t need someone there to monitor sound. At school, there used to be live AV techs for presentations. In today’s COVID landscapes, people are asking how they can ensure technology and space flexibility. People (at home and in-person alike) are worried about whether they can ensure their space will not only sound good, but how much flexibility their sound has to offer.

DSP: What is it and what did it bring us?

This leads us to DSP. Simply put, from an audio standpoint, DSP allows us to raise low audio levels without increasing noise levels or take high levels and compress them down. DSPs are in everything now. In the early days of the iPhone, you could barely tell the difference between people’s voices. Tech has come a long way since then, and it all starts with a mic.

The biggest payoff of DSP in our world has been in UCC because it can recognize voices. There are different mic technologies that do this differently, but one great example of this technology is Nureva’s Microphone Mist. It’s able to pick up desired sound (voice) versus undesired sound (fans running). Another example is positional audio pickup, a virtual mic system that allows sounds to be picked up no matter where someone is. AEC is another technology that is beneficial to UCC situations. AEC is echo cancellation — so it’s good at identifying a sound source in one location versus another sound that is coming from the echo. This is done all in real-time.

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So what does DSP and this other tech bring us? Recognition, clarity and the hierarchy of the human voice being the priority over other noise. Prioritizing the human voice also allows us to choose sweet spots or active zones to make sure the sound we want is what we get. A focus area allows users to choose pre-designated mics and tell them what sound to pick up. Beamforming mic arrays also help us with this. This tech allows mics to pick up space in a room that you designate. They are good at adapting — instead of physically moving the microphone, you move the coverage of what the mic is actually picking up. Directional capability!

Finally, let’s talk about integrated spatial audio. Spatial audio allows you to hear sound as it moves; it isn’t blocked to spaces around you. Speakers allow us to do this. A development for this is in the new Apple AirPods. They measure your head and the space between your ears to know where and how to space the audio you hear. I predict more and more audio companies will try to implement this spatial audio technology in the near future; it will revolutionize hybrid meeting spaces to be able to see who is speaking between the virtual and in-person attendees.

Reality Versus Marketing

What is real and what is advertised? We have to ask ourselves, “Are they an audio company or did they integrate tech from an audio company?” A good rule of thumb is to buy audio from an audio company. Focus on companies that are experts in the audio field.

Another good rule of thumb is to pay attention to the size of the product. How will Apple AirPods use spatial audio compared to how speakers in your home will use it? Almost everything has DSPs inside of it now — but size range is important. Even Apple AirPods have DSPs!

Product Demo

Since Nureva co-hosted this webinar with me, I wanted to take a second to demo and talk about the HDL300: The HDL300 software allows multiple mics to pick up only desired audio. At UNC Chapel Hill, all the classrooms are decked out with HDL300s, so the speaker can move around while teaching and background noise is practically ignored. This is useful when students are talking amongst themselves, but also allows those who are in a hybrid meeting to hear students ask questions. The HDL300 works in various room sizes and multiple applications and provides positional audio. Where the mic is placed doesn’t matter; what matters is the sound that it picks up.

Takeaways

  1. You Get What You Pay For: Reference is everything. To know what you have, you have to know what you don’t have. This is true in many areas, but especially in audio — hearing and seeing the difference between technologies gives you the opportunity to know what you’re missing out on and where you want to go next.
  2. Buy Audio from Audio Companies: Don’t go to a display company that also sells audio products. Buy audio from companies who know how to make and sell audio technology, not just sell audio tech along with their other products.
  3. Audio Latency: Sometimes DSPs are able to help with latency pick up. A challenge here is when latency causes meeting attendees to speak over each other. Some brands of microphones offer video delay products to delay video so that audio and video match.
  4. Compatibility: Product compatibility is extremely important. This falls into the realm of plug-and-play products; tech like the USB-C has the bandwidth to manage different issues with compatibility.