This edition of the Baekdal Plus newsletter is all about events. I have two exciting things for you.
A couple of months ago, I wrote an article about the future of events called: "2021 and forward: What is the future of events for publishers?" That article focused on the trends of events, and it was the first of two articles about this.
I then allied with the wonderful Marcela Kunova, editor of Journalism.co.uk and organizer of the Newsrewired conference (which BTW is happening right now between December 1st and December 10th, both live and on-demand)
We got together to write an article that is less about the trend of future events, but more about the challenges that we face in organizing events in 2021 and forward.
We are talking about attendance rates, live vs. on-demand, the production, platforms, and formats.
So take a look at: "Let's talk about publishers and (virtual) events in 2021 and forward."
A couple of days ago, I posted a picture on Twitter of my new home office setup, where I have lights, a microphone, and an external webcam to give me much better quality video conferences.
Of course, once I did this, many people asked me if I would write about it. And the answer is yes. Let's talk about what you can do to dramatically improve your home setup so that you look so much better while doing Zoom meetings or other forms of conferences.
I'm focusing on each of the four main areas you should do something about. Environment, lights, camera and sound. And, to make it really easy for you, I'm going to give you three levels of commitment to this.
We will start with:
I will also be thinking about design, because you don't want your home to look ugly. You want something that looks nice and doesn't clutter.
Let's start with the most important problem of all, your environment.
In 2020, we have all attended events where there were a number of problems with the speakers. The lighting might have been terrible, the webcam looked like something that came in a Kellogg's Corn Flakes package, the angle looked up people's noses, and the sound was horrible.
Of all these problems, the sound is the most important thing you should fix first. All the other things can be acceptable to people, but if the sound is terrible, it really distracts from the talk.
However, the problem with your sound has almost nothing to do with how you are recording it. It's actually about your environment.
Mike DelGadio, a professional voice-artist, said this brilliantly:
The mistake I made in the beginning, was that I threw money at gear, and it didn't get me the results. If anything, it set me back a little bit, and now my advice is, whenever somebody asks me, I say: If you've got five hundred dollars to start your voiceover career, spend 400 dollars of that on your room, and make your room sound good first. A good room can make a cheap mic sound great, but an expensive mic in a bad room will just make it worse.
This is one of the best pieces of advice I have ever heard, and he even put up a video of how good your sound can be just using your phone, but in a room that is sound treated. In fact, I wish he had said this a couple of years ago when I bought my first microphone, because I made the same mistake.
Like so many others, I thought the solution to my sound problem was just to buy a more expensive microphone.
So, think about your environment. To fix the problem with really bad sound is all about removing the 'room echo' that we hear so often, and as I said, there are three levels:
The nothing level:
At the most basic level, just think about the room you are in. If your room is a rectangle with mostly empty walls and hard surfaces everywhere, your voice is going to bounce around in this room like crazy, and you are going to get so much reverb and echo that you are almost impossible to listen to.
To fix this, put more stuff in your room. It's really that simple. If you have a bookcase, fill that with things, and it will very effectively scatter the sound and make it so much better. Same with furniture, cushions and whatever.
Of course, many of us don't have this, or don't want this. My home, for instance, is somewhat simplistic. I have mostly blank walls, and I like that look in my home (the Scandinavian design, as we call it).
Another quick fix is to do what Nick Robinson from BBC Radio did. He just took some of his couch cushions and placed those around him.
The basic level:
So, the basic level is to buy some simple thick blankets. You can either spend a lot of money and buy actual sound blankets, or you can spend almost nothing and buy the kind of blankets that moving companies use.
These will do the same trick. You place these around you so that your voice can't bounce from wall to wall.
However, they are also very ugly.
The pro level:
If you are doing a lot of video meetings, and you want a more permanent but also very nice looking setup, you should buy actual sound panels.
Here is a picture from a video by DSLR Video Shooter, and he has placed three panels on his back wall. Not only do they look nice, but they work amazingly well.
In this case, they are coming from a company called GIK Acoustic, and they come in different sizes, prices at around €50 per panel. And what's amazing about them is that you can order in a very wide variety of fabric colors. So, if you want totally white panels, you can get that too, making your home look nice and crisp.
In the picture of my setup, you might notice I'm not using these, and that's because I'm an idiot. When I created my home setup, I didn't know any of this, so I just bought the much cheaper foam panels that many people use. But, this was a mistake. They don't really work that well, and I wish I had bought panels such as these instead.
Now let's talk about video.
When it comes to video, there are a number of very rookie mistakes that people make. The biggest mistake of all is the 'laptop-webcam-looking-up-your-nose-look'.
We have all seen this many times. I have even attended a talk where, throughout the entire presentation, you could see a big booger up the presenter's nose.
Yeah, you don't want that! :)
So, step one is to move your camera up to eye-level. Get it off the table.
But let's talk nothing, basic, or pro
The nothing level:
At the nothing level, you already have everything you need to get a much better picture. Here, for instance, is a picture from Gretchen Goldman who just used a chair to raise the height of her laptop.
But, here is the problem. Most laptops have an absolutely terrible webcam. But, you already have a much better camera ... in your pocket.
I'm talking about your phone.
Your phone, even with the front-facing camera, is often way better. It has a higher resolution than your webcam, and it is much better at focusing, color-balance, and everything.
So, earlier this year, I was doing an interview for ORF, the national broadcaster in Austria, and they specifically asked me to use my phone.
Here is how I set that up (with their guidance):
And here is what I looked like, using my phone's camera, on TV.
And BTW, even though I do own a much more expensive microphone, for this interview, we didn't use it, because ORF just wanted to use my phone for the whole thing.
It's that simple. You don't need anything to get a much better picture. And, there are even ways to connect your smartphone to your computer and actually use it as a webcam (I have also seen people recommend DroidCam or, even better, Elgato EpocCam for this).
The basic level:
The simplest way to improve your webcam is to buy an external one. Top choice at the moment is one of the cameras from Logitech. I personally have the Logitech C922, which is a very decent webcam, in HD, with good color-balance, focus and brightness. You then either place it on top of your screen, or on a tripod, and just connect it to your laptop via USB.
It's really simple, and it dramatically improves your video.
The pro level:
However, while Logitech webcams are good, they still look like webcams, and you are not getting that ultra-crisp look. To get that, you need to use actual cameras.
The good news is that you can use whatever camera you want, as long as it has a HDMI output. You take that feed and send it to your laptop (via a capture card).
This is essentially what all the pro YouTubers use. They would never use a webcam, they are all using a real camera with a good lense.
Something like a Sony Alpha A6600 or a Canon EOS M50 would be a good choice, but they are expensive.
However, Sony recently came out with a pro camera designed specifically for 'streamers', like YouTubers and Twitch'ers. It's called the Sony ZV-1, and it's both relatively cheap and super-impressive. Here is a review.
What you get from a camera like this is not just a much better picture, but also that super-soft blurry background that will make you look so much better. The kind of thing that all the YouTubers have.
It's so nice!
However, keep in mind that to get this effect, you also need a good background. So, you need some distance between you and the back wall, and, like you see in the picture above, you need to design this background to look nice, with lights and furniture, etc.
If you are someone who does video conferences a lot, this is worth the effort.
Now, let's talk about lights.
All the things I just talked about with video don't really work unless you also have good lighting, and this has become a much bigger problem now that many people work from home. The lighting level in your home is often several levels lower than what you would normally have in an office.
To fix this, there is really no 'nothing' solution, because you need more lights.
However, one thing you can do is to place yourself next to a window. Never place yourself in front of a window (you don't want the light to come from behind you), but having a window slightly from the front and to one side would improve things dramatically ... if it's during the day, and there is a consistent light cloud layer.
Yeah, in other words, most times this won't work. In fact, the sun is terrible. It is so strong that it will overwhelm your camera, and so if it's a sunny day, the light is too much, causing massive contrast, and if a cloud suddenly flies in front of it, your light level will drop so much that your video will look like crap.
So, what do you do?
The basic level:
The simplest thing to do is to buy a softbox (or two). You can find tons of these on Amazon by simply searching for "studio softbox kit". The cheapest ones are only about $60.
I recently found a good video by Julie Schiro, who walks you through some of the simplest things you can do on a budget to dramatically improve your lighting, one of which is to use a cheap softbox kit.
The Pro level:
As for pro level, well, this is where you can take things in two separate directions. You can either go for the full studio-style of lighting, buying even more expensive equipment, similar to what professional photographers use ... but, for me, I want something different.
You see, the problem I have with lighting is that I don't want these huge and ugly softboxes to clutter up my home. My home office is at one end of my living room, so I don't want to spend every day looking at these monstrosities.
Instead, I want something that can give me the same type of lights, but in a way that also looks really nice. So, I bought the Elgato Key Light Air. They are not cheap. Each cost $129 (+tax), and I got two of them.
And the reason I bought these is because this is my permanent home setup, and I have online meetings several times per week. So not only did I want something that would look nice, I also wanted something I didn't have to set up each time I wanted to use them.
This fixes this for me.
Mind you, there are a lot of things I could do to improve this. For instance, I could add a light behind me pointing to the back of my head. This would create a better form of separation between me and my background. Right now, my head looks like it's kind of glued to the wall.
Here is another video of how you would do this, with again, a very cheap setup.
Finally, let's talk about sound, or specifically microphones. At the beginning we talked about the room you are in, and how important that is, but there are still very good reasons to get a good microphone.
Specifically, there are three problems with the microphone you have right now in your laptop. The first problem is that it is often placed right above your keyboard, which means that if you do anything on your keyboard or desk, it's going to be picked up by the microphone in a bad way.
Secondly, if your laptop has a fan, that sound is also right next to the microphone. And there is nothing more annoying than listening to a speaker while you can hear constant fan noise in the background.
And thirdly, you want to be as close to your microphone as you possibly can, so, if your webcam can see your whole face, you're too far away from the microphone. Your distance really makes a dramatic difference in sound quality.
What you have are three choices depending on how you want to use them.
The first choice is to get a normal looking microphone that you will place right in front of your mouth. Here is a picture of a podcast featuring some audio pros, and as you can see, three of them use a microphone placed right in front of their mouths.
And these come at all kinds of prices. The cheapest ones are something like a Blue Yeti ($129), or even better a Blue Yeticaster (which is what I have right now). They are just simple USB microphones that you can plug directly into your computer. They are not really that impressive, but they are way better than your laptop microphone.
A better choice would be something like a Røde NT1, which is what an acquaintance of mine is using. It's more expensive, but it also does a better job. Of course, to use those, you also need a preamp. A popular choice is the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2.
Here is a good review of some other choices you might want to look for.
The second option is what is called a shotgun or boom microphone. These are really long microphones, but they have the advantage that you can place them further away from you (outside your video window), and they will still pick up your voice while removing many of the other noises around you.
Here is a really good review of the many choices. Here is another.
And finally, we have the lavalier microphones. These are the types of microphones that you clip onto your clothes, and these are brilliant if you want more flexibility. You can walk around with them and do whatever you like.
Again, there are tons of choices, and they come in a wide range of prices. Some of the popular ones are the Røde Wireless Go, which can be extended by any other microphone if you want even better sound.
Here is an example of how a YouTuber uses it. You can't even see it.
I hope all these tips can help you dramatically improve your setup, regardless of whether you go for the nothing, the basic or the pro options.
Obviously, you can keep taking it one step further. Once you start doing something like this, there is always one more thing you want to buy. My advice is to think about this as an investment. Not only will this make you look better, but this equipment is also something you can use for many years. Having a better look massively improves your confidence and creates a really good first-impression.
So to end this, I will add two more things to just take it even further.
The first is your headset. When you are doing a Zoom meeting, you need to be able to listen to people. Most of us just use whatever headset we have, but that, again, doesn't really look that professional.
So, the way TV studios solve this is by spending $60 on one of those almost invisible headsets. Jason Goldberg, recommended this one to me. This is the type of headset that goes up and behind your ear, and then the wire goes down your back. The result is that nobody can see that you are wearing it.
Another slightly cheaper version is the MEE audio M6 (clear). It's slightly bigger, but just like the one above, the wire goes behind your ear, and if you then bring the cable down your back, it will be almost invisible.
It's such a simple thing, and it means people won't see your headset.
Secondly, if you are doing a lot of presentations and live streaming, you should really start to think about how it is produced. The Zoom look of "Wait, let me just share my screen ... uh... can you see this now...?!?" is not very professional.
The solution to this, and one used by many YouTubers is the BlackMagicDesign ATEM Mini (and the ATEM Mini Pro). What this gives is basically TV studio controls but in a mini form. It's absolutely brilliant.
You can also do this with software, like using something like OBS (which again, many YouTubers use for their live streams). The problem with OBS, though, is that it requires quite a lot of power from your computer, and for most laptops, it may cause problems and drive up the temperature which will cause your computer fans to spin up. So, I definitely recommend the ATEM Mini instead.
If you want to learn what this can do, there is no better place than Zebra Zone's in-depth review. He will guide you through everything you can do with this.
This is definitely one of the things I have on my list to buy ;)
Update: I was asked about how to prevent glare when you wear glasses. Here is a great video about that.
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Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter
"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
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