Web conferencing audio issues? Get sorted!

We’ve all been there. You sign in to a webinar or web conference that you are either attending or (even worse!) presenting, only to find that the audio isn’t working. Your heart starts to race and you try to fix it, randomly checking your PC and control panels all the time knowing that you’re too flustered to think. Our advice? Don’t panic! Audio issues can have many causes, but they are generally easy to fix. And next time, after reading this blog post, you will know where to look to find the problem.


Credit: Voices, by Fe Ilya

What causes audio issues in web conferences?

With any webinar software, your microphone, speakers, and Internet bandwidth are all important and will affect the quality of the session. Screen sharing, the use of webcams and the inclusion of video will also have significant impact, particularly when bandwidth is poor. Symptoms of degradation include audio dropping out, speech and other audio sounding as though coming from a tunnel, or even under water.

Things to consider

1. Using computer built-in audio alone

Quality headsets give good separation of sound input (microphone) and output (speakers). This is particularly important for the person speaking, whether presenter or attendee. Otherwise, when using built-in mic and speakers, their voice going into the microphone is sent back to them via their speaker, then the microphone picks it up again and retransmits, creating a loop – which you hear as an echo. The software doesn’t know which is the important sound “stream”, and attempts to transmit it all.

2. Best practice

For best results, people intending to speak should use good-quality headsets with a microphone near their mouth. In order from worst-case to best-case scenario, the microphone/speaker combination for presenters or attendees with unmuted microphones would be:

  • mobile phone, tablet, laptop or desktop using built-in microphone and speakers. (This will generally give unacceptable audio quality and is not recommended.)
  • earbud-type headset with inline microphone
  • normal headset with boom microphone, or conference-type speakerphone.

A small speakerphone should be adequate for around six to eight people seated closely around it. If you were to use two of these in the same room, you would probably encounter the mic/speaker loop described above. We suggest researching online using the keywords ‘conference’ and ‘speakerphone’ to find one suitable for your situation.

3. Speakers

Let’s use BigBlueButton (BBB) as an example here. BigBlueButton (BBB) is an open-source virtual classroom package. It’s a good option, because it’s a web conferencing system plugin available for several learning management systems. BBB will use whatever your computer thinks is the main device for microphone and speakers (at the time of starting up BBB). That is, BBB uses the speakers and microphone defined in the operating system control panel. To check:

  • On Windows, go to Start menu > Control Panel > Sound
  • On Mac, go to Apple menu > System Preferences > Sound

In both instances make sure the correct speakers and microphone are selected. Should you need to change the selections, you will need to exit and re-enter the BBB session.

4. Internet speed

Internet bandwidth has an important effect on the quality of your session.

For anyone screen sharing or speaking, Internet upload speed should be at least 0.5 Mbps (megabits per second), and download speed should be at least 1.0 Mbps; you can test this at speedtest.net. The results from this test will vary depending on what else is going on with your Internet connection at the time. Are other people on your network using a lot of bandwidth? Do you have other bandwidth intensive processes happening? For example, is someone downloading a movie to watch later? Do you have several tabs open, each with a YouTube video?

5. Java

If you are going to screen share in your session, then you should have the latest version of Java installed on your computer. Update or install Java from the website.

6. Flash

You should have the latest Flash Player plug-in enabled in your browser. Update or install the Flash Player at Adobe’s website.

More specific connection issues?

For specific connection how-tos and troubleshooting, plus advice about BigBlueButton, the eWorks Team is here to help. And for a free audio quality troubleshooting checklist (coming soon) subscribe to eLink.