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.

How do you pronounce Totara?

Bernadette Parry is the Client Support Coordinator at eWorks. Her role involves juggling all sorts of client-focused tasks including start-up TrainingVC training, advanced Moodle training and support desk services. If you have ever wondered how to pronounce Totara, or how it fits into the LMS world, Bernadette might just have the answer.

What is Totara?

Totara is a high quality Learning Management System (LMS) for enterprise organisations. It sort of ‘sits on top of’ Moodle, adding features which are required by the corporate sector such as the ability to:

  • Create individual development plans
  • Manage training events
  • Track learning progress and compliance.

That’s all well and good, but how do you pronounce Totara?

  1. T-TARa – with a bit of a stutter and an emphasis on the ‘TAR’, as one of my colleagues pronounces it
  2. TOW-dera – with emphasis on the ‘tow’ and little emphasis on the ‘dera’. I completed the Totara LMS Administration course in 2014, and an American from TotaraLMS was pronouncing it this way
  3. Towtera – with equal emphasis on the ‘tow’ and the ‘ter’ – as the Irish presenter in the Totara LMS Administration course pronounced it
  4. Tot-ra – as in ‘tow truck’, without the ‘ck’. When I first heard of Totara in 2011, this is how I heard it pronounced.

So far I have gone with option 4… the main reason is that I heard this pronunciation (and that Totara was a New Zealand tree), from Austen Sinclair in an iMoot 2013 session. Being from New Zealand (where Totara was developed), and working with Totara – I’ve taken his word for it. He said ‘Toetra – try to say it in one syllable’.

A Totara tree

The image above is a New Zealand Totara tree. Beautiful isn’t it? It’s a podocarp tree endemic to New Zealand which grows throughout the North Island and northeastern South Island. Prized for its carving properties, the wood from totara trees was the primary wood used in Māori carving and to make waka in traditional Maori boat building.

How will you pronounce Totara?

But more importantly, are you taking advantage of its many great features? Confused and have no idea what Totara is? Struggling to figure out which LMS is best for your organisation? Contact eWorks for some friendly advice.

Top tips for using BigBlueButton (BBB)

BigBlueButton (BBB) is an open-source online classroom package. I first started playing around with it a couple of years ago, because it provides the latest classroom features and tools in eWorks’ TrainingVC learning management system. Since then I have become a regular user – I attended a couple of online iMoots which were run using BBB in 2013 and 2014, and now do online training and consulting using it.

I really like BBB, and have enjoyed the new versions and extra features that have been released over the years. I’m especially excited about the start/stop recording option within sessions that will be included in the next release. But like any online package, I see the same queries come through eWorks’ support desk from time to time. So here are my top tips for using BigBlueButton.

Tip #1: Create a ‘practice’ session for learners to check their equipment

Make a BBB session in your course that is not recorded so that your learners can check their audio equipment before your first session. Not only will this make first time users more confident in the online classroom, it will minimise any user related technical glitches, such as volume settings, and get your session started without delay. Encourage learners to look at the available video about using BBB as a ‘viewer’ once they are in the practice session:

[Note: this tip is superseded in v0.91, which provides an equipment test prior to joining the session.] 

Tip #2: Provide users with a frequently asked questions sheet

This way, users have answers to any issues that arise either prior to or during sessions, such as those relating to microphones. A good place to put the link to the FAQs sheet is in an HTML block.

Tip #3: Use PDFs

If you are using notes for your session save them as a PDF. Early on I used a PowerPoint file, and found that my text turned into hieroglyphics as I had used a font unknown by BBB! You won’t have these issues with PDFs. Microsoft Office documents are converted into PDFs by BBB, so you will always get better, safer results if you save your Word and PowerPoint documents as PDFs and then upload them. And please note that animations in PowerPoint will not display.

Tip #4: Use PDFs for whiteboard

If you plan to draw on a virtual whiteboard upload some blank PDF pages to use. Although BBB doesn’t have a whiteboard to write on, you can use the text, drawing and other tools to write on a PDF.

Tip #5: Use a headset with a USB connection

To get the best quality audio, use a good headset which has a USB connection to your computer. Using the computer speakers and microphone does work, but is not the recommended option.

Tip #6: Sound problems?

Audio is vital with a BBB session and this is where most of the issues that I have come across come up. Some hints:

  1. Is your headset on mute? This one is close to my heart, as much to my embarrassment I accidentally knocked the switch on my headset and was on mute one time during an online presentation.
  2. Is your microphone on mute? Check the microphone icon at the top is not muted so that you don’t miss out on all the fun!
  3. Does your headset have a microphone? Yes, I have actually come across this one!
  4. Did you accept the ‘use my microphone’ in the pop-up window when you joined the session? If not, then log out and back in again.
  5. Is the microphone working properly? If it is, the microphone icon next to the participant’s name will go fuzzy  when he or she speaks.   mic micfuzzy

Tip #7: Recordings

Can’t find your recording? All recordings can be seen in the ‘RecordingsBN’ resource. BBB does some background work to create the recordings, so they may take some time to appear and longer sessions will take a bit more time.

Tip #8: Mute participants as they enter the session

Muting all audio at the beginning of the session will stop unwanted conversations being captured in the recording.

Tip #9: Desktop sharing

The recent updates to Safari and Firefox on Mac OS X have introduced more security checks for running Java applets. These checks appear as dialogue boxes when starting and stopping BBB’s desktop sharing. To help presenters use desktop sharing on Mac OS X, BBB has created two new tutorial videos:

Tip #10: Let your learners know how far into the session the recording starts

Because BBB doesn’t yet have the facility to start and stop recording while the session is in progress, recorded sessions will begin when the first person enters the session and end when the last person exits. This means that if you want to upload resources for the session, the recording will start when you go in to do this as you can’t pre-load resources. Therefore, the part of the session that you actually want recorded will not start for some minutes into the recording. To make life easier for your learners, create a label to let them know how far into the session the important information begins. For example:

Fortunately this won’t be a problem for much longer, as a start/stop recording option within sessions will be included in the next BBB release.

[Note: start/stop recording available in v0.91.]

Tip #11: Install latest version of Java for screen sharing

This one is for moderators and presenters only.

If you are the presenter or moderator and you want to share your screen or desktop, make sure the latest version of Java is installed (minimum Java 7u35). You can check your version on the Java website. Please note that learners and viewers do not need Java.

[Note: Chrome has removed ability to launch Java applets. Firefox recommended for screen sharing]

Tip #12: Internet speed

If your internet speed is slow (less than 0.5 Mbits/sec upload speed and 1.0 Mbits/sec download), then your audio may be poor. So be sure to test it prior to a session on the speedtest website. Turning off your camera may also help.

Tip #13: Computer ‘grunt’

If your computer is not powerful enough for what you are doing BBB will give you the option to lower your colour resolution. You should take this option, and warn your users that the screen will go black for a second or so while this takes effect.

Tip #14: Smartphones and tablets and Flash

Smartphones and tablets are currently not supported due to the use of Flash. There is further information about progress with this at on the Big Blue Button website.

Tip #15: Number of concurrent users

BBB recommends up to 25 participants in a BBB session. This will encourage the optimum experience for your learners with respect to classroom interaction and download speeds and ensure that you can moderate the session effectively.

Tip #16: Still stuck?

If you still need a hand there is great information available on the BBB frequently asked questions site. I’m also happy for you to contact me with any specific questions that you might have. And if you’re looking for a learning management system with the latest live classroom features and tools from Big Blue Button, take a look at TrainingVC.