From an audiophile’s lair: audio gear for better teleconference calls

by
December 21, 2017

Teleconference calls: a unique professional challenge

Every freelance interpreter at some point of his or her career runs into a new kind of assignments: teleconference calls. They represent a unique challenge to a budding professional and some of these telecons, without a doubt, are not for the faintest of heart.

You wake up at 4:00 am (California time) more or less capable of thinking and speaking coherently because at 5:00 am a client in the US (New York time) is going to be discussing the next big thing in deep space research with their Russian counterparts in Moscow. Or another U.S. client would like to address the subject of locating and disposing of hazardous radioisotope batteries lost eons ago in the snowy vistas of Siberia during the waning days of the USSR. Or there is a presentation on the cutting-edge antibiotics research to be broadcasted from Britain to 39 countries around the globe at 3:00 am (California time), a presentation that will be interpreted into 8 other languages…

Language pairs will always vary. Subjects under discussion will be demanding. For a few days, they can easily turn you into a rocket scientist or a medical student as you hit the books and work the Google machine to beef up your expertise and put your glossary together. For each conference call, the alarm clock will always go off at a different time: clients can be any number of time zones away so you quickly learn which remedy helps you wake up at just the right time where you don’t sound so sleepy (it’s a secret I am going to spill: I use the same kind of Oolong tea they serve to Buddhist monks before morning meditation). You also learn (fairly quickly) to experiment with different kinds of phone and audio gear to find out what works best on the technical side of things, and, despite all other variables getting in the way, can still deliver your spoken voice to eager clients with repeatable results while bringing crisp and clear audio and maximum comfort to the most crucial tool of the trade — your ears.

Even under the most adverse of circumstances (read bad connections, dropped calls, echoing or noise on the line), long hours on the phone teaches you what audio gear works best and makes the craft of interpreting that more enjoyable. Protecting one’s hearing is no less important — after all, you can’t just swap your ears for a new pair at a nearby transplant station. Well… not just yet. Undistorted audio, even with limitations built into common phone lines, serves interpreters well and is just plain nice to have.

In the process of tinkering with different types of audio gear, I became a bit of an audio geek. Not a bad thing, considering we interpreters always use some sort of audio gear as implements of our craft, be it in the booth, on stage or in the classroom. My goal is to share with you, my fellow interpreters, bits of this geeky professional audio knowledge I have learned along the way. I also secretly hope that you, dear reader, will also turn into a bit of an audio geek yourself — and find these tips useful for your next conference call.

Over the course of the last 10+ years I covered many teleconference calls using 4 distinct kinds of audio gear setups. Each specific setup had its own unique weaknesses and strengths, the former always pushing me to try something new and more advanced. I am going to briefly talk about each one of these arrangements in the order of their evolutionary progression and make recommendations on what audio gear, in my humble opinion, works best for conference calls.

My advice is not intended to be taken as a dogma: I am simply sharing what has worked for me over the years. Reader feedback is welcome, whether positive or not. The time is ripe to go a bit deeper into the technical side of things.

 

Getting technical: gear that worked for me over the years (and still does)

1. The cheap and easy ‘poor man’ interpreter’s setup — a working payphone.

 

Image of a payphone in Monterey County (courtesy of Google). An almost identical phone was still located in front of the MIIS library back in 2006, now dismantled.

We all start somewhere. Once the graduation ceremony is over and the first student loan payment is due, you quickly realize you have no clients and no money.

The first two years of freelancing can be excruciatingly hard on all counts: long periods without any (or very little) work, finding one’s first assignment, getting your name out there and slowly completing the transition from a recent graduate to a hardened and experienced professional who gets regular work — if you can tough it out.

Needless to say, you survive by cutting costs. No funds for the latest and greatest audio gear? No phone line? No problem! Some things can be had for free! My emergency backup for teleconference calls back in 2006 when I was in these very shoes? Simple and easy: a phone booth!

Warawanaide kudasai, onegai itashimasu! Please do not laugh! At least 2 conference calls early on in my career were completed from a pay phone in front of the MIIS library. At one time I could not afford a regular phone line at home and had to improvise — it worked, because there are no students near the library at 5:00 am.


Pros: It’s totally free, if the client provides you with a toll-free number for dialing in. Sound quality is acceptable. As an emergency backup, it works just fine.

Cons: It’s not always reliable as the receiver may have a bad connection to the phone and/or malfunctioning components. You are sure to get weird looks from passers-by as you stand there for an hour or so switching between two languages and taking notes. Clients may start wondering why they hear sounds of a city waking up in the background (street-cleaning trucks, screeching seagulls in the air and hungry sea lions on Del Monte Beach in Monterey).

Conclusion: Use at your own risk. If all else fails and for some reason you don’t have access to a basic telephone line at your home, go for it to get the job done!

 

2. Standard and the most obvious setup — a regular phone at your home.

© 2017 Igor Zoubko. Author’s own trusty Panasonic fax phone, slightly dusty and yellowed from years of use — many a lengthy telecon was completed with its help. No longer cutting-edge technology in 2017, but still a part of my gear collection as a backup unit.

This would be the most obvious choice for any interpreter, assuming you now get steady work to justify the cost. Not too much to explain here: you find a reliable working phone and just dial the toll-free conference system number with a meeting code provided by the client. Still, even this simple setup has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Pros: You work from the comfort of your home. Most corporate clients provide a toll-free 800 number in the US to dial in and connect for free, eliminating any long-distance charges to you. Sound quality is mostly acceptable.

The Panasonic fax phone: receiver disassembled. Note the small condenser microphone capsule (similar to those found in entry-level computer microphones). Compare its size to the size of the Shure mic capsule in the images below.

Cons: Some conference calls can go on for hours — the longest one I have done to date was about 2.5 hours without a break. This makes for a very tired ear (it becomes red and irritated from the receiver being pushed against if for an extended period of time). The hand holding the receiver becomes uncomfortably stiff. Echo and delay are possible when several people dial in on international long-distance lines (it would be fair to say that most modern teleconference systems have echo cancellation; satellite links have become increasingly rare for international long distance — most lines are fiber optic, thus having very little transmission delay). You strain your hearing a lot because the loudness of incoming sound cannot be adjusted (or has a small adjustment range with the help of buttons available only on the more advanced phones). You assume a bad posture behind the desk because you sit in a half-crooked position holding the receiver with one hand, with your left elbow resting on the desk as you take notes with the other hand — not good for your spine and blood circulation. It’s pretty clear that there is a health risk involved if you do conference calls all the time.

The most logical solution to address the crooked posture problem would be a good headset for your phone. I used to have one in my previous sales job — it did the trick. However, they are not totally free from the above-outlined drawbacks either: the range of loudness adjustment is limited, the ear cups are tiny and do not offer a substantial increase in audio quality and ease of listening compared to a phone receiver. Granted, at least now you can use both hands for taking notes or typing on your laptop if an unfamiliar term pops up and you quickly need to look it up (try doing it with one hand — it’s really awkward). Some of the best phone headsets are made by Plantronics (www.plantronics.com)

I am in no position to offer further advice on this type of gear though — I have not used a phone headset in years. Besides, this category of equipment is not the main focus of my article. Let’s move on.

After a handful of long teleconference calls I started thinking: “Is there a way to use components from my growing audio gear collection to put together a setup which is both comfortable on ears for long stretches of time and which can enhance the phone line sound to make it easy to listen to? Can it also help to deliver my speaking voice to the client with uncompromising quality (even within the limitations of a phone line)?”

At the time when I first started pondering these questions, I already had a few audiophile-grade components in my growing collection of audio gear: a pair of AKG K271 MKII headphones, a pair of AKG K701 headphones and a Shure SM7B vocal microphone, along with a quality microphone stand and Mogami XLR cables.

It was time to tie it all together with one core device. I intended to abandon a trusty Panasonic phone and switch to using Skype on my laptop in order to dial into calls over a reliable high speed Internet connection. The only missing ingredient was a decent USB audio interface that would do the intended trick of connecting all other components: a good microphone, comfortable headphones and my laptop. A few decent USB audio interfaces were widely available back in 2013 when I decided to make the switch.

After some shopping, I settled on a CEntrance MicPortPro to connect my Lenovo W520 laptop and the above-mentioned microphone and headphones. This arrangement worked so well that I stayed with it for the next 3 years, successfully completing dozens of conference calls. To get a detailed breakdown of the pros and cons extended by this setup, please read on.

A CEntrance Mic Port Pro, image courtesy of CEntrance. The author used this core device in his audio station in 2013–2016. Please note the Mini-B USB port on the image on the right — the weakest link. Still, it served really well and is a breeze to set up. As I threw the broken one away, alas, no images of my own working setup for this device.

Before we move on, a brief note aside. It would not be a stretch to assume that at this point some curious readers took the liberty of checking just how much they might have to shell out for the fancy gear items I just mentioned. Admittedly, it can get a little pricey, but mind you, it took me about 8 years from the start of my freelance career to slowly accumulate them so of course there is no expectation that any of you are going to take the plunge and spend big bucks shopping on Amazon.com, ebay.com or professional audio websites right away. I will suggest a number of more affordable components below which, when put together, still quality as an entry-level broadcast-grade teleconference station.

 

3. An entry-level broadcast grade teleconference station (a more affordable option)

At a minimum, you will need the following: an entry-level dynamic microphone (I do not recommend the other popular type of mics called condensers as they are way too sensitive and will pick up the faintest background noise). Shure SM58 (a recording industry workhorse, by the way) should work just fine. You will also need an XLR cable (many options available, Hosa in the US being the most affordable, Mogami being studio-grade) and a microphone stand. I own a basic OnStage mic stand and a more professional one from K&M. Here’s the full list:

Shure SM58 : $104.00 (Amazon.com)
OnStage MS7701B Microphone Boom Stand: $21.07 (Amazon.com)
Hosa HMIC 010 XLR Microphone Cable: $12.95 (Amazon.com)
AKG K171 MKII Studio Headphones: $89.00 (Amazon.com)
Shure X2U XLR-to-USB Signal Adapter: $99.00 (Amazon.com)
Total cost: $326.02

4. An intermediate-level broadcast grade teleconference station (put together with bits and pieces from the author’s own audio gear collection)

© 2017 Igor Zoubko. My current microphone for teleconference calls: a Shure SM7B: with foam windscreen on and the foam windscreen and the underlying metal mesh removed. Please note the much bigger dynamic capsule (better sound quality), the solid metal body which helps to eliminate electrical noise and RF interference, along with rubber suspension lining between the capsule and the metal body to dampen vibrations: none of these features are available in a typical phone receiver. This is a workhorse of broadcast audio and it does make for a fine teleconference mic.
Shure SM7B Vocal Dynamic Microphone: $399.00 (Amazon.com)
K&M 210/9 Tripod Microphone Stand with Telescoping Boom: $57.89 (B&H)
Mogami Gold Studio XLR Male to XLR Female Studio Mic Cable (15’): $54.95 (B&H)
AKG K701 Open-Back Reference-Class Stereo Headphones: $180.00 (eBay.com)
CEntrance MicPortPro USB Microphone Preamp: $199.00
Total cost: $890.84
 

© 2017 Igor Zoubko. AKG K701 headphones — still a favorite for simultaneous interpreting, Netflix movies and critical music listening. The pair depicted has been in my travel bag since 2009.

Both option 3 and option 4 assume a decent laptop computer and a fast and reliable Internet connection. My Lenovo W520 notebook is connected to the Internet via a 50 Mbit/s broadband Internet link provided by Comcast in California.

Option 3, without any doubt, will have nearly identical performance as option 4. The only reason I ended up with these pricey components is because I spread the acquisition efforts over many years as I wanted to own fairly high-end gear available from each respective class for my other projects: an audiophile music listening station for personal enjoyment and a small portable recording studio to capture the sound of local band performances.

Pros (equally applies to options 3 and 4): A good stand-alone dynamic microphone will have a much larger capsule and diaphragm than microphones found in telephone receivers.

As a result, the subtle nuances of your speaking voice will be captured much better than what’s possible with a tiny mic in a phone receiver. “Objections! It makes no difference as a typical PSTN (public-switched telephone network) phone line still does not sound like FM radio!”, I can hear some of you saying. Indeed, the “channel” capacity for voice transmission over a phone line is only a fraction of the “channel” capacity available for CD and FM radio music. It has something to do with the notion of “sampling frequency” at which human speech is converted into digital format. For PSTN, it is only 8 kHz. For compact discs and FM radio, it is much higher — about 30 kHz and 44.1 kHz, respectively. This is the reason why phone sounds so distorted compared to music from CDs and FM radio: we just don’t get enough digital bits to encode true-to-life speech over the phone (8 bits vs 12 and 16 bits).

I am fully aware of this limitation. In fact, it can never be overcome in a teleconference call setting (unless the client uses some sort of a proprietary system with higher audio resolution capabilities).

Still, when I hook up and crank up my Shure SM7B, the clients love it — I frequently get comments on how loud and clear my voice can be heard on the other end of the line. This has to do with the “garbage in — garbage out” principle. In addition to a larger diaphragm, a professional broadcasting mic will have enough internal isolation to block all out all external electrical interference so the signal fed into the USB audio interface is much cleaner (has less “garbage”) than a signal that can be derived from a phone receiver’s microphone.

Not the last consideration is being able to trick your mind into better concentration. Why? Because (at least for me) speaking into a professional mic on a stand makes me feel as if I am at an interpreter booth at a conference. Your reflexes kick in and you start interpreting better. It’s just not the same with a regular phone for me.

The USB interface (whether it’s the Shure or the CEntrance model) provides an adjustment knob for your microphone volume and an other knob for your headphone volume. This means that you get a big range of adjustments for both the volume of your own voice as heard on the other end of the line and the volume of the client’s voice delivered to the headphones. The small form-factor (it is just the size of the USB stick) makes it extremely portable for travel — if a reliable Internet connection is available, one can do an occasional teleconference call even on the road.

Small ear cup headphones, the kind sold as an accessory to CD players, do not suit well for interpreting work. They have low-quality drivers (the small speakers inside the ear cups) and are not that comfortable to wear for a long time because the narrow metallic headband can apply considerable pressure on the ears. Also they do not reproduce sound accurately. In my experience the latter makes the interpreter tired more quickly and takes away from the overall enjoyment of being “on the air”. Additionally small ear cups do not provide enough isolation from the ambient noise. It is distracting and does not allow you to fully immerse yourself into what is happening in the client’s room on the other side of the world.

The professional AKGs (either of the two recommended models) totally eliminate these unwanted issues. They are incredibly comfortable to wear for hours on end and hardly put any pressure on your ears (the pricier AKG K701 model has ear cups big enough for your ears to completely fit inside them). The engineers in Austria who designed them did a stellar job in terms of making them reproduce an incredibly accurate sound, be it speech or music, so my favorite AKG K701s with a custom cable from Stephan Audio Art also double as my main music listening and conference interpreting headphones. They always go into my bag when I am travelling.

Cons (equally applies to options 3 and 4): The expense of acquiring all of the recommended gear items, plus hooking everything up can be a bit cumbersome at first.

For me, component hookup usually takes place the night before an early AM teleconference call. Once the components (the microphone, the microphone cable and headphones) are connected to the USB audio interface, the latter is connected to my laptop with a USB cable. Then it’s time to adjust device settings in Skype (Windows finds and installs the USB audio interface automatically). To do that, I go into Skype’s Audio Settings and look under “Microphone” and “Speakers” drop-down menus. In both of these menus, I find and select “CEntrance MicPortPro”. It just takes a few seconds. I also test everything using Skype’s “Eco / Sound Test Services” feature and make small adjustments until I am fully satisfied with the level and quality of both the outgoing and incoming sound.

No less important is making sure, of course, that my Zojirushi water kettle is filled up with pure spring water and my favorite oolong tea is handy — I will need to be wide awake just a few hours from now.

The above setup (option 4) served me well for about 3 years (2013–16), however, earlier this year the micro USB port on my CEntrance MicPortPro developed a problem: the mini USB jack became loose inside the interface body and started dropping the USB connection to the laptop. A few weeks later it completely detached from the main circuit board thus rendering the fairly pricey device totally useless. I tried to resuscitate it by attempting an emergency repair, but apparently my soldering skills were not good enough as I just could not re-solder the mini USB jack to the leads on the circuit board and ended up tossing the darn thing.

Well, it happens. On the bright side… it’s time for an upgrade!

Blissful telecons: it just does not get any better

© 2017 Igor Zoubko. Author’s current reference-level setup: a Shure SM7B microphone, AKG K812 headphones and Sound Devices USB Pre 2 portable audio interface.

They have a name for this special malady, which affects all audio gear heads from time to time: upgraditis, and yes, I will confess to being struck with a major spell of this rare condition at least once a year. Or perhaps several smaller spells occurring a number of times per year…

Come to think of it, I have been long salivating over two new pieces of gear: the newest AKG K812 reference headphones and Sound Devices USBPre 2 Portable High Resolution Audio Interface.

The former is one of the best and most accurate headphones ever made — I have had a chance to audition them for hours at the customer-friendly Kyoto branch of Yodobashi electronics store in 2015, spending at least 3 hours doing critical listening using a CD containing my favorite music tracks. The latter appeared to be, based on the numerous reviews from the Internet I poured over for hours, a built-like-a-tank portable and fail-proof USB audio interface which could survive a nuclear blast or a zombie apocalypse and precise enough for laying down tracks for a major movie production. Needless to say, I just had to have them both, and, following a lucky streak of back-to-back interpreting assignments, I was finally able to become a happy owner of both of these fine pieces of gear earlier in October.

In a truly mesmerizing way, the upgraded gear setup (just replace the USB interface and headphones in option 4 with these new components) imbues one with the feeling of being on top of the world during a call: so much precision, clarity, ease of operation and nearly limitless amplification power. Kudos to both the sound engineers at AKG in Austria and the electrical engineers at Sound Devices in Wisconsin: you made one gear-addicted but tireless interpreter very happy. Yes it is overkill for the task at hand, but what a beautiful bloody overkill it is… buyer’s remorse? Forget about it!

 will-smith.gif

The AKG K812 is now my go-to headphone for all my music listening and Netflix watching (I can be a bit of binge watcher during slow times — trust me, you have not heard movie sound until you have a chance to experience it through a very good setup — more on that later. Plus, audio engineers at Netflix really know what they are doing). The Sound Device boxes also doubles as a tool for simultaneous practice: I can listen to a source audio file played through it via my laptop and record my interpreting track back on the laptop, and then compare the two). I can take it on the road to set up a portable interpreting station (when a full booth is not available) — all it takes is an audio feed from the client’s main mixer. I actually had a chance to put it through its paces just a few weeks ago during a conference at UCLA.

A few final thoughts

I have covered a lot of ground so far. Perhaps, if there is enough interest from my fellow interpreters, I could elaborate on some of these additional points in a follow-up article. This is my first venture into the realm of blogs and gear reviews and any kind of professional advice delivered to a large audience. Seven years in electronics sales taught me how to patiently explain things to customers who needed to address the problem of video security — for a while, I designed and sold video security and access control systems. I became fascinated with professional audio after enrolling at the Monterey Institute back in 2003. As a fresh freelancer, I wanted to mess around with gear just enough to see what works for me while at the same time enhancing my professional life. Being a passionate high end audio gear head and a former sales/customer service guy, I find it easy to share my fascination and interest with others. My sincere hope is that you, dear reader, as a result of following my advice, will try to experiment with audio gear setups in your home office or on the road, and I hope it will make your professional life more fulfilling. I sincerely welcome your questions or feedback.

© 2017 Igor Zoubko

Matt and Brendan at Cadence offered a lot of encouragement in this penmanship effort and agreed to serve as editors and proofreaders for this article (after all, English is not my native language). It is my first such effort ever. Please do not judge it too harshly :) . And do stay tuned for more.

* * *

This article previously appeared on the Cadence Translate Medium page.

About the author

Igor Zoubko

izoubko119@gmail.com | Conference Interpreter | MIIS, T&I, 2004 | MIIS, IPS, 2006

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