This post will breakdown basics/concepts/tips for musicians who want to use Zoom Video Communications for more than just voice. The info will help your musical instruments or music software playback sound better on a Zoom call.

Why Zoom?

Zoom is THE MOST common videotelephony software to date. But… it’s not the only one. Many tips here will also apply when using Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, etc. The settings of various software will be in different places or have different names, but the remainder of the audio hardware concepts will remain the same. This focuses on just Zoom to keep it simple.

What’s the problem?

Zoom is built for voice. It uses Cloud (server-side) digital signal processing (DSP) to manage audio easily for those on the call. This is partly why Zoom is successful. It’s EASY to get a voice call that sounds good. This same DSP reduces other non-voice sounds. After a few requests, Zoom enabled user settings that would disable or change server-side DSP settings for the purpose of sharing music over a Zoom call sound better. But… with more power came a complexity of “configuration” and that’s what we’re discussing here.

Before we get started, here’s a list of things you need to maximize this tutorial

  • Zoom Desktop Client
  • Webcam
  • Audio Interface (drivers installed, do not use class compliant drivers)
  • Music Software
  • Music Instruments
  • Microphone(s)
  • Speakers or Headphones

Zoom Settings

Zoom Desktop App Settings LocationThe easy part is Zoom configuration. First… You need a Zoom account and to install the desktop client.

Create an account: https://zoom.us/

Download & install Zoom: https://us02web.zoom.us/download#client_4meeting

Once Zoom is installed, start the client software and sign-in.

Once the app opens, click the gear icon to enter Zoom settings.

Zoom Audio Settings Inside the settings window, select the audio tab in the left sidebar.

Once configured, we’ll be done with Zoom settings. From top to bottom… Do the following.

Select your audio output. The options in this menu change based on what audio hardware peripherals are connected to your computer. Choose the main output of your audio interface which is connected to your speakers or headphones.

Select your audio input. Most users only need to select the source of a single mic, or even their web camera mic. Streaming music from external instruments or sound from your software will require you to choose a stereo pair of inputs from the audio interface.  More details on this setting below.

Uncheck “Automatically Adjust Microphone Volume.”   This disables a DSP feature that corrects mic gain for people. It’s the first feature Zoom uses to make the app “user friendly” for non-tech folk, and is partly why it became successful.  “It just works” is code for “the computer did the work for me” and Zoom starts that here. Unfortunately this setting doesn’t work well for music.  Disable it.

Change from “Zoom optimized audio” to “Original Sound for Musicians.” This disables another layer of speech-focused DSP. It improves audio quality for music by reducing automatic noise suppression. That’s another cloud DSP feature that can improve Zoom for basic speech users. It reduces background noise but these effects are not good for music. When enabled Zoom attempts to suppress elements of the music, thinking they are unwanted noise.

You may or may not change the following…
High fidelity music mode – higher quality bitrate.  Do not use this while on WiFi.
Echo cancellation – manages Zoom’s DSP for echo cancelation. Only change this if you are using headphones or can manage manually (see Prevent Echo below)
Stereo Audio – changes Zoom from mono to stereo input sources (also requires more bandwidth)

There are MANY tutorials on YouTube that detail this process.  If you’re a video learner, try this….

 

That’s it. Simple? No…  because you must do manually what Zoom did auto-magically…  otherwise you will ruin the call with echo, feedback, room noise, and poor sound quality.  You must manage the signal chain into Zoom.  Here’s how….

Prevent echo by doing these things.

A) Use headphones or a gamer headset (headphone plus mic)

B) Use the mute button to turn off your mic when you are not speaking.

If you’re using speakers and a mic…  Keep the mic as close to your mouth as possible AND keep the speakers at a lower volume. The goal is to reduce the amount of sound coming into the mic from the speakers. This prevents small amounts of echo and the dreaded feedback loop (loud echoes become screeching feedback and that sucks). Zoom has a mute function, or you can buy a microphone with a mute switch, or you can use a mixer to control the mic.

Set the Microphone Levels to have the correct amount of gain. The signal needs to be loud enough. You should have some meter on your mixer or audio interface that indicates signal level.  Make sure you’re getting “into the yellow” but not “into the red” on these indicators. Approximately, peaks would top around -3db with the average signal bouncing between -6db and -12db.

Now that you are manually controlling two aspects formerly managed by Zoom’s DSP (echo cancelation, gain control).  You can begin to inject other sounds into Zoom by mixing your microphone with other sources.  You can do this in one of two ways…   physically with a mixer, or virtually with an audio interface.

Cue the Music

Starting with real instruments like synthesizer, guitar, etc. This is the easiest to solve.  Use a mixer. Plug your talkback mic into the mixer. Add other instruments to other channels. Set the levels. Send the output of the mixer to the input of the audio interface. Choose the audio interface inputs in Zoom. Mix the sounds on the mixing board.  Keep the instrument levels in the same range as the talkback mic. Mute or fader-down anything not being actively used aka MIX the audio yourself vs Zoom mixing it for you.

If you don’t have a mixer, and only an audio interface, it’s still possible. You will need to have an interface with multiple inputs.  The inputs will need to have independent gain control. You will enable direct monitoring, so that you can hear the inputs. Then you will need to create a LOOPBACK MIX for Zoom.

Loopback Inputs

Loopback mixing is an industry standard solution for folding software sound outputs back to a specified input.  This input would then contain multiple audio streams (external microphones and software playback) that are mixed together digitally. Zoom (or any other software with audio inputs like a DAW) can then select that channel as it’s input source…   effectively mixing microphones, external instruments, and software sound sources into a single channel (or a stereo pair). Here’s an example…

Picture of RME Total Mix

RME interfaces use Total Mix software.  It has MANY inputs and outputs. We can plug multiple audio sources into various inputs. These inputs can be “mixed” to an output (in this image the output is called AES, see bottom row left). We can edit that output and choose LOOPBACK in the settings (assuming it has corresponding inputs of the same name, it music be an i/o pair).  This AES channel’s input now contains a copy of all the sources mixed to the same channels AES output. Look at the above image. AES has LOOPBACK enabled, and is mixing top row inputs. Software now chooses AES as it’s input source, and all sounds mixed to the Loopback output are heard.

You can see the channel in the bottom row named AES. I don’t use the AES inputs or outputs on this device for studio connections. Instead, I always use this bus for LOOPBACK mixing. With this setting enabled in the driver control panel, any software like Zoom can select AES inputs as it’s microphone source. Then I can use the other controls to “virtually mix” different sources together… mics, synths, guitars, software like Kontakt or Cubase playback, etc.

DO NOT SEND Zoom software OUTPUTS TO THE LOOPBACK BUS. This could potentially create a feedback loop. Make sure Zoom’s speaker output is to a different output bus. If you’d like to watch a tutorial on RME’s process, watch this video…

Unfortunately not every audio interface is capable of Loopback mixing, and various interfaces provide a different level of control or features relative to this concept. Please read your manual and consult with your manufacture about using your device in this way.