September 25, 2012

733 words 4 mins read

Building a fantastic audio conferencing setup for the cheap

One of the most popular activities at any modern office office is the conference call. Of course as time and technology allows, the conference call has morphed into audio/video/web conferencing. When you’ve only got one person on each side of the “call”, it really doesn’t matter what hardware or software you use… or the call quality. Of course, it’s almost never just one person on a side and each person you add to the mix necessitates increased call quality in order to maintain a productive meeting. That means either buying an expensive finished solution… or doing it yourself.

It’s not that I’ve got anything against buying a nice finished solution, it’s just that sometimes that is not an option. Startups tend to be cash strapped or have an aversion to large single outlays of cash (with good reason) unless they are absolutely necessary. Additionally most of the “finished solutions” are end-to-end solutions which replace existing infrastructure rather than augmenting it.

In my particular case, I wanted something that improved the conference calls within the existing GoToMeeting environment we were using. If you’ve ever used GoToMeeting, you know that the VoIP audio is far better than calling in over the PSTN. So the project was computer based, and centered around improving input and output audio to the best possible extent.

Core/Computer — Mac Mini

This was going to be a permanently installed conferencing setup, and we’re a majority Mac shop… so a Mac Mini was the only logical answer. Just about everything in the hardware and business software areas will work equally well on Mac or PC. I could have saved a few dollars going with a PC, but I didn’t want to think about it.

Audio Output

Just about any speaker system will produce decent enough audio output. I was concerned that I may need to mount the speakers far removed from the computer, so I opted for something that didn’t require power for each speaker. I settled on an Onkyo HTX-22HDX Home Theater System. For about $250 this gives me a receiver, amp, subwoofer, two quality speakers, and the ability add more speakers later, should the need arise. Plus when the conference setup isn’t being used for its main purpose, it makes a great location to rock out!

Audio Input

The conference room this equipment was being installed into is decently sized. I wanted omnidirectional audio input that would allow people to sit around the conference table AND walk around the room while talking on the conference call… without needing to yell. No one wants to be on the other side of a call where it sounds like someone is shouting at you… even if that’s because they are simply trying to be heard. I overbuilt the input portion slightly because it is critical and a few extra dollars really shows in the finished product.

I decided upon two Blue Yeti Pro Microphones because I’ve used the Blue Yeti line before, and pros have XLR output. These two mic’s were put on either end of the conference table with XLR cables running back to a Behringer Xenyx Mixer. This mixer seemed like an insane choice, but it allowed for XLR input, extremely fine grained control of every aspect of the audio (which is exactly what I wanted), along with USB output to the Mac Mini.

Summary

Throwing together all the hardware only took an hour. Another hour or two to make everything look nice (it is a conference room after all) and finally a few hours to get all the audio configured exactly correctly. It took me only one evening but the end result was well worth it. The input audio (while tricky to get balanced “just so”) came through superbly clean no matter where in the room you stood, without having to yell. Plus it managed to cut most of the ambient noises that you didn’t want. The output audio was crisp and clear.

The big bosses used the setup for the first time and didn’t complain about the audio quality afterwards (they may have even been pleased by the setup) which counts as a huge win in my book for an off the cuff build. I’ve left the setup exactly as it was for the first call without any adjustments. Build it right the first time and you won’t need to dick with it again (well… until someone breaks it).