Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
September 4, 2013 8:52 PM

Hacking Skype For Better Audio

I use Skype to record most of my audio podcasts.

This may not be a big deal to you, but most people who have any passion for audio and recording are gasping in disgust at this admission. For over 375 episodes (since 2006), I have relied mostly on Skype to record these weekly conversations with leading business thinkers. And, while I take a more "indie" approach to my production (instead of the pristine clean that you get from NPR and the like), I have learned some very powerful tricks about using Skype to create a high quality audio conversation worthy of broadcasting to the world. The truth is that for under two thousand dollars you can mack out your audio recording studio with a proper mixing board, pro digital recorder, dynamic microphone, pop filters, mic boom stands, studio quality headphones and more. Personally, I'm just not that interested in the production side of things and prefer to have something simple and portable. So, I plug the MiC by Apogee directly into the USB on my MacBook Air, fire up Audio Hijack Pro and record my Skype conversations - from wherever I may be in the world.

That's it.

The problem is that Skype (and other VOIP programs like Google Hangouts) can be very finicky. From garbled conversations to dropped calls to moments that sound more like a scene out of The Max Headroom Show (wow, I carry around a lot of useless pop culture references from the eighties in this cranium of mine!). There are some tricks, and they're not just for those who are attempting to record and broadcast their Skype conversations. These tricks will - without question - improve the overall quality of your conversation in many more ways than you can imagine.

Here are 6 ways to get the best sound possible out of Skype:

  1. Plug in. Do your best to ensure that both parties are hard-wired into the Internet. This means no wireless networks and no wi-fi. If you're using a MacBook Air or another computer that doesn't have the CAT 5 cable plug, get a USB Ethernet adapter. Also, ensure in your network settings (prior to turning on Skype) that your Ethernet connection is the active one. Bonus tip: turn off the wi-fi to be sure.
  2. Kill the tabs. Every piece of software that you have running is sucking up valuable CPU that could be diverted to Skype. Shut it all down. Every application that you can. This includes your email, Web browsers and more. Try to ensure that Skype (and whatever you're using to record Skype) are the only pieces of software that are running on your system. Remind the person you're speaking with to do the same. Believe it or not, this will also keep both parties focused on the conversation instead of emails and Facebook updates. There's nothing more annoying than hearing the clicking of a keyboard from the person you're speaking to (especially when you know they're not taking notes about the conversation). Bonus tip: if you need your computer for notes, try using your tablet or smartphone for the notes instead, just be sure to have them set to airplane mode as well to keep the overall bandwidth usage as low as possible.
  3. Use headphones. They don't even have to be good headphones. Any headphones will do. Most computers' external speakers aren't that great, but worse, the audio pumping out of speakers is easily picked up by the microphone. This causes weird echoes and could lead to annoying feedback. Bonus tip: if you can use in-ear headphones and run the wire along your neck and back, you'll look like a pretty cool news anchor instead of an out-of-work rapper when you're sporting your neon orange over-the-ear monitors.
  4. Invest in a microphone. The internal microphone on your computer is always crummy. The combo of headset and microphone that you can buy are a little better. There are a slew of USB microphones (like the one I use from Apogee) that are of pretty high audio quality. They can run anywhere from $150 - $400. The difference in sound quality is astonishing, so spend some time figuring out which one is best suited for your needs. Bonus tip: if you work in a boomy room or open space, try to prop the microphone up on a pillow or buy some sound dampening foam to put around the mic stand. The warmth and closeness will make every conversation that much more personal.
  5. Neutralize alerts. Most people do not know how to stop their Skype from pinging, ringing and dinging. The easiest way is to click on the green checkmark next to your profile picture and change the setting to "invisible" or "do not disturb." Make sure to have the person you're speaking with do the same. Bonus tip: Prior to starting the conversation, send yourself an email to turn that setting back to "online" once you are done, otherwise people will not be able to contact you on Skype.
  6. Leave some air. Words and sentences sometimes get cut. The best Skype tip is not a technical one related to the software or hardware, it's about the conversation. Leave some air. Do not interrupt the person you are speaking with. Let them finish their sentence. Once they're done, leave a second or two of air and then respond. If you're doing any formal editing, you will begin to see these natural breaks and be better able to edit the audio. More importantly, this technique will also make you an active listener. It will make the entire conversation that much smoother and, along with helping to overcome any bandwidth lags, it will also make you a much better conversationalist. Bonus tip: while the other person is talking, force yourself to not give out too many uh-huhs and uh-hums. If someone is going to listen to this conversation, those natural audio prompts that we give in day-to-day conversation are incredibly annoying when it comes to listening.

You feel like you're there.

The end result is that the conversation sounds like you are sitting together in a quiet space, where the only thing that matters are how the words are flowing and how connected both parties are to the conversation. That not only makes for a great sounding podcast, but it also makes for a much better and deeper business partnership.

What are some of the best tips ad tricks that you use for creating a better Skype chat?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for The Huffington Post. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original version online here:

By Mitch Joel


Comments Comments Feed
  • Posted by Andy Traub
    Mitch Joel

    If either party is a lot louder than the other check your audio input(their mic) and output(your mic) settings on your computer before you mess with Skype's settings.

    On a Mac just hold the Option key and click on the volume icon in the top menu to get to the sound preferences. That fixes 99% of uneven volume levels.

    Reply
  • Posted by James Chua
    Mitch Joel

    For our podcast, we do it differently:

    We each record separately in our own homes and go on a conference call via Skype. We have a recording program (Audacity in our case) and hit record before starting the show. After the show, we send all our audio files to the guy who's going to post-prod of the show so he can stitch up all the files together.

    It is a bit tedious to do but the results are great, since you get to preserve a lot of audio quality, which is lost when using VOIP programs.

    You can try and have a listen here for our episodes as a sample (it's a gaming podcast but we do a lot of in depth discussions about the industry as a whole): http://www.omgeek.net/podcast/

    Reply
  • Posted by Jon Loomer
    Mitch Joel

    I use Skype, too! I use a Blue Yeti mic and Screenflow for recording. I then convert the files (separate for each voice) with Total Video Converter Lite and send to my guy who does post production to mix them appropriately.

    The keys really are having external mics and headphones. I've had so many potentially good shows ruined because a guest didn't have one or either of these.

    Reply
  • Posted by Tom Townsend
    Mitch Joel

    Guess you guys have never heard of another FREE app - Callnote Skype Recorder ? It integrates seamlessly with Skype and sends your Skype Conversation Recording to your Evernote Notebook. There is a Free (REG) app and a PAID App. The Free App records audio for up to 8 participants. The Fee based App captures Video too.

    http://www.kandasoft.com/home/kanda-apps/callnote-regular.html

    Reply
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