Everywhere you look right now there is some dance teacher experiencing an issue or complaint with Zoom and their audio. If I had a dime for every time I ran across a post about these frustrations, our studio would be set up for the rest of the pandemic, let me tell you! If you are one of these teachers, I thought I'd break it down into some simple concepts so you can at least understand the issue, and maybe you can start to find the solution that is right for you. In a future blog post, we can look at answers (or perhaps you will be empowered to employ better Google-fu than you felt able to before!) Here we go...
In short: Zoom doesn't like processing sound from multiple sources. In fact, it is specifically designed NOT to. It was optimized for office environments, where it wants to prioritize sound from a single source at a time, and actively suppress or de-prioritize sound from any other source. Think of all those clickety-clackety keyboards, or conference rooms with squeaky chairs. Zoom was offering a solution to certain problems. Unfortunately, they created problems for us dancers when we tried to use it for our unique use-case.
In the case of folks trying to play music and talk while teaching on the same device, this is a challenge. We are asking Zoom to work with two different sound sources simultaneously. In the simplest terms let's think of your sound sources as buckets: an external sound bucket (the mic on the outside of your laptop) and an internal bucket (the internal processor getting music from Spotify or Apple Music). When you are talking to your students normally in Zoom, Zoom is like "Cool, we're just using the standard on board mic. My focus is the external bucket, and that's what I am going to pay attention to unless she tells me otherwise!"
When you decide to play Spotify, you go into the Advanced settings and are essentially telling Zoom to pay less attention to the external bucket and pay more attention to your internal processor/bucket. So Zoom goes, "Cool! Imma' pay attention to whatever is going on in here now and not worry so much about those other sound sources until you tell me to stop!”
Basically, with Zoom as it exists now, you want to bundle up all the sound you want to push out to your students and channel it through one source. Zoom will be happy, your students will be happy, and you will be happy.
LOW BUDGET & RESULTS
EXTERNAL BUCKET - MIC AND SPEAKERS
By far the lowest budget solution is to bring all your sound to the external bucket and essentially have your sound be the same as if you were teaching an in-person classroom. Set up a stereo--a separate music source from your device Zoom is using--to play your music on, and let your external speaker on your device (phone, tablet, or laptop running Zoom) pick up the ambient sound from your speakers and voice. Make sure you have background noise suppression Disabled so it doesn't try to cut out either you or your music, and Zoom will say "Yay! One sound source! External bucket: check!"
You can bump this one up a bit by adding an external microphone upgrade to make the sound a bit richer. Popular right now are Snowball Mics, for around $50. I have not personally used them, but a lot of music and dance instructors are using them and recommending them right now, so I share this with that in mind.
The downside of this is the sound may not be very good, generally speaking. Your music and voice will likely sound tinny and/or echo-y bouncing off the walls of your room. Depending on where you live, background noise may become an issue--neighbors, traffic noise, roommates, etc in the background are now also in the mix. You may have to turn the music volume up quite loud on your end for your students to be able to hear it even a little on their end. But if you move the music speaker closer to the mic to make the music louder, now they can't hear your voice because you are too far away and your music is drowning your voice out. In short: this solution doesn't allow for as much control of your sound sources.
So this CAN work, and many teachers are using this method quite happily. It just depends on your environment and circumstances as to whether it will work for you. For ease of set-up and low-investment, this is a good starting point.
MEDIUM BUDGET & RESULTS
INTERNAL BUCKET - BLUETOOTH HEADSETS + INTERNAL MUSIC PLAYER
At the risk of confusing anyone, SOME things you think of as "external" to the computer are processed internally, and actually fall in that internal bucket. Bluetooth headsets/mics are one of these things. You can think about it this way: imagine the Bluetooth signal as a wave that travels to the interior of your computer, to the sound processing inside your computer. There it is bundled with your other sound sources **before** it is processed by Zoom. So unlike your onboard mic, which it considers part of the external bucket, Bluetooth mics are thrown into the internal bucket before Zoom ever see it. So it says “YAY! A single sound source!” And it’s happy again.
Important note: Ideally, whatever music player you are using onboard has its own separate volume slider. iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play Music all have this option. It is helpful in making sure you are able to level the music against your voice. Your operating system may offer further options for adjusting levels of sound input devices. Do some internet searches if you need more details.
Some people find they are still having issues when they go this route, and still don't get the granularity of sound control they would like to have between sound sources. A solution I found along the way FOR MAC USERS* was Loopback. Again, this is not something I ended up using, but is an option that may work for you, and seems very extensible and user-friendly. It is a $99 investment, but can be used with any tech you want to overlay with it, so as your tech changes, you can adapt with it. Here is a video talking about how to set it up, and there is a free demo you can download if you want to try before you buy.
*the developers kindly have a list of other similar products for Windows users on their website, but I have not explored them at all.
HIGHEST BUDGET & POTENTIAL RESULTS
EXTERNAL BUCKET - MIXER
If the answers above helped, then you don’t even need to bother with this section. You can mosey back to your tea and Animal Crossing right now. No need to complicate your life any further. But if you enjoy tech, or want to really up your game, a mixer may be your next step.
A mixer as an external bucket, and is what I landed on in the end. We are plugging all the sources of sound we want into that one panel, then that one panel has an input which goes into a port on your computer, and Zoom goes "Cool! I have this ONE sound source to worry about, I'm golden." Of course we know it has as many as three to five things plugged into it if we want to, but Zoom doesn't care. It just wants one place to PROCESS from--one bucket to pull from--and we worry about the rest.
Mixers allow you to upgrade various equipment, such as bumping up to XLR/powered mics. It gives you opportunities to pull in or strip out sound sources at various stages along the pipeline, which, depending on how you are streaming and/or recording your class content, may be important to you. For instance, if you are running your Zoom audio sources over to an external recording device, then want to run to back into the feed, you may need to strip some of that audio back out to avoid echo/redundancies in the sound.
Mixers are a more complex animal, and aren’t generally necessary for most people, so don’t get too caught up in that if you don’t need it. You need music and your voice and that’s it? Don’t stress about mixers. Mixers in general are for if you need more inputs or outputs, greater granularity of control, have cameras or devices that may need more exotic connectors, etc. They are a deeper dive (a whole blog post in itself, really), and not something you necessarily need bother with for a simple one laptop/device setup.
Hopefully this was helpful!
Shay is the owner, director, and headmistress of Deep Roots Dance, Studio Deep Roots, and Deep Roots Live! Sharing the exciting and surreal journey into teaching online during the time of COVID-19, and the joys of staying connected to community when it seems the world is literally trying to keep us apart.