Something a little different on the blog today! As you may know, I am a member of both the Professional Speakers Association of Southern Africa (PSASA) and the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers (CAPS). These associations cater for people and experts who speak for a living; offering advisory, business acumen and fellowship around the speaking profession. The speaking industry has been absolutely turned on its head with COVID-19 and many speakers are now moving online. I am very thankful that I opted to start my remote speaking journey long before COVID-19 hit, and as such I have oodles of equipment and gadgets to assist in presenting virtually.
Many of my speaking colleagues (and some clients) have asked what technology I use, and therefore this post has been put together. I’ve split this list into Audio, Visual, and Other equipment, I’ll split audio into input (microphones) and output (speakers / headphones / headsets) too.
Microsoft Lifecam Studio Camera: A great little camera for the price, sadly after about 3 years of service it started giving problems mid-call and overheating. Great microphone, great light compensation (like with most of Microsoft’s higher end cameras), though the frames per second and resolution show the age of this camera. I’d still recommend it.
Logitech C922 Pro Webcam: If I can refer to a camera as a ‘workhorse’, this is it. This camera is the perfect blend between cost, performance, and quality. While the focus range of the camera isn’t as good as the Lifecam Studio that it replaced, the framerate and resolution is exceptional. The microphone is a touch on the bassy side, but still leagues above anything you’ll find built into your laptop. (Note: I mention that the focus isn’t as good as the Studio camera. This is down to personal preference. The C922 tends to blur the background and keep the foreground in focus. Many speakers would prefer this, however, I like to have my background as visible and clear as the foreground.)
Logitech BRIO Ultra 4K: This is the be-all-and-end-all of webcams. Holy Moses. If you have the budget (and if they ever come into stock again after COVID-19’s mass buying), don’t even question this camera, just click “buy”. The video quality and options via Logitech G-Hub such as zoom and field of vision are exceptional. It offers true 60FPS in HD and mounts either on your screen or a tripod. The low light compensation outdoes my dedicated handycam and the audio quality is (subjectively) what I would call just shy of studio quality. The only two complaints I have about the BRIO are the incredibly badly designed screen mount and that the microphone is hyper sensitive. If you are not speaking, you can hear someone two rooms over clearly.
Lightdow 1080p Action Camera: Fondly known as my “FauxPro”, this action cam clone of a GoPro was a great idea at the time and ended up being one of those expensive lessons. The idea behind it was to film myself on stage to have content for my showreel. This is a great sentiment, except that the camera has a fixed, fish-eye lens. This looks terrible in professional video and totally deviates from the camera’s intended sports focus. Editing the footage is also a NIGHTMARE as it “chunks” the footage into separate files and the joins aren’t seamless. Moral: don’t buy an action cam unless you need an action cam.
Sony Handycam HDR-CX405: This is my dedicated camera, used as a replacement to the FauxPro. Affordable, Full HD (not just claimed), crazy good image stabilisation, and exceptional low light performance make this a great camera. It has everything I need for my offline videos and vlogs. Battery life is not wonderful on its own, but a 10,000mAh USB battery bank and a 128GB memory card will keep it running for a day and a half no problem (yes, I have tested this, I recorded an entire two day convention). When it comes to a dedicated camera you need to watch out for clone/no-name cameras. They will claim 4K for the price of an HD camera, but the sensor used is actually even lower than HD. Rather pay the extra and get a good brand like Sony. The only thing this camera is missing for me is an auxiliary audio input, however I was fully aware of this when I bought it and couldn’t justify the price jump to a camera that had this. I opted to “fix this in post” (editing geeks will have a laugh here I hope), pairing the video with the audio recorded on my Zoom H1.
Audio Equipment (Output):
Logitech Z533 2.1 Channel Speakers: These are my standard speakers for video calls and sound on my computer. I am not a big fan of headsets or earphones of any kind while I’m on a call, and prefer it to look and sound completely natural and not like I’m listening to my iPod, gaming, or about to head out for a jog – though this is unavoidable in noisy environments, more on that later. The Z533 is a great set between price and features, and has a nifty tactile volume control that rests on your desk. Volume change is a breeze. I do find that the speakers “go to sleep” after a fair amount of time passes without playing any audio, and to wake them I need to change the software volume in Windows or turn them off and on again.
Logitech G633 Artemis 7.1 Channel Headphones: These are complete and utter overkill, plain and simple. But, that is because this purchase decision was based on Counter Strike: Global Offensive and not on professional speaking. That said, they are USB Dolby Digital/DTS headphones, which is important as the audio is digital and does not have noise or interference. This is a major help for editing videos, as you can hear the slightest background noise that you wouldn’t normally hear on a set of speakers. No cons to these headphones, I love them, especially for editing. They are crisp, clear, have cinema quality sound, and I can wear them for hours on end without them becoming uncomfortable.
Apple Premium In-Ear Headphones: My original on-the-go earbuds, long before AirPods were a thing. These I’d use in calls where I was presenting from a shared co-working space or noisy environment. Exceptional earpieces and exceptional microphone quality. Sadly after 10 years of service, these gave up. In general, Apple’s wired headsets are actually exceptionally good for calls.
Jaybird Freedom Bluetooth Headset: The incidental replacement for my Apple Premium set. Not purchased for professional purposes but for trail running, these sports earphones fit incredibly snugly, have great noise reduction, and the quality of the audio and microphone are exceptional. The danger on these is that they’re wireless, and wireless equipment goes flat – often when you least need it to. However, the JayBird comes with its own battery bank that offers an addition 2 odd hours of usage if the built in battery dies. Charging these is a bit of a pain in the backside, but until I can afford a set of the AirPod Pro’s that everyone is raving about, I’ll stick with these.
Audio Equipment (Input – by far the biggest learning curve):
Zoom H1 Voice Recorder: A phenomenally useful recorder and microphone, the H1 (now succeeded by the H1N) can be used as a USB mic (where, in my experience, it failed dismally) or a standalone high-quality recorder (where it excels). The H1 records in stereo and has many onboard features like Lo Cut and automatic levelling. The recording quality is exceptional and offers superb quality audio at 96Khz/24bit WAV (be sure to have a large memory card). This recorder has kept with my journey since I started and is still used regularly. Initially, I would record my vlogs with it, however it is incredibly sensitive and picks up background noise very easily (eg cars in the street outside). I have since switched to other equipment for my vlogs, but the H1 is still used when I record offline content such as podcasts or interviews. It has an input for additional microphones (I have a BOYA dual lavalier set for it now) as well as a tripod, camera shoe and mic-stand mount available as optional accessories.
BOYA Dual Omni-Directional Lavalier Mic: Infrequently used but good, I use this dual set connected to the H1 for interviews and in-person podcast recordings, or on my iPhone for on-the-go recording. They are extremely sensitive and I do find they distort, so I place them lower down the jacket/blouse to avoid pops and high end distortion.
HeyMic! Bluetooth Lapel Mic: While a number of speakers rave about theirs, I cannot say I’ve been blown away by this mic. The more I’ve used it, the less impressed I’ve become with the audio quality coming out of it. I’ve been assured that it’s my device and that the HeyMic! is actually really good, but I don’t have the inclination to pay for shipping back to the USA for a warranty claim. It is, however, really good in a bind if you are doing something movement-intensive and need a lapel mic.
Behringer U-Phoria UMC22 Audio Processor: A fantastic little device, this audio interface for a PC/Mac allows you to connect studio-grade XLR/balanced equipment to a computer. This has opened a whole new world to me of high quality audio for my calls, recordings and presentations. With this device, I can use my stage equipment on my PC, allowing for the best audio experience on my calls and recordings – something that is paramount when it comes to presenting online. Your video and staging quality can be lower, but heaven help you if you have bad audio. If you have stage equipment you want to hook up, this is the device for you.
Samson SE50 Over Ear Headset: This discrete headset is my stage headset and plugs into a wireless beltpack. It’s a great little unit, way more affordable than the Shure equivalent and gives incredible response and quality on recordings. It is compatible with a wide range of receivers and comes with a number of adapters. My only worry with this unit is the cable breaking due to it seeming quite fragile, though replacement cables are readily available online.
Samson Concert 88x “Presentation” Wireless Set: This is my backup wireless kit for if a venue does not have a wireless microphone. I tend to move around a lot on stage and prefer to not be tethered to a podium. This particular set (“Presentation”) came with Samson’s LM5 lavalier microphone, which is the second highest quality mic I have (below the SE50) and my go-to for all my calls online. The only complaint I have about the LM5 mic, is that it only comes with a mini-XLR plug, so I am limited as to which brands of receiver I can plug it into. Important NB here. I use this set on my presentations, and I always keep a set of batteries close by when doing so. You should always be wary of using wireless equipment when presenting as batteries do go flat mid presentation. Rather use a wired mic.
Shure SM58 Vocal Microphone: This is the microphone on my post-lockdown wishlist to replace using the wireless kit and subsequent battery dependency. A favourite among musicians, podcasters, and studios, it will go nicely with my U-Phoria Audio Processor. I have considered the Yeti microphone that a number of podcasters and speakers have endorsed, however reviews I’ve seen show that the SM58 can indeed outperform it, and the Yeti is limited to USB only – I wouldn’t be able to use it on a PA system.
Logitech Spotlight: When I first bought this device, I was very enamoured with it. At one point I read a review that stated “a very expensive solution to a very simple problem”, and I have since come to realise much of what they meant. The Spotlight is AMAZING for virtual presentations and presentations against screens (instead of projected images). A standard laser pointer does not work on an LED screen, nor does it work via Zoom or a shared screen. The Spotlight solves this as a “magic wand” kind of deal. However, this feature is countered by the irritation that the Spotlight goes to sleep between slides. I rely heavily on timing for some humour between slides in my keynote, and I find I cannot reliably cue them with the Spotlight. My verdict? The spotlight is AMAZING for facilitation, and TERRIBLE for keynoting. Depending on your use, mileage will vary.
Logitech R400: “Old Faithful”, my original clicker. Despite having the back held on by electrical tape, and wear and tear from drops, this little remote is the little remote that just keeps going. The batteries last forever, and it’s ultra reliable. Unless you plug the receiver in next to an HDMI cable. Pro-tip: Keep your 2.4Ghz receivers away from your HDMI port. If HDMI is not earthed correctly (as in MANY cheap splitters that are used at venues) it will interfere with wireless components nearby, resulting in a severely weakened signal.
AData 10,000mAh Battery Bank: Super affordable and the most reliable battery bank I’ve ever owned, this +/- $10 / R150 gem is my emergency charger for my Jaybird set and my Sony Handycam. Don’t spend a fortune on a 10,000mAh bank at an outdoor camping shop, rather go to a computer store and try find the AData.
DIY Floor Standing Lights: Lighting is very important in video, and my lighting is an absolute DIY “masterpiece”. Your nearest fleamarket will have a variety of LED lights available, go check them out. To give you an idea of just how DIY my lights are, they comprise of a 5W LED outdoor floodlight, affixed to an extendable broomstick handle, bolted to a swimming pool weir cover. For a diffuser, I tape baking paper to the front of the light. The image below is what I was going for, not my actual lights… I intend on replacing my standing lights with ring lights when lockdown ends.
Waveshare 7″ HDMI Monitor: During my online classes, particularly in lockdown, I do not have ready access to a technical person who can handle questions in my sessions. To that end, I have a small 7″ HDMI monitor that allows me to at least see my chat windows and attendee lists while I am presenting on my standard dual-screen setup. Another way to achieve this, is to sign into your own meetings with an iPad or similar to monitor the chats – just remember to mute the iPad. I have since built a wooden frame to mount this screen above my normal monitor and webcam.
Elgato Stream Deck Mini: This little guy is still on the way, and I’m expecting delivery next week. In presenting remotely, I’m finding that I’m using software called OBS (Open Broadcaster Software) more and more frequently. My intention is to stop using the limited “Share Screen” option of tools like Zoom and Teams, and instead use a virtual webcam where I can control the Picture-in-Picture content and scenes. The Stream Deck will allow me to do that (and much much more) with a single push of a button. I’ll certainly review it after it arrives.
The Final Word
With regard to where to get the equipment, I have a couple of preferred suppliers being AudioMart and FirstShop. Aside from them, I often use Amazon Global, or whatever comes up first on Google locally. My geeky tendencies mean I shop at a lot of electronics stores like Communica and Micro Robotics, and some of these devices (like the Waveshare screen) came from these stores and not from an AV store. The trick is to keep your eyes open for things that may work for YOUR particular setup.