Live-streamed performances have been a lifeline for many musicians, but the technical challenges can be significant. Here are some tips to help you share your music via Zoom.
Earlier in the pandemic, my first gig over Zoom was a set of solo piano and keyboard music for a private event. I had performed live streams before, but this was my first time streaming a gig over Zoom in particular and the first time I didn’t have the help of an engineer handling video and audio tech. Here are some tips based on what I learned; I hope they help you stream smoothly in your own Zoom-ed performances.
Plan how you’re going to speak and play
Getting your setup dialed in ahead of time is probably the best thing you can do to ensure success when it’s time to perform. On my end, this meant figuring out how to get two keyboards and a vocal mic fed into Zoom successfully. For better or worse, the only audio interface I had reasonable access to had only two inputs.
Why was this a problem? Each of my keyboards has stereo outputs, meaning four outputs total, and a vocal mic makes it five. After some experimentation, I came up with a solution.
I was able to feed my smaller keyboard’s stereo outputs into my larger keyboard, and then have my larger keyboard feed into the audio interface, effectively cutting down four inputs to two. Then, since I was only speaking between songs and not singing, I didn’t need a high-quality mic; my laptop’s built-in microphone did the job for talking to my remote audience. All I had to do was keep Zoom’s Preference window open and switch the Input setting to the internal microphone when I wanted to speak, and back to the audio interface when it was time to play.
If you only need one or two inputs, or have access to an audio interface that can easily manage handfuls of inputs, this likely won’t be an issue, but if you’re in a situation like mine where you have to squeeze multiple instruments into limited inputs, experiment until you have something that sounds good and gets the job done.
Get your sub-mix in order
Since my keyboards were running directly into the computer — as opposed to me amplifying them in a room and then miking them — I wanted to do some signal processing to make sure they sounded organic together. I first tried tweaking the built-in EQ on one of my keyboards but ended up just layering on a small amount of reverb to each instrument. The effect added subtle space to each, making them sound natural and clear together, rather than artificial and overly in-your-face.
Depending on your instruments, you may want to experiment with EQ, reverb, and even compression to make the sound going out via Zoom as clear and listenable as possible. I recommend keeping all effects as minimal as possible; in most cases, small tweaks will be enough to take the edge off of anything that sounds too harsh or enhance anything that feels too small.
Once you have your settings dialed in, save them if your equipment will allow. If not, don’t change anything! To be safe, I took photos on my phone of all settings, on Zoom and my keyboards, in case something got knocked or tweaked by accident.
Check Zoom’s audio settings
Zoom has built-in audio processing that helps with group chats — automatic level adjustment, echo cancellation, etc. And while these features may be great when you’re holding an online meeting, they can get in the way of transmitting clear audio of a musical performance.
Zoom allows you to transmit stereo audio; for me, this makes a big difference given the dense, multi-keyboard arrangements I often play. Zoom also has a high-fidelity music mode and an option for original audio, which turns off Zoom’s automatic audio processing. All of these options are worth looking into and testing. In the end, activating the original audio option elevated the quality of my sound.
As you prepare for your own Zoom music stream, do your research a few days in advance, as audio options, parameters, and best practices for streaming live music can change as the software is regularly updated.
Watch your levels
When I was setting up my rig pre-performance, I wanted to make sure that my speaking and playing would come through at strong, comparable levels of volume — but that nothing would be so hot as to clip or distort when folks listened.
To work this out, I opened audio preferences in Zoom and tested out playing and speaking while watching the monitor. I set my input levels so, even when playing my loudest, I never exceeded about 80 percent on Zoom’s volume meter. I figured that meant it would be unlikely I would clip during the performance.
A great way to double-check your levels is to enlist a friend, connect via Zoom, and do one (or multiple) test runs. Ask them to record the music as you play (Zoom makes it easy) and send you the audio or video files so you can review and adjust accordingly.
Do a soundcheck
It’s difficult to know what your music will sound like to an audience listening via Zoom. That’s why I requested a tech run with the event organizer — and the exact Zoom version, portal, and settings we would be using live — a day before the show.
I spent a good deal of time tweaking and testing my setup before the soundcheck began, so after we got on the meeting and said a quick hello, I tested out both my speaking-to-the-audience and music-playing settings and asked the organizer how it sounded. Her feedback helped me adjust the relative levels of my microphone and keyboards, so listeners wouldn’t have to lean in to their speakers to hear my words, and then get blasted as soon as it was time to play.
A tech run-through is essential for such tweaks, but more importantly, to highlight any catastrophic failures in plenty of time for you to fix them. You never know when a patch cable or sound card might fail, or if the organizer’s meeting settings are not music- and audio-friendly. So give yourself plenty of time to discover major issues and fix them well before the music is set to begin.
Don’t overload your connection
If you’re streaming a show via Zoom (or any other utility), it never hurts to stress test your Internet connection ahead of time. Can two people successfully stream Zoom meetings at the same time, but do things bog down if you add a Netflix movie to the mix? Once you know how much your network can handle, check in with other people wherever you’re streaming from (my family, in my case) to make sure the network won’t get overtaxed and gum up your connection.
Dial in the tech, then dive into the music
All tech aside, a performance over Zoom is still a performance. Do your homework ahead of time, test and tweak as much as you need to, and when the show begins, lose yourself in the process of making music that you love.
What did you learn from your first time gigging over Zoom? Tell us in the comments below.
Michael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and Facebook.com/GallantMusic.
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