Professional Sound for Virtual Events

How do you capture the best audio for virtual events? Start with the source! It seems like an eternity ago having a great speaker system was the make or break for a show. In the virtual world, great microphones and consoles bring the clarity to your virtual event.

One nice thing about working in a virtual studio environment is the opportunity to try things in a completely controlled situation. Being a live sound engineer my entire career, I secretly envied studio engineers who have hours to tweak microphone placement. Although it lacked the excitement of cross-country travel and a new venue every day, I have started to appreciate the time that my quarantine gig has given me to experiment and critically listen to a few key pieces of gear.

When we started working heavily in virtual events, my first call was to our friends over at DPA microphones. This was a brand I first got into a couple of years ago when we had a theater contract requiring a large quantity of lavalier microphones. They were nice enough to send a local rep down our way, and full disclaimer, we became dealers for their product.

I’m probably getting a little old and jaded but I just like gear that sounds great out of the box without a lot of fuss and work. Admittedly this comes at a price, and DPA gear comes with a price tag. The payoff is that you can give your client a higher quality end result in less time with greater flexibility.

The first new addition to my bag o’ tricks was a set of DPA 6060 lavalier microphones. These are the new “sub miniature” models from DPA, and they are in fact, ridiculously tiny. In addition to a great on camera appearance thanks to their small size, they sound phenomenal. These tiny lavaliers sound so good out of the box with no extra work, that you suddenly realize how much fighting you had to do to get other brands of lav mics to sound like a DPA does naturally.

My power combo is to use these with a Shure Axient digital wireless system, and I have to say it is the least I have ever worked to get a lav mic working correctly with no worries whatsoever about sound quality or RF performance. The biggest bonus was the DPA’s work so well that the placement is fairly forgiving. In covid times this really mattered because you want to spend as little time in someone else’s personal space as possible. In most cases, I could leave it up to the talent to pin their own mic on, and knew with a great deal of confidence it would give me usable results.

Along with my 6060 order, I also picked up a DPA 4017 shotgun microphone. Shotgun microphones are a little bit of a rarity in the live sound world, so I will be honest and say I had not had much experience with them. They are much more of a film and TV world item. With that being said, I always like to break the mold when I can and use tools from different parts of our discipline to achieve the result I am looking for. After a shootout between the 4018 (pencil condenser) and the 4017 (shotgun microphone) I ultimately opted for the 4017.

Although the 4018 would work well for many live sound situations like piano and orchestra mic’ing, the 4017 was such a unique tool I felt it was something I needed to add to my kit.

What I like about the 4017 is that again, you can capture sound without invading someone’s personal bubble. I am a strong proponent of the idea that the sound part of production should be as simple and unobtrusive to the performance and audience as possible. The 4017 is perfect for a situation where I want the talent to be able to come in, sit down, and begin to speak without the uncomfortable and time-consuming situation of having to thread a lav mic through their wardrobe. The 4017 works great for this because I can place the mic 2-3 feet from the presenter, and I get robust full-bodied sound with a minimum of background noise.

Since virtual events tend to take place in some sort of studio, it would make sense to use some sort of studio mixing console. Being a live guy though, I like my endless routing options, plugins, EQ, and faders. My console of choice for virtual events quickly became our trusty Avid S6L system. As I mentioned before, I don’t like to pigeonhole a product as “only for bands” or “designed for broadcast” because at the end of the day, it’s all about being the tool that achieves the best results.

What was astonishing and particularly powerful about the S6L system is just how quiet it is. I could plug any microphone or audio source into it and crank the gain up as high as I needed without concerns of hiss or noise. For events where we fed TV networks, this was particularly powerful because it assured extremely high-quality broadcast feeds. The console is so quiet in fact, that some network guys were convinced that something was wrong because there was none of the “normal” hiss and buzz they are used to.

The S6L platform also shines in its ability to quickly route and patch, which is invaluable when events change and new participants are added. One streaming system I operated could have up to 16 computers, 6 zones of loudspeakers, and 6 broadcast feeds running simultaneously, and I was still scraping the surface of what the board could support.

It is often said that great sound starts at the source. We are now tasked with capturing audio in a way that is safe and convenient for the talent, let the internet chop and compress it to bits, and then have it played through a set of laptop speakers. This means that doing the up front work to solve many of the traditional problems of virtual audio pays back in a clean and well produced end product.