Better music experiences come to Zoom with high fidelity audio

News

A recent release of Zoom has brought, among other things, “High Fidelity Audio Mode” (High fidelity music mode in the application settings) to the Windows and Mac clients. The feature was announced in August and rolled out publicly on September 1, 2020 with the 5.2.2 update.

Listen to the podcast episode

We go further in depth on the Scoring Notes Podcast: High fidelity audio comes to Zoom

Scoring Notes
Scoring Notes
High fidelity audio comes to Zoom
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Musicians who have been using Zoom and other videoconferencing platforms for sessions, rehearsals, and performances since the coronavirus pandemic began earlier this year have struggled against an audio system that is optimized for spoken word. The new mode improves audio quality in ways that make the platform work much better for musicians.

The new high fidelity music mode can be enabled in Zoom Settings > Audio > Advanced > Show in-meeting option to “Enable Original Sound” from microphone > High fidelity music mode.

Turning on this setting will disable Zoom’s aggressive dynamic compression, which eliminates all but the loudest one or two sources in a meeting — useful for discussions, annoying for choral singing. It also allows Zoom to use a higher quality data compression than with the setting off, though this still caps out at a 192kbs for a stereo feed.

In a practical sense, this will mean that if you’re discussing a project with collaborators or in a remote recording session, routing audio from your scoring or audio application into Zoom (see our post on how to set this up in Sibelius, Finale, Dorico, or Musescore), listeners on the other end of the conference will hear the difference between softs and louds, and the subtleties of articulation and orchestration will be rendered more faithfully. Teachers will be able to more easily talk alongside playing or audio playback from a student without Zoom squashing either the talking or the music. Even something as simple as playing back recorded music examples without resorting to an external service will be greatly improved using the new audio setting.

While you’re tweaking these settings, you might also want to turn off Automatically adjust microphone volume and turn on Disable echo cancellation, both of which might also cause issues for musicians.

In their initial blog post in August announcing the new music mode, Zoom noted that “This mode will require a professional audio interface, microphone, and headphones to allow you to offer high-quality private lessons.” In my initial tests, this didn’t seem to be a requirement in turning on the feature (technologically, I’m not sure there’s a way for Zoom to know the properties of my microphone and audio interface).

However, I did notice that any imperfections in the setup, like background noise or hums, became much more apparent. And my interpretation of Zoom’s caveat above is not that you can’t use high fidelity music mode without a few hundred dollars worth of new gear. You can turn it on and hear some notable improvements, but you’ll also hear limitations. So to get the most out of the new setting, it would be better to have something that’s a step up from the built-in mic on your laptop. And always, always use wired headphones and when possible, a wired network connection.

Finally, it is worth heeding the warning that enabling high fidelity audio “can increase CPU utilization and consume greater network bandwidth,” and that for “best results, an ethernet connection (not wifi) is strongly recommended.” If you’re running Zoom to broadcast, say, Logic Pro and Sibelius all loaded up with fancy sample libraries, you may need to make choices about what to sacrifice if your computer or connection start to choke.

Word to the wise.

Considering the rapidly evolving landscape of real-time audio collaboration tools that musicians and music teachers are swimming in at the start of the school year (in the northern hemisphere), I think the new Zoom audio features are a huge step forward in quality and simplicity, if you have the gear and tech specs to support them.

I have spent a fair amount of time working with Cleanfeed over the last couple of months. Cleanfeed is a web-based, realtime, remote audio collaboration platform that runs in a browser and can work for multi-point sessions. It is a bit tedious to set up larger sessions with many users. And since it doesn’t handle video at all, I was only able to use it alongside Zoom, and never instead of Zoom. That complexity was worth the increase in quality for my recent experiments with writing music for remote chamber ensemble, Music for Social Distancing (my paper about the work).

A time-bracketed passage with divergence, from David MacDonald’s “Music for Social Distancing”

While Zoom’s new audio quality isn’t quite as high as Cleanfeed, the added convenience and simplicity more than makes up for what small quality differences exist. It’s not a perfect A-to-B comparison since they’re using different compression algorithms, so some things might sound better on one than another. And depending on your setup and the setups of your collaborators or students, I’m not convinced everyone would notice a difference at all based on my brief testing.

It’s also worth noting that this update is focused on fidelity, not latency. You won’t be perfecting that intricate rhythmic play in Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles or Ravel’s String Quartet in F in your remote chamber ensemble rehearsals, at least not over Zoom.

The update is available on Windows and macOS (not mobile) from the Zoom downloads page or by checking for updates within the application. For further reference and information about these updates, check out the Complete Guide to Zoom Audio Settings for Music Teachers, written by Katie Wardrobe on Midnight Music.

Get the Express Zoom Profile for Stream Deck [advertisement]

If you already have a Stream Deck console, or an iPhone or Android phone running the the Stream Deck Mobile app, you can use it to control Zoom.

Over at Notation Central, our marketplace for music notation software and related technology, we’ve taken the time to build a simple Stream Deck profile with 15 of the most common Zoom functions, all ready to go.

It’s called Express VC Stream Deck Profile for Zoom, and it’s for the Mac and Windows desktop versions of Zoom. You can use it to mute, unmute, start and stop video, screen share, recording, chat and more. Toggle full screen and Speaker View or Gallery view, invite participants, and raise or lower your hand in a meeting.

It’s designed with the same style of beautiful icons you may already enjoy in Notation Express, so you’ll feel right at home if you’re already using Notation Express to control Sibelius, Dorico, or Musescore.

The Express VC profile uses the default Zoom keyboard shortcuts, so all you need to do is double-click the Stream Deck profile to install it in the Stream Deck desktop app, and you’re ready to use it.

Head on over to Notation Central and pick up the Express VC Stream Deck profile for Zoom for only $4.99.

Stream Deck or Stream Deck Mobile app required for use.

Comments

  1. Doug LeBow

    in my Mac 5.2.2 version I do not see a checkbox for Stereo like the example you show. Any idea why?

    1. David MacDonald

      Hard to say for sure. Some of the settings are dependent on other settings, and it could be that you have a mono audio device selected. (Or that Zoom is seeing only one channel of it.) There’s a tooltip next to my stereo settings that says “A stereo capable microphone or audio interface is necessary.”

      1. Jenny Merkowitz

        Stereo is a function you need to turn on directly from your account on the website.
        https://support.zoom.us/hc/en-us/articles/115004830406-Enable-stereo-audio

  2. Tiago

    Does the setting has to be enabled on both ends ? Or doing on the professor computer only will assure a better audio quality for the students ?

    1. David MacDonald

      I believe it does, though it’s hard to test without being in two places at once. I would guess that it is mostly affecting the input, rather than the output, but that’s just a guess.

  3. Tiago Rodrigues Costa

    Tks. I’ll will test with my students this afternoon.

  4. Derek Williams

    **Typo: “You will won’t be” penultimate paragraph.

    Thanks for this news – I’ll try it out asap on a laptop, however if the other side are using mobiles, it appears the HiFi option isn’t available. Most of my students use iPads or mobile phones, and for practical lessons, I use tethering from 4G on iPhone > iPad to up the bandwidth, so it looks as that won’t be available either for now. To get around the compression issue that blanks sustained notes, I have both sides turn on Original Sound option.

    1. David MacDonald

      This isn’t coming to mobile apps, at least not yet. Original Sound was only added to the mobile clients after years of being only on Mac and Windows. This new feature is an additional layer of “Original Sound”. Original Sound is still—despite the name—doing quite a lot of processing.

    2. Philip Rothman

      I fixed the typo. Thanks for the eagle eye, Derek!

  5. LeAnn Halvorson

    Thanks so much for this podcast. I’m a piano teacher who is using Zoom for online lessons and will definitely check into this and share this information with my students. Great information.

  6. Rob

    Thanks for the great post.

    Could you please explain why we need wired headphones? What would happen otherwise?

    Thanks!

    1. David MacDonald

      Hi Rob, thanks for reading. Headphones are important for eliminating feedback (which manifests as an echo in this setting). Basically, you need to avoid having the microphone pick up sound from the speakers, which is hard to do without headphones. Wireless headphones solve this problem, but introduce a different one. All wireless technology adds some delay (sometimes a lot of delay) because they need to convert and audio signal to send over bluetooth and then the headphones need to decode it and convert it back to audio.

      1. Rob

        Thank you David.

  7. LeAnn Halvorson

    I upgraded to the latest version of Zoom this week, then followed the instructions suggested under the advanced settings for Zoom for Audio. It is much more difficult for me to hear my students. Their speech and playing had more echoes and drop outs in sound than before. I took off the new settings and ran Zoom under its normal sound setting, not original sound, just so I could hear my students with a cleaner distorted sound. We have fast internet and I have Zoom running on a Windows 10 PC that is connected to a Presonus Audiobox and a mixer. Any suggestions? I need to fix this quick. Thanks for your help.

    1. David MacDonald

      Hi LeAnn, is everyone wearing headphones and turning these settings on at their end? You might also tweak the settings for automatically adjusting volume.

      1. LeAnn Halvorson

        Hi David, we haven’t been wearing headphones. My husband and I did some experimenting with Zoom. He has a new Pixel phone. We set up his phone for original sound before joining the meeting. What he was playing for me, I could barely tell until I went into the Advanced settings of the Audio Tab and took off the new Disable Echo Cancellation button. Once, I did that his sound was coming in more clearly. I hope this is the fix. He said he could hear my piano and voice clearly. We didn’t wear headphones for this experiment.

  8. LeAnn Halvorson

    I wanted to say why we aren’t using headphones. I’m currently teaching a lot of students on accoustic pianos. Many of these students are beginners. It would be harder to hear themselves play with headphones on. Most students would play more loudly than normal with headphones on causing even more distortion in Zoom, especially on the low end on the piano and when using the damper pedal. I’m playing on a digital piano and everything is going through a mixer, including a Presonus Audiobox. I’m using a logitech 922 webcam for the microphone and video on a Windows 10 computer. My students were complaining of an echo this week. I took off the disable echo cancellation button and he said that the echo stopped. Also, at that point, I could hear the .mp3 files he was playing from his side just fine without the weird drop outs.

  9. Taofeek Ayobami

    Can it be useed with mobile phone?

    1. David MacDonald

      No. Unfortunately this setting is (currently) only available on Mac and Windows. However, they did eventually bring “Original Sound” to mobile devices, so it might be possible to have the new High Fidelity Music Mode in the future.

  10. Lillian

    Hey! If anyone is having trouble setting up Zoom to be stereo, I made a video here. Hope this helps!

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dy3DAUck4cY&feature=youtu.be

  11. Ray Thompson

    Hi Phillip
    Been using Zoom since last March.
    Have set the hi fi option.
    Yesterday set up using ethernet cable, so no longer using wi fi.
    Using on a Mac with Note Performer. Followed your instructions exactly but music get breaking up, or stopping.
    Just found the memo about general midi, and tried it….working fine.

    But don’t understand why note performer is NOT….according to comments above it should beOK.

    Any suggestions as to what I should try?

    Thanks

    1. David MacDonald

      Hi Ray! Is NotePerformer not sounding at all, or just not being captured by Zoom? Either way, changing from wifi to ethernet shouldn’t have any impact on NotePerformer. Something else would have to change for this to be impacted.

      1. Ray Thompson

        Hi David
        Thanks for your reply.
        Your comments on the cable are noted.

        Note performer is being sent, but breaks up continuously.
        Midi sounds are sent fine, both when I send sound using sibelius, and also when I screen share using Sib.
        Sending sound using mp3 also works.
        I have also tried sib 7 sounds they break a little, not so much as n p.

        My set up is me sending to 12/14 wind ensemble members who play along for rehearsal purposes.

        Any thoughts gratefully recd.

        Thanks

        Ray

  12. Ray Thompson

    Hi David
    Thanks for your reply.
    Your comments on the cable are noted.

    Note performer is being sent, but breaks up continuously.
    Midi sounds are sent fine, both when I send sound using sibelius, and also when I screen share using Sib.
    Sending sound using mp3 also works.
    I have also tried sib 7 sounds they break a little, not so much as n p.

    My set up is me sending to 12/14 wind ensemble members who play along for rehearsal purposes.

    Any thoughts gratefully recd.

    Thanks

    Ray

  13. Derek Williams

    Have you tried increasing the Buffer Size in Audio Engine Options from the Configuration panel of the Play tab?

    1. Ray

      Funnily enough I was just reading about that in the NP info.
      I’ll try that tomorrow..It’s 1.00 am in the uk now!

      Also wonder if i need to do latest upgrades to sib and mac?

      Not yet on big sur?

      1. Ray

        Thanks
        Increased buffer size to max.
        Now working perfectly.

        Cheers

        Ray

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