Co-location. Noun: To be located jointly or together.
You know, like the good old days.
This past week, I had a chance to put co-location to test at my home in live RSI. It is awesome, but also took some setting up. And setup means getting over a few hurdles… Coming to terms with remote interpreting, choosing equipment for an at-home hub, and setting up the equipment for that hub.
Now, we're ready to put co-location in practice at home.
Putting the co-location hub into use involves starting with a preconfigured hub and introducing another interpreter into the mix. I recommended to the client to work with a professional colleague that I’ve had experience working with before. This meant that we both have a general trust in the expected quality of interpreting (an important part of both face-to-face and remote interpreting scenarios), but just as importantly, that we have a degree of trust in one another’s commitment to social distancing.
Prior to the event, we discussed and negotiated the use of PPE. Should we wear gloves during our time together? What about masks? Should they be used at all times, or only when not interpreting? In the end, we elected to work without the use of gloves or masks, but we did take the precautions of having sterilized pre-made food ready for lunch, along with sterilized utensils, all surfaces (tables/chairs/sink faucets, toilet, etc.) that might be touched were sanitized, and we signed a liability waiver on the risks of getting the virus.
Familiarizing my colleague with the equipment setup went pretty easy. They brought their own microphone windscreen, and so that was installed on the microphone, along with simple adjustments to the mic’s placement. Headphones were made available. We let them hang-out alone in the sun for a few days before and after the event.
We also needed to become acquainted with the interpreting software interface. Here, co-location has a great advantage over being in separate locations: Two interpreters in one room means that we only need one interpreter’s profile, instead of two (as we would need if we weren’t co-located). One interpreter uses the interpreter’s profile to connect with the hub’s audio setup (mics and headphones). The other interpreter uses their profile to merely watch the video. The benefit is that we don’t handoff to one another by clicking any buttons. So, less focus on the tech, and more on interpreting.
The one-interpreter-profile solution also makes adding interpreters to the hub easy to do, because there is no learning curve for the guest interpreter, regardless of the platform. They simply set up their mic, grab a coffee, and we’re ready to rock.
The setup for this event did require some changes in typical booth behavior. Both mics remained ‘hot’ throughout the event. So unlike in the standard booth, where one can turn on/off the microphone and somewhat freely make noise, like moving papers around the desk or using a mouse, we had to stay super quiet because any of these noises would be picked up at any time.
We both agreed that fatigue wasn’t as big of an issue with co-location. And this is quite opposite to my previous solo-remote experiences. Perhaps this came from the confidence we had in working together, the ease of floor transition, or also the fact that we weren’t rushing around as one does during a face-to-face event.
From the interpreter’s perspective, the greatest asset of co-location is the ability to visually signal one another throughout the event – making for seamless and less-tiring performance. We can take/release the floor on command, request immediate assistance from one another, and do all those things that come naturally in an on-site interpreting booth. Again, the advantage is that we can remain focused on interpreting rather than on managing the technology.
Being the inaugural run of the hub, there were inevitably going to be some issues that require fixing, such as the ‘two hot mics’ problem mentioned above. Thankfully, solutions are available. These are things that get into the technical weeds, so I’m not going to go into them here. Suffice to say, that working with equipment at home is a practice in getting as close as possible to face-to-face quality.
My takeaway is that home-based RSI is not yet mature. There’s still innovation to come from both the technical and social side of things. As long as we are willing to experiment, learn, and make good decisions, we are going to get ever closer to the quality our clients have to expect from face-to-face events, where co-location is simply taken for granted.
I really wasn’t sure what to expect when the equipment started arriving. There’s the microphone, the preamp, USB interface and other stuff. They all came with nice little instruction booklets filled with phrases like…
As a class-compliant audio device, the USBPre 2 is limited to a maximum data rate of 24-bit, 48 kHz in Windows, Linux, and Mac OS versions 10.4 to 10.5.7.
Wow. I am confident with Ikea furniture, but this is a whole new level of grrr.
This post is about getting over the grrr… How I set up this equipment and my office area to optimize quality of sound. Because, client satisfaction is worth it.
My first step was to try to get the equipment to work as best I could – the leg bone is connected to the hip bone style. I also found some useful videos on YouTube. These resources gave me a general concept about how the devices work, but not really enough to feel confident to know what I was doing. The most challenging aspect came from one device – the USB interface.
The USB interface looks intimidating. By rough count, there are about 50 different settings available on just the front of my device, containing icons like ‘48V PH’ and ‘SPDF’.
One issue that I wasn’t able to fix on my own was getting the volume of my voice loud enough without extra noise showing up in the signal. I called up my friend who knows about audio equipment, and we dealt with this and all other parts of the equipment. This setting-up process also worked as a learning process, getting me to the point where I can independently adjust settings on the device on command. A very important ability during events, and one that wasn't needed in my pre-COVID life, because the technicians handled things like this during conference events.
One of the advantages of the setup I chose is that it does a great job of transmitting only the type of sound I want, such as my voice. Well, once properly set up. However, once we optimized the settings, there were still a few straggling problems, like a subtle echo while I spoke. Changes would have to be made in the broader office environment.
My home setting, with its open-floor plan and hardwood floors is not naturally a good environment for microphone equipment. Lots of sound bouncing off walls, floors, hard and square edges. Lots of external sound, like sirens and lawn mowers can come from outside.
So, I made a plan to move things around in my office.
First, the audio situation: Two bookshelves on either side of the desk to block outside sound, along with sound dampening materials packed inside, like books and shelf-inserts. A large rug covering the entire office area to keep sound from bouncing off the floor. Repositioning things on the desk to eliminate the effects of things like charging devices on the audio equipment.
May as well also deal with visuals while I'm at it. This included repositioning lamps for strong but indirect lighting, removing attention-grabbing items from the video background, and finding different ways to position the microphone to facilitate my needs to use my hands on the table yet also not impeding my profile in the video.
All in all, setting up the home-hub took a few days for learning, moving things around, checking and rechecking settings.
If you’re setting up your own at-home interpreting hub, I highly recommend asking someone who knows about equipment to help with setting things up. Without, I would have been working with sub-par performance despite the investment in high-quality equipment. And just as importantly, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to get familiar with the devices so that I can change settings as-needed during a gig.
Part 2 of our series: Enhancing Client Value during the Pandemic
An ongoing set of posts about providing value to clients without the benefit of interpreting on-location
A scroll down LinkedIn Lane reveals how many conference interpreters, like me, are coming to terms with remote interpreting. Moving on, we turn to a more technical topic…
What equipment and why that equipment?
Over the years, many interpreters and organizations have put out some great content discussing the technical side of audio equipment, along with recommendations for particular types of equipment, like headphones. Perhaps like you, I am not an expert on audio technology and wonder – how can I make sure that any equipment I get does great things for me and my clients. Time to rely on the authoritative knowledge of experts in order to trust that it will do great things.
Following the most authoritative recommendations means spending real capital, because that’s generally the level of gear they recommend. Yet, some also recommend much cheaper options. Initially, my thoughts were that I could invest piecemeal into the good stuff. Like starting off with a super awesome microphone, and then add on as needed. Turns out that once you get outside the realm of USB-connected mics, the ad hoc option doesn’t work. This equipment needs to be bought all together, or not at all.
I needed an outside opinion to help make sense of it all. A friend – a professional classical musician trained in the arts of audio technology, lent himself to the cause. His response – that the setup listed below is overkill for what he sees as my purposes. Yet, he sees the logic behind the system, where the following qualities are necessary.
The setup will do this:
Here’s the setup I asked him about:
An over-the-ears headset is the other part of an audio ecosystem, but the choice of a headset is much more subjective than for the microphone setup. Headsets interact much more intimately with the body than a microphone setup does – so I need a way to make a personal decision, rather than one based solely on technical metrics.
My musician friend lent me a professional headset. I tested these out, alongside my own consumer-level over-ear headphones. So far, the consumer model is more comfortable – it’s lighter and the band around the top of the head doesn’t make me feel like I’m wearing a construction hat. Also, it’s less tiring because I don’t hear my own voice and other external sounds with the sound cancellation feature. So, until I feel comfortable going to a store where I can try on several sets side-by-side, I'll stick with what I've got already.
Here’s the point – the microphone system and the headset are two parts of the same system, yet they require distinct decision-making processes. I felt comfortable buying the microphone system solely based on the recommendations of experts, because the system interacts with me in the same way it would interact with anyone. The headset, however, adds a personal element, because it interacts with my person.
The cost/benefit seem to be worth it. The enhanced quality of sound is obvious to clients. Even the imposing size and placement of the microphone on the side of my video portrait helps those looking at me account for the enhanced sound quality without it becoming an explicit topic of conversation. I also like how this audio/visual influence seems to be affecting those I interact with online to consider upgrading their own systems.
I like to think of interpreting as creating the conditions for communications across barriers. The geographical and technological barriers set up by the pandemic can be seen as just another barrier that needs crossing. Equipment, such as the ecosystem described in this article seems to facilitate this mission. I’m glad I’ve made this investment, and hope this story helps with your decision process.
Next up… How this ecosystem can be set up for personal use, followed by How the setup can be used for co-location of interpreters.