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.
Part 1 of our series: Enhancing Client Value during the Pandemic
This is part of an ongoing set of posts about providing value to clients without the benefit of interpreting on-location
Start with a cliché. Necessity is the mother of invention. Six months after COVID-19 introduced itself to the world, conference interpreters worldwide are asking themselves about the ongoing viability of the market in which they work.
This post kicks off the series with some background on developing a platform designed to provide conference interpreting clients with the next best thing to being on-site: Co-located interpreters using a professional audio and computing hub at home.
My ongoing journey towards establishing a remote interpreting hub started in holding the same position that others in the industry do: On-site conference interpreting is the only manner in which our service can be provided with superior quality – that remote is fundamentally substandard to on-site.
If we are in a world where on-site is impossible though, it’s comforting to think this will be only temporary. My initial gut reaction was to fortify my position – limit my expenses, read the news, and buy some face masks. SARS and its effects on the market, it’s said, only lasted a few months. The pain was real, but thankfully temporary. Eventually, the planes start flying again and hotel membership cards come out from their lonely corner of the junk drawer.
The news hasn’t been forgiving. The social gravity of the conferences is, and is expected to remain superseded by the protective gravity of the home. Unsure of how to proceed, I searched out ways to connect with peers and industry leaders.
So, community engagement was Step 1. I searched through my invoice list from the past few years and sent emails to agencies to let them know I’m still in the market, and would like to discuss options to service clients. I contacted industry leaders I’ve gotten to know through the years – people who train and consult interpreters, and have connections to the broader industry. I contacted my most trusted colleagues, looking to establish a community in which our discourse may reveal paths forward.
Initial meetings lead to discussing established concerns. Dealing with RSI, for example… Many, including our clients, are skeptical. Interpreters and clients are geographically isolated in situ, leading to problems with being heard, hearing others, and transferring the floor from participant to participant. As a business, one fundamental issue is the commoditization of my services – being converted from a valued service provider with personal agency to being one-of-many acting as qualified labor for another institution that holds a great deal more agency than I. After all, wasn’t it just a few months ago that we were fighting against AB5 with the same arguments?
Beyond these problems, the initial discussions lead to identifying initial solutions. One was to upgrade my microphone to a level that could be used for interpreting, at minimal cost. This came in the mail a few days later – a nice little headset with microphone attached. I used it for subsequent meetings. While in one of these, the group noticed that one interpreter’s voice was much better sounding. We inquired about his equipment, and he was kind enough to share his setup with the group.
I researched the pricing for the equipment, and balanced the investment against my need to limit my expenses. The decision came a few days later, based on some logic…
Either the pandemic is here to stay or it isn’t. I have no way to anticipate the development of vaccines and therapeutics that may enable the market for on-site conference interpreting to function, and so it’s reasonable to assume that the pandemic is here to stay for the short/medium term. If the on-site market continues to not function as a result, then my business model as a conference interpreter is at risk. In order to mitigate this risk, I require a new, temporary business model that is based on the current reality.
The decision was this: Continue learning about the shifts in the marketplace. Invest accordingly, balancing the risk of continued investment with a realistic assessment of what the benefits of those investments will be. Maintain and innovate to achieve the highest possible quality standards. Learn how to provide on-site-minus-one value to clients without sacrificing my own agency to make decisions.
I decided that continued investment was justified and that with it, I might be able to send signals into the market in a way that would ensure value for my clients, and profits necessary to sustain a business.
Those investments, so far, have centered around purchasing an ecosystem of audio equipment – a microphone and headphone setup, training on the relevant platforms where interpreting happens, and continuing to invest time with organizations and interpreters to co-construct practices for the market as it currently stands. This blog series is part of the latter of these action points.
In the next part in this series, you’ll see a presentation on the audio equipment, the manner in which I selected the items to purchase, and how it’s been setup.