High-fidelity music mode: new audio improvements for musicians on Zoom

Bienen+junior+Jaime+An+plays+her+cello+over+Zoom%2C+utilizing+the+newly+improved+audio+features.+By+using+high-fidelity+music+mode%2C+the+sound+is+clear+and+consistent.

Photo by Laya Neelakandan

Bienen junior Jaime An plays her cello over Zoom, utilizing the newly improved audio features. By using high-fidelity music mode, the sound is clear and consistent.

Laya Neelakandan, Reporter

Since the pandemic forced professors to switch to Zoom classes, musicians in particular have experienced difficulty learning and sharing music on the video conferencing platform. When playing their instruments, many reported that the audio would go in and out, and the overall quality was subpar.

In an effort to improve audio features for musicians performing virtually, Ray Mathew, Bienen’s principal technology officer, recently collaborated with Zoom to create more professional-grade audio settings.

Launched on Sept. 1, the new feature, called “high-fidelity music mode,” disables echo cancellation, removes audio compression and improves the audio codec quality. It can be found by navigating to the “Advanced Audio” section in Zoom’s settings, enabling “original sound” and “high-fidelity music mode.”

Because Zoom is built for the human voice, it uses background noise and echo cancellation, Mathew said. But for musicians, these are essential parts of sharing music, so the platform posed a challenge for teachers and students alike.

“Trying to [teach music] remotely is crazy, but over Zoom, it’s even worse,” Mathew said. “Every school of music was having the same problem.”

To allow for a crisper sound and richer experience for musicians, Mathew and technology officers from over 30 different universities came together to write a letter to Zoom in May. After getting in touch with Zoom, Mathew said, a smaller group of about five schools worked directly with the company from June to September, figuring out the ideal settings for optimizing audio for musicians.

Because the University is a not-for-profit, Mathew said, they would not have been the most significant or profitable customer for Zoom, but the company was excited to work with institutions nonetheless. Additionally, the collaboration amid the pandemic has brought schools together, he said.

“The platform was really cool to work with… (Zoom was) totally awesome and willing to work with us,” Mathew said. “A lot of times, we get wrapped up in what we’re doing (at Northwestern) and don’t collaborate as much with our sister institutions… but it was nice getting everyone together.”

Mathew said Northwestern was lucky that the new mode was rolled out at the same time Fall Quarter began. He also pointed out that it’s important to note that high-fidelity mode “does not make your sound better, it makes it truer,” so it provides a more accurate representation of someone’s playing, removing the factor of faulty technology.

But student opinions seem to differ on the results. Bienen junior Jaime An, who trains in cello, said she has noticed a significant difference using the new update.

“Before, the audio would crack on low notes, [but now] things have gotten much better,” she said. “It’s super clear… the audio doesn’t go in and out like it used to.”

On the other hand, Bienen junior and trombone player Joe Nedder said he has not noticed much improvement with his online learning experience.

While he said the listening quality has gotten better, which has helped him in some of his music classes, he has not had a similar experience to Jaime.

“I personally haven’t noticed too much of a difference because it’s still over a computer screen, and it’s always not going to be great,” Nedder said.

While the timing and process of collaborating with Zoom worked out for the best, according to Mathew, there is still more to be done.

Since the feature is still quite new, Mathew plans on checking in with students and professors to assess what needs to be fixed.

“In what has been a completely crazy time where we have no idea what is going to happen a week from now, this has been a piece of good news that we can give to everyone,” he said.

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