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Adventurer’s Journal: Auditory Cues

This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Forty-six on 16th December 2020.

Lennon: All right, for some reason all the doors in the guild house are sticking, so I had to call this meeting virtually.
Ostron (through loud machinery noises): Yeah, I’m working on that; it’s because of…well anyway I’m working on it.
Lennon: Right…I sort of got that.
Ryu (through tyrannosaur roar ): Yeah, the door to the stables is definitely stuck. I do not have the Athletics proficiency to fix that.
Lennon: Yes we’re all aware that the doors …
Ryu (interrupting): No, Peaches, we’ve talked about this, you can’t play with Branwen’s panther.
Lennon: Um, Ryu?
Ryu: I know, I know, it’s all fast and interesting but you stepped on his tail last time and …
Lennon: Ryu!
Ryu: What?
Lennon: Your sending stone is still broadcasting.
Ryu: What? Oh …
Lennon: And that brings us to the reason for today’s meeting. See, our chief audio alchemist has been under the weather and I can’t be sure but I think things like this might have done him in.
Ostron (eating): Things like what?
Lennon: Oh for-. Okay, I got the research beholders to send you both envelopes. Open them, and follow along.
m

With remote gaming becoming more popular and frankly more necessary in recent times, much more conversation between gaming groups is taking place over audio. Whether that’s a dedicated communication platform like Discord or Zoom, or if you’re using the integrated voice system in some virtual tabletops like Roll20, a lot of things are being said over microphones rather than in person.

Unfortunately even at this point there are some things that people should be doing to be courteous to others on voice communication that they may not be aware of.

To start with, there’s the issue of noise. Microphones, particularly those installed in laptops, have a very specific way of working, and that can cause a lot of mistakes and inadvertent problems.

In short, most microphones designed to work with people communicating over computers are designed to use what’s called “cardioid” pickup. Although “cardioid” literally means it has a heart-shaped polarisation, in layman’s terms it’s just a cone in front of the microphone. What throws people off is that the microphones tend to be very sensitive within that cone, and almost deaf outside of it. So if your microphone is sitting on your desk or in a laptop and you turn your head or move too far to one side, suddenly it’s going to be a lot harder to understand what you’re saying.

(Dear readers, roll for imagination. – Pix, Web Gnome)

For example, as I read this sentence I’m going to be facing the mic, and then, at one point, I’m going to get distracted by something going on outside my window. I’m still sat at my desk, my body is still in the same spot, but the hole in my face that makes the sound isn’t pointing in the right direction. If I bring it back to the right orientation, you’ll see things get better, quickly.

(Wow, nat 20? Snap, good job! – Pix)

One way to solve this is to use a set of headphones with a built-in microphone, since that puts the microphone right in your mouth, practically, but that may not be feasible for a lot of people. If you are using a mic that’s not worn on your head, make sure you’re facing it when you talk, and you’re relatively close.

Unfortunately that problem tends to result in another. As mentioned, within that pickup cone, the microphone is actually very sensitive. When people say they can’t hear you talking, usually what they mean is they can’t hear specifically what you’re saying. They can still tell that your mouth is making noises though. But some switch from thinking the microphone can pick up anything to believing it can’t detect any sound unless someone’s right in front of it. This is also not true.

Anything within that cone will be picked up if the mic is on. So if your dog suddenly walks into the room? They can hear that. Air conditioning suddenly turning on? That’s coming through. Gath Memvar looking for diamonds for resurrecting Ostron? Everyone knows about it. Typing on your keyboard? Keen-eared people might be able to figure out your password from the clicks.

There are a couple of solutions to this. The first is to try to find an isolated area with minimal noise and watch what you’re doing when you talk; don’t try to speak while you’re typing up notes on your latest encounter. Relatedly, find some way to stop your mic from picking you up when you don’t want it to.

Generally there are three ways to do the last one. The first is the mute button, which most people know about because they’ve used it and then forgot to turn it off until halfway through their soliloquy that would definitely have solved world peace and global warming, but all that’s lost now. While that is annoying, it happens to everyone and people would usually rather put up with that than listening to you eat your lunch in between sentences. The unfortunate thing is not every microphone has a physical mute button, but you can guarantee whatever software you’re using will have one, and you can sometimes bind a hot-key to it for ease of use.

The other options are having your microphone turn off when noise isn’t coming through. Most systems have two options for how to do this. The first is push to talk, where you have to be holding down a key for the microphone to start broadcasting. This is the one most guaranteed to keep extra noise from coming through, but if you’re using it remember there is about a half-second delay from when you hit the key to when the mic turns on. If you start talking as soon as you push the key, the first part of whatever you say will be cut off.

The second is to have the mic turn on when it detects noise. This is more popular but requires more fiddling to get right. Usually you can set what level of sound has to be present for the microphone to turn on, but you have to keep ambient noise in mind again. If you’re a soft talker and need the detection limit set low, that means a lot of other sounds are likely to trigger your mic. On the other hand, if you set it so a tuba is the only thing behind you that could set off your mic, you have to make sure you’re always talking in stage voice or your mic won’t turn on when you’re talking either.

However you set it up to happen, the standard policy is that unless you’re talking and saying something others need to hear, you should make sure your mic can’t pick it up.

We mentioned before about headphones. While it is true that headphones aren’t a strict requirement, it’s probably better to have them than relying on the computer’s speakers.

While it doesn’t always happen, if you have speakers active near the same microphone you’re using to communicate, one of two things can occur, and neither of them are fun. 

The first is that when other people are talking,

(Echo effect? OK. Sigh. Roll for imagination again, with disadvantage.)

their voice will be picked up by your microphone and sent through again, creating an echo effect.

(Hey, it was only DC 10. Good roll! – Pix)

This one isn’t just annoying at a surface level, like rustling paper or dogs barking, but has actual neurological effects. If you’ve ever tried talking whilst hearing yourself echo over someone else’s system, you may notice that you quickly lose all ability to talk unless you’re really concentrating. This is due to a phenomena known as Delayed Auditory Feedback, or Delayed Sidetone.

See, your brain is used to hearing your own voice coming out of your own mouth in real-time. If, for some reason, your brain is hearing your words after they’ve been vocalised, it usually means there’s a problem with the body, for example, you’re suffering from severe neurological damage, or you’ve been poisoned. It then checks the other senses, particularly vision and balance, and if any of those report as being misaligned then it starts doing everything it can to get rid of any potential poisons (in other words, grab a bucket because it’s all coming back). This is part of the reason why drunk people slur their words — the body is trying to slow the speech enough to check the feedback time between vocalisation and actually hearing it.

Your brain does have a buffer of a few milliseconds before it goes into panic-mode, but the delays that produce a noticeable effect are between 50-200ms, with the “just stop speaking” response coming in around the 150ms mark. Unfortunately the average ping times on the internet put an echo on the receiver’s end right between the 100ms and 250ms marks, quickly leading to people not being able to talk over themselves as their brain tries to figure out if the sandwich they ate at lunch contains arsenic, or if they’re potentially missing a spine. Delayed Sidetone is also especially annoying because it’s almost never the person speaking causing the problem; someone else’s setup is the issue.

The second thing that can occur if you don’t use headphones usually only happens if the speakers you’re using aren’t connected to whatever system you’re talking into. Generally that’s only going to be the case if, for some reason, you’re talking into your phone but listening to the sound come out through the computer. However, the result is deafening and sometimes painful feedback. No, not the Scrying Pool kind, this kind:

(Feedback squeal. No problem. Imagination check, with advantage. – Pix)

Having the audio feed out into headphones eliminates both these problems. And they can be regular headphones, noise-cancelling monstrosities, or just earbuds; the key is to make sure the sound is not being broadcast where your own mic can pick it up.

Some of the other issues are more nit-picky and vary from group to group. For example, some people think it’s mortally embarrassing if they’re caught sneezing while their mic’s on, while others just excuse themselves. Pets are another thing that vary from group to group; some people think hearing a meowing kitty is cute, but others find it too distracting. And the list goes on from there. The more specific issues have to be worked out with those you’re playing with on a regular basis.

It’s also important to recognize when something is not the person’s issue. If you’re hearing lag in the communication, or someone’s voice goes robotic, that has to do with the connection speed, not anything the person is doing (I mean usually. If they’re an audio alchemist it could go either way).

Quality is another issue. Not all microphones are created equally. Fortunately because of the boom in people needing to communicate remotely you can get a microphone you’ll be intelligible through without burning a hole in your wallet, but the quality of microphones built into headsets or laptops, particularly older models, can be very hit or miss. In general if you can still hear what they’re saying you shouldn’t make an issue of the mic a person is using, unless you want to be labeled a snob. If, however, you do want to be labelled a snob, drop by the Heroes Rise Discord because we have at least 3 people in there who’ll talk about microphones all day if we let them.

Hopefully all of this will help in making your virtual communication clearer and less stressful.

m
Ryu: Okay, yeah, sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.
Ostron: And I turned off everything in the workshop. And finished my snack.
RaeRae (through cave-like echo): Hey, when are you getting the doors freed up, magic-man? My pool’s getting full.
Ryu: Oh! Oh! we just talked about this! Does someone have their sending stone too close to another one?
Lennon: No, that’s just the scrying pool, it’s basically an echo chamber regardless. I had all these notes about optimal recording environments which I might have to start reading from if this bloody door – oh. Thanks Ostron.
Ostron: Uh huh.

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