The Missing Guide to Troubleshooting Audio & Video Conferencing Problems

Nov 18, 2015 by Elise Keith in meeting technology (15 minute read)

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Get the key tips minus all the commentary in the PDF version of this guide.

Contents

A Little Background

ReadyTalk says that "The number 1 enemy of online conferences is poor audio quality", and I agree with that.

When we first released Lucid Meetings, we didn't include support for audio or video conferencing. We figured everyone already had something they used - WebEx most often, or maybe a Freeconferencecall.com number - so we didn't need to worry about that part and could just focus on helping people organize their agendas and capture minutes.

But time after time, we'd get support complaints from people who had trouble running a meeting because the audio failed, begging us to please add audio to Lucid so they could cancel their existing service. Without easier audio, they couldn't run successful online meetings.

So, we began integrating audio conferencing into Lucid. We started with a simple web-only audio feature, but soon found it too limiting. Next, we integrated a full-on conferencing service: toll dialing, toll-free numbers, call recording, international, the works.

Pretty soon we were running meetings that really needed video. We added integrations with Skype, Google Hangouts, and appear.in. Then, our big clients with expensive contracts through Adigo, Verizon and InterCall demanded we support their private conferencing in our meetings, and we added ways to set up custom audio profiles.

Every time we set up a new way to run audio or video conferencing, we'd test it and run into problems. Every time.

I poured through reams of support documentation for each vendor, and spent hours talking with smart audio engineers who can explain all about codecs and trunk routing and the intricacies of the PSTN and soooo many important technical details about why any particular call might not work with their service.

Interesting stuff, but not something that I could work with as an end-user.

Three Important Lessons

I learned three important lessons:

  1. There is no audio or video conferencing service that works for all of the people all of the time.
  2. Sometimes you literally can't get there from here; all services have situations in which they do not work at all. They do not advertise these limitations.
  3. Most of the advice on how to fix audio is written for IT support, which doesn't help everyone else who's just trying to get the call to work in a meeting.

And Two New Questions

This raised new questions:

  • If none of the services works all the time, how do you select one to use for a meeting?
  • If the one you pick fails, what's the fastest possible way to fix it and get the meeting back on track?

The answers to these questions depend on the kind of meeting you're running, who you're meeting with, and the problems you're facing.

One solution: The Lucid platform supports several kinds of audio and video conferencing, and provides a way for facilitators to quickly switch between them if one should fail entirely. This provides a technical way to recover from failed audio by just swapping it out.

Today I’m going to tackle the other part of the question - how to pick the audio you'll start with when scheduling your meeting - and share troubleshooting tips that can help you quickly recover from the most common audio and video conferencing problems.

The Goal: Get as close to in-person quality as possible.

Experts recommend using video conferencing when you can’t meet in person because it allows everyone to see all the non-verbal communication going on. We fully agree that this aspect of a face-to-face meeting is valuable, important, and worth trying to emulate online.

The other big benefit of meeting in person:
You don't waste ANY time futzing with the audio/video conferencing software!

So yes, you’ll want to use video if you can. Video conferencing supports a level of nuance in a conversation that you can’t achieve with audio alone. However, video doesn’t always work well, isn’t an option for many groups, and completely ruins a meeting when it freezes or jumps.

Even more important in our book for emulating that in-person experience:
Spend no more than 1 minute troubleshooting audio problems during a meeting.

The Challenges

So what makes it so hard to find a rock-solid conferencing service?

1. You can’t trust the Internet.

For most of us working remotely, the Internet works pretty darn well - but it’s still not  fully reliable. Anything that requires the internet to work for voice or video transmission may fail at any moment. This means that no matter how awesome a conferencing service might be - and lots of them are extremely awesome - they'll still fail when your internet connection gets shaky.

Screenshots of internet unavailable warnings
The many familiar faces of a broken internet connection

2. Audio quality and connectivity is fundamentally inconsistent.

Beyond internet stability, we also know that what works with this network and with this phone or device, won’t necessarily work from a different network or device.

What works today may not work tomorrow.

One of our engineers loves to use Skype - except when she works from home, because Skype doesn’t work there unless she sits in the living room. A client that uses Lucid to conduct interviews can always connect to the conference number using his home phone, but never with his cell phone. One group wrote to say how much they love using web-based audio, while another complained about web-audio creating an unbearable echo.

Then you say "But my team uses (Hangouts, Skype, GoTo, UberConference….) and it works great!"

Excellent news! But I’d wager that this wasn’t always the case. That perhaps the first few times you had to experiment a bit. Now, though, you know exactly which buttons to push, how to position your microphone, and most importantly, when and how to mute your line to avoid junking up the call for other people. It’s even pretty easy for you to add one or two new people to your team, because now you know so much about how to work that call that you can quickly help them through all those problems you’ve already solved.

Which leads to…

Tips for Getting the Best Call Quality

So far we’ve talked about what kind of conferencing services to use, and which one to select as your default for internal and external meetings. But there’s more to getting a good quality call than picking a quality conferencing service.

For the best call quality, keep these additional tips in mind.

Wired beats wireless.

Wired internet connections generally have more consistent signal strength than a wireless internet connection. Wired telephones also have stronger, more reliable signals.

Similarly, wired headphones and a microphone sound better than wireless Bluetooth headphones.

Use a headset with a microphone.

This makes your voice clearer and eliminates a lot of the annoying echo you’ll otherwise hear. This applies when you’re talking through your computer and when you dial-in with a cell phone.

A wired headset is better than a Bluetooth headset. Any headset works better than talking directly into the built-in microphone, which tends to cause echo.

Know how to mute your call.

The more people on a call, the more likely you are to hear feedback, crackle, echo, and annoying background activity. Knowing how to mute your line when you’re not speaking can help clear up the call quality for everyone. The short pauses as people mute and unmute can make calls awkward, but “awkward” beats “impossible to hear or understand anyone because there’s so much noise” any day.

Be prepared to troubleshoot problems.

You are going to run into problems - not on every call, and maybe not on most calls, but it’s going to happen. We’ve outlined some of the most common issues you and the others on your call will encounter below, and ways to address them.

Common Problems and How to Fix Them

Problems You Hear On Any Kind of Conference Call

Problem Fixes
Hard to hear; People sound like they're far away

Possible Cause

The speaker is not using a headset and microphone. Instead, talking into a speaker phone or directly into their computer's built in microphone. From a computer-audio perspective, this is like shouting to people outside from within a cave.

Fixes to Try

  • Ask the person to use a headset and microphone.
  • If that's not possible, ask them to get closer to the microphone and speak clearly.
Echo...echo, echo, echo

Possible Cause

No headset: Audio is coming out someone’s speakers then picked up by their microphone and rebroadcast.

Fixes to Try

  • Mute the person causing the echo. If you're not sure who this is, mute everyone except the person speaking.
  • Make sure everyone on the call knows how to mute and unmute their own line, so they can speak up when they want to.
  • Ask people to use a headset if possible.
No sound; you can't hear anyone on the call

Possible Cause

Volume or speaker settings

Fixes to Try

Most of these applications have a sound check feature that looks something like this.

Screenshot showing controls that identify my headset and my built-in speakers
Screenshot: the audio settings for Zoom.us
  • Make sure your speakers are set up correctly. If you are wearing a headset, make sure your system audio is configured to use them.
  • Turn up the volume on your computer.
  • Turn up the volume in the application (most have a volume slider).
  • Try plugging your headset into a different USB port.
  • You may need to reboot your computer to get it to recognize your headset speakers correctly.
You can hear others, but they can't hear you

Possible Cause

Microphone settings

Fixes to Try

Either your microphone isn't turned on correctly, or the software can't access it because something else on your computer is interfering.

  • Check the sound settings (see above) to make sure the software is using your microphone.
  • You may need to reboot your computer to get it to recognize your headset speakers correctly.
You sound choppy; you're breaking up! We're losing you!

Possible Cause

Connection and bandwidth problems, tunnels

Fixes to Try

If you sound choppy to others, that's usually a problem with your upstream internet bandwidth or cell phone signal. Computer audio, video and screen sharing need good upstream bandwidth (1Mb/s or more) to work well, which can vary wildly throughout the day on some networks.

  • Stop any big uploads in progress.
  • Switch to a telephone that doesn't use the internet for dialing.
The screen freezing or lagging behind when others speak

Possible Cause

Connection and bandwidth problems

Fixes to Try

This could be a downstream bandwidth problem. In that case, you can:

  • Stop streaming videos, updating software, and anything else competing with your internet connection.
  • Step away from the microwave (sadly, this helps with our WiFi).
  • Get a wired connection if possible.

Additional Problems with Audio and Video Conferencing Software

Examples: Zoom.us, Cisco WebEx, GoTo Meeting, Fuze.com, and hundreds more

Problem Fixes
Download Problems

Possible Cause

Slow internet

Fixes to Try

Join the meeting at least 10 minutes early start the download.

Can't install or run the software

Possible Cause

These applications don't work on every computer or device. Causes include:

  • Use of Linux or another unsupported operating system
  • Conflicts with assistive technology (e.g., the meeting crashes JAWS)
  • Downloads blocked by the corporate firewall
  • Device limitations: no camera available, unsupported mobile device, etc.

Fixes to Try

Switch to a browser-based technology (see WebRTC) or dial-in for better universal support

Additional Problems with Browser-Based Audio & Video (WebRTC)

Examples: appear.in, Google Hangouts, FireRTC, UberConference, Lucid Integrated audio

Problem Fixes
You don't see buttons to join the audio or video

Possible Cause

Unsupported browser: Safari, Internet Explorer, others

Fixes to Try

Web audio and video only works reliably using Chrome or Firefox. Some services will attempt to substitute a Flash-based audio connection for Internet Explorer users and others who join using an unsupported browser. The quality of these alternatives is lower.

  • Re-join the meeting using Google Chrome or Firefox
Your audio or video doesn't start

Possible Cause

Browser Permissions

Fixes to Try

The browser needs permission to use your microphone and camera, and you may have missed the pop-up. You'll find these settings in the URL bar of your browser.

The control to grant Chrome access appears after the URL
Screenshot: Granting Chrome access to the computer microphone and camera
The control to grant Firefox access appears before the URL
Screenshot: Granting Firefox access to the computer microphone and camera
You click the button to join the call and nothing happens

Possible Cause

Browser or Javascript Errors

Fixes to Try

The software didn't load correctly or encountered an error.

  • Hold down the shift key and refresh the page to reload the software from scratch.
  • Try joining the meeting with a different browser.
Your call freezes or drops unexpectedly

Possible Cause

Accidental page reload or internet connection problem

Fixes to Try

People will sometimes drop unexpectedly from a web audio call, or have their web video freeze, for two possible reasons. First, people forget that they're using the browser for the call and will refresh or accidentally close that window, which severs the connection. Second, web audio and video is especially sensitive to bandwidth problems.

  • Refresh the meeting page and rejoin the call.
  • Switch to a phone and dial-in that won't be impacted by internet bandwidth problems.

Additional Problems with SIP or VoIP Phones

Examples: PhonerLite, Blink, many corporate phone systems

Problem Fixes
Clicking to join using SIP doesn't do anything

Possible Cause

No SIP software installed

Fixes to Try

People can get confused by SIP and try to use it, even though they have no SIP software installed. To use SIP, you need an application or phone designed for that. Learn more.

The conference doesn’t recognize your conference ID

Possible Cause

The SIP client isn't sending clear tones to the conference

Fixes to Try

Configure your SIP client to make sure the "Send Inband DTMF" setting is turned off. This ensures that the numbers you enter for your conference ID sound correct to the conference line. Learn more.

Additional Problems with Dial-In Numbers

Examples: Toll, Toll-Free and International dial-in numbers

Problem Fixes
Poor quality using a wired phone

Possible Cause

Signal routing issue

Fixes to Try

The phone system works a lot like the public internet. It's actually a whole lot of interconnected systems passing your voice around. Some routes work better than others.

  • Hang up and dial back in.
  • Try an alternate dial-in number.
Poor quality using a cell phone

Possible Cause

You're using a cell phone. For a conference call.

Fixes to Try

While cell phones are becoming better computers ever day, they remain pretty lousy for call quality.

  • Join the call with a wired phone or your computer instead.
  • If you have no other choice, plug earbuds with a microphone into your cell phone to better concentrate the audio.
Poor quality using Skype dial-out

Possible Cause

Skype dial-out signal loss, interference, and weirdness

Fixes to Try

Skype-to-Skype calls tend to work fine with 2 or 3 callers, making Skype a great choice for ad-hoc calls, quick one-on-ones, or talking with your mom. The dial-out works ok for one-on-one calls, but fails regularly on conference calls. We've encountered undecipherable call quality and one time, high-pitched squealing that bombarded everyone except the Skype user.

Please just don't. Using the Skype phone to dial-in to a conference call line is the least consistent and worst quality option at this time. We know the folks at Microsoft are working on this, so that may change, but for now please try web audio using Chrome instead, or get a SIP client.

More Troubleshooting Resources

 But Wait -- There's More

Find this guide handy? You might also like this PDF we put together with the key tips that you can save to reference later.

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