Tweaking my work from home gear

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7 min read

Prior to COVID, my work schedule was 3 days at home and 2 days in the office, so when COVID hit I was in a pretty good space to transition to full-time work at home. A few years back I purchased an inexpensive convertible desk from Ikea, modified it a bit by adding a shelf to elevate a larger monitor, and invested in a decent headset for video conferences and remote presentations. It was a functional setup that served me well when I divided time between home and office, and for a time when virtual meetings and webinars were occasional, not multiple times daily, events.

But then 2 things happened that has made me want to up my virtual work at home toolset.

First, COVID hit and, like many other organizations, BCcampus went fully virtual, as did every institution in the province with whom I work closely with. Second, I picked up another sessional online teaching position at the University of Victoria to go along with the sessional online teaching work I do at Royal Roads University. So not only has the amount of time I spend online in BigBlueCollaborateZoomTeams meetings increased, but I am also spending more time creating videos to help add a sense of presence to the online courses I teach. The more time I spent doing both of these things, the more I began to notice a few things about my setup that could use some tweaking.

For one, my audio. I have a background in radio production and broadcasting, and as much as the headset I had was a step-up from earbuds (I honestly don’t know how you Apple folx can spend hours with those things in your ears day in and day out), the audio quality was starting to bother me in the videos I produced for learners. And after making a return appearance to ds106 radio a few weeks back with Maren, Anne-Marie and Tannis, I have in the back of my mind I want to pick up some more DJ shifts on the freeform station. So, I invested in a decent microphone, stand, shock cage and a good old fashioned set of over the ear comfortable headphones.

Microphone and headphones with computer

My audio setup is now;

  • Audio-Technica ATR2100x-USB Cardioid Dynamic Microphone ($150) I went with this one as it seemed to balance affordability with quality. I wanted a cardioid mic for the directional pickup pattern as the room I am in is fairly noisy and I hoped that going with a cardioid mic it might help reduce the amount of bg noise. It is very directional, meaning I need to have it fairly close to my mouth for it to work well, so it does now make appearances in my videos. This mic is also both USB-C and XLR ready, so if I want to plug into production-quality gear I have a universal XLR plug that can get me hooked up. It is also portable, so I can take it on the road with me if I want. And I can plug headphones into the mic which gives me a much more immediate and real sense of what the mic is “hearing” at the time of recording, meaning it is easier to catch distracting background noises. If I would have had this a few weeks back when I guested on ds106, for example, I would have immediately noticed that the wind in the bg was being picked up my the mic I was using. Instead, we went the whole show without me catching that basic audio gaff.
  • Mic stand ($30) with shock mount cage ($10) & sock ($5 for 4 pack) The mic stand attaches to the side of my desk, so without the cage to absorb vibrations, every touch of the desk would be picked up by the mic. The sock filters out things like popping p’s and wind noise. Cheap, but does the job for the time being. But I can see where repeated moving it in and out of position on my desk is going to cause it to lose it’s tensile strength pretty quickly.
  • Sennheiser HD201 audio headphones ($100) I went with these because they are lightweight, comfortable and sound very good. They are not noise cancelling but isolate enough of the audio around me that I can hear what the mic picks up. And they are comfortable to wear for hours at a time.

On the video side, my office is a very bright room with large windows on three sides. Working in tons of natural light is a joy, and I have a large window in front of me that really helps with front-facing light (an important part of good video is good front lighting) but not when you have a large window directly behind you that can make lighting for video a real challenge as the backlight from the window behind me sometimes caused me to appear dark on-screen, or was overly intense in the bg. And the blinds we have in this room are butt ugly and battered, so when they are closed I am conscious of every bent and battered blind in camera view behind me.

Man pointing at sunny window behind himOh yes, the view behind me. Something that I really never cared much about in the past, but perhaps I should now as people seem to be paying attention to that. Well, right behind me is my wife’s office workspace and she is not keen on making on-camera appearances while I am in meetings or creating videos. Because I am on camera so much she was avoiding using her own workspace. Also right behind me, our treadmill which, like the blinds, was making me increasingly self-conscious about having in over my shoulder in the shot.

Man pointing at treadmill behind him over his right shoulder

Now, tools like Zoom and Teams have virtual backgrounds and I tried those, but was never happy with the results, especially when used with my new mic which takes up a bit of screen space. I ended up with odd effects using the background option.

Zoom call where fingers are mysteriosuly missing from particiapnts hand

Zoom caller with hunk missing from shoulderZoom caller missing arm caused by bad Zoom virtual bgThe virtual backgrounds weren’t really cutting it. So I thought about hanging some kind of curtain from the ceiling to help with the issues. But right above my desk is a ceiling fan so hanging things not really an option. Besides, I’ve moved my office in the house a few times and may want to do it again, so the idea of having a portable background was appealing.

Then came a tweet from Doug Belshaw a few weeks ago talking about a portable green screen he had purchased from Elgato. I ordered one from Best Buy a few weeks ago ($250) and it finally arrived yesterday, and it works like a charm. Here it is sitting just behind my chair, hiding the backlight and treadmill. I have set it up quite close to the chair for the photo, but it would normally sit back a foot or two to give me some space.

Desk with green screen behind it

And a shot from behind where you can see the skeleton of the setup.


Photo pf the back of a green screen

And here is what it hides behind me.

Photo of treadmill and desk

The green screen feels like a solid, well-built unit. The fabric is thick, the hardware solid, and setup is a snap.

Open the storage box and lift. Push down back into the box when done and prop it in the corner. Set-up and takedown is 30 seconds. And, being portable, I can take it to any location.

Tall carrying case for green screen
Packed up and stored tucked away in a corner of the office.

Today I used it for the first time in a meeting and was super happy with the results. No light bleeding through causing a weird halo around my head and sharp, crisp lines. And no treadmill in the background.

Man in a Zoom

All in all, an investment of about $500, which, while not insignificant, does feel like an investment in making my home a more comfortable work environment, while increasing the audio and video quality of my presence for both synchronous meetings and facilitated learning experiences, and for the creation of media artifacts that I’ll use in my teaching & learning practice.

Up next – a webcam that I can mount at eye level.

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