The Micro Zoom Studio

I’ve been using Zoom for work meetings since the pandemic was in full swing (not an endorsement, just a corporate decision) and have found its audio quality relatively good. I still have the problem of coordinating many speakers and volume equalization if speakers aren’t equidistant from their laptop microphones. A week later, I began taking music lessons remotely, substituting the comfy confines of a small practice room with two amps, two basses, and two musicians (of unequal calibre and loudness) for, well, the equivalent of a corporate conference room.

Rewind forty years, and I had a flashback to a high school event where we wanted to play music over the school’s auditorium sound system, and I discovered a 1/4" jack hidden in an access panel that I probably wasn’t supposed to see. A little cabling and some level adjustment and we had whatever Billy Joel songs we wanted to accompany our slide show (it was 1980, hall passes granted). That love of random cabling took me to the production studio at WPRB-FM and eventually into a basement solder station and a lot of random cables. End flashback sequence.

My music lesson requirements are pretty simple: I want to be able to hear my own bass, speak to my teacher, hear his voice and instrument, listen to any YouTube or eRealBook backing tracks that we play through Zoom, and not get feedback. Zoom doesn’t “play” your local audio input back to you, assuming you know what your own voice sounds like, so the setup starts to look like running a monitor speaker while also sending signal to the front of house sound engineer.

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Two mixers, up to 6 inputs, and a whole lotta Zoom

Here’s the setup I’m using — it’s built around an Alesis 8-track USB mixer and a Tascam 2x2 USB instrument interface and a host of old Radio Shack vintage RCA type cables.

I use the 8-track mixer for a studio microphone (so my teacher can hear me) and my bass. I then take the AUX SEND output from the mixer (which would normally drive a compressor or noise gate) and feed that into the Tascam interface as as guitar channel. The Tascam USB cable then connects to my MacBook Air, and I set Zoom to use “Tascam” as the audio input device. (You need to load the Mac driver, but it’s pretty simple). Why not just feed the Alesis USB output into the Mac? The issue is keeping the output from the Zoom session from feeding back into the main mix (If I can figure out how to get the Alesis to just send the AUX over the USB interface, I don’t need the Tascam USB input).

At this point — bass, mic, and even a drum machine are playing in my Zoom session, with a minimum of noise. I don’t need to crank up my bass amp to be hear 6 feet away from the Mac microphone (both distortion and overwhelming the other end result), and I can control the relative levels of everything I’m playing.

For the monitor — I take a 1/8" headphone cable with two RCA connectors on the other end (I think you can cheat with one of the S-Video cables from an old camcorder), and feed that into the Alesis “2 Track” input. Set Zoom to use “ built in output” to send those L+R channels to the main mix (which comes in after the Aux send, so you avoid feedback). Now the Alesis acts like a monitor system — combining my instrument(s), mic, and Zoom session output, and the main mix then goes to the headphone jack. If you’re careful, you can use a monitor speaker but you risk feedback from the microphone if it’s too close.

Here’s the whole setup sitting on an old shelf that I balance on a keyboard stand (cue image of Mac and mixer spilling over back):

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What I like: I can fine tune levels. I can immerse myself in the lesson, and really hear clearly, both teacher and instruments. No feedback, and the sensitivity of the microphone has made me more careful about fingering and fret buzz. What’s not to like: it’s a lot of cables, and it seems clunky. I’d like to think my personal Frippertronics studio has some cachet, but it’s really Radio Shack (RIP) remainders.

What’s next: I’ve seriously considered putting a digital delay in the AUX loop, and therefore delaying my local monitor for a fraction of a section to accommodate long Zoom latency. I’d love for Zoom to have a “click track” feature, where they can insert a click track of adjustable tempo into any Zoom call. While this won’t eliminate the jitter of trying to synchronize musicians on opposite coasts, it should improve the situation by effectively cutting latency in half and getting everyone to adjust to their server-to-desktop delay.

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By day: CIO for R&D at a drug company. Scalable computing, data privacy, performance. Non-day: husband, parent, phan, bass player, ice hockey coach

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