Zoom Playing – Tips

by Rob Thaller

Rob Thaller is a Toronto jazz pianist and dance accompanist, originally from Saskatchewan, where he studied classical piano before studying Jazz at the Eastman School of Music. He has played at Canada’s National Ballet School since 2006, and has numerous ballet class albums available on most online music platforms. In this blog post, Rob describes how his department has set up playing for classes over Zoom.

This is an attempt to share some information about playing for ballet classes remotely over Zoom. My colleagues and I all have different situations (device and keyboard/piano) and have come up with a few different solutions to try to improve the sound quality. I am not a tech person, so I can only go on my own trial and error, and that of my colleagues, but hopefully there is something helpful here. If you have other tips (especially for non-Apple users!) please send along, perhaps this can become a repository of tips for various set-ups. My email is robert.thaller@primus.ca

First a few basics. If you can, connecting to your modem/router with an ethernet cable rather than relying on wifi can help a lot. It is helpful to change a few settings in zoom. Near the microphone there is a small ^ symbol, which will give you the option of audio settings. Select audio settings, then advanced. Check ‘enable original sound’, Disable BOTH ‘suppress persistent background noise’, and ‘suppress intermittent background noise’.

If you are using your acoustic instrument, we have found that in many cases it can help to lower the microphone input (on the main page of audio settings) substantially to decrease distortion. As well, if you are placing your computer directly on the piano, a few books under the computer can help the sound quality. If you are using a phone or tablet, the above options are not presently available, and the ethernet connection is obviously not available. To state the obvious, if you have unlimited data, and you have a strong signal, that may be worth a try.

One pianist I spoke to that was using an iPad was able to improve the sound quality by use of an external microphone. Connecting your electric keyboard to your computer can send a very clear, stable sound to your class. All my colleagues that are doing this are using Apple laptops, using either Logic or GarageBand to generate the sound.

I have no experience with either Windows systems, or setups where your actual keyboard sound is being sent to your class (as opposed to your keyboard being used as a midi controller, with the sounds created internally). My hope is that some of this will still be useful to you if you fall into the above categories.

In any case you will need to share your computer audio. You do this by clicking on ‘share screen’ at the bottom of the meeting screen, then going to the advanced tab. You will find ‘share computer sound’ as an option’. Click this box, then ‘share’ at the bottom. You may find yourself unable to share, which your host will have to rectify on their end.

In the case of Apple laptops here are some things we’ve found (which again I hope may be helpful to others). I was surprised to find a Zoom output in my Logic audio settings, which I had to select in order to hear my sounds in the meeting. (This appeared about a day after first using Zoom) On the other hand, another musician, using GarageBand on an older Macbook, was not given this option, but was able to share his sound even though he was on the regular system audio.

Admittedly, my setup features a slight lag between my keypress and the resulting sound. One way to try to reduce this is by reducing the buffer (in audio settings in your music program, Logic for me). I had to be careful with this, as it did reduce the lag, but sometimes caused my sound to stutter a bit. So, it took some trial and error to find a setting I was happy with – I still change it from time to time. One pianist I know deals with this by plugging his headphones into his own keyboard, so he doesn’t hear the lag himself. (He is listening to his own keyboard while the class is getting the midi sound)

This is about all I have for now; I hope to get more info to pass along. Again, please feel free to send anything so we can share in this space. Good luck and have fun!!