Optimizing Audio for Online Music Lessons

(for those who really, really, REALLY want to go the extra mile)

March 22, 2020

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already tried Skype, FaceTime, Google Duo, and Zoom (with advanced audio settings), and are still wishing there was a way to get higher quality sound in your online lessons.

Well, it appears that there is a way to improve things above and beyond Zoom’s advanced audio setting tweaks (which you can read about here). It’s nothing near CD-quality, of course, but the difference is noticeable – if you’re using an external microphone and headphones. If you’re just using the built-in mic and speakers on a laptop, this hack won’t make that much of a difference.

So if you have a laptop, an external microphone, headphones, and a desire to get the best possible sound in your next online lesson (or virtual concert, which might actually be a better use case), the “cleanfeed hack” below might be worth a try.

* * *

Before we dive in, much thanks to Curtis Judd, whose mention of Cleanfeed in this recent livestream on gear for online music lessons led to this fun little experiment (and my spending waaaay too much time going down this rabbit hole in the last 48 hours…).

Thanks also to Rob Knopper for the xylophone and snare drum samples – and my daughter for patiently humoring me as she served as my pianist and guinea pig for this. =)

Sound samples (piano)

*Just FYI, the clips all sound pretty much the same through your phone/tablet speakers; to hear the difference, you’ll want to put some headphones on. =)

Zoom default settings

Blue Yeti USB mic

Zoom advanced settings

Blue Yeti USB mic

Cleanfeed

Blue Yeti USB mic

Zoom default settings

Built-in laptop mic

Zoom advanced settings

Built-in laptop mic

Cleanfeed

Built-in laptop mic

Sound samples (xylophone)

Zoom default settings

AKG C414

Zoom advanced settings (mono)

AKG C414

Cleanfeed

AKG C414

Sound samples (snare drum)

Zoom default settings

AKG C414

Zoom advanced settings (mono)

AKG C414

Cleanfeed

AKG C414

How to Set Up Cleanfeed with Zoom

Step 1: Sign up for a free Cleanfeed account at cleanfeed.net
*Note that this only works with the Chrome browser (also the Brave browser if you’re anti-Chrome)

 

Step 2: Check your email inbox and confirm, etc.

 

Step 3: Log in with your username and password

 

Step 4: Allow Chrome to access the microphone

 

Step 5: Click the audio button, and then select “music optimised” under audio quality:

 

Step 6: Click the gear icon and select your desired mic

 

Step 7: Click CONNECT to create a special access link for your friend/colleague/student, so they can join you in your “studio.” The link they get is a permanent link that will stay the same in subsequent sessions, so make sure they keep the email so they can always join you here. And the cool thing is they don’t need to sign up or download anything, so for your guests, it’s super easy (maybe this would work well for a virtual “radio” concert type of thing?).

When your friend clicks on the button in the email, they’ll get to a page like this…

And when they click on start, you’ll see them show up in your room, like this…

 

Step 8: Make sure they click the gear and select the mic they want to use, and now you can minimize your browsers, and start up a Zoom meeting. (FWIW, most of what you just did is one-time stuff, that you won’t have to do again the next time.)

And once you’ve connected with each other in a Zoom meeting, click on the arrow next to the mute button, and select “leave computer audio” just to make sure you’re really using Cleanfeed for audio. Like so:

All done! Yeah, I know it seems like a lot of steps, but once you’ve gone through all of these hoops the first time, it’s actually pretty quick.

If you bookmark your “studio” page, and have your password manager set to auto-log you in, it’s pretty much just one-click to get in. And the same with your student(s) or guests.

Comments

44 Responses

    1. Assuming both are using decent mics and headphones (to prevent echo), then yes, everyone who logs into the cleanfeed “studio” page for audio will hear higher audio quality. But if say Person A is using their built-in laptop mic for audio, while Person B is using a higher-quality mic, Person A will hear B’s nice audio feed, while Person B will hear A’s poor audio.

      1. Is the Studio page only available on the paid version? The original email link I sent my students did not work subsequent weeks. My students got a message that the link was no longer active. I had to resend. Also, they can’t optimize for music on their end?

        1. Hi Amy,

          Sorry I missed this comment! Yes, due to concerns about privacy, I believe they now make the links automatically expire in 24 hours, by default. Pro users can set it to expire after a week, month, or never, but for free accounts it’s 24 hours.

          In terms of optimizing, I can’t verify this for certain, but I think perhaps the optimization for music happens on both sides, if you set it to be optimized for music on your end?

          Noa

  1. Hi, Noa,
    My Band, NewLanders, tried Zoom, with an Ethernet Connector, for an Online Practice, but the Latency problem was pronounced – especially beyond 2 people in a Session. Do you know if Cleanfeed might help with that situation – providing we all use the Chrome Browser?
    Just hoping!
    Gerard

    1. Hi Gerald,

      I wish I could say yes, and was really hoping it would, but I tried it out with a couple people, and while the sound quality is improved, latency is still an issue. Sorry!

      And while this doesn’t necessarily solve the issue directly, the Bayberry Quartet has put together a short post on how they rehearse remotely, a one-page guide, and a longer podcast episode about the ins and outs.

      1. Hello, Noa,
        Thank you for your insightful Articles. I am reading them at my (considerable current) leisure! My friends and I are about to experiment with JamKazam. Two of us (Guitar & Mando – both Singers) managed to pierce thru the Latency Problem – for one Session only, thus far. Repetitions have not yielded the same Result – yet! Three of the 4 remaining NewLanders are joining the Session next week. Fifty fingers crossed, Buddy!

        1. Wow!
          I hope I’m replying to the proper String here, Noa, about Jamulus. We’re almost set up (all of us) for JamKazm, which we’ll try first. But, Jamulus is “up nest”, so to speak! Thanks, Partner!
          Gerard.
          p.s., I’m passing this along wo my Peeps!

        2. Cool!
          If we ever get this thing moving – you’re invited to join in, Buddy!
          G;>)

  2. Hi Noa. Thank you for your tutorial for using Cleanfeed. I have tried out a number of times with different students. The strange thing is that for some, there is great feedback (where I can hear echo of myself and them speaking through their mic). I wonder if there is any way to change the settings to solve this feedback problem?

    1. Yeah, I don’t know of a setting in Cleanfeed that addresses the echo, but I wonder if not having any echo cancellation is part of what makes Cleanfeed sound good? Anyhow, the only fix for this that I’m aware of is to have your students wear headphones on their end, so your voice doesn’t feed back into their mic. It’s a little inconvenient at first, but after a while, you kind of forget that you have headphones on.

      1. I had that problem with my piano teacher when trying out Cleanfeed/Zoom yesterday. There seemed to be an advantage in Zoom by switching the advanced audio to “aggressive” echo cancellation. Although the teacher said she had mixed experiences so far with CF+Zoom, I will grab some simple ear-pods next time rather than my i-Mac internal speakers. Our default using just i-phone’s Facetime was better than nothing. Thanks for the “headphone tip”.

  3. I tried out cleanfeed and although the sound quality was better, my student could barely hear me. I would assume this is a headphone issue? It certainly was a much better quality of sound than zoom’s optimized sound.

    1. Hi Ellen,

      Just a guess, but assuming your student turned up their volume as high as they could, and they still had difficulty hearing you, I wonder if this might be a microphone thing? Have you tried increasing the mic sensitivity in your computer’s audio settings? On Macs, it’s in System Preferences-Sound-Input, and can be controlled via the “Input volume” slider. It’s been a few years since I used a PC, so I can’t remember how exactly to get there, but I imagine there are mic/input volume controls in Windows too.

      1. I think the answer will be on her end. She was listening with ipad pro speakers. I would imagine headphones would be the answer. Still I wonder why the volume was reduced when we switched from zoom to cleanfeed. I am using a body mike and a microphone into an allen and heath mixer with USB interface.

        1. Ah, interesting. Yes, I suppose if the levels look good in Cleanfeed on your end, it could be something about the iPad volume levels. I actually wasn’t even sure if this would work with an iPad, so it’s pretty cool to hear that it does. Please do let me know if using headphones helps with the volume issue!

  4. I mentioned this conversation to my student and sent her the link. If she uses headphones at the next lesson we will let you know how it sounds. Thanks for this whole discussion. I am excited to acquiring better quality from my students. It’s been a long two months of upping the game, from a single mike to a mixer and body mike. The cleanfeed may be the answer to many headache sounds.

  5. Thanks for this tutorial! I was just wondering if I record the lesson through Zoom but am using cleanfeed audio, will the Zoom recording have no sound?

    1. I could be wrong, but I believe so, yes – if you use cleanfeed audio, the zoom recording will have no audio. You could record audio through cleanfeed, but that won’t have any video.

    2. Yep. I did this a few times and sent to students in one week and only realized after I got emails three days later that there was no audio. It records – but records the ZOOM end which is muted. You have to record the AUDIO on cleanfeed and the video on zoom. A pain, but it can work.

      1. Hi Laura, I wonder if maybe you could record both the video on your screen and audio passing through your system with Quicktime or some other screen recording software? It’d add a layer of complication on your end, but would be easier than combining audio and video later, perhaps?

    1. I haven’t tried it with Skype or FaceTime, but my guess is that it could still work with these, maybe? It might just be a little trickier to make sure you’re hearing the Cleanfeed audio that’s coming through your browser, as opposed to hearing the audio that’s being provided by FaceTime or Skype.

  6. I had excellent sound success on Zoom, despite the fact that we could not do this step:
    “And once you’ve connected with each other in a Zoom meeting, click on the arrow next to the mute button, and select “leave computer audio” just to make sure you’re really using Cleanfeed for audio.”

    I tried it in 2 different lessons. Selecting “leave computer audio” caused both of us to lose audio. In the second lesson, I just went back to the usual mic icon on Zoom, and then it worked, or at least I think it worked. I admit I was comparing the sound to Skype, which had been very poor, not to Zoom without Cleanfeed. Bottom line, the sound was good!

    If you have any further suggestion about the mic setting, I’ll try again. Meanwhile, many thanks for this information; today it kind of gave me hope!

    1. Hi Nancy,

      Hmm…sounds like Zoom is taking over the audio once it starts up, instead of letting audio continue to play in the background through the browser. Are both of you using laptops or desktops? I ask because this hack won’t work on an iPhone or iPad, in that once you start up Zoom, Cleanfeed goes into the background and disconnects, so you have to use Zoom audio at that point.

      Noa

  7. We were both using computers.

    Is it certain that, if the ‘leave computer audio’ doesn’t work, Cleanfeed has disconnected? If so, then I guess it was simply Zoom sound over Skype sound (which is something I have never found before).

    1. Ah, rats, I was hoping the answer would be that simple. =) Yes, clicking on “leave computer audio” is to make sure the audio isn’t coming from Zoom, but things keep changing so rapidly, and everyone’s input/output situation is so different, that it’s a little tricky to troubleshoot from afar. But if regular Zoom audio is working better for you than Skype, that’s still a positive step forward!

      Out of curiosity, were you able to hear a difference between the cleanfeed audio and zoom audio? As in, when you were both connected to cleanfeed only, before starting up zoom, did the audio sound any different or better than when you were using zoom audio?

  8. That’s a good question. There was a minutesof cleanfeed audio only before we started up zoom (and after we’d ditched Skype). I think that I’d be correct in saying the cleanfeed sound was slightly better than what followed. But I’m not sure. Tomorrow I will run more tests & try to get a more significant comparison.

    Thanks again, Noa. If the kinks can be worked out of this, it will be a real godsend for teachers.

    1. Ah, ok. Yeah, there are so many variables involved, so it might not end up making that much of a difference audio quality-wise, but maybe it might have something to do with choosing a different system output in your operating system too, when zoom audio has been shut down? Best of luck with the continued experiments!

    2. Hi Nancy,

      Just noticed something that I thought I’d mention. I was going through the Zoom settings to set up a different account, and saw that under “audio type”, there’s an option to choose “3rd party audio.” I don’t know if that’s related to the issues you were having or not, or if it’s a new thing or has always been there, but I wonder if that might do something?

      Here’s more on that: https://support.zoom.us/hc/en-us/articles/202470795-3rd-Party-Audio-Conference

  9. Hi Noa,

    Here’s my latest on Cleanfeed (spoiler alert: Not Good News!)…

    I know this sounds incredible, but it happened twice. Having succeeded in replacing Zoom’s sound with Cleanfeed’s, I heard excellent piano sound. But then I heard my student’s C# major chord (I saw his fingers) as B Major! (He heard my pitch as played.)

    This is a crazy world.

    Best,
    Nancy

    1. Ack! That’s no good! So weird…wonder why that happens. I don’t actually know what it does, but are you both using the “music optimised” setting (via the the “Audio” button at the top of the page)? I wonder if it might be that you have this set to music, and your student doesn’t? Just making random guesses at this point…no idea why this would happen!

      Noa

      1. My wife receives singing lessons and provides piano lessons over Zoom (currently without Cleanfeed). Sometimes use a Zoom (brand) H4N microphone with digital output. In any case both computers (and external microphone if used) have to be set to the same sampling frequency; the usual options are 44 kHz or 48 kHz; we use 44 as our default. Otherwise we get frequency shifts as the OP describes. HTH, John

  10. I just spent a week experimenting with Rockoutloud.live instead of using Zoom and the sound is WAY better. Tim Topham did a podcast about this platform with the owner/creator and I suggest checking this out. The biggest challenge was getting some parents to download Chrome – this is a browser based platform and not an app like zoom. The teacher needs to use a computer but the student can use ipad, android, cell phone. Of course using an external mike is still hightly recommended, yet for the clueless family who just can’t or won’t add the mike, the sound was pretty good and richer than ZOOM tin sound.

    1. Cool – thanks, Ellen! That sounds really promising.

      UPDATE (a few minutes later): Interesting – I haven’t listened to Tim’s episode yet, but I checked out the intro video on the site, and it looks like this is built on the open source jitsi meet software (albeit with a lot of cool extra features added, and I imagine this came up in the interview too). All this to say, if you’re reading this and have been wondering if it’s worth experimenting with FaceTime/Skype/Discord/etc., as an alternative to zoom for potential audio/video quality gains, it might be worth adding jitsi meet to the mix too.

  11. This demo is the best thing for those who as of yet don’t have remote partners to try things out with. Having a dual stream (one audio only and one video only is invaluable for quality but doesn’t change latency issues. As long as that’s clear, it helps everyone sort out the many and confusing options we’re all seeing this far. And we teachers, despite our tendency to want to run away screaming, we know that we have to lead our students. EVEN if they are more digital natives than we are (for sure than I am!!) Anyway your contribution is much appreciated in all this!

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