Lessons from holding a hybrid live-Zoom meeting
UPDATE Feb 2023
Below I describe our old setup for hosting hybrid meetings. It works, it’s fine, but it is annoying. Over the last year, I have tried a number of different technologies, and I have finally found something that works brilliantly.
It is the Meeting Owl from Owl Labs; specifically, we use the meeting owl 3. Now it isn’t like me to gush about a product, but these work so well I have to gush a little.
We bought two of them; they work together to cover large conference rooms. You can also buy additional microphones to extend their reach even further, but we’ve been happy with just the two owls.
The audio works great, but so does the camera. It focuses on the speaker and moves with them, so they are always on camera.
We bought the owls for the audio, but the camera has been a great bonus that our Zoom-based members love.
The owl also solves the problem of having people on zoom ask questions. They can talk and their voice comes out of the owls as if they were in the room.
Since we don’t always have a table for our Owls, we also bought a couple of tripods, the Owls attach easily, and we can place them anywhere in the room.
One challenge with the Owl was moving it away from the computer. The included cable is only 3 feet or so, and sometimes the distance between the computer and the Owl is significantly more than that.
So, I bought this 50ft fiber optic USB cable which works brilliantly. Of course, there was one problem with the cable: the end that plugs into the owl was too big to empty cable space under the owl. So I had to buy this little adapter too. You don’t need to worry about this if your owls will always be within a few feet of your computer.
I do know that they are ridiculously expensive, but for us the ease of setup and the quality of the Zoom connection has made them worth every penny.
Now… on to our regularly scheduled blog post.
Yeah, it’s happening.
Just when you thought you had Zoom mastered, the world throws a whole new wrench into the machine.
Welcome to the world of the hybrid meeting. Live, in-person, and on Zoom.
Hybrid sounds simple enough, but it comes with some interesting complications, especially if you do not have a studio to host your meetings.
Hybrid will be one of the lasting impacts of the pandemic. Businesses have proven that we can work remotely, often more productively. But, we have also demonstrated that people like to gather in offices/meeting spaces, and there is much value in personal interaction.
We recently hosted a hybrid meeting for the Westchester Angels and learned a few lessons in the process. It went well, it could have gone better, and as I learn more about the options, I will update this post.
And I welcome all suggestions that you have on the topic.
We hosted a hybrid Westchester Angels pitch night, live and on Zoom. About 30 people attended live, and eight attended via Zoom. We had a questions and answers session after each presentation, both from the live audience and the Zoom audience.
And, just to test our technical prowess, we also included a presentation from a Zoom attendee.
In short, we made this about as tricky as we could.
Our meeting went well; we got great feedback and also some opportunities for improvement. I’ll describe how we set ourselves up and plan on changing our setup for next time.
One piece of advice right away is to let go of the meeting being perfect.
Perfection requires lighting, multiple microphones, and dedicated production staff. If you have those or a permanent meeting space where you can install equipment permanently, then go for it. But if you have to be mobile or temporary or just don’t want to spend tens of thousands of dollars on equipment, welcome to our world.
The good news is that you can get the fundamentals working without going bankrupt or dedicating your life to setup.
So, let’s dig in.
The best place to start is by understanding the challenges.
When I first agreed to host the meeting, I imagined showing up 15 minutes beforehand, whipping out my computer, firing up Zoom, and hosting a hybrid session.
Here is why that won’t work:
- Challenge one: Zoom and live participants can’t hear each other. The microphone and speakers on the computer are useless. Don’t even try them; they won’t work.
- Challenge two: There is more going on in the live room than a presentation, so sharing the screen is not enough. When everybody is on Zoom, there is a level playing field. When you have a live presenter, people on Zoom want to see the presenter and the presentation.
- Challenge three: If your presenter is showing slides and you use a camera to show the slides and the presenter, the slides will be hard to see. So you will want to show both the person presenting as well as the slides they are presenting as a shared screen.
- Challenge four: Switching between an online presenter and an offline presenter is tricky.
- Challenge five: It is much harder for Zoom participants to make themselves heard over the din of live participants.
Solving the audio issue requires microphones. You will need microphones for the presenters but also anyone else who is speaking. One microphone will not be enough.
We used four microphones connected to a four-channel microphone mixer. We had two handheld microphones and two lapel microphones. Our speakers wore lapel mics, and we passed the handheld mics around the room to ask questions.
We did also have a four-channel soundboard mixer between the microphone mixer and the computer. We used it to adjust the volume and quality of the sound coming from the microphone mixer so that it sounded good in Zoom.
(Technically, we could have also added other audio tracks using that mixer, such as more microphones. The mixer just helped us with levels and sound quality)
So the audio setup looked like this:
Microphones -> Microphone mixer -> Sound Mixer -> Computer (Zoom).
One problem we had right off the bat was TRS versus TRRS jacks. Modern computers require TRRS; most audio systems are TRS. So you will need an adapter (Read more here).
This is a new addition to our setup, these microphones allow you to pick up some of the room noise and conversation that happens in the room.
We had a webcam on the computer facing the speaker and the projected slides. To help get a better feel for the room, we set up a secondary camera with a room view. We had a third camera on the computer for our Zoom host (more not that in a second).
We used a Bluetooth-connected portable speaker (Sonos Move) to share what was said on Zoom with the live audience. The speaker worked well; just note that Zoom will not play what comes in through the microphone on the speaker, so it doesn’t work as an amplifier. If you want the microphones to amplify the sound in the room, you will need another speaker, or you will have to hook your speaker up to both Zoom AND the microphone output.
Live audience -> Microphone -> Zoom Audience
Zoom Audience -> Speaker -> Live audience
We had one computer hooked up to the projector. That was the main computer we used for Zoom; we shared the projector as a second screen.
Our Zoom host had a second computer. She “attended” the Zoom meeting using that computer as an attendee so that she could interact with the Zoom audience without disrupting the main computer.
It also allowed her to participate in and tune the Zoom experience.
I have found that having a separate moderator computer can be very helpful whenever you are dealing with large crowds and multiple rooms.
- Zoom videoconferencing, if you haven’t heard of Zoom, well, don’t try this. Also, if you don’t have a paid version remember you only have 40 minutes before they cut you off, and you really shouldn’t go through all this effort for a 40-minute meeting.
- Eppocam: allows you to use your iPhone as a webcam. (https://www.elgato.com/en/epoccam). It is wireless, works like a charm, and is not very expensive. It looks like it is iOS only, but there must be something similar for Android (let me know if you find something, I’ll add it in here). Eppocam allowed us to set up a second camera, an iPhone, away from the main computer. We used that one to show what was going on in the room.
- OBS, Open Broadcast Software (https://obsproject.com/ ). This software allows you to share multiple input devices and your screen at the same time. You can quickly and easily set up different “scenes” or configurations of cameras and shared screens or windows. OBS allowed us to switch between scenes easily and helped our Zoom participants focus on the most relevant content. It’s free.
We had one person dedicated to running the Zoom room. Her name is Carla, and she is terrific. She:
- managed people coming and going from Zoom.
- handled any issues that the Zoom crowd had during the meeting.
- Acted as the voice of those on Zoom.
This last point is essential. The people in Zoom can’t raise their hand or otherwise make themselves known. So if they wanted to say something, they would let Carla know. Carla would either ask the question or take them off mute and let them ask their question (which the live audience members would hear through our portable speaker).
I strongly recommend having someone dedicated to hosting the meeting.
How We Ran the Meeting
Carla, our Zoom host, managed the Zoom room while I drove the in-person room. We did not bother with breakout rooms; we just set Zoom up as a meeting.
We had one webcam show the presenter with the projected slides while a second camera showed the room. We shared the projector as a screen on Zoom, and the presenters all had microphones.
During questions and answers sessions, I shuttled microphones n the room so that the Zoom crowd could hear questions. This worked wellish in that there was some cross-talk that those on Zoom did not hear. Also, waiting for microphones slowed the conversation and was challenging to manage (on the plus side, I did get my steps in, so there’s that).
When someone on Zoom had a question, they would ask it through Carla. Carla monitored the chat and helped people as they needed. She joined the Zoom meeting using a second computer, and here we made the mistake of not equipping her with earphones.
We pulled it off with Zoom chat, but if she had had earphones, she would have been better able to adjust the sound and make sure everything was working.
So: make sure your Zoom host has earphones.
Since we also had an online presenter, we shifted from sharing our screen and audio to projecting the shared screen and playing audio through speakers. These are two different functions in Zoom, and I did not find an easy way to switch. So the transition was a bit clumsy.
To make the switch, we stopped our sharing, put Zoom in full screen on the computer, and projected that screen. It worked fine; it just was a bit clumsy.
There were a few rough transitions, and the Zoom crowd missed some of the conversation. But as long as our live audience used microphones, the Zoom audience could hear. Using a microphone is a discipline; as we get used to using them, I think the experience will improve.
While the microphone setup worked, it had its challenges. The Zoom audience could not hear anybody not speaking into a mic. It was hard to shuttle the mics around the room fast enough when we had a discussion going. As a result, the Zoom crowd missed out on some of the discussions.
Also, we had some echo and feedback.
How to Improve:
- Room and boom mics would probably do a better job capturing the whole discussion but add a lot of cost and hassle to the setup.
- I’d like to try wrapping the microphones in a foam cube that we can easily toss around the room. Throwing a mic would be faster than walking it from place to place and add a bit of levity (but if you miss it, it could go flying around the room, so, tradeoffs).
- More mics could help.
- Test for echo and feedback, move around the equipment to minimize his.
We forgot earphones for our Zoom host, and that was an issue.
How to Improve
Be sure your Zoom host has their computer and earphones. Your host has to monitor the entire experience and make adjustments to your setup to address any issues that come up.
Our lighting wasn’t perfect. Those on Zoom complained that the speaker’s faces were dark. But if we had added lighting, our live audience would not have seen the projected screen. Also, we would have had to bring lights.
Lighting is always an issue in any photography; this is no different. Using portable equipment will always be a challenge to a certain extent, and you shouldn’t expect perfection. But, if you want to schlep lights, they would undoubtedly help.
If you do use lights, remember that they will wash out anything projected on a screen. A large television screen would work much better than a projector.
- Screens work better for projectors if you want to capture both the presenter and the slides in the same camera shot.
- TRS (Tip Ring Sleeve) versus TRRS (Tip Ring Ring Sleeve) – this is all about the audio jack in your computer. Most modern computers are TRRS jacks, which means that the plug going into the computer has four parts (the tip, two rings an and a sleeve). However, a lot of audio equipment uses TRS (tip, ring sleeve). If you plug the TRS into a TRRS jack, it looks like it fits fine, but it won’t work. The solution: buy an adapter.
- OBS works excellently, but you may have an issue with blurry PowerPoint slides. This has to do with how Zoom optimizes camera inputs for motion. The way to solve this is to share OBS as a second camera. To do this, go to screen sharing, choose advanced, choose a second camera, and set that up as OBS. It’ll work great.
- Microphones with microphone mixer.
- Sound mixer (optional if you have a microphone mixer, but I recommend it).
- Two computers.
- Projector or screen.
- Second monitor (optional but nice to have).
- Cables to connect everything.
- Extra batteries for the microphones.
- Table for Zoom computer.
- Table for projector (if using a projector)
- Table for microphone equipment.
- Extra camera (smartphone is fine).
- Tripod for an extra camera.
- Check TRS and TRRS cable, you may need an adapter.
- Epocam (if you are using smartphone as a camera, this may only work with iOS)