A quick overview of a few technical things to up your game on a hangout

Can you hear me now?

Google hangouts are a great way for a group of people to collaborate on a project, however like a lot of technology there is that nagging caveat: "when they work properly". 

Here's a quick cheat sheet you can pass to other participants to get them up to speed so you hangout doesn't consist of a series of "Can you hear me know" or "Ouch turn it down!" when the audio squeals.

Rule #1: Always use headphones! 

This rule applies to all participants and not just the presenter. 

When one person in the group has no headphones then you will hear echo when anyone else except that person speaks.

It's not always easy to determine the culprit because of this as they themselves never hear the echo and they never get echoed when they speak!

Take it from a seasoned audio master however; its always the person without the headphones that causes the echo! 

How can that be? 

Microphones are designed to pick up sound. Speakers are designed to make sound. So when you speak that person without headphones has their speakers on and the sound created by their speakers is then picked up by their microphone and goes back into the hangout. As there is a small delay due to how fast sound travels and how it has to go up and down the network channels this comes across the hangout in the form of an echo. 

When one person in the group does not use headphones then that is when you tend to get audio squealing.  

When two people in the group do not use headphones then that is when you tend to get audio echoing.  

Why does this happen?  

Squealing is just echo multiplied by at least 2 culprits with a dash to delay added for fun.

Culprit #1 (without headphones) has their speakers pickup a sound, which their microphone dutifully puts back into the hangout. Culprit #2's speakers put out this sound (slightly delayed) and of course their microphone also picks it up and and dutifully put's that sound back into the hangout.

That is what microphones are supposed to do after all - they hear something they pass it on. They can't tell good sound from bad sound -- they simply pass all sounds along. 

If either of our headphone-less participants has their speakers (or their microphone) cranked up, after all they want to hear things right?, this has a tendency to start amplifying the noise. E.g. each round trip between culprit #1 and culprit #2 sees the sound getting stronger. 

If the two culprits are in separate locations this starts to sound like a "whomp whomp whomp" effect -- you can hear each round trip and the thump of noise that just keeps growing until someone turns off their speakers or drops the call. 

If, however, the two culprits are in the same room, then the loop is much smaller and the feedback typically is much higher pitched and starts to go shrill very quickly. 

Why can't you be like normal people and just use the damn speakers? After all it's fine when I talk so I don't know what your problem is!
Again the two culprits in the case never believe it is actually them because when they speak the echo or the squeals tend to die down (the problem goes way so they think they are fixing it...). They think it's you, with your crazy-ass oversized headphones on that is causing the problem. They don't realize you're actually the solution while they are the problem!

Hmmm - isn't that kinda true of a lot of the worlds problems? :)

Why does it stop when they talk? 

Microphones also have noise gates or limiters on them. When a headphone-less culprit is speaking, they speak close to the mic and that means a lot of sound is coming in and as a result the microphone turns itself down. When it turns itself down then the background noises, the noise coming for the systems own speakers, are also turned down as well. Due to this effect the noises are not amplified as much as they are looped around and the feedback tends to die out momentarily.

At least until the culprit finishes speaking. 

So next time someone shows up at a Google Hangout without headphones and wonders why your sound is so bad you may politely point them over here and hopefully they will see the light that headphones are a hangouts best friend! 

A fashion tip: 

Don't want to look like a geek with monster-truck-style headphones on your ears?

Not a problem.

If you have a good USB based microphone chances are it also has a headphone jack on it. Just use your cell phone earbuds, bringing them up behind your back and they are almost invisible on camera much like a news anchor's setup. 

Good Mics anyone?

The Yeti is a reasonable computer microphone for most hangout enthusiasts and has the aforementioned audio jack built in. 

Long standing quality names in the audio industry include Shure, Sennheiser, Audio Technica and many others.

Any reasonable computer microphone however should do the trick for hangout grade results -- unless you plan to record (as the presenter) at studio production levels.