Earlier this year the leader of our church congregation asked me to take over the Zoom meetings for our weekly services. We meet in person, but some of our members still do not feel comfortable gathering indoors. The church pays for a Zoom license, so we set up a recurring webinar for them. All I need to do each week is provide a device, log on, start the Zoom meeting, and monitor the chat for any issues. I’m a technical guy. I can manage a Zoom meeting. It sounded like a simple enough assignment, so I agreed. It has been anything but simple, but I’ve learned a lot along the way, some of which may be useful to others.
At first, we attached an iPhone to one of those small, flexible tripod, and placed it on the podium. If you have ever attended a Zoom meeting where someone props their phone at a 45-degree angle looking up at them, you can imagine how great that looked. In fact, you need not imagine. It looked a lot like this:
I decided that if they wanted me to run these webinars, I was going to do something about that horrible angle.
Fix the Angle
To do that, I knew that the camera needed to be much farther back in the room. I tried mounting it higher, but we realized quickly that it would be a distraction. I remembered having an older tripod sitting at home unused in a closet, a relic from my 35mm Nikon days.
For the next few weeks, I mounted my iPhone 11 on the tripod at the back of the chapel. It was easy enough, but it introduced a few new wrinkles. First, the iPhone’s digital zoom is OK, and no one attending remotely complained. The angle was fixed, but the video wasn’t as good. Second, the mic was now about 50 feet from the front of the room, so we were picking up the building’s PA system to hear the speaker, along with all the background noise (A/C units, people coughing, children fussing, etc.).
Fix the Audio
Ok, so how to fix the audio? Well, we still had that other iPhone we had been using. Maybe we could connect both phones to the Zoom webinar and make them co-hosts. The iPhone on the podium would mute its camera and unmute its mic. My iPhone would do the opposite. We quickly found the flaw in that plan.
I expected synchronization issues with the audio and video from the separate devices, but no one ever complained about that. The problem was control.
For a variety of reasons, parts of the service require us to mute the audio and video of the webinar. We soon discovered that one device, even when logged in as the webinar host, cannot completely control the audio and video mute settings of another device. We could mute each other, but not unmute. Also, I discovered that when I turn on the camera, it resets to 1x zoom. This meant that I had to jump up and re-zoom, while someone at the front of the room had to stand up and unmute that iPhone.
This was not the fix we hoped it would be.
More Professional Gear
I got permission to spend a little bit of money to see if I could find some better gear than the two iPhones. I researched web cameras and wireless microphone systems. At first, I was looking for something I could add to my iPhone. Then I found out that Apple does not condone external cameras on iPhones. Well, I had a computer I could use, so I shifted my search to something more traditional. I had never heard of a USB camera with an optical zoom lens, but figured it couldn’t hurt to look around. I found a bunch.
ALPCAM 8MP Webcam
After a little research, I decided I would try an ALPCAM Webcam, a USB camera which includes an optical zoom lens.
It uses a standard screw-type tripod mount, so would fit on my tripod without issue. When it arrived, I connected it to an older laptop I had lying around, fired up the Zoom webinar, and tested it out. The camera has manual zoom, manual focus, and manual brightness. Pointing it out the window allowed me to test all three to my satisfaction.
Alvoxcon USB Lapel Mic System
At the same time, I still needed to solve the audio problems, too. It occurred to me that if I were going to bring a laptop with a camera, I might as well connect an external mic to it, also. I had used wireless lapel mics before, so I had some idea what I was looking for. After a bit of reading, I found the Alvoxcon USB Lapel Mic System.
This system consists of a small lapel microphone, a rechargeable UHF transmitter, and a wireless USB-powered receiver. Now I could plug the camera and receiver into two USB ports and manage the entire webinar from a laptop in the back of the room. Because everything is connected to my laptop, I could control the audio and video muting entirely, without being a distraction.
All I had to do was arrive a little early to get everything set up. I clip the lapel mic to the stalk of the boom mic already at the podium, wrap the wire around the mic stalk, clip the transmitter unobtrusively on the edge of the podium, turn it on, and walk away. Everything else is controlled entirely from my laptop.
I recently did a short review of this microphone, which you can see and hear below.
For about $120, I solved all my problems (or so I thought at the time).
The Wednesday evening after the mic and camera arrived, I took the laptop to the church building to try to test it in the actual location. Though there were people in the building (Wednesday is our youth night), I had the chapel to myself. After positioning the camera and connecting everything together, I started the Zoom webinar and began testing it out. The laptop felt sluggish. I knew Zoom used a lot of resources, but this poor laptop simply couldn’t keep up. I grabbed my iPhone and connected to the webinar to see how bad it was. My conservative estimate is that I was getting about 5-10 frames per second at best, and the audio was dropping intermittently. This laptop would not work, and I only had a few days to come up with an alternative.
Fortunately, I have access to an i9 MacBook Pro that I could borrow. Even Zoom wouldn’t be able to bog it down! Knowing that this was only a temporary solution, I showed up the following Sunday with all my new gear and the borrowed MacBook. As before, I got there early to get it all set up before people started to arrive.
To my tremendous relief, everything went off without a hitch! The video was solid and the audio sounded better than ever before.
It wasn’t long before someone asked me to report on who attended the webinar. The leadership wanted to know whether anyone was attending our services remotely. If not, then running the webinar didn’t make much sense. It is simple to look at the particpant count, but we weren’t sure how many people were watching behind each name on the list.
Could I get a more accurate attendance count?
I discussed the matter with our church’s clerk and we came up with a solution. We would use the polling feature built into Zoom to ask people to self-report how many were watching with them. Each week at the start of the meeting, I display the poll to everyone watching virtually. It is a single-question poll with 10 radio buttons labeled 1 to 10+. At the end of the meeting, I take a screenshot of the poll results and forward that to the clerk.
Problem solved! Until the next problem, of course.
One Sunday, I found I had no internet on the church’s WiFi system. I could connnect to the router, but Zoom wouldn’t connect at all and no internet sites would load.
Fortunately, my Verizon Wireless plan included mobile hotspot, so I turned it on and got back online. It’s situations like these that cause me to show up early each week. Once the laptop was connected to the phone’s hotspot, I was quickly able to get back online, connect to Zoom, and get the meeting going. No one but me even noticed.
When I first agreed to run the weekly Zoom webinar, I really thought it would only be for a few weeks, maybe a month or two at most. As you can probably imagine from my story so far, it had stretched out to be a much longer assignment.
At this point, I realized that I couldn’t keep borrowing that MacBook Pro. I experimented with my wife’s laptop, but it too had issues with Zoom at the church. I never figured out why. The Mac, on the other hand, worked perfectly. Earlier this year, I purchased a brand new Mac mini with the Apple M1 chip. It handled everything I threw at it and I knew that it would be perfect, if not for one thing. The Mac mini is tiny, but it isn’t quite a portable machine. It has no monitor or keyboard, so I ruled out using that. I really needed a laptop for this.
I realized that I would have been better off with an M1 MacBook Air, but was well past my 30-day return window with Apple. Selling the 7-month-old Mac mini and getting an Air would cost me about $700-1000 net, depending on what the mini was worth. That isn’t the kind of cash I can usually throw around without some serious thought.
I remember thinking that if I’m doing this for the church, maybe I could some divine intervention.
A few nights later, I received an email from an unfamiliar source. The email stated that $3000 US had just been deposited into my account. I nearly deleted it, assuming it was a scam of some sort. The next morning I looked at the email more closely and realized what it was.
AppSumo.com had been running a promotion, trying to get more creative content into their catalog. They were offering $1000 each to the first 400 new products added. I had added three of my eBook titles to their catalog and then thought no further of it. It appeared that those books were in the first 400, so they had sent me $3000 as promised. That was more than enough to get the MacBook Air, which I ordered and picked up the very next day.
By the following Sunday, I had everything configured to run the Zoom webinar on the new laptop.
No More Hotspot
Everything worked well for a few more weeks, until my son asked to take advantage of a recent Verizon deal to get himself a new phone. Supposedly, you sign up for a new line, pick your phone, and then get a monthly rebate equal to the monthly payment of the phone over two years. In theory, this would make the new phone free — except that it really doesn’t.
What happened instead was that the other four phones on the account, plus the new one for my son, caused me to lose the existing wireless plan I had been locked into. Suddenly, I was bumped into a higher priced plan with no hotspot capability. This new phone and line increased my monthly bill by more than $100, with fewer features than I had before. Two weeks of back and forth with Verizon customer service yielded zero results.
This also meant two weeks without internet at church, so I ended up begging someone else in the congregation to use his phone as my hotspot.
I knew there had to be a better option.
I found a solution at US Mobile, which is where my son had his mobile plan prior to the Verizon fiasco. At the end of a fruitless appeal to their customer service (they would not return me to my prior plan), I canceled my wireless plan in total frustration. That same day (it was a Saturday), I signed up with US Mobile. They are an MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) that resells access to the Verizon Wireless network. Their unlimited plan is only $25/mo for 3 or more phones (per line, tax included), which is less than I had been paying Verizon before my disaster.
The only drawback is that mobile hotspot is an extra $10/mo per line for 20GB. As it turns out, though, I only need one of my lines to have that. So, now I’m looking at a total of $110/mo for 4 phones with unlimited talk, text, 5G data, and 20GB of hotspot.
The Verizon disaster turned out working in my favor. If you’re interested in learning more, Android Central has a comprehensive review of US Mobile and Mint Mobile. Should you decide you’d like to try US Mobile, send me a DM on Twitter and I’ll get you a referral code for $10 off your first bill.
With my hardware and internet problems apparently solved, I could again focus on the assignment itself, which was simply hosting the weekly webinar and relaying the self-reported virtual attendance.
I mentioned earlier that there is a period of the meeting where I am required to mute the audio and video. The remote viewers of the meeting have become accustomed to seeing a black screen with a tiny logo in the center. One day it occurred to me that I could easily download a few appropriate images, share my screen, and provide a modest slideshow during this time. So, that’s what I did. I ended up with folder of about 30 images. In practice, I only show just one picture per meeting. Our leadership thought that an actual slideshow might be distracting. I am not entirely convinced, but it’s not my decision, and I tend to do what I’m told in these situations.
Remember before when I said I clip the wireless microphone to the mic at the podium? Well, the leaders conducting the meeting control the power to the mic in the chapel itself, but I control my mic. One week, about ten minutes before our service began, I got a message over the Zoom chat from a remote viewer. She informed me that she could hear everything being said by the people behind the podium and asked whether they knew they were on a “hot mic,” as it were.
One thing I don’t do often enough is monitor the audio, especially before the meeting starts. I quickly sent a text to the leaders warning them of the hot mic. Fortunately, they weren’t saying anything that shouldn’t be overheard.
I’ve seen enough political gafffes on TV to know that even innocent comments can be misunderstood or taken the wrong way, so I needed to rectify this problem. I could mute the mic until the meeting starts, of course, but we have someone playing prelude music, and I was asked to make sure the remote viewers can hear it. Well, what if I provided my own music?
Not really me, of course. I don’t play music, can’t sing, and can’t even carry a tune. But our church has plenty of pre-recorded music that would be totally appropriate to use as prelude music.
I spent about an hour locating and downloading this music and creating a “Prelude Music” playlist in Apple Music on my MacBook.
As soon as I start the Zoom webinar, about 15 minutes before services begin, I mute the wireless mic, open Apple Music, shuffle that playlist, and share my screen. When the services begin, I have asked whomever is conducting that week to give me a few seconds’ heads-up so that I can turn off the sharing and unmute the mic. So far, so good.
And that brings us to today. I don’t know what the next challenge will be, or how I will solve it. But that’s what has made this so fascinating, at least to me.
What began as a simple request to start and stop a Zoom webinar turned into a months’ long quest for virtual meeting perfection. I don’t think I’ve quite attained that milestone, but over all it’s been an interesting experience. The amazing thing is that after all this, I have no regrets.
My current webinar configuration now looks like this:
- iPhone 11 w/WiFi hotspot enabled
- USB Web Cam w/optical zoom lens
- Tripod mount
- Wireless, UFH microphone system
- MacBook Air (2020 M1)
- Slideshow of images to show during audio/video mute
- Apple Music with preselected hymns for prelude music
Finally, I took this picture a while ago to show what it all looks like from my perspective.
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