Microphones can be intimidating to use and sometimes we think we don’t need to use them. (Especially those of us who have developed a “teacher voice” over the years). However, using the microphones available in the School of Medicine Building’s large teaching theatres (032 and 132) is essential to provide an optimal learning experience for all, especially those who may be using Assisted Listening Devices (ALDs), catching up with captured lectures, or video-conferencing in using Zoom.

These teaching spaces were actually designed to limit sound travel, so the microphones become essential equipment. “The theatres were designed to be like a recording studio, which means there’s minimum audio transfer throughout the room,” Jason Palmer, Classroom Technology and Media Coordinator* explained.

The building materials were selected with this minimal audio transfer in mind. It’s accomplished through acoustic panels in the ceiling and the wall paneling around the room.

“It isn’t actually wood, it’s an acoustic material. If you look at the wood up close, you’ll see microlaser perforations through the wood and if you look at the backside, it looks like a half-inch thick slice of pegboard MDF, but there’s a one milimetre skin of walnut over the top of the whole thing, with these perforations,” he pointed out.

Behind the paneling itself are two other sound dampening materials as well as insulators. One reason for these design choices was to ensure that when up to 16 small groups of 7-8 people were talking to work on cases (for example) that the noise level in the room “would not be outrageous.”

“If you had a room that was very echo-y, like a standard room with standard drywall, you would create a cacophony pretty quickly. It would be untenable because the first group starts talking, the second group has to talk a little louder to be heard over the first group, to the point that it would just be a chaotic sound,” he said.

“A lot of traditional old-school classrooms were like that, because they built them out of concrete walls, and they didn’t really think about [noise] or if anyone was talking other than the lecturer – and that was the point. We’ve changed the teaching model, to use this group learning methodology, and because of that, they had to make a lot of considerations for audio.”

The rooms were also designed to act as recording studios to facilitate lecture capture and broadcasting of learning events through technology such as Zoom meeting. For these recordings, the audio is taken from a direct feed from the microphone system, rather than recording the room at large.

There are three different types of microphones used the theatres, two for presenters and one for students/audience members.

Each theatre has a lavalier lapel microphone and a handheld one. The most often used by instructors is the lavalier mic.

The quickest way to remember where to clip the lavalier microphone is to put the microphone dead centre under your chin, Palmer said. “It means wearing things like button down shirts and ties to make it really easy. Wearing things like t-shirts and solid front shirts makes it more difficult.”

A sample passport pouch–a solution to where to clip the microphone and where to hold the unit for clothing without lapels and pockets.

A lanyard cord or strap from a passport pouch can also work. (Thank you, Dr. Sue Moffatt for this advice!) It’s helpful helpful to have either a pocket or a waistband/belt to clip the unit to, or if you’re using a passport pouch, the unit can go there.

“The reason you want it dead centre, is because a microphone is a cone, at 45 degrees. If I turn my head to either side and it’s dead centre, the microphone will still always pick me up. If I put the microphone off to the side, as soon as I turn to the other side, I’m gone.”

Some instructors prefer the hand-held microphones and these are also used for panel presentations. (There are now an additional four handheld mics available in 132 specifically for panel presentations).

When using the handheld microphone, the advice is to almost rest it on your chin and talk at a normal volume.

“The reason you almost rest it on your chin, is a microphone is really a very heavy thing. It doesn’t seem like it at first, but after an hour of teaching… the microphone starts to slowly lower down to your belly button.”

For both the lavalier and hand-held microphones, “red means stop, green means go,” Palmer said. “When you first turn it on it’s still red because it hasn’t synchronized to the receiver– this takes a bit less than two seconds. Turn it on, wait for the green, then start talking.”

Palmer does caution that a microphone isn’t a miracle worker. “If you are someone who is naturally soft-spoken at all times, a microphone won’t instantly make you louder. Contrary to what people believe a microphone is for. It’s not for amplification, it’s for sound for sound reinforcement.”

“What I tell people: When you pick up a microphone, you are talking at a dinner party to five friends, you’re not talking one-on-one to your friend. You’re also not talking at a Starbucks where it requires a lot more volume. You just need to elevate slightly – don’t yell, but at the same time, don’t talk really quietly.”

The microphones are equipped with AGC (automatic gain control) if you talk too loud and risk feedback and ‘brains’ in the microphone scale you back – so don’t worry, he added.

Do not blow into a microphone, as this can damage the equipment. “If you want to see if it’s on talk, or lightly tap it,” he advised.

The student desk microphones are activated from the main console by ensuring the “push-to-talk” mode is selected. (This is typically done by one of the technical staff first thing in the morning). Similar to the other microphones, there a one or two second delay from pushing to the microphone working. When the button is pressed, it flashes three times red, then stays on steady: at that point, it’s on. Push the button again to disengage. (It’s also automatically disengaged when another student microphone is pressed.)

The last thing he’d like students to remember about their table-top microphone system is that the mics are vulnerable to drink spills.

“All their drinks should have a lid. We don’t want to damage the microphones. Inside a microphone is a very complex arrangement of copper wire over a very thin membrane in order to facilitate sound,” he said.

Whenever there is a problem with a microphone or a button, please let the tech team know so they can fix them as soon as possible. For now, use the medsvc@queensu.ca email – there is a ticket system coming.

* * *

Still, some people insist they’re loud enough to go without the tech. Palmer, who has been working in these theatres since the building opened in 2011, disagrees.

“We have ONE presenter who is, absolutely, loud enough to present in that room without a microphone. That person also did Shakespeare at Stratford – has projection! I heard them through the glass [of the audio booth] as if they were standing next to me,” he said. But even that person needs to use the microphone, he added. Palmer cites three main reasons for everyone to always use the microphone systems:

1 Individuals with hearing difficulties may have problems hearing even someone who is projecting well, due to clarity, reverberation, and other ambient interference. “You want as much clarity as possible,” he said. Plus, the microphones feed directly to the Assisted Listening Devices (ALDs) that are available for use in both theatres. “It’s a ‘direct drop’ from the matrix, so it’s the cleanest line feed you can possibly get.” (I tried one out in the basement lobby outside 032 while a class was going on, and the feed even outside the classroom was excellent).

From left to right: an ALD unit; Jason Palmer demonstrates the earpiece for the ALD; two views of the ALD receiver unit. (T. Suart pictures)

There are four ALDs for each theatre. These can be signed out from the tech booth at the back. Students can just ask at the booth, or email ahead of time if they prefer (medsvc@queensu.ca). It takes moments to set up and with fresh batteries (provided) they’re good for eight hours. Each ALD has a sanitizable hearing cup that covers one ear.

There is also a portable Assisted Listening System (ALS) available if needed in another teaching space. It includes a microphone the instructor wears that feeds directly to the student’s system.  The ALS has one transmitter and eight listener units. To arrange to use the ALS, email medsvc@queensu.ca.

Palmer wants to make sure students aren’t hesitant to use the devices if they need them. “We always have a technician in the back room, so it’s always available.”

2 The microphone provides a direct feed for recordings for lecture capture – for both instructors and students. “It’s an opt-in system with lecturers, but just so people get in the habit of using the microphones. We need the students’ questions recorded, as well, because dead air and then an answer is not effective.”

“We are capable of doing Zoom video conferencing in each of the lecture theatres and without the microphones, people at the other site wouldn’t hear. We generally want everyone to have the same experience, plus, we really want that clean audio in that Zoom meeting.”

A fourth great reason to use microphones whenever they are available (not only in 032 and 132) is this helps to make our teaching spaces more accessible to all users — a requirement of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA).


* He says he also answers to “Tech Guy”, “Computer Guy”, and “Guy in the Booth”.