Audio controls can make life easier if you're hosting a conference call. With them, you can adjust sound levels for participants, mute and unmute individuals, and make other adjustments, such as locking the conference to keep out uninvited participants. As you explore conference call options and explore the role of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calling, the audio controls available with each option are well worth considering.
Conference calls, or teleconferences, can be a real time saver or a real headache. But audio controls can help make the experience more positive. Without them, you may have no way to adjust for:
- The participant who puts himself on hold, leaving everyone else listening to elevator music.
- The soft-spoken participant who makes good points -- but leaves everyone straining to hear.
- The participant with the booming voice who talks over others.
- People with similar voices talking during the discussion -- and no way to tell them apart.
- Background traffic, airport or office noise from one participant's location.
- Participants entering and leaving the call without anyone knowing.
- An unexpected coughing fit that you have as moderator.
- Several participants' need to break into a private "mini-conference" during the actual conference.
Fortunately, with user-friendly audio controls, you can handle all of these situations and keep your conference running smoothly without outside distractions. And depending on the software or hosting service you're using, you can do that from your office desktop, your laptop on the road, any telephone or even mobile devices like a BlackBerry, iPhone, other personal digital assistant (PDAs) or smartphone.
In this article, we'll look at your conference call options and specifically at audio control options. We'll also offer suggestions for what to do when audio controls are limited. Let's start by exploring conference call options.
Conference Call Options
Before you can consider audio control options, you need to start with conference call basics and your call options. You may be wondering how Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calling fits in, so we'll take a quick look at that, too.
Conference call participants connect via a conference bridge, which is a server that allows multiple people to talk to each other. A company may own its own bridge or subscribe to an outside company to host conference calls on its bridge. Traditional phones use circuit switching to route each call through a series of switches until it reaches the bridge.
VoIP lets participants join in from their computers, using a microphone and speakers instead of a traditional phone. The network works differently, too. Instead of sending analog audio signals through circuits, VoIP converts those signals into digital data sent over the Internet in small chunks via packet switching.
Because VoIP calls are considerably cheaper than traditional phone calls, many companies and individuals have started using VoIP as their main communication method. Companies with a VoIP service provider can usually upgrade to get teleconferencing.
For conference call purposes, VoIP resembles traditional phone service. Both types of calls can usually connect on the same conference bridge, allowing your participants to join in from either system. However, if participants will be joining conferences via VoIP or smartphones, make sure your choice of software or hosting company can accommodate them.
Let's look at the options available for conference calls:
- Three-Way Call -- The simplest option is a three-way call made from your office or cell phone with no added conference calling software or services. Your audio controls will definitely be limited. You can, for example, use your phone to adjust how loudly you speak and how loudly sound is received, and you may be able to add up to five participants to your conference. But that may be the limit of your control.
- Audio Conferencing Software -- You, or your company, could choose to buy software that will give you conference-calling capabilities, including audio controls. Voice-only conferences came first, but with increased interest in multimedia Web conferences, audio and multimedia capabilities are often bundled now in the same software. Three of these are Microsoft Office Live Meeting, Adobe Acrobat Connect and IBM's Lotus Sametime Unite.
- Hosted Conferencing Services -- You can contract with a company that hosts teleconferences. These hosts offer proprietary or shared conferencing software as well as a conference bridge, phone or Web tools such as audio controls, operator assistance and other support services. With a host company's help, you can moderate a conference call from anywhere, anytime.
Next, let's look specifically at some of the available audio controls.
Audio Control Options for Conference Calls
Audio control options can make a conference call easier from your desk using a VoIP network and your computer, or even from a traditional phone or BlackBerry at a project site. Depending on your call options, you'll want audio controls that you can run from your desktop or from a handset. You can get either in software or from hosting companies.
- Touch-Tone Controls -- All Conferencing Inc., and other host companies offer handset audio controls based on simple touch-tone combinations. To dial out to a participant using All Conferencing's command, for example, you hit *1. Hitting *6 mutes a line, while *0 allows for a private conversation [source: AllConferencing].
The advantage of these simple commands is that you can host a teleconference from any phone wherever you are and, in many cases, from your laptop computer. Some hosting companies also offer conference hosting with audio controls to accommodate mobile devices. Premiere Global, for example, offers ConferenceAnywhere, the mobile version of its ReadyConference Plus, to bring those functions to cell phones, BlackBerry devices and other smartphones.
- Desktop Controls -- Offered in Acceris Web Meeting and Microsoft Office Live Meeting for InterCall, ConferenceCall.com, Premiere Global and others, desktop controls provide visuals on your computer screen to help you manage the audio portion of your conference and more. You can see participants' names with information like whether they're speaking or their phone lines are muted. You can click a mouse, press a key or two, or touch a portion of the screen to perform functions like muting or disconnecting a participant or recording the session.
Once you've decided on the type of audio controls you need, you can explore specific functions and find the software or hosting company that offers what you need. Here are some of the functions available:
- Dial out to a new participant during the conference. The moderator can call a late attendee or subject expert, talk to them privately and then add them to the conference.
- Set or deactivate entry and exit announcements. A pre-selected chime or other tone will announce the arrival or departure of a participant.
- Mute or unmute a participant's line.
- Mute or unmute all conference lines.
- Raise or lower volume for individual participants.
- Disconnect a participant from the conference.
- Lock or unlock the conference. By locking the conference after all participants are present, you provide greater security.
- Conference continuation, allowing the conference to continue after the moderator hangs up.
- Automated roll call. Participants record their names when they dial in. Then their names are played when they enter and exit the conference.
- Record a conference so those who could not be present can hear it later.
- Listen only on or off, allowing some participants access to hear but not actively participate in the conference.
- Private conversation allows several participants to move into a private "mini-conference" and then rejoin the group.
- Operator contact summons a hosting company operator to assist the moderator.
We've seen that audio controls can help your conference run smoothly, but what if you don't have them available? Let's look next at what you can do.
What to Do When Audio Controls are Limited
If you're not working with a hosting company and have limited audio conference controls, you can still take steps to make each conference call a sound success. And that applies whether you or any participants will be using a VoIP network.
Here are some suggestions for exercising audio control as the host of a conference call:
- Test your own microphone and speakers, if you're using VoIP, or handset, if you're not, before you start the conference call. Make sure the volume is at an appropriate level.
- Make the call from a quiet area with as little background noise as possible. If you can, use a headset to reduce interfering sound.
- If you're calling from a cell phone or smartphone, make sure you have enough battery power and strong signal bars before you start.
- Don't use a speakerphone, if you can help it. Too often, speakerphones produce distorted sound.
- Never place your line on hold, or your company's on-hold music may play into the conference.
- Identify yourself when you start speaking so that the other participants know who's talking.
- Contact your participants in advance and ask for their help in also observing these suggestions.
As Web conferencing becomes more widespread, audio controls are finding a place as just one component of software and services among those bundled together by hosting companies. Rather than just adjusting audio controls by using the desktop, a conference moderator can see a screen display allowing control of sound plus mutlimedia functions like whiteboards, application and browser sharing.
As technology advances, audio controls are becoming much more sophisticated. Conferencing solutions from WiredRed and other hosting companies can include an audio wizard to help participants, as well as the moderator, to adjust their audio equipment settings for the best conference sound with VoIP.
WiredRed's e/pop conferencing solutions automatically starts its audio tuning wizard for each new user. The wizard helps the user to set headset or speaker volume control and to test and adjust levels for the microphone attached to the computer's sound card or USB port. Sound information about each participant is tracked so that the moderator will know ideal settings for the participant's audio devices for future conferences [source: WiredRed].
Given the convenience that audio and Web conferences offer, the technology to support them is bound to advance.
For lots more information about audio controls for conference calls and related topics, check out the links on the next page.