Handling Work From Home Background Noises During Meetings

With all of us working, studying and teaching from home these days, the quietest corner of the home is a premium spot which everyone rushing for that place every morning. Not all of us are lucky to have large noise-insulated spaces without background noises to work from at home.

Mornings at my home start at 8, with my two children attending online classes blasting away on their laptops. Why don’t they use headphones? Because it’s not comfortable to wear the whole morning, they say. 

My wife’s in one of the bedrooms, where she’s set up her virtual classroom with whiteboards, condenser microphones and an additional mesh router so that her voice and video are all top-notch for her students to understand her lessons.

I’m stuck meanwhile in the noisier room, with the traffic outside and the kid’s online classes and chatter seeping into the seemingly neverending series of meetings every day. 

I’m sure a lot of you can relate to this situation, with the dreaded “Can you mute your side?” being requested a few times a day.  Also, did you know that the added noise can actually increase your anger levels? 

Unwanted noise can cause irritation and anger if it feels like an invasion of privacy, says Stephen Stansfeld, a Professor of Psychiatry at Queen Mary University of London who focuses on noise and health. Having a lot of background noise when you’re doing something is tiring. Without noticing, you’re putting in a lot more effort in order to block out the noise. So when you shut it out, there’s a sense of relief. (theguardian.com)

Better Headsets

The first option I tried was to see if my existing headsets could help. I tried my cryptically named Sony WH-1000XM3 over-ear headphones. They worked very well, insulating the outside noise from my ears and a decent environmental noise cancellation, which cut out a lot (but not all) of the surrounding noise from getting on the calls. But these got too warm over the ears to use for a full day’s worth of call, especially during the summer days without air conditioning at home.

I also tried two other True Wireless Headsets (TWS) earbuds like the 1More and ones with noise-cancelling microphones like Jabra Elite 65t. Both these I recommend if you want earbuds that you can wear for hours at a stretch. They have decent sound quality for music and movies and are great for taking calls with some amount of environmental noise cancellation.

1More earbuds with ENC - Environment Noise Cancellation
1More TWS with for extended use

What’s the difference between noise-cancelling headsets and noise-cancelling microphones? 

Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) uses noise-cancelling circuits on the headsets to reduce unwanted background noise. Whether you are taking a call, listening to your music or a podcast, they block out the noise around you because the built-in microphones capture sound around you and cancel it out. Sometimes, I just put on the headsets with noise cancellation turned on and nothing else playing to enjoy a few minutes of silence and unwind. 

Noise-cancelling Microphones, on the other hand, doesn’t benefit you directly. They help others on the call or meeting hear you better. Usually, more than one microphone on an earphone is built to pick up your voice while ignoring or canceling out the background noise.

Add More Background Noises to the mix … and an AI miracle.

The TWS earbuds did the trick till a neighbor started renovation and started changing their flooring. The incessant banging, drilling and polishing machines whining during the day affected both my wife’s teaching and my work. The students in my wife’s online classes complained that the background noises were a big distraction during her online classes. I had to keep playing tag with the mute/unmute button during meetings.  No pair of affordable headphones can get those noises canceled out. 

While looking for a solution to the problem, I stumbled on this service from Krisp, which promised total noise removal and is powered by Artificial Intelligence. I took their app up for a trial.

Krisp Sound!

I took a look at their demos, where background noises like kids playing in the background, and dog barks which are magically filtered out.

Krisp Application Menu

I took a test drive of the service, and the feedback I received from tests I ran during meetings was great.  When I switched on the noise removal button on the Krisp app, all my colleagues test subjects said it sounded like I moved from a construction zone into a soundproof room.

It didn’t matter if I wore a pair of good headphones or not. The laptop’s mic worked just fine. Krisp was able to remove all the unwanted background noises of traffic, construction and the kids’ classes and TV sounds and isolate my voice clearly for the meetings. My wife’s now able to conduct her classes with Krisp without any distraction from all the renovation going on nearby. 

When the app is working hard to remove all the background noise, if there’s too much noise to filter out, my voice at the time turns slightly robotic. It’s still quite understandable, though, which is the main objective. An added plus is that Krisp app also filters noises from your colleagues from reaching you.

Krisp features a free plan that gives you 120 minutes of noise-free meetings a week and paid plans starting at $3.33 per month. The annual cost is cheaper than springing for a superb pair of noise-cancelling headsets. Their app works on Mac, Windows and iOS devices.

Meeting apps are getting smarter

Apps like Zoom and Microsoft Team are now following a similar path, using AI to improve voice clarity.

Zoom’s introduction of noise cancellation technology builds on a clear and rising demand for this functionality among the workforce. Already, Google has promised to add more noise suppression to its Meet solution. Microsoft Teams also recently announced that it would be using artificial intelligence to remove background noise from calls too. (uctoday.com)

But these are just a few in between the rest of the online meeting landscape of applications, so till all of them feature some type of filtering of voices, you have the option of upgrading your headset or using an app like Krisp to make a success of your meetings.

Cover Photo Credits: Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

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