Doubling down on your home workspace

Have you crossed the threshold from “temporary remote worker” to “indefinite” or even “permanently remote”? It may be time to do a check-in on your home setup .Putting your best face forward digitally (in a very literal sense) can help significantly when trying to land your message, network, or generally project a professional demeanor. Hopefully, you’re also doing so while maintaining good ergonomics to make sure you’re not slowly hunching over into a shadow of a former human being.

When folks attend my talks, I often get asked about my setup: what am I running and why does it sound or look relatively good? Over time my own digital setup has become sophisticated due to the needs of a pandemic work-from-home schedule, the demands of running a book tour virtually via digital talks/keynotes/workshops, my 5 years as a Twitch streamer, and my recent diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome which explained why slight deviations in ergonomics can cause me lasting chronic pain. Hopefully, some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way can help you even if your needs are less comprehensive than mine!

So what should you evaluate as you harden your setup for the long haul?

  • Lighting
  • Video quality
  • Audio quality
  • Ergonomics
  • Bonus: Interface tools

Let’s take a look at your options and talk about when you might want to level up your setup. Please note that Amazon links are affiliate links.

Keep in mind — you probably don’t want to REPLICATE my setup. I’m definitely being redundant in a few areas because I have extra equipment and it’s easier than configuring more complex switches.

My home work / broadcast station. Work machine: Blue Yeti, Logitech c920 camera. Broadcast machine: XLR Audiotechnica 2035 mic + Audient iD4 preamp (broadcast), Logitech StreamCam, Logitech c922 Pro Stream camera. Lighting: 10-inch ring light, 4-inch ring light, Elgato Key Light. Other: Elgato StreamDeck, soundproofing, 2 monitors, keyboard tray, sit/stand desk, USB switcher, HDMI matrix, vertical mouse, split keyboard. (Plus a Switch, Elgato external capture card and HDMI splitter for game streams!)

Lighting

Even if you can’t afford a nicer camera, lighting can make a HUGE difference in the quality of your videos. In fact, lighting is the cheapest, most effective fix you can make. Cheap webcams won’t perform well in low light, but good lighting will work on any camera and will make you look younger and more energetic.

You can either go for one ring light, or a 3-point series of lights for full illumination. The lights don’t all have to be pro lights; this is a spectrum both literally and figuratively. But some things to keep in mind:

  • Avoid fluorescent lights; they’ll flicker and are unflattering.
  • Ring lights generate balanced light, and they’re great for beginners. You center them above or around your camera. That said, the smaller the ring the less balanced the effect. Bonus points if you can mount your camera in the center of the ring.
  • If you’re feeling fancy, you can add 2 additional side or “fill” lights to make things more even still.

My setup:

  • 10 inch ring light with tripod (Amazon affiliate link): I actually have this mounted on a different tripod to give me more adjustability since my webcam is mounted inside.
  • Elgato Key Light Air (Amazon affiliate link): I have a single traditional Key Light at the moment to balance other lighting in my home, but the 2 pack of Key Light Airs is a great next step if you’re moving up from teleconferences to talks or video content.

Video Quality

Does your laptop camera make you look like the undead? It also doesn’t help that laptop cameras are stuck inside the laptop bezel, meaning we get a lot of the tops of people’s heads when their laptops are open at an obtuse angle for working.

But which camera to use? Logitech webcams are the gold standard. If you’re interested in using “virtual background” or face filter technology, you’re going to need a webcam that includes infrared sensors. (If your laptop doesn’t support virtual backgrounds and filters, odds are your webcam doesn’t have this feature.) I’m not sponsored by Logitech, but I do favor their cameras. We used them in the prototyping for the Echo Look and I’ve never looked back.

  • The Logitech c920x and c922x are the latest versions of HD webcams that have been on the market for a while. My c920 and x922 have been super reliable. The c922 is the “Pro Stream” model and includes infrared sensors and some software for enhanced background removal.
  • If you’re looking to do full 60 fps HD, 4K, or vertical video, you may want the Logitech StreamCam. It can be rotated to do portrait video for platforms like TikTok, and provides nice, high quality video. Note it doesn’t have a USB-A port built in, just USB-C. You’ll need an adapter to plug this into an older USB port.

Don’t forget the importance of adjustability. One of the big benefits of an external webcam is the adjustability compared to a laptop bezel. Logitech’s cameras have a graceful solution for mounting quickly on most monitors or laptops without hardware. Other cams probably do too.

There are plenty of other webcams out there. Logitech has the Brio if you NEED to send your zits to your coworkers in 4K, and there are plenty of other brands out there. Just pay attention to frame rate, sensor package, video quality, adjustability, and any additional software that will come bundled.

My Setup

*I should note that I don’t recommend mixing the c922 and the StreamCam; I think I’m getting driver conflicts and will probably be trying to refactor my overlays to just use the StreamCam.

My Logitech StreamCam mounted inside a 10-inch ring light, both mounted on a tripod centered between my two monitors.

Audio Quality

Odds are, you started out using your laptop’s built-in microphone. Depending on where it’s located, that audio quality will vary. If your machine is made of a super reflective metal, it may sound tinny. If the mic is jammed into the hinge, you may have to lean forward to be heard. External mics provide a much more consistent experience.

There are two main approaches to external mics: a standard USB interface, and the far less straightforward XLR interface. Unless you are an advanced podcaster, a voice-over artists, or a broadcaster, USB should be fine. But not all USB mics are created equal.

Good Enough for General Work

You’ll see lots of amateur folks using the Blue microphones — either the Snowball or the Yeti. They are affordable, easy to use, and they sound better than built-in mics. But you’ll probably take some slack from audiophiles who hate that these mics are so popular as they use cheaper condensers. You’re fine. Do what you have to.

Blue isn’t the only name in town for USB mics, and even some of the top brands offer them. When evaluating USB microphones, ask yourself what you’ll be using it for. Some mics have onboard switches that let you switch the microphone’s recording pattern — from a pattern that picks up only one person to many, more suitable for podcasts for example. And some mics have other onboard controls.

I started my Twitch streams with a Blue Snowball and eventually moved up to a Yeti. They were good enough for a long time, and my husband still uses them on his machine.

Getting Real

But if you ARE looking to do advanced audio work, most audio engineers will be able to tell you’re on these lesser mics. In those cases, you may want to consider going with an XLR mic. XLR stands for “External Line Return”, but that doesn’t clear up anything for you. Basically, it’s a higher-voltage way for your microphone to capture the sound of your voice. But your computer isn’t specialized in interpreting XLR signals; XLR is designed to go straight from source to an amplifier like a speaker. Instead, you’ll need an XLR interface or preamp that turns the XLR signal into something the computer can work with. This is an added cost for your rig.

I started my Twitch streams with the Snowball, moved up to the Yeti, and then last year finally upgraded to an XLR mic setup. I went with the AudioTechnica 2035, a middle of the road option that got good marks from some working voice actors without throwing the kitchen sink at the problem like some Shure mics. I picked up an Audient iD4 preamp, which is fine but hates being cut off from power due to my Windows computer’s Sleep mode. I came close to getting a Scarlett interface, which also came with high marks.

My AudioTechnica 2035 microphone on an adjustable boom with a Stedman pop filter. In the background, you can see my six-key Elgato Stream Deck (powered down).

When combined with some soundproofing (affiliate link) I installed in my desk nook, the use of my new mic’s sound floor gives me a really nice, quiet recording baseline. Your two holy grails when recording are a clean, quiet baseline and an appropriate maximum that doesn’t exceed the mic’s thresholds. Your interface can help with onboard indicators and gain knobs.

Don’t forget: your mic will need someplace to live. Most come with some sort of desk mount or tripod, but will that really work? Do you need a boom or a special tripod?

My current setup:

  • AudioTechnica 2035 Microphone Pack with Shock Mount, Arm, and Headset (Affiliate Link) on my broadcast machine
  • Audient iD4 (Affiliate Link) — It looks like the version I have is on its way out in favor of this USB-C version.
  • Soundproofing Tiles: My “studio” is in a loft, with my voice facing into a corner. I attached soundproofing tiles to the wall to reduce echo. (Affiliate link)
  • Blue Yeti on my work machine (Affiliate link)

The iD4 is fairly backordered, so you may also want to look at my other choice, the Scarlett Solo. And as for running different mics on different machines: I just didn’t want to deal with switching the interface back and forth, but you might be able to get one to work on a switcher.

This is what the interface on my Audient iD4 preamp looks like. You’ll mainly be playing with microphone gain.

Ergonomics

I am not a doctor, and you should consult with one when working on ergonomic issues, ESPECIALLY if you’re already having ANY kind of pain. The normal amount of pain is NO PAIN. Take it from a disabled woman who didn’t know she was disabled for decades until she met the right doctors and learned the right techniques. The first step is always making sure you’re taking care of the easy things, like chair angle, monitor height, monitor angle, and posture.

If you’re dealing with pain, you may want to consider some adaptations in consultation with a specialist:

  • Keyboard tray: Often the height at which we write is not the height at which we should type. An adjustable under-desk keyboard tray can really reduce strain on your forearms.
  • Sit/Stand desk: Sitting OR standing in one position for too long can be detrimental. If you can’t afford a quickly adjustable desk, at least consider purchasing a desk you can configure once at the right height for you. I went with an Uplift desk but only because we got a one-time grant from our office for home equipment. You could also get this cheap standing desk I got and shift between workstations with a laptop like I did the first 6 months of WFH.
  • Vertical mouse: The rotation of our hands to lie flat on keyboards and mice is unnatural. Vertical mice, where your hand maintains a position more like you’re shaking someone’s hand, have been a game-changer for me and my disability. Anker’s vertical mouse is super affordable and super long lasting. (Affiliate link)
  • Split keyboard: Look, hear me out. They look crazy, I know. I was you, once. But rotating your arms into the center to type is unnatural and hurts over time. Split keyboards let you keep your arms parallel to each other which is MUCH kinder on your body. If you’re a touch typist, this is worth a look. There are several models but I use the Kinesis Pro with the lifters for the vertical benefit. (Affiliate link)

Bonus: Interface tools

A few of my favorite things that make my setup more of a delight:

  • HDMI Matrix: It took me a while to find a reasonable option for this, but I have a remote-controlled HDMI matrix that pairs 2 2-output HDMI sources to a pair of monitors. It’s super easy to keep one screen up from each computer, or double up from either source. Pair this with a reliable USB switcher for your keyboard and mouse and you’re golden. (Affiliate link)
  • Elgato StreamDeck: Essentially, programmable shortcut keys. Some streaming apps are optimized for use with the StreamDeck, but anything that uses keyboard shortcuts can be hooked up. StreamDeck also supports different profiles for different apps — you can have shortcuts for Illustrator, Photoshop, Zoom, etc. My “Enter/Exit Stage” macro for Zoom that toggles both camera and video at once is INVALUABLE for unstructured improv shows and for most of my Zoom talks. Comes in many sizes; I use the smallest 6-key version. Literally one of the best Christmas gifts I’ve ever received. (Affiliate link)
  • 4x2 USB switcher: I run between two different machines — my work machine and my broadcast rig — with only one ergonomic mouse/keyboard between them. I use this switcher to manage that change. I tried other switchers and they were a disaster, flickering back and forth when you breathed on them. This one is reliable.(Affiliate link)
My HDMI matrix and USB switcher sit under the Echo Show and let me switch between my work PC (left) and the broadcast PC (offscreen right).

Putting it all together

It’s a lot, I know. I spent 6 months planning my big home office overhaul. But as soon as I made many of these changes I regretted not doing it sooner.

  • Better quality video or audio may help you make a great first impression at your next executive review or job interview.
  • Better audio may help your team better understand you when you’re leading meetings.
  • Get less comments about looking tired with the right lighting!
  • Cut off the pain cycle by taking a look at your ergonomics and adapting to make sure your forearms, wrists, back, head, and shoulders aren’t constantly in pain by working with them and not against them.

Have fun while considering the possibilities — may your big office makeover bring you comfort and success!

Cheryl Platz is a designer, gamer, author, actress, streamer, and disabled content creator. Learn more about why she needed all this stuff in the first place at cherylplatz.com.

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Cheryl Platz

Cheryl Platz

Designer, actress, teacher, speaker, writer, gamer. Author of Design Beyond Devices. Founder of Ideaplatz, LLC. Director of UX, Player Platform @ Riot Games.