A Guest's Guide to Zoom Song Swaps

Written by Piers Cawley on

This is intended as a quick guide for anyone who comes on as a Friday night Song Swap guest, but anyone who’s thinking of using Zoom (or doing their own streams) to share music with folk might find it useful, so I’m making it public.

This is intended as a quick guide for anyone who comes on as a Friday night Song Swap guest, but anyone who’s thinking of using Zoom (or doing their own streams) to share music with folk might find it useful, so I’m making it public.

Publicity material

I’m absolutely terrible at marketing, but it will definitely help me do at least some if you can provide me with some or all of the following:

A photo of you that you don’t hate

If you’ve got a standard headshot or publicity photo, that’s great. I’ll use that to make the YouTube preview card.

If you don’t, here’s a few tips for taking your own. These are basic guidelines, not rules. You can ignore all of them and still get a great photo, but if you follow them, you should at least get a decent one.

Your phone is fine

Seriously, I would have killed for something the quality of even my iPhone SE back when I first started doing digital photography.

Try to enjoy yourself

If you don’t like having your photo taken, it can show and you’ll end up with another photo you don’t like, so try this. For the duration of the shoot, pretend you’re playing the part of someone who actually likes having their photo taken. Weirdly, that will almost certainly make the shoot go faster because you’ll get a good shot nice and early and you can stop pretending.

Get a friend to take the photo

It’s just easier. You can use a tripod or a selfie stick, but another human being’s your best choice. If you’ve got a friend who’s an experienced photographer, then for heaven’s sake ask them and ignore the rest of this list – be guided by them. Or book a session with a professional if you have the time, money and desire.

Use a big light

Big light sources are the most forgiving and flattering ones. I like a nice big north facing window, or bright overcast days. It’s not exciting or dramatic light, but that’s fine.

It’s not a firing squad

You know the typical passport photo shot? The one where you look like you’ve been lined up against a wall, standing square to the camera and looking nervous. Don’t do that.

Here’s a pretty foolproof lighting/posing idea:

  1. Stand facing the biggest window you can find at a time when the sun isn’t shining directly through it.

  2. Turn about 45° to the left or right

  3. Look across at your friend with the camera who’s standing at 90° to the window light.

  4. Your friend will, of course, take an otherwise fabulous photograph of you with your eyes closed, so repeat the last step until they manage a shot you like.

  5. CHECK YOUR BACKGROUND! Make sure there’s no dead flowers apparently growing out of your ears, an embarrasing cat licking its arse, or a pile of washing in the shot.

    Ideally you’ll have a nice smooth out of focus thing going on there (portrait mode, if your phone has it can help), but if you can’t manage that, shoot for something that’s not too busy. You can’t go far wrong with a bookshelf, but stand as far away from it as you can so it’s not tack sharp and distracting.

Portrait or square format, please

Bear in mind that I’m going to be putting your photo into a square frame in the YouTube title card, so a wide image probably won’t work too well.

Got a website? Bandcamp? YouTube channel? Tell me about them and I’ll link to them in the event description and during the show.

A short biography

When I make the YouTube event for a song swap, I write something about my guests. I’ll write something anyway, but it really helps if I’ve got something from you to base it on. After all, I know what I think about you, and I like you or I’d not have asked you to be my guest, but unless you tell me, I don’t know what you think is important about yourself. A short bio can really help there.

[Optional] Some talking points

A song swap isn’t some kind of forensic interview process; it’s supposed to be an informal chat interspersed with songs. If there’s something you really want to talk about, please let me know. The same goes if there’s anything you want me to steer clear of. It’s fine if the conversation gets dark – folk music’s full of murders and misogyny after all – but it’s really not fine if it gets uncomfortable for you.


Zoom isn’t my favourite piece of software and its default settings are definitely slanted towards business meetings rather than helping musicians sound good. The most important thing you can do in your Zoom settings is to turn on ‘Original Sound For Musicians’, which should show up in the top left of your screen. It’s off by default, so click it and turn it on. If it doesn’t show, you’ll need to dig into Zoom’s audio settings and check the box to make it available.

There’s a catch: turning on original sound disables all of Zoom’s audio processing, including the echo cancellation magic, so it’s really best if you can use a pair of headphones or earbuds rather than speakers to hear me. Or you can just remember to turn original sound on when you start singing and off again when we start chatting. Headphones are easier though.

If your laptop or phone’s built in camera and microphone are all you have, don’t worry, we can work with that. They’re not the best, but they are optimised for someone sitting within reach of the keyboard and making human noises from their mouth hole. You’ll look and sound fine.

If you’ve got money to spend and you want to look and sound better on stream then I have a few suggestions, but this is an area where there’s no right answers, so do shop around and talk to anyone you know who you reckon looks good on your Zoom calls.

Prioritize your spending on gear. In general (and especially for musicians) sound is more important than lighting, which is more important than camera quality. A pin sharp, beautifully lit video of a muddy sounding performer is much harder to watch than a blurry, crystal clear sounding performer singing in a murky cave.

Some audio suggestions

If you’re an unaccompanied singer, this is pretty easy because we don’t have any problems getting your sound balanced and into Zoom. If you’re an instrumentalist, or a band, things get a little more fun, so let’s break it down based on the number of mics you’ll need.

Bear in mind that there are entire books written on this subject; I’m barely scratching the surface here. If you’re serious about getting good sound for streaming and/or recording, it’s worth doing your own research. If all else fails, for your upcoming song swap, buy some of the gear recommended here from a reputable mail order site and rely on the 30 day, no questions asked returns policy they all have because that’s a legal requirement in the UK. But MAKE SURE that when you know what you really want, you buy from the same supplier.

One mic wonders

If the sound you make in the room is the sound you’re happy with (unaccompanied singers, acoustic guitarists, acoustic bands) then it’s just a matter of choosing between a USB mic and an XLR mic with an audio interface. Unless you’re in a particularly noisy environment, I’d recommend some kind of condenser mic. The Blue Yeti has been the standard starter USB mic for years and you could do far worse than do that yourself. However, I would definitely recommend going down the slightly more expensive XLR mic and audio interface route as it’s significantly more flexible and upgradeable.

You’ll want a cardioid pattern large diaphragm condenser microphone (I love my Aston Spirit which looks and sounds great, but it’s a multi-pattern mic and nearly £300 new). Brands like Rode, Aston and SE Electronics make great mics, and honestly, pretty much anything that comes up on an Amazon search for ’large diaphragm condenser microphone XLR’ will still sound better than your laptop or webcam’s microphone. You’ll use a balanced XLR cable to connect that to your interface (a cheap cable’s fine, more expensive ones with Neutrik brand connectors and the like might prove more durable and/or reassuring.)

With a single mic setup you only need a really basic audio interface. Something like the Focusrite Scarlett Solo or 2i2 or any cheap class compliant USB audio interface will do the trick so long has it has phantom power available. Just plug your interface in, connect the mic, turn on 48v/phantom power and tweak the gain until, at your loudest you’re not quite going into the red on the meters, select the interface in Zoom, turn on direct monitoring and you’re good.

Fun with multiple inputs

If you’re a band, or a guitarist where you want to adjust the balance between your voice and your guitar, you’re going to need something a little more sophisticated. How much more sophisticated is up to you, of course and I’m a little out of my depth here, but I’ve got a few suggestions anyway. Don’t hesitate to chat to any live sound engineers of your acquaintance – buy the sound engineer at your local open mic a drink and quiz them, for instance.

The thing to remember here is that Zoom is pretty crap when it comes to audio handling – it doesn’t know anything about pro audio gear, it just expects to receive a mono mix on the first channel of the audio device you select (or a stereo mix on channels 1&2 if you turn stereo on in the audio settings), so you’ll need to do the mixing yourself, either with a standalone mixer, the facilities of your audio interface or some other software on your computer.

I’m going to ignore the software option, but investigate software like Loopback on the Mac and Voicemeeter on Windows. Using your audio interface can be more or less easy, depending on what capabilities the interface has, of course. Modern interfaces are generally more capable in this area. I’ve not actually tried it, but something like the Zoom AMS-24 looks like it would be ideal for a guitarist (put it in ‘streaming’ mode and turn off loopback).

Once you get past a couple of input channels, you’re going to have to go down the mixer route. You can either get a dumb mixer with at least as many inputs as you have instruments and mics, sort out your stereo mix and feed that into a simple two channel audio interface, which will make Zoom happy. That’s fine if you’re primarily interested in live performance, but if you want to do any recording, you’d be better off with a mixer that can also work as a multi-channel audio interface so you can record your vocals and instruments in separate tracks. Something like the Roland GigCasters or the RodeCaster II, for instance. I think Mackie do something in this space too, but I’ve not used any myself, but I do know there are plenty of options.

If your guitar’s got a built in mic or pickup, just plug it into your mixer with a balanced cable, otherwise, you’ll need to mic it up too. There’s whole books written on mic placement, but it’s generally accepted that a good starting point for micing an acoustic guitar is to point the mic at the place where the neck meets the body rather than at the sound hole, maybe a foot or so away. Again, if you know anyone with any audio engineering experience, then talk to them not me.

Once you’ve got your mixer, you’ll need mics. Generally you’ll be close miking things to allow you to mix the different sound sources (if you get lots of bleed between mics, then you have fewer options when it comes to mixing). In theory you use a condenser mic for all these things, just put them close to your mouth or mic, turn the gain down and rely on the inverse square law to give you some separation. In practice, it’s more common to grab a dynamic microphone or two and use them. The canonical mic for the job is probably the Shure SM58, which is built like a tank and looks exactly like you think a stage microphone should look. The SM57 is well regarded as an instrument mic too, and there’s plenty of knock-offs of both. I have an SE Electronics V7, that I use for open mics which sounds pretty good too.

It really helps to have someone else fiddling with the knobs to get your sound dialled in, because they’re not hearing the sound in your head. With decent headphones on, they’re primarily hearing the sound that’s going through the mixer, so they can have a better chance of getting pre-amp gain dialed in, EQing your voice an instruments so they don’t overlap too much and balancing your levels nicely. If at all possible, get some help here.

EQing is a dark art that I’m only vaguely aware of, and mostly don’t have to worry about anyway as an unaccompanied singer. I mostly just leave things flat and hope. There’s plenty of advice to be found on YouTube or sites like Sound On Sound, so I recommend investigating those.

Lighting Suggestions

Again, there are entire books on this, and there’s no end of gear you can buy if really fall down the rabbit hole. Elly Lucas made a great ‘Visual Content Level Up Tutorial’ that’s a great starting point.

Seriously. Just watch that. I was going to write more, but she covers pretty everything I was going to say.


If at all possible, don’t use the webcam in your laptop. Investigate ways to use your phone as a webcam. Certainly that’s possible if you’re in Apple World – Zoom can treat your iPhone as a webcam and the camera in your phone is substantially better than almost any webcam you can find. If you’ve got a mirrorless or dSLR camera, more recent ones often have software that lets you use them as a webcam – check your manufacturers website. If they can’t be used directly as a webcam, check whether they have what’s referred to as a ‘clean HDMI’ output and look at getting a cheap and cheerful usb HDMI capture card (or spend rather more on something like the Elgato Camlink. I went with the cheap and cheerful option and it’s fine).

Stick your camera or phone on a good solid tripod, wobbly cameras are really distracting. And level is great. You don’t want people wondering why the things on your shelves aren’t sliding off. Plain backgrounds make this less critical.

If you’re shooting for a solo video, you probably want to frame things so you’re slightly off centre in the frame. However, it makes life much easier for me setting up the Song Swap if you frame yourself in the middle of the shot. One of these days I might fix things so that’s not necessary, but for now centred is best.

Set dressing

Plain walls are great. If you can arrange to hang something like a duvet behind you, that acts as quick and dirty audio treatment of your room. I have a duvet and a rug hanging behind me as a background and it definitely helps with the sound. Getting some distance between you and your background helps blur it a little and make it less distracting.

The advice on making your own headshot applies here as well.

What to expect

The aim of a song swap is to have a good old natter and sing a bunch of songs and to enjoy ourselves while we do it. It’s not an interview, if only because I’m a terrible gobshite with a tendency to go off on tangents. Don’t hesitate to tell me to shut up. I try to rein myself in, but every time I watch a show back I think “Yeah, you could have shut up a bit more there Piers.”

If you’re the sort who likes a set list, I’d suggest planning to cover as much material as you’d get through in a forty minute folk club set with maybe a couple of encore pieces. Nobody’s run out of material yet.

It’s a song swap tradition that the first question I ask a new guest is to ask them to talk about their first encounter with Martin Carthy, whether in person or recorded. Chris Manners memorably described first hearing Martin singing The Bedmaking on the John Peel show playing a guitar ‘hard enough to drive rivets through concrete walls’ and rearranging his entire world. My first encounter was at the Soles and ‘Eels folk club in Northampton. Everyone had hyped the gig up beforehand like it was the Second Coming and I bloody hated it. Martin was great, as usual, I just wasn’t in the right place to realise that. We’re not about gatekeeping here though, so if you don’t know who I’m talking about, let me know and I’ll probably ask you how you came to discover you were a musician.


The show is supported by people chucking money in the virtual hat at https://ko-fi.com/pdcawley. On the following Monday, I tot up the total takings and send you half through the magic of Paypal.

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