Whenever possible, I like to use FaceTime Audio or WhatsApp instead of making regular phone calls. The people I call see it as a normal phone call, but the audio quality is much better than a good old fashioned phone call.
But! Turns out I wasn’t even making my internet calls the right way. Today I learned that there’s a new feature buried in Control Center that instantly improves your microphone quality during calls, whether you’re on audio-only or video.
It’s called voice isolation, and it works on most iPhone, iPad and Mac for a few years as long as you’re using iOS 15 or macOS Monterey. (Anything that supports spatial audio also seems to support voice isolation.) It’s oddly hard to find, and you can only access the setting when you’re already on a call: you swipe down from the top right corner (or click the top right corner on a Mac) to access the control center, then press the button that says “Mic Mode”. By default, it’s set to Standard, but there are two other options: Voice Isolation and Broad Spectrum. Wide Spectrum will actually allow others on your call to hear After background noise, which I guess is helpful if you’re holding your phone at a concert, but mostly sounds like a horrible thing to do to other people online. But vocal isolation? Voice isolation is where the magic happens.
I had no idea that a) voice isolation was a feature available on newer iPhones/Airpods and b) it worked so well. It’s amazing on the other side, you can’t hear anything but the person you’re talking to. Surprised it doesn’t turn on automatically!
— can duruk (@can) May 16, 2022
Basically, when you enable voice isolation, your device starts aggressively processing the audio coming into your mic to suppress background noise. When I turned on the setting on my iPhone 12, my dog barking 20 feet away was completely gone – as was almost all traffic noise. When I turned it on on my MacBook, the sounds of my laptop fan and keyboard typing completely stopped coming through.
In the process of isolating the voice, Apple also seems to bring it closer; there’s a lot less echo and room tone, so it sounds like you’re holding your phone to your face even when you’re not. The tradeoff is that your voice definitely sounds more processed, but it still sounds processed through apps like FaceTime or Zoom.
During my testing there was a time when two cars were revving their engines at the same time only a few feet from where I was standing when the AI seemed to be overrun and only produced a half a second of total silence. But it’s not like you could hear me through the roar anyway, is it? And, in general, a little more processing for a lot less background noise is an easy trade-off for most calls.
There are only two problems with voice isolation. First, it’s not a universal setting, so you’ll need to enable it in every app you use for calls. Two, it doesn’t work everywhere. Apple makes Voice Isolation available through an API on iOS, iPadOS, and macOS, but not all apps support it. On mobile devices, the track record is pretty good: Snapchat, WhatsApp, Slack, Signal and Instagram all support it, but not TikTok. Zoom had it on iOS but not Mac, and there’s no way to enable it for browser apps as far as I know, which rules out Google Meet and a handful of others.
But the most glaring absence? Regular phone calls. There are no mic modes for phone calls at all, although that’s where you could probably use a bit of improvement the most. I asked Apple why this was the case, but the company had no comment.
To be fair, even in normal modes Apple does a job of noise cancellation. If you ever want to test it, hold a fan to your phone and listen as the device takes a few seconds to identify and remove it, but that doesn’t go far enough. I have now heard Voice Isolation, which means I have heard what can sound better. And I want it everywhere, and I want it all the time – for my own good and for everyone I talk to.
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