July 31, 2009
Last night I spent WAAAY too long trying to finish up a video in Camtasia that was both presentation and screencast. Each time I clicked produce, it churned for 30 minutes, then created a video that didn’t work well. It wasn’t until I discovered one little drop-down that everything cleared up for that production. And I learned a lot of other things on the way here, including how I can get better audio, and how to not sound like a complete idiot. Since I don’t do this everyday (yet), I thought I should make note of the steps here so I don’t have to stumble again in 6 months.
My video ended up with about 25 minutes of slides, then 10 minutes of screencast demo. It was an introduction to Fax over IP and the Open Text Fax Server. The slides go over technical topics and what the market looks like to us. In the wrong hands, this can become a bit of a boring topic. I tend to be an excited person when I deliver these live, but its too easy to make a recording sound like death. Of course it starts with the content.
We had been building a good deck for this topic over the last few weeks. I had a version, which was tweaked by a colleague, then tweaked again by me. Then I practiced it the way I thought it should be delivered. I ran through it several times until I thought I had the right words for each slide. Then came the most time consuming part: I wrote it all down.
Even if I know what I am going to say ahead of time, when I click the record button, my IQ drops in half: I sound like an idiot with lots of ummms, and ahhhhs. But if I have a script to follow, I can eliminate those stutters. So after writing it all down, I read through it. Sometimes I write like I think I should, but reading it back sounds a bit stuffy, so I edited it a few times until it sounded natural. It’s very important to get the script to say something exactly the same way you would normally describe it.
Once I have the words correct, I introduce some extra lines into the script. I already split the document into paragraphs where it made sense to take a long breath. But now I added an extra line with just an asterisk on it every now and then. This asterisk represents places I have to move on to the next slide. If I have to spend time concentrating on the deck, then I lose my place in the script. If I just read from the script, its harder to edit the final recording so that everything is in sync. But with the asterisk there, I can have the preso running off to the side to help with context, and know when to move on to the next slide or next build of the current slide. At this point I run through the deck a few times to make sure all the timing is right and that my asterisks are all there in the right places. Now I can start recording.
My recording setup is not entirely professional, but it is a little more advanced than it probably needs to be. I am basically recording two things, and they are being recorded in two different applications: Camtasia and Audacity. I use Camtasia Studio 6 for the video recording. With Camtasia, I have a Powerpoint plugin to start the recording. I can then click through the slides at the right interval, and it records the entire thing, including all transitions.
At first I had also recorded audio in here, but discovered that it was too much work to get rid of my occasional heavy breathing and the sound of the remote clicker that I use. So now I open Audacity and record directly into there at the same time. I am sure there are some great audio editors out there, but Audacity is good enough and it is free.
I don’t understand how to use most of the features of Audacity, so coming up with a good recording was tough. At first I got lots of hiss from the laptop, and my voice was hard to listen to. I had a good Audio Technica microphone I picked up in Singapore which allowed me to distance myself from the laptop and remove the hiss, but the audio was still wrong. It wasn’t until I got a Zoom H4N external recorder that things improved. I am sure that if I spent the time I could get Audacity alone to make a good recording, but I am not an audio engineer. Using the H4N as a USB microphone gives me certain effects like a limiter and pre-amp that just make my voice sound so much better. The more I use this thing, the more impressed I am with it. The real revelation came after reading a blog post from Torley.com. He talks about using these effects in a way that I just didn’t comprehend before.
When it is time to go, I start both apps and start recording. But Camtasia has my preso on full screen so there is no space to read the script. I could print it out, but I have no printer at home. Instead I use a second laptop to read the script from. I have an Asus EEE PC 1000HE that I use when traveling to do video and photo editing, watch movies on, and run Visual Studio for occasional little projects. Although i could just use notepad to display the script, I like BPM Notepad which I found on Donation Coder’s site. You can find the program at linkerror.com. I set the font to be big enough so that I can read it from some distance, then the real feature of this tool is that it automatically scrolls, much like a teleprompter.
When recording the audio, even though I have various filters set on the H4N, I manage to picked up even the tiniest sounds. I really need to learn about audio stuff to be able to avoid hearing this, but for now I just have to make sure I move my laptops as far away from the microphones as possible. This means that I need a fairly long USB cable for the mic. Ideally I would have some external LCD monitors attached which would get my laptops further away. I can do this at work, but its harder to do at home. Also, if I can hear a sound, my microphone hears it even better.
Usually when I click record, everyone around starts making noise too. Our office is near Schiphol Airport, so I get a takeoff or landing nearby every two minutes. At home, I have a few neighbors renovating their apartments, so circular saws and cranes and the occasional screeching kid is also annoying. But since I am recording audio separately, I can pause my voice when i hear a sound, wait, and start that sentence again. If I hear the noise before I can start speaking, I’ll just say “Start Here” to give me an easy marker to edit the good audio back to.
When I do record, there is one important thing I always make sure I do. It is a simple tip that always makes your voice sound better. This applies to live talks as well as recordings or even phone calls. Ready for it? OK here it is: STAND UP. That’s it. Stand up and talk. When you sit, you sound too lazy. I don’t understand it, but its true. So I stand up for the recording and talk to the microphone. To get the mic closer to my mouth, I use a tripod. I happen to have a Gitzo 1541t tripod I use for my camera, but even the cheapest tripod will do. At work, I use a Joby Gorillapod on top of some boxes on a desk. I have a foam thing that goes around the mic that helps avoid the sound of me breathing into the mic, and the H4N has a “de-esser” that helps tone down some of those sibilants that always seem to be there.
My floors at home creak very loudly, so its important to use a remote control for advancing the slide deck so that I don’t have to move. Even though the audio recording seems to pick up that click, the click is better than the creak. When the recording is done, I can move to edit mode.
Editing for me starts with the audio. When I zoom into the audio timeline in Audacity, it becomes pretty easy to identify the remote click sound as well as me taking a breath before I start speaking. I select each of those clicks and delete them. Hearing the breathing in during a recording makes it sound more natural, so I just run amplify on those sections to drop it by about 3 or 4 db. Large gaps in the recording or the rumbling of trucks and planes going by get edited out. Before the H4N, I had to work at removing noise, then amplifying the entire recording, but I always ended up with crap. Now as soon as I remove those gaps, I am done. I can then export the recording as a wav file.
In Camtasia Studio, I open the slide recording. Since there is always an audio track associated with the video, I un-link the two tracks. Then I can insert my audio and start editing down the video to sync up with the audio. When those planes go by and I wait, my video recording is also waiting. But these splits and deletes in Camtasia are pretty easy. The tougher part comes when I have to edit the screencast recordings, but that’s just more of the same.
When I have a good completed project, I can produce it. I chose 640×480 web, but that results in some terrible audio, so I change the audio encode bitrate from 56k to 128k. The magic option that I mentioned at the top of this page was in the video settings. For some reason the MP4 frame rate defaults to 9 frames per second. This works for a slide deck, but it totally screws up the screencast. When I changed that setting to auto, everything just works.
Coming up with this process took about 2 weeks, but I had a class to teach in the middle and other conflicts. By the time all the kinks had been worked out, I managed to get the entire record, edit, and produce process down to about 3 hours for a 35 minute segment. I think the main thing I can do to improve on this is to find a better recording environment. If I had to do fewer edits, I could get down to maybe an hour for the full production. Of course, this does not include coming up with good content and a script, but there are plenty of other sites out there to explain how to do that right.
I hope someone finds this article useful. I know that I will definitely appreciate it in 6 months when I have forgotten it all and need to produce another video. If you have some tips for me on how to improve this even more, please let me know. You can comment here, or send me a tweet on twitter at technovangelist. I am especially interested in becoming less of a noob on audio recording techniques, but I am open to everything. Hopefully soon the video will be available on line. When its up, I’ll post a link if its public.