Just about anyone can record a video of their screen and upload it to YouTube. But creating a compelling, high-quality screencast that people will not only learn from, but actually enjoy watching… well that’s a bit more challenging.
As you pay closer attention to the details, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with new questions. What screen recording software should I use? Which microphone is best? How do I soundproof my recording area inexpensively?
Over the past eight years, I’ve created hundreds of screencast videos for my own WordPress tutorial site, as well as many other clients. Along the way, I’ve continually streamlined and improved my process and workflow.
As a result of my fanatical attention to detail, I’ve earned a reputation for creating some of the highest-quality tutorial videos and screencasts for clients like GoDaddy, Media Temple, WooThemes, Yoast, and many other companies.
Every day, I learn new ways to improve my craft and create even more effective learning videos. In this post, I’ll share some of the tools and techniques I’ve picked up along the way, so that you can create even better-quality screencasts and learning videos.
Who is this for?
This is not a “Screencasting 101” or, “How to create your first screencast” tutorial. (That’s coming soon!) Rather, this article assumes you already have some experience creating screencasts — whether brief, introductory/promo videos for your product or service, or full-length tutorial videos — and are simply looking for ways to improve the overall quality of your videos for better results.
If you’re looking for a basic tutorial on how to create screencasts, I highly recommend Jeffrey Way’s tutorial series called, “Pro Screencasting for the Rest of Us.” It costs just $9, and covers everything you’ll need to create your first screencast.
But, if you’ve already got some experience creating screencasts, and are looking for tips to help you improve, this article is for you! Ready to dive in?
Before you begin…
You’ll need a few tools of the trade in order to create professional-quality screencasts:
Screen Recording Software
At a minimum, you’ll need software to record your on-screen actions and accompanying narration, then export and share that video with others.
If you use a Mac, you’ll find that you can create decent screen recordings using the free QuickTime Player application. Just launch the app, then choose File > New Screen Recording and click the red button to begin recording your screen actions. You can record either your full screen, or just a portion of your screen.
When you’re finished recording, simply save your video to your computer, or share it via email, YouTube, Vimeo, or any of the other built-in destinations.
While this method is fine for creating very simple screencasts, you’ll soon discover that the editing tools are quite rudimentary, if not downright frustrating. So, when you’re ready to begin creating more professional screencasts, you’ll want to invest in a proper screen recording program like Camtasia or my personal favorite, ScreenFlow.
Camtasia and ScreenFlow cost roughly the same, offer similar features, and function in pretty much the same way. But each application has a slightly different user interface and editing tools. You may find that you simply prefer one over the other. Personally, I prefer the overall experience of ScreenFlow, including the editing interface and the powerful export tools.
My favorite feature in ScreenFlow is the ability to publish directly to YouTube or Vimeo with just a single click. This eliminates the time-consuming process of exporting, then converting the final video into a suitable format, and guessing at a suitable data rate, final size, or frame rate. Best of all, the final video is of noticeably higher quality when exported directly to the video hosting service.
Q: What screen recording software do you use and recommend?
A: Hands-down, ScreenFlow.
One of the first things people will notice about your screencast video is the audio quality. If you record your narration using the built-in microphone in your laptop or desktop computer, the audio will likely be muffled or unclear, filled with distracting background noises, echo from the surrounding room, or worse… the clatter and thud of your fingers on the keyboard.
So after the screen recording software itself, the next most important piece of equipment is a high-quality microphone.
Most podcast and screencast producers these days opt for a USB microphone, which strike a great balance of both price and quality. One of the biggest advantages of using a USB microphone is that they require no additional hardware; just plug the USB cable directly into your computer, and you’re ready to begin recording!
I recently purchased and tested six of the top USB microphones on the market, and you can listen to the results of that experiment here:
Still, most podcasters I know prefer the highly-popular Rode Podcaster. This is largely a matter of personal preference, and it’s a good idea to test several mics to see which one sounds the best with your voice.
Dynamic Studio-Quality Mics
But when you’re ready to step up your game, you’ll want to move beyond USB microphones and purchase a professional-quality studio microphone. Why? Simply put, because USB isn’t capable of powering a large-diaphragm microphone.
Why does the size of a microphone’s diaphragm matter?
The diaphragm in a microphone is a thin piece of material that vibrates when it is struck by sound waves. These vibrations are converted into an electrical current which becomes the audio signal. A small diaphragm, like those used in USB microphones, is easily overpowered, resulting in distortion and ‘plosives’ — those annoying ‘pops’ when you say the letter ‘p’, for example.
Unlike USB microphones, professional studio microphones have large diaphragms, which means they can capture and reproduce your voice more accurately, without the distortion of a USB mic. But, larger diaphragm mics also require amplification, typically from a preamp.
Plus, they require a standard XLR microphone cable, instead of a USB cable, which means you can’t plug the microphone directly into your computer. Instead, you’ll plugin the microphone into a preamp, which in turn, is plugged into an audio converter, which is plugged into your computer via a USB cable.
Some audio interfaces include a built-in preamp, which can eliminate the need for a separate preamp and simplify your setup.
For example, the Apogee Duet, is an award-winning audio interface that does two things at once: 1) it amplifies your microphone, AND 2) it converts the audio into a digital signal for your computer and recording software.
As a bonus, you’ll notice a dramatic improvement in the overall quality of audio played back from your computer when it’s routed through the Duet instead of the built-in headphone jack. The difference when listening to music is night and day, and even if you’re not an audiophile, you’ll enjoy the improvement!
As for the microphone itself, I use the excellent RØDE Procaster microphone (shown on right), which has earned a reputation for being one of the best vocal mics on the market.
The RØDE Procaster is a professional broadcast quality dynamic microphone, specifically designed to offer no-compromise performance for voice applications in the broadcast environment. The Procaster features an internal pop filter, designed to minimise plosives sounds that can overload the microphone capsule and distort the audio output.
Q: What microphone do you use and recommend?
A: If you’re just getting started, try the Yeti by Blue Microphones. It served me well for years. But when you’re ready to step up your game, you’ll want a pro mic like the RØDE Procaster, powered by an audio interface like the Apogee Duet. You might also check out the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2.
How to Soundproof for Better Recordings
Unless you have access to a professional recording studio, you’re likely creating your recordings in your office or perhaps a quiet room in your house. But, as you’ve probably already noticed, your microphone still picks up distracting background noises and echo from the room itself. Hey, nobody wants to hear your phone ringing or your dog barking in the background of your video.
Professional voiceover artists record in purpose-built vocal booths, which are insulated to be completely soundproof. But you don’t have to spend a fortune to create a reasonably soundproof environment for recording your own voiceovers.
A well-known hack among beginning voiceover artists is to simply record in a clothes closet. The hanging clothes in the tiny space dampen and absorb the sound of your voice, rather than reflecting it back into the microphone, virtually eliminating echo and creating that intimate, “up close” sound.
But I prefer to record at my desk, so I use two of the inexpensive DeskMAX panels by Auralex, positioned on either side of my computer and microphone. These do an excellent job of eliminating room echo, and may be the only additional soundproofing you require.
Recently, I’ve gone one step further and also covered the wall behind my workstation with Auralex acoustic panels (as seen in the top photo), further reducing reflections and echo.
And, I position two larger MAX-Wall panels directly behind me while recording. With these panels in place, I have an almost completely soundproof vocal booth. Best of all, these panels are temporary and can be easily stored away when not in use.
Again, you don’t need to go this far. Just grab two of the DeskMAX panels and see what a difference they make.
Q: What’s the easiest way to cut down on room echo and background noise while recording?
A: Purchase two DeskMAX panels, and position one on either side of your computer and or microphone. To go one step further, purchase two MAX-Wall panels and position them directly behind you as well for an excellent temporary vocal recording booth.
Let’s Get to Recording!
There are two methods for recording screencasts. Most amateur screencasters simply hit “Record” in their screencasting software and then record their screen actions while narrating at the same time. This often results in awkward pauses — “uhs” and “ums” — because it’s quite difficult to concentrate equally on both the on-screen actions and also your narration.
I prefer to create a detailed, word-for-word script first, during a “dry-run.” Then, I record the voiceover/narration in GarageBand, carefully inserting deliberate pauses where needed.
Next, I import the audio file into ScreenFlow and then record my on-screen actions while simultaneously playing back the narration audio. This ensures that the narration is as clear and succinct as possible, and that the on-screen actions are perfectly synced to the onscreen instruction being presented.
Here’s what my process looks like…
- Set up a local demonstration environment.
- Write a detailed, word-for-word script during a dry-run. Notate where longer pauses might be needed.
- Record the narration/voiceover in an audio recording program. I use GarageBand, with a handful of plugins. Do not simply read the script! Rather, strive for a conversational tone, as if you’re talking with your best friend.
- Export the final audio file, then import it into ScreenFlow.
- Record the on-screen actions while simultaneously playing back the audio.
- Add animated intro/outro graphics to beginning/end of the video.
- Add appropriate background music, reducing the volume of the music (called, “ducking”) so it doesn’t drown out the spoken word.
- Export the final screencast directly to the video host (Vimeo, YouTube, etc).
- Share with the world!
5 Pro Tips for Better Screencasts:
You’ve probably seen countless videos where the author simply recorded their entire desktop, including all the folders on their desktop, menubar, and even windows from other applications in the background. Nobody wants to see all that! Temporarily hide all those files and folders scattered around your desktop, or better yet…
2. Use Full-Screen mode.
If your application supports Full-Screen mode, enter that mode before recording. This will completely hide all those folders and files cluttering your desktop, as well as your menubar.
I use Google Chrome for nearly all my screencasts, so I also hide the address bar, tabs, toolbars, and bookmarks bar — basically everything other than the main browser window, ensuring the entire recording area is available for my content. No distractions.
3. Change your screen resolution.
Newer laptops and monitors support very high screen resolutions up to 5120×2880 or even higher. The problem is, your audience will likely not view your video at that same, gorgeous, full-screen resolution. Consider that many people may watch your video on a mobile device. And when your video is viewed at smaller sizes, text and other items in your video may become too tiny to be legible.
One easy way to handle this is to simply change your screen resolution to 1280×720 before recording your screen actions. This is still HD video resolution, but will ensure legibility when your video is viewed on smaller screens (like mobile devices).
I prefer to record at 2560×1440, but then zoom the web browser to 200% to mimic a smaller monitor. This ensures everything on screen is easily legible, even on a mobile device. And, it has the added benefit of allowing you to zoom in ScreenFlow without losing image quality.
4. Increase the size of your cursor.
Even if you record at 1280×720, your mouse cursor can still appear very tiny, which makes it difficult for your viewers to follow your onscreen motions. If you use a Mac, go to: System Preferences > Accessibility and increase the Cursor Size to “Large” before recording. This will make it easier for your viewers to follow your onscreen actions as you move your mouse around the screen.
5. Install the SmoothScroll extension for Chrome.
It’s disorienting to watch a screencast in which the presenter instantly jumps up and down the screen. This makes it nearly impossible to follow onscreen actions. The SmoothScroll extension for Chrome slows down your scrolling actions, easing your screen up and down smoothly when you scroll with the mouse wheel or the keyboard. This enables your viewers to more easily follow your onscreen actions, plus it adds a degree of professional polish to your final video.
Animated Intros and Outros
You don’t need to invest in an expensive piece of software to create gorgeous animations for the intro and outro of your videos.
Both ScreenFlow and Camtasia include handy editing tools that enable you to create simple animation effects like fades and zooms. Sometimes, that’s all that’s needed, and simple is always best.
But, you can create more interesting animations including transitions and effects in Apple’s Keynote (or PowerPoint, though it doesn’t contain the same quality transitions and effects).
Then, you can simply export the animation/presentation as a video file, and import that file into your screencast project. Or, for even better results, play the presentation in full-screen mode, while recording the screen in your screencast program.
I used this method to create the animated logo that appears in the introduction of the Sensei promotional video for WooThemes. Watch the video:
As I mentioned before, one of the coolest features in ScreenFlow is the ability to publish to YouTube or Vimeo directly from the app itself. This eliminates the time-consuming process of exporting and converting the final video into a suitable format, and guessing at a suitable data rate, final size, or frame rate. Best of all, the final video is of noticeably higher quality when exported directly to the video hosting service.
But for years, I exported a Lossless video file at full resolution, then used HandBrake to convert that video file into a more web-friendly format and size.
When manually exporting video files for use on the web, here are the settings I use: H.264 .mp4 file format at 720p (1280×720) @ 30 fps (5,000 kb datarate)
A quick note about video hosting…
A while back, I wrote a detailed article outlining “10 Reasons Why You Should Never Host Your Own Videos.”
Without repeating all those reasons again here, let me just simply share my recommendation for hosting video…
Once you’ve created your screencast video, the best way to publish and distribute your video is to simply upload it to a video hosting service like YouTube, Wistia, or my personal favorite, Vimeo PRO.
Then, you can easily embed your video into a post or page on your own website and invite folks to watch your video there.
You won’t have to fuss with slow web servers or bandwidth issues. No need to create multiple file formats for every type of mobile device. Just upload once, and then share your latest professional-quality screencast!
So stop hosting your own video! Get Vimeo PRO instead.
This month only, use promo code: J15WP101 to save 15% on an annual subscription to Vimeo PRO. Hurry, this offer ends 7/6!
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