It’s easy to create screencasts. These days, just about anyone can record a video of their screen and upload it to YouTube. But, if you want to create compelling, high-quality screencasts that people will actually watch and share… well, that’s a bit more challenging.
It’s easy to become overwhelmed with questions when you pay closer attention to the details. Which screen recording software should I use to create screencasts? Which microphone is best for recording narration? How do I soundproof my recording area to get rid of that echo?
Over the past 11 years, I’ve created hundreds of screencast videos for my own WordPress tutorial site, as well as notable clients like Automattic, GoDaddy, WooCommerce, Namecheap, and many others. Still, I’m continually learning new ways to improve my craft and create even more effective learning videos.
In this post, I’ll share just a few of the tools and techniques I’ve picked up along the way, so that you can create screencasts and learning videos that people will actually watch. Ready to dive in?
Before you begin creating screencasts…
You’ll need a few tools in order to create professional-quality screencasts:
Which screen recording software is best for recording screencasts?
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 8.
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?
Which microphone is best for recording narration for my screencasts?
Believe it or not, the first thing people will actually notice about your video is the quality of your audio.
If you record 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.
Beginner? Start with a USB Microphone.
Most podcasters opt for a USB microphone when first starting out, because they’re very affordable and provide decent audio quality. One of the biggest advantages of using a USB microphone is that they require no additional hardware. Simply plug the USB cable directly into your computer, and you’re ready to start recording!
A couple of years ago, I purchased and tested six of the top USB microphones on the market. You can listen to the results of that experiment here:
Still, most people I know prefer the highly-popular RØDE 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.
Ready to level up? Step up to a Dynamic Microphone.
When you’re ready to step up your game, you’ll want to upgrade from that USB microphone to a professional-quality dynamic 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?
Inside of every microphone is a diaphragm — a thin piece of material that vibrates when it’s struck by sound waves. The vibrations are converted into an electrical current, which becomes the audio signal.
USB can only power a relatively small diaphragm. So USB microphones are easily overpowered, which results in distortion and ‘plosives’ — those annoying ‘pops’ when you pronounce the letter ‘p’, for example.
Dynamic microphones, on the other hand, contain larger diaphragms, which means they can capture and reproduce your voice more accurately, without distorting like a USB mic. But larger diaphragm mics also require amplification, typically from a pre-amp.
These microphones also require a standard XLR microphone cable, instead of a USB cable. That means you can’t plug the microphone directly into your computer. Instead, you’ll plug the microphone into a pre-amp, which in turn, is plugged into an audio interface, which connects to your computer via a USB cable:
Most audio interfaces include a built-in pre-amp, which eliminates the need for a separate pre-amp.
For example, the Scarlett Solo is a popular 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 for the microphone itself, I recommend you start with the excellent RØDE Procaster microphone (shown on right), which is a professional, broadcast-quality dynamic microphone, specifically designed for voice applications.
The Procaster features an internal pop filter, which minimizes those ‘plosives’ — the sounds that can overload a microphone capsule and distort the audio output.
“Yeah, but what microphone do YOU use, Shawn?”
For most of my voice over work, I use the legendary Shure SM7B.
Whether you’re recording a podcast or a professional voice-over, the SM7B will capture smooth, warm vocals that connect the speaker to the listener. The wide-range frequency response of the SM7B preserves every nuance of the sound it captures.
That’s why it’s considered the ‘Holy Grail’ of vocal microphones, and why legendary recording artists from Michael Jackson to Pentatonix have chosen the legendary SM7B to capture their performances.
The SM7B delivers perfectly accurate voice reproduction that sounds like you’re sitting right next to the listener. There’s nothing harsh or shrill about this mic. Its sound is warm and neutral, and perfect for podcasting or recording narration for tutorial videos.
One note: The SM7B requires a lot of power… more than most consumer pre-amps or audio interfaces can deliver. So, I highly recommend a little device called the Cloudlifter. It adds an additional +25dB of clean gain, so your SM7B will sound amazing.
For my audio interface, I use the Universal Audio Arrow, the first Thunderbolt 3-powered desktop recording audio interface for Mac and Windows.
It differs from other audio interfaces in that it not only offers noise-free audio conversion and TWO mic preamps, but also includes a suite of onboard plug-ins you can use for studio-quality results. It’s like getting a whole studio of high-end gear that would otherwise cost thousands of dollars. Your voice-overs will sound like they’re recorded in a professional studio!
So, my entire audio chain looks like this:
Q: So, what microphone do you recommend?
How to soundproof your recording area to eliminate room noise and pesky echo…
Unless you have access to a professional recording studio, you’re likely recording in your office or perhaps a semi-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 voice-over artists use expensive, purpose-built vocal booths, which are insulated and completely soundproof. But you don’t have to spend a fortune to create a reasonably soundproof environment for recording your own voice-overs.
A well-known hack among beginning voice-over artists is to simply record in a clothes closet. No kidding.
The hanging clothes in a 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, if you’re like me, you prefer to record at your desk. If so, buy two of these inexpensive DeskMAX panels by Auralex, and position one on either side of your computer and microphone. These do an amazing job of eliminating room echo, and may be the only additional soundproofing you require!
I’ve gone one step further and covered the entire wall behind my workstation with Auralex acoustic panels (as seen in the top photo), which further reduces echo and ‘slapback.’
Then, I have two, large MAX-Wall panels, which I position directly behind me while recording. Here’s what it looks like in action…
And here’s what it looks like inside the booth…
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.
How to Record a Screencast
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. It’s easy and quick. But it often results in awkward pauses — “uhs” and “ums” — because it’s 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 voice-over or narration in Logic Pro (you could also use GarageBand), carefully inserting deliberate pauses where needed.
Next, I import that 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 on-screen 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/voice-over in an audio recording program. I use Logic Pro X, but you could also use GarageBand. 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, if it helps.
- Add animated intro/outro graphics to beginning and end of the video.
- Add appropriate background music, and enable “ducking” to automatically reduce the volume of the music whenever there is spoken word present, so the music doesn’t drown out the narration.
- Export the final screencast 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. 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).
PRO TIP: If you are not using a Retina or QHD monitor, set your resolution to 2560×1440, but then zoom the web browser to 200% to mimic the scale and resolution of a 1280×720 monitor. This will ensure that everything on screen is still legible, even on a mobile device. Plus, it has the added benefit of allowing you to zoom in ScreenFlow without pixelation or sacrificing 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 on-screen motions. If you use a Mac, go to: System Preferences > Accessibility > Display and increase the Cursor Size to “Large” before recording. This will make it easier for your viewers to follow your on-screen actions as you move your mouse around the screen.
5. Install the SmoothScroll extension for Chrome.
It’s disorienting to watch a video that suddenly jumps up or down the screen. It makes it nearly impossible to follow your on-screen actions. As the presenter, you know that you scrolled down the page, but your viewers are left to wonder what just happened.
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. I nearly always use the arrow keys, or Page Up/Down keys to scroll precisely and smoothly to the portion of the screen I wish to highlight. This helps your viewers to easily follow your on-screen actions, plus it adds a degree of professional polish to your final video.
Animated Intros and Outros
You don’t need to invest in expensive software to create simple animations (or, ‘bumpers’) for the intro and outro of your videos.
Both ScreenFlow and Camtasia include handy editing tools you can use to create simple animation effects like fades and zooms. Sometimes, that’s all you need… 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 cinematic-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.
As I mentioned before, one of the most useful features in ScreenFlow is the ability to publish directly to YouTube or Vimeo with one click. This eliminates the time-consuming process of exporting, then converting the final video into a suitable format, while 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 1440p (2560×1440) @ 60fps (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.
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!
Stop hosting your videos on your own server! Use Vimeo instead.
Check Out Vimeo PRO