My Video Recording Setup
August 2017 (perspective of an assistant professor)
A year ago I started recording PG Podcast video interviews and expanded to vlogs (video blogs). I've recorded about 60 of these videos now and also have dozens of screencast tutorial videos of me teaching software and programming-related concepts. Everything is on my YouTube channel. [Update in 2018: I'm now at over 200 podcast+vlog episodes, with a bunch of other lecture and coding screencast videos on my channel.]
Some people have asked about my video recording setup, so here it is! I don't like yak shaving in terms of technical setup since my philosophy is to prioritize quickly creating new content. So this is a “barely good-enough” setup for my amateur needs ...
Audio quality is the most important
Obviously you want to maximize both audio and video quality if possible, but if I had to pick one, I would definitely prioritize audio quality. Good audio quality has several benefits:
My audio setup (see below) is less than $300. That's a whole lot cheaper than buying a nice camera, and, in my view, improves recording quality a lot more than if you just had a nice camera.
When I'm recording on my computer, I use the following setup:
This setup is under $200 and is super-reliable. Unless you're going to be a singer or voice actor, there's no need to spend more than this much. Here's me using this setup hooked up to my iMac:
Just plug the mic into your USB port and make sure it's selected as the audio input source when you're recording. Super easy!
What I love about the Yeti mic is that you can plug headphones directly into it (as shown in the above video) and hear your vocals in real-time (called a sidetone, like in old-school phones). This is critical because otherwise it's easy to speak too loudly or softly.
This video also shows how you're supposed to speak into the “side” of the Yeti rather than into the top, which throws off people who are familiar with traditional mics. For solo recording, I set it to cardioid mode (instructions here) so that it picks up sound mostly right in front of it. I set the gain to less than 1/4 (sometimes to the minimal setting) and sit 3–6 inches from the mic.
The mic stand is important since otherwise if I put the mic on my desk, it picks up the vibrations from me typing on the computer or using the mouse. The foam windscreen (which makes the mic tip look puffy) is important because otherwise loud P sounds (called “plosives”) cause the audio to annoyingly “pop.”
For examples of plosive pop sounds, here is a video I made before I got the windscreen (or the mic stand!). Turn up the volume and hear how each P sound POPS ...
You need to find a mouth-to-mic distance that works best for you. Some people (like Michael Kennedy during our podcast) turn the gain to nearly-zero and put their face at point-blank range next to the mic. While this is great for eliminating all background noise, I find that it looks a bit funny on video and hinders my movement; it's ideal for audio-only recordings, though. So I've settled for slightly more background noise in exchange for greater mobility. But no matter what, it's important to wear headphones plugged into the Yeti mic so that you can get real-time sidetone feedback to self-regulate your volume.
(NB: Since the mic stand is black, I think a black Yeti mic would look much better on video, but I already have a silver one.)
As an alternative to my desktop Yeti mic, I also use a handheld Audio-Technica ATR2100-USB Cardioid Dynamic USB/XLR Microphone, again with a standard pop filter. I plug it into either my desktop or laptop computers via USB just like the Yeti. Also like the Yeti, I can plug headphones into it to get a sidetone. Here it is in action:
The ATR2100 somehow feels more “natural” to use than the Yeti since it's a lighter handheld mic, but the audio quality is a little bit worse. However, it's fine for most purposes.
[Update in 2018: I've been using this setup more than the Yeti since it feels lighter and more dynamic. And I can pretend like I'm an old-timey TV show host with a handheld mic.]
When I'm recording on-the-go, I use:
The Rode lavalier mic plugs into your phone or laptop using a headphone jack (not USB). It's what people use when taping TV interviews. (I've heard that the smartLav+ is better than the original smartLav.)
To use it, simply clip it onto your collar and talk normally. It has a built-in foam windscreen to prevent plosive pop sounds. The instruction manual recommends mounting it upside down for better noise reduction, so that's what I did in this video:
Audio quality won't ever be as good as the Blue Yeti, but it's still much much much better than using the built-in mic on your phone or laptop. I'm recording this video outside in a busy mall with cars driving by, and you can barely hear background noise.
The main disadvantage of a portable mic is that you can't plug headphones into it to get a sidetone, so you don't know how loud your recorded audio is. The best way to find out what settings work well for you is via trial and error. If you have a recording app that shows your audio waveform, turn the gain up until you almost max out the waveform when you're talking normally. If you find that you're talking too loud so that the audio “clips” and sounds distorted, then turn down the gain. It's better to err on the side of the audio being a bit too quiet than too loud, since once the audio gets clipped, there's no way to fix it.
I love this portable mic because it allows me to record vlogs from my phone even while walking around:
Video recording hardware
I'm very low-tech here. I just use the webcam on my computer or my iPhone's front-facing selfie camera if I'm making a video on-the-go.
[Update in 2017: I got a Logitech C920 HD Pro Webcam for my computer and use the Webcam Settings app from the Mac App Store to manually focus it, since I've found that the autofocus on that webcam doesn't work too well.]
[Update in 2018: I got a Canon 80D SLR for recording higher-fidelity videos ... will write more about this later.]
Like I mentioned above, audio quality is far more important than video quality for the videos that I make.
Video recording software
If I want to record a vlog on my computer, I simply use the built-in QuickTime Player on macOS to record video from the built-in webcam (File -> New Movie Recording). I set the microphone to my Yeti mic and quality to the default of “High,” which I think is 720p resolution. I've found “Maximum” quality to be overkill and result in files that are too huge. A 10-minute vlog is around 800 MB, and I upload it to YouTube after recording.
On some vlogs, I want to show both my computer screen and my own face, so I use Camtasia to simultaneously record both and then render a video from it. Here is an example from my laptop:
Camtasia has a free trial version, but it's such good-quality software that I highly recommend buying it (~$200).
If I'm recording vlogs on my iPhone on-the-go, I use the MoviePro app ($6) because it allows me to record audio using my smartLav+ portable mic. As far as I know, the built-in iPhone video recorder lets you record using only the built-in mic. I set the external mic input volume to around 2/3 to 3/4 in MoviePro. In general, you want the volume level to almost max out without clipping when you're talking in your normal voice, so adjust the gain settings until you reach that goal.
If I'm interviewing someone for a video podcast, I set up a YouTube Live event, which is a Google Hangout that is automatically recorded and uploaded to YouTube. I send my guest the URL to the Hangout session and then hit Record:
Recording quality is highly dependent on both of our internet connection speeds, but that's the case with any videoconferencing software. (A higher-fidelity alternative is to have both parties record locally and then edit the videos together later, but that's way too much work for me!)
Finally, in some of my screencast tutorial videos, I use a pen tablet to draw over my screen as I am lecturing:
For these videos, I used a Microsoft Surface Pro 2 tablet laptop (there are newer models by now) using the free Epic Pen software to allow me to sketch over any part of my desktop screen. I record the screen video using Camtasia for Windows.
Video editing (or lack thereof)
Video editing can take forever, so my philosophy here is not to edit at all (or to barely edit). YouTube has a simple online video editor that I sometimes use (but I hear it's going away soon, sadly) [update in 2018: yep, it's long gone!]. I also use Camtasia for editing. I don't think you need anything more fancy than Camtasia (or iMovie on Mac) unless you want to win an Oscar.
I upload everything to YouTube, make the links public, extract out the audio from those videos for my podcast feed, and embed all the clips on my website. Finally, I always disable comments since I don't want to deal with them. That's all, folks!
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Last modified: 2017-08-02