Creating a Screencast, Part 1: Tools of the Trade
Wikipedia defines the noun/verb screencast as “a digital recording of computer screen output, also known as a video screen capture, often containing audio narration.” In the broadest possible application, screencasts are ideal vehicles for knowledge transfer. For instance, a screencast author can produce a narrated video to accomplish any of the following goals:
- A software demonstration
- A marketing presentation
- An archive of a teleconferenced meeting
- A video blog post
You may have seen screencasts that consisted of narrated walkthroughs of software usage, PowerPoint-driven lectures, or some combination of the two.
In today’s age of integrated microphones, webcams, and open-source software, you can produce fairly nice screencasts with minimal investment. At base, to record a screencast you will require the following components:
- A microphone and audio interface
- A webcam
- Screencasting software
Let’s now describe each of these components in detail.
Microphone and Audio Interface
Although some screencast authors produce their tutorial videos with no audio, opting to display message text in display bubbles, I strongly discourage this practice. One important mechanism for you to connect with your audience is the use of your own voice. To this end, you will need a microphone to capture your voice and an audio interface with which to digitize it and add the audio stream to your screencast video.
I recommend that you purchase a dedicated microphone instead of attempting to leverage the small, low-fidelity mic that is built into your computer’s chassis. Nowadays you can find a decent Universal Serial Bus (USB) headset microphone for less than $40 USD.
Rather than give you specific product suggestions, I recommend that you (a) consult screencast authors in your life and ask them what they use; (b) perform Internet research on the subject; and (c) visit Harlan Hogan’s website, which is the best online store of its kind, in my opinion.
USB or FireWire headset microphones require only a USB 2.0 port on your computer; no internal audio interface is required. Figure 1 depicts this simple setup.
Figure 1 Simple audio setup for screencasting
Of course, another option is to make use of the audio interface already resident within your computer’s chassis. However, I’ve found that original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) tend to skimp on components here, so I suggest that if you insist on going the “internal sound card” route that you purchase a decent quality PCI Express audio interface (see Figure 2) and ensure that your headset microphone employs RCA or mini plugs.
Figure 2 PCI Express audio interface with mini and optical inputs
Many screencast authors, myself included, prefer the flexibility of external audio interfaces. These are self-contained “sound cards” that plug into your computer via USB or FireWire. I like these interfaces also because they generally have myriad methods for connecting microphones, including the industry standard XLR interface for condenser microphones.
Speaking of higher-end microphones, a condenser microphone is always a wonderful choice for producing top-quality audio for screencasts. These microphones require external power (called “phantom” power) that can be provided by your external audio interface. The signal chain for a more premium audio rig can be seen in Figure 3.
Figure 3 A premium audio rig for screencasting
Condenser microphones are typically more expensive than USB headset or desktop microphones because besides the cost of the microphone, you also have to factor in the price of the XLR cable(s), mounting stand, and “pop” filter. Don’t forget about filtering your condenser microphone or your plosives may startle your audience and otherwise reduce the audio quality of your screencasts.
With respect to driver support for your headset microphone or external audio interface, you’ll need to ensure that the vendor offers a driver for your target operating system, be it Microsoft Windows, Apple Mac OS X, or Linux.