5 Things You Can Do Now to Improve Audio in Your Screencasts When You Don’t Have a Studio

This is Part 3 in the 7-Pillars For Creating Great Video Screencasts Series.

7 pillars for creating great screencasts - audioIn the previous article in this series I shared my thoughts about content and it's role in creating great video sreencasts.  In the process, we talked about some of the sources of ready made content that we sometimes forget is on hand and just waiting to be reimagined -- as Ann Handley puts it in her book, Content Rules -- in new and wonderful ways.

In this article I want to share with you some thoughts about audio's role in creating great content.  And, I'll share some tips, too, about what you can do to make it better even if you don't have a sound studio.  (Actually, I should say, especially if you don't have a sound studio.  After all, if you have one of those at your disposal, then producing great sounding screencasts and elearning media wouldn't be an issue.  You'd have exactly what I've been salivating about for years... and which I still don't have.  So, like you, I've had to make do.  Here are a few things I've learned along the way.... )

5 Things You Can Do Today to Improve Audio Quality In Your Screencast Projects

Although many of us spend a lot of time producing and editing the visual aspects of our web video and screencast creations, it turns out our content can actually survive lesser visual quality -- provided that the audio isn't too taxing on our viewers' senses.  Ragged, raspy, tinn-y or echo-ey audio tend to make folks click away.

Look, I don't always get this right myself.  Especially when I'm blogging.  That last admission might surprise you.  But, the fact is, I use my blogging activities to experiment and try different techniques, formats, widgets, and so on.  This platform for experimentation givs me my safe environment in which to fail, so that I can more cleanly apply what I learn for my fee-based projects.  And it's that spirit of continuously trying and learning different techniques that brings me to the first item in my list of 5 things you can do today to improve audio quality in your screencasts and web videos:

1. Experimentation: Create For Yourself a Safe Environment in Which to Fail 

This has been, by far, the best way I've learned to improve the quality in my screencasts and videos.  And, as I alluded above, a personal blog has been great for that kind of experimentation.

Not only does it give you a place to store your creations in an easily accessible format, but it also allows you to see how an audience will engage with that creation in an html wrapper.  That insight is important because, when you're talking about screencasts and web videos, ultimately it's a web-enabled audience that we, as content creators, are playing to.  Even if, let's say, your project is to produce a series of tutorials for a business or corporate client, a web-enabled platform is still one of the main ways your content could be accessed by corporate users.  So, in that regard, audio/video formats, bitrates, player considerations, website plug-ins, and the like, will be factors to consider.  A personal blog will help you see how all those factors converge in a web-based interface.

Another thing worth mentioning about personal blogs is that they als0 create a platform through which you can invite dialog and feedback from those in your spheres of influence.

Action:   If you don't already have a personal blog on which you're comfortable experimenting, then create one this weekend using any one of a number of free services.  As you can see, I've pretty much standardized on WordPress.  It's a popular platform that's flexible with a lot of third-party plugins that's also relatively easy to set up and use.  (Choose the video below to see a comparison between wordpress.com and wordpress.org.)

lorem-ipsum2.  Script your audio

There's nothing worse than a long-winded and rambly training video or screencast that doesn't seem to know when it has accomplished it's objective.  A script not only helps you with the visual aspect of your content, but it will also help to smooth out those pregnant pauses on one end of the spectrum, or the overly-caffeinated ramblings on the other.

Those pregnant pauses carry the byproduct of accentuating hisses and background noise that ghost their way into your recording.  Meanwhile, the hyper-monologues tend to accentuate your breathing--making you sound winded.

Both will set the mood of your production.  And, while a script won't always be an appropriate technique for all of your creations, depending on the type of look you're going for, I've found that a script is almost always helpful when I create a screen-based tutorial for a software application, a marketing demo or a slide based presentation.

Action:  Download this template I use to script the audio portion of my creations.  It's free.  No need to sign up.  Just click the link above and get it. 

3.  Squelch your environment.

What can I say?  This can be a never-ending struggle if you're in a business- or home-office and without the benefit of a sound studio, or acoustic foam for sound-proofing.  And, at $6, $12, $20 or more per panel, sound-proofing an entire room can be an expensive undertaking.

But, if your office is like mine -- a great view (or maybe not) framed within four plasterboard walls, each painted with a pristine off-white flat-finish that's perfect for reflecting sound, with an accentuating air conditioning exhaust vent over the top of your desk :( then you have to do something.

The fact is, even with a great microphone (or, perhaps, especially because you have a great microphone), recording audio in a business or home office setting will tend to give your audio recordings a hint of that tin echo-chamber effect.

This annoying phenomenon is primarily caused by the physics of sound waves leaving your mouth at about 700 miles per hour, and at different angles, while subsequently bouncing off of various surfaces inside your office.  Each surface, being at different distances from the sound source (your mouth), cause your sound waves to reflect back toward you and your microphone at slightly different times.  (Remember the last time you went to the stadium and heard echos of the girl with the beautiful voice sing the star-spangled banner at the beginning of the game?  It's like that.)

Action:  There are a few things you can do to fight this:

  • get closer to the microphone,
  • change the angle around which the receiver hears the incoming sound waves,
  • keep sound waves from bounding off the walls.

I'll hit the first two points in the next section about microphones.  But, on that last point, there are some things you can do today to dampen the ping-ponging of sound waves off of hard surfaces.

  • Acoustic foamSound proof your office.  This relates to the bit I said earlier about the joys of having access to a sound(less) room.  Or, failing that, you can invest in acoustic foam panels and deck your office walls with this wonderful, smelly stuff.  It smells, but it works great.  But, as I mentioned earlier, depending on the surface area of your office walls, this can be an expensive undertaking.
  • Reflexion FilterGet a reflexion filter.  This is basically a portable setup that helps you isolate your microphone inside a parabolic-shaped composite wall.  It does a couple of things.  The composite material absorbs the sound waves so that less of it is reflected back to the microphone.  And, it also helps position the microphone optimally so that it's shielded from reflected sound reaching the back and sides of the microphone.
  • Home made acoustic reflexion filterRig up a poor man's reflexion filter.  Seriously.  I shared this nifty little rig a while back.  It was put together by an anonymous colleague on the eQuixotic blogsite.  While I haven't tried it myself, I love the concept; it seems elegant in its simplicity and affordability.  It might just work!
  • Plan B:  Climb into a closet or test drive your car.  Hey, if laying down on the job, so to speak, isn't your thing, a couple of alternatives to diving under a blanket are to either record audio while sitting inside a closet.  (Physics, remember...?) Or, just as well, is to capture your audio while sitting inside a parked car with the engine turned off and the windows rolled up.  Remember, it's all about the physics.  You won't capture any points for style but, as we used to say in my 'ol Naval Air days, "whatever works..."  Or, "...any port in a storm."   😉

4.  Microphones Matter

This, and ambient sounds of the type I mentioned in the last section, are probably the biggest contributors of artifacts in your audio.  As I wrote in a previous article:  microphones do matter.

But, as true as that statement is, it's also true that a good microphone, excellent as it may be in capturing your voice, can be just as excellent at capturing ambient/unwanted sounds.  That's why, foremost is the importance of first trying to dampen the reflective qualities of hard surfaces in your office.  But sometimes, try as we might--and depending on the environment--there may yet be imperfections that you just won't be able squelch.  To that end... (see below)

Action:  ...It's helpful to have some appreciation for basic polar patterns around the microphone(s) your purchase.

"Polar what??", you say.

At the beginning of the previous section, I listed a couple of ideas to compensate for ambient noise.  I said I'd address them in this section.  Those points were:

  • getting closer to the microphone
  • and changing the angle around which the receiver hears the incoming sound waves

Both of the points above, at a basic level, is about taking advantage of polar patterns around some microphone designs; and understanding where your mouth is relative to three common patterns:  omnidirectional, cardioid and bidirectional.  There's a great article here at the Ears and Gears site that explains this stuff really well.  By way of summary, here's a quick description of each.

  • Omnidirectional microphone polar patternOmnidirectional.  The graphic to the right is one of those cross-sectional 2D representations of the directions around a microphone from which the microphone will hear sound sources.  You interpret it by imagining the 3d omni-directional polar patternmicrophone at the center and facing up.  But, from a 3D perspective, you'll have to use your imagination.  Think of a microphone sitting on a desk.  Now, imagine a big round beachball around it, such that the microphone is inside it and smack dab at the beachball's exact center.  It conveys the idea that sound sources at any point along the beach ball's edges will generally be picked up by the microphone.  My two cents:  These types of mics are fine if you want to capture the ambience of the outdoors, or the easy banter of spectators at your nephew's ballgame.  But, I generally don't like these types of microphones for recording screencasts.  They tend to pick up ambient artifacts more than other types of microphones.
  • Cardioid microphone polar patternCardioid.  Start with the beach ball imagery from the omnidirectional setup and then push one end of the beach ball in towards the center.  That creates a sort of concavity that puckers one end of the pattern, right?  Your takeaway 3D rendering of a Cardioid polar pattern - courtesy shure.co.ukfrom that imagery should be that there will be one direction -- the puckered-in part -- from which sounds will be rejected.  In other words, the "bigger end" of the pattern represents the side where the microphone Samson C01Uis more sensitive to sound sources.  It can hear things better from that side.  Meanwhile, it's relatively deaf to sound sources from the "smaller end."  This is the type of mic pattern that many desktop microphones use.  My two cents:  This is a common microphone type used by many folks who record web video and screencasts.  But keep in mind, it'll still pick up unwanted ambient sounds behind you.  And that's why it's important to squelch your environment as much as you can.  But, if you're ability to control noises in your office is limited (e.g., unfortunately positioned air conditioning ducts, un-treated walls, nearby freeway noise, etc.) then you might consider a mic with a bi-directional pattern.
  • bidirectional microphone polar patternBi-directional.   These types of microphones are limited in the directions from which they hear.  And, therein is the advantage they might have for you if you can't squelch your environment.  They're sensitive to sound sources coming from the front and rear of the microphone's "ears" (i.e., diaphragm).  Meanwhile 3D rendering of microphone bidirectional polar patternthese bidirectional microphones reject sounds coming in from the sides.  My two cents:  This setup is good for conducting interviews where a SME (subject matter expert) might be invited to narrate along with you as you also comment and record a live screencast.  Many headset mics have this pattern and is generally my choice if I can't satisfactorily squelch ambient sounds in my environment.

5.  Use free software filters

Okay.  (Whew!  I knew this article was gonna be a big one!)  That takes us to the last point I want to make about 5 things you can do today to improve audio quality in your screencast projects.  And that is, if all else fails, and it should be your last step, use software to filter out ambient sounds that make their way into your audio recording.

Of course, as I pointed out in a previous article about using software to remove background noise, your best bet against degraded audio in the final production is to front load your project with a decent microphone while sanitizing your acoustic environment as much as possible.  But, as I said earlier, it's not always easy to get that right, especially when you're recording within the confines of a business- or home-office setting.

The video above is a demo I presented before about how I use a software tool, called Audacity, to do some of that filtering.  Audacity is a free multi-track sound editing software that you can download today.  There are versions for both the PC and Macintosh.

Did This Help?

What other audio tips would you add to the list that will help us all create great video screencasts, web video and eLearning programs?  Please share your thoughts in the comments below.


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About Mel

Mel is the online training architect and screencasting wizard at Kareo, one of Forbes' 2013 list of 100 Most Promising Companies in America. He's also the creator of Digital-Know-How, a training website devoted to developing learners' skills for screencasting and web video course development. Mel is also the chief blogger of ScreencastingWizard.com; Mel's personal blog. The comments and opinions you read here are Mel's and not associated with any other company.
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