How to record decent conference videos – without breaking the bank!

This being the year of COVID-19, many of us are recording videos for online conferences.

While I cannot claim being a professional video producer, by far, I did work for a video studio during my studies (a long time ago – Betacam days, yes) and have been doing audio recording and remixing on and off since then, moving from analog tools to the incredibly powerful software and cheap but decent microphones of today.

And feeling like time traveling while doing that…but I digress. Let’s see if I can provide some useful advice about recording videos for conference talks.

As an example here’s a video that I recorded for the 2020 FOSS Backstage conference in March 2020.

It’s far from perfect: the image quality and especially lighting are not fantastic, and I forgot to turn off the autofocus on the camera which leads to some where’s that focus sequences.

On the other hand I think the sound is good, loud and clear, which is key in efficiently delivering the message and keeping your audience engaged.

Let’s dig into what I consider the key elements of the recording and production process.

I’ll start with a few basic principles and then describe how I created the above video, as a concrete example.

You and your message

That should be obvious, but as always the key is the content. I think that’s even more true as you’re not getting audience feedback while delivering your talk, so you won’t be able to adjust for bored (or over-excited) listeners.

Taking time to review your scenario, ideally with others, will help get to the point and skip the boring parts.

Also, you have to be entertaining, not to the point of distracting from the topic, but sufficiently to keep your audience engaged. Speaking or acting classes will help with that, and again I think that’s even more important when recording your talk in advance. It’s a bit hard when you’re alone in your room recording this, you’ll need some mental projection to imagine a happy audience and smile to them. Or get an actual audience if you can, even a small one will help.

It’s the audio!

Remember, it’s a conference talk, so audio is THE thing that you need to get right. Less-than-perfect visuals will work, up to a point, but audio that’s not intelligible or just tiring to listen to will scare your audience away.

There are many ways to fail in the audio department. Using a badly sounding or poorly placed microphone, unwanted microphone noises (popping on “P” sounds, hitting it, clothing or wind noise, etc.), background noise and low sound volume are the most common problems.

Taking time to get the audio right will help deliver your message efficiently. When you’re starting up, experimenting is key. Learning about audio normalization, compression and equalization will help, there are lots of tutorials about those techniques on the Web.

Are recordings more boring than live talks?

I think so, as one misses the interaction between the speaker(s) and audience.

As a result I recommend recordings to be shorter and more to the point than a live talk would be. I often get bored watching talk recordings from conferences, as without the interactions and liveliness of a room full of people they are often way less entertaining.

Lighting and filming

I know much less about filming than audio recording, so I’ll avoid dispensing cheap knowledge here.

One thing that I know however is how important lighting is to getting a good image, especially when using basic filming equipment. As mentioned, the lighting is poor in my example video. That leads to a somewhat “sad” picture, even after adding some corrections at the editing stage.

It still works, especially as a big part of the video is slides which don’t have this problem, but next time I’ll pay more attention and try to get a nicer image. That shouldn’t take a lot of extra work and I have enough lamps around the house to avoid buying additional equipment for now. Or I’ll wait for a sunny day and choose the right place to record!

Tools, and how I created the above video

The question of which tools to use often comes, and my usual answer is whatever does the job is fine.

However, describing how I created the above video might help you understand the process better, and how to best spend your time on the important parts.

For filming I used a basic compact camera, not even connected to my computer, to record the video. Getting a decent tripod helps, and don’t forget to disable the autofocus, like I did in this case.

I used my basic USB headset microphone which I know sounds decent – not beautiful, but ok. The positioning of the microphone is critical to getting a good sound, you might want to experiment with that. A microphone that’s close to your mouth will cancel most ambient noises and unwanted resonances from the room which is good. If like me you live close to a military airport you might need to choose your recording day according to their flying schedule to avoid loud background noises. I do have better microphones including a Madonna-style headset that I use when playing live, but it was broken on that day. The cheap USB thingy worked perfectly ok with some processing downstream.

I used Quicktime Audio on my Macbook to record the audio separately from the video, and did a clap with my hands at the beginning to be able to easily sync audio and video afterwards. Digital audio and video should stay in sync for a few minutes without problems even if recorded on separate devices, and if not it’s relatively easy to fix with modern software by shifting things, especially with references such as a film-style clap (that you can do with your hands).

For video editing, the simplest tool that works might be good enough, and maybe quicker to use than more elaborate tools. For this video, I used Adobe Premiere Pro (hey, you know who I work for!) which is extremely powerful but requires some learning. After importing the video from my camera, keeping its audio only to check the sync with the separately recorded audio track, I started by laying down the slides to the audio and then added my talking head, resizing and placing it in a way that keeps the focus on the slides while making the movie more lively.

The slides were added as individual images at the video editing stage, after exporting those from my slides document. I didn’t use any screen recording software for that.

After editing the video I processed the audio with Logic Pro, my usual audio production software that I still often use instead of Adobe Audition which would be another great choice. I’ve been using Logic for years, since the early 90s virtually, when I was using Notator that the same team created and ran on an Atari 1040 so my motivation for switching is very low. Did I tell you about this time travel feeling?

Both tools can do much more than what we need here, any tool that can do audio normalization, EQ and compression should do. Actual audio editing is not needed at this stage as it happened along with the video editing, in Premiere Pro in my case.

For audio processing I extracted the audio track from the edited video, processed it and then re-imported it instead of the track original track created during editing. I applied some EQ to make the sound clearer and remove unnecessary low frequency energy, followed a by an audio compressor to get a louder sound and finally normalized the level to get a track that sounds loud, at a similar level than other online tracks. I might have added a touch of a short reverb as well to beef up the sound, but if that’s the case it’s subtle, I cannot tell now by just listening to it.

The editing and audio processing took me about four hours, which is not much compared to having to travel to Berlin and back to deliver that talk.

Listening to the audio on different speakers, including crappy ones if possible, is required to verify that your audio will sound good for everybody, whatever equipment they use. Let your ears be your guide in getting a sound that emphasizes clarity and perceived loudness, without obvious processing artifacts. An audio track that sounds good at a low volume is usually a good indicator of sound quality.

Coda

I hope this is useful advice if you have to record a conference talk video, and I’m happy to answer any questions in the comments below!

To validate your recording and editing process and tools, you should start by recording a short segment to verify that everything works, to avoid wasting times on recordings that are not useful.

I’ll have to record more videos soon, for the upcoming ApacheCon @Home 2020 and adaptTo 2020 conferences soon and the plan is to use a green screen to better integrate my talking head with the slides. I’ll add links to those videos here when they are ready!

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