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

August 6, 2020

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!


It’s pretty quiet here these days…

January 7, 2020

I haven’t published here in a while, but I’ve been writing and presenting elsewhere:

My biography on this blog is mostly current, please have a look if you need more info!

A personal blog is less relevant for me today, I hope you enjoy those other channels.


So you want to talk at this conference?

August 21, 2014

I regularly review talk submissions for tech conferences, and here’s a list of what I’m mostly looking for when deciding to accept or reject a talk.

Other reviewers might be looking for different things – this is just my own criteria.

My first question is always are you going to get people interested in your stuff. Are you a dynamic speaker who keeps people on their toes, or the kind of person that delivers their talk seated at a desk. I’ve seen the latter happen, and it’s not pretty! For me, a brilliant speaker gets a slot almost every time, also because they usually know which topics will raise people’s interest.

Unless you’re famous already, the best way to convince me that you’re a good speaker is to point to a video of one of your talks. And I also need to know why you think you’re qualified to deliver this talk.

Then, I’m looking for a topic that will add value to the conference. Promoting your product or company might not add much value, whereas a talk that will open people’s minds and maybe save them hours of work in their practice is a guaranteed winner. Signs of a value-adding topic are pointers to concrete achievements using the techniques presented in the talk.

The quality of the submission comes next, especially if I don’t know the speaker. Someone who’s unable to present their ideas clearly in a talk submission is unlikely to present them clearly at the conference. Or maybe they’re a misunderstood genius, you should also look for those but they are rare. A concise submission that packs lots of useful information about what’s going to be delivered at the talk is a good promise of success.

Last but not least, original and inspiring ideas get lots of bonus points from me. Being able to predict the abstract’s contents from the title is usually a bad sign, except if it’s a talk for beginners. We don’t need conferences to exchange information today, that’s supposed to happen on the Web. Talks should be inspiring, maybe teasers to convince people to look at your value-adding stuff, but not rehash information that’s found elsewhere.

Update: I forgot to mention the movie trailer thing: a talk abstract is a lot like a movie trailer, if you feel you’ve seen all the good parts of the movie after watching the trailer, it’s not a good sign. Similarly, a good talk abstract leaves me with the impression that there’s much more to discover in the talk, compared to what’s mentioned in the abstract.


It’s just a Web server – a plea for simplicity

June 16, 2014

I’m currently working on my keynote for next week’s Connect – Web Experience 2014 conference in Basel and very much looking forward to it! Last year’s conference was excellent, and this year’s schedule looks very exciting.

My keynote is about the value of simplicity in software – including a few tales from the trenches.

We like to think of what we build with AEM as large enterprise systems, with complex requirements. Intricate workflows. Rocket science.

However, when you think about it, our systems are “just” HTTP request processors, that manipulate atomic pieces of content in a content repository.

What if you wanted to manage the Whole World Wide Web with a single system? The architecture of that 4WCMS might be quite similar to what Apache Sling provides for AEM: mostly independent dynamic HTTP request processors, selected by path and resource type, that render and/or process resources from a huge tree of content.

If our architecture works for that 4WCMS, the systems that we are actually working on are just peanuts compared to that. Managing a single site, or just a small federation of a hundred thousand sites? Easy. Yes I’m being provocative – it’s a keynote!

The inherently scalable architecture of the Web, combined with the natural decoupling that HTTP and REST (and OSGi) provide, should allow us to keep our systems simple, transparent, robust and adaptable. Yet, much too often, we fall into the “entrprisey” trap and start designing complex machinery where something simple would do – if only someone had the guts to challenge the status quo.

I have a few examples in mind, from past projects, where simplicity provided huge wins, even though it required convincing customers that had different, usually more complex ideas. My goal is to demonstrate how valuable simplicity is, and how expensive it can be to create initially. Like the story of those 28 lines of code that took three months to create, in 1999, and still live happily in production with Zero Bugs.

We shouldn’t give up – creating simple things is a lot of work, but the rewards are huge.

To paraphrase Blaise Pascal, if your system is complicated it usually means you didn’t work hard enough to make it simpler. Or maybe you have a really complex problem, but that’s not very common. And maybe that complex problem is the wrong one to solve anyway.

I hope to see you next week in Basel and until then – keep things simple!


Quick notes from Mark O’Neill’s Transfer Summit 2011 talk

September 8, 2011

Here’s my quick on-the-spot notes of Mark O’Neill’s (@marxculture) excellent presentation, on how a government’s IT can innovate.

Citing Andrew Savory, never thought I’d see govt. spokesperson be entertaining and informative. Reminds me of my excellent experiences working for the Swiss Parliament services in the late nineties.

Here’s my unedited notes – slides should be available soon. URLs and emphasis added by myself.

UK gov spends 20 billion pounds a year on IT, with 20 top suppliers.

Mark’s got a 20MB mailbox to manage this.

Different velocities: technology, business society.

His role: track and align to those velocities.

Velocity of change in his government IT world is “very different” from what it is on the outside. The gap is increasing.

The more you diverge from the velocity of the market, the higher your costs are.

The options are: do the same, do nothing or ask a different question.

The challenge: no money – although they’re spending 20 billion pounds a year…

The government is currently driven by the policy cycle: problem -> draw up a policy -> interpret and implement policy -> monitor and evaluate. The customer is not part of this picture. Need an innovation model.

He shows a picture of a washing machine for dogs: there is an e-petition about this, the e-petition site (http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/) got 16k such petitions in 4 weeks, 3.8 million visitors, 20 million page views, 1.5 million signatures. The e-petition site was built in 6 weeks with 6 people, cost 80 thousand pounds including security costs. The system will be released as open source shortly.

The future: small projects are developed by his office, up to 3 months with contracted companies, if more than 3 months need to ask different questions.
20 billion pounds a year should be one of the most dynamic, diverse and entrepreneurial market in the world. What needs to be done to achieve that?

Leaner procurement mechanisms. Use open standards and open source. Look at the processes, check how much paperwork and overhead is actually necessary.
Challenge to new projects includes two questions: what is it that you want to do, and why do you want to do it that way.

Decompose the project in smaller units of work – also gives more chance for SMEs to jump in.

Three layers: infrastructure, app, support. Procurement is currently often based on a complete silo – moving to smaller units can help reuse and sharing.

Rethink the approach to make it possible to buy an excellent application form an SME that does not provide infrastructure or services.

Working on G-Cloud, private onshore cloud for UK government services. (http://www.cloudbook.net/directories/gov-clouds/uk-government-cio-council).

Talking of “agile” “cloud” is a bit like talking about “magic” these days ;-)

Conversation always trumps process.

Two key differences between agile and waterfall.

First difference: with waterfall you talk to developers, they go away for six months, come back with something that you don’t want. Agile: you talk all the time.

Second difference: with waterfall, you might not be around anymore when problems arise. With agile, you could be fired after three months…

Tools are hard. Discuss, share, build, learn. Cannot deliver success without using efficient tools, take example from open development teams in the outside world.

Need to build mechanisms to learn, share and discuss what the team is doing.

Success factors:

1) Be the most dynamic, diverse and entrepreneurial market in the world.

2) IT should just work.

3) Reuse, dialogue, agility, ownership should be part of the day-to-day business.


Open Innovation in Software means Open Source

December 7, 2009

I’m giving a talk today at the Open Source, Open Development, Open Innovation workshop in Oxford:

Open source software is more than just a licence, it is also a software development methodology that allows companies to share resources and collaborate on non-core parts of their software/service offering. When managed well, open development enables a reduction in cost, and an increase in innovation as a result of the convergence of the best minds in the problem space. In this presentation Bertrand Delacretaz will describe how Day Software has embraced open development by positioning itself as the leaders in both open standards and open source software. We will examine how Day’s active engagement with 25 open source projects and numerous standards groups has enabled the company to become a world leader in their market and in the open source projects they participate in.

The funny thing is that the above abstract was written by Ross Gardler while waiting for my own version of it – and it says exactly what I was trying to say, only better ;-)

The event is covered by a live blog, and you can ask questions there.

To put it simply, my conclusion is that quick feedback from users and customers is key to open innovation – and open source. if done right, provides lots of feedback, fast.


Life in Open Source Communities, live at ApacheCon!

October 30, 2009

notmuch.jpgI have just finished my slides for next week at ApacheCon. Though the topic of how to “survive” in our open source communities has been on my mind for a while, this is a totally new presentation, which is both great (in the blank slate sense) and a lot of work.

cocoon-step.jpgHaving recently read Presentation Zen (very recommended if you do presentations and/or like beautiful books), I started adding full-screen pictures to the first few slides, and couldn’t stop! The presentation will then consist of me ad-libbing (or more precisely trying to tell stories) on a series of nice pictures grabbed from morguefile.com (don’t worry about that name).

allabout.jpgI’ll post the slides here later, for now they are super secret, so you’ll just get the teasers…images courtesy of morguefile.com (update: slides added now).

Hope to see you next week! In any case I have collected a number of useful links in my delicious bookmarks, I’ll point people to them in the presentation.


Back from a great IKS project meeting

May 29, 2009

I’m on my way back from Salzburg where the Salzburg Research team organized a great meeting for the IKS project. Flawless organization as usual, thanks and congrats!

Today’s requirements workshop featured an impressive collection of very powerful brains (and nice people to hold them ;-) including, besides the usual IKS suspects, representatives from more than twenty CMS communities and companies.

I was a bit worried at first that IKS, being mostly in a requirements definition phase, didn’t have much to show to those people, but today’s brainstorming went very well, and the results exceed my expectations.

The most important result for me is agreeing to setup a prototype semantically enhanced search engine, that will use metadata and RDFa embedded in web pages to index content. This will provide the IKS community with a testbed for semantically enhanced websites, and allow us to demonstrate the usefulness of embedded semantic information by making full use of that for searching instead of just enhancing the display of search results. The extracted data might also be very useful for our academic partners to run experiments on real-life data that we’re familiar with. We might not have to write lots of code to setup such a search engine, but it’s important to have our own thing that people can also run behind firewalls, if needed to run experiments on private data.

The second result that I’m excited about is agreeing to work together on a prototype of a semantic rich text content editor, where you’ll get functions like insert person or insert company besides the usual insert link and insert image functions. This will allow us to start making our customers more aware of the importance of semantic markup, in a way that’s not too different from what they’re doing now.

Last but not least in my list of results-that-got-me-excited-about-all-this is agreeing on the creation of a list of simple user stories that demonstrate what IKS is about, in a very simple and understandable way, while allowing us to define use cases and features that might be challenging to implement today.

More complete information about the meeting should be available from the IKS project blog in the next few days, make sure to subscribe to that. For now Bergie (who suggested the semantic editor project) has been taking notes on Quaiku if you’re eager to learn more.

To take part in (or just follow) these projects, subscribe to the IKS mailing list which is going to be our communicatios hub.

Hope to see you there – in a week from now, as next week is my cycling-in-France/offline holiday. Looking forward to getting more familiar with the 29er before the next, more off-road trip in a few weeks.


Open Source Collaboration Tools are Good for You – relooked and live tomorrow!

April 1, 2009

I have relooked and slightly expanded this presentation for tomorrow at OpenExpo in Bern – the main addition is a discussion of the fear of making mistakes in public.

Talking to attendees last week at ApacheCon shows that people often struggle to introduce these tools and the open way of working in their companies. It seems like that fear can be an important blocking factor, and people are rarely explicitely aware of it.

(See how serious I am? This is April 1st and I’m not even making lame jokes!)

Update: the video is available on YouTube as part of the OpenExpo channel.


Ready for ApacheCon Europe 2009

March 21, 2009


I’ll be giving three talks next week at ApacheCon, on OSGi, Apache Sling and Open Source collaboration tools.

Ruwan Linton‘s OSGi talk, which is scheduled after mine on Wednesday, also presents practical experiences with OSGi. I’m looking forward to comparing our experiences, and people should probably attend both talks to get the whole picture.

I’m also very much looking forward to meeting new people and old friends there, including the Jackrabbit/Sling folks at Tuesday’s JCR/Jackrabbit/Sling meetup.

Before that I’ll be in Rome for a meeting of the IKS project, talking about requirements and use cases for semantically enhanced CMSes. Looks like a packed but very interesting week ahead – lots of context switches though ;-)

Update: forgot to mention Carsten Ziegeler’s Embrace OSGi – A Developer’s Quickstart presentation, which comes right before mine – attending that one will also help put mine in context, as I won’t cover the basics of OSGi.