The Developer’s Guide to Simple Screencasts

screencasts

If you work in the software industry, it’s likely that you’ll need to occasionally record a screencast or demo video. Here at DoneDone, we’re starting to get in the habit of creating short screencasts whenever we release new features. Here are a few guidelines we’ve learned to follow which will help you produce high-quality screen recordings quickly and consistently.

Get a decent microphone

Since your video will be recorded directly from your desktop, the quality of your screencast will be mainly attributed to your audio. You want to eliminate as much background noise as possible, so get a quality desktop, lav, or headset microphone (at DoneDone we use the Yeti).

Note: If you’re using a MacBook, you probably don’t have a standard microphone jack. Be sure to buy a USB mic.

Absorb as much sound as possible

Unless you’re lucky enough to work in a building with a recording studio, you’re probably going to narrate your screencast from your office or home. If possible, find a room that meets these requirements:

  • Is carpeted
  • Is small
  • Doesn’t have a lot of hard surfaces
  • Doesn’t have any people (other than you)

Do some test recordings before you start your actual screencasts. If you get too much echo or background noise, try to add some sound-absorbing material around your work area. One common trick is to drape a duvet or blanket over your head and laptop/monitor, but this is probably a good idea only if you’re working alone.

Use Quicktime (no, really)

I was surprised to learn that Quicktime’s Mac version includes a simple screen capture utility. Just go to File > New Screen Recording, and press the Record button. While you’ll get a lot more features with speciality software like Captivate or Camtasia, Quicktime provides everything I’ve needed so far:

  • Lets you consistently record at the same screen size (see the next section)
  • Highlights mouse clicks with a simple animation
Push the red button.

Push the red button.

In fact, Quicktime’s lack of features is actually a huge plus for me. I know I can just press record and get a video that matches the one I created last week, last month, or last year – no need to create a project file or configure any settings.

If you’re using Windows, be sure to try Screenrecorder or CamStudio for simple screen recordings.

Record at consistent screen dimensions

Quicktime gives you two options when starting a screen recording: capture the entire screen (good), or drag to select a capture area (bad). Never choose the drag option, as it’s impossible to draw the same rectangle size twice. Plus, you don’t receive any sizing details when dragging your selection, and there’s no option to snap the selection to a window. So for consistency, always choose to capture your entire screen so you know exactly what dimensions all your recordings will have.

If you’re using another screen capture program, be sure to specify full screen recording, or choose a specifically-defined preset size.

Run your app in full screen mode

If you’re walking through a website or web app, use a browser that works well in full screen mode. I prefer Chrome, as I can selectively display or hide the address bar when in full screen. And since you’re recording at your display’s full resolution, be sure to use your browser’s zoom mode (I usually record at +125%). This ensures that text is still readable when your video is played at a smaller size.

Chrome's full-screen and zoom options.

Chrome’s full screen and zoom options.

Note: Browser zoom might make your images look blurry if they’re not high-DPI, but don’t worry about this. Your screencast will most likely be viewed at a much smaller resolution than the original recording size, so those images will look fine during playback.

If you’re demo-ing an application that doesn’t have a full screen mode, just be sure to record with the window on an empty desktop background – preferably on a secondary display so your dock/taskbar doesn’t appear.

Shut…down…everything

When you’re recording, you only want two applications running: the browser or app you’re recording, and the screen capture application. Shutting everything else down will make sure your recording software has all the system resources it needs, and will help cut down on fan noise if you’re in an enclosed environment. Plus, it prevents any unexpected application alerts from appearing in the middle of your screencast, which will keep your narration free of profanity.

Work in a title-safe area

Broadcasters are familiar with the concept of the “title-safe area” – making sure your text titles and content are always a safe distance from the edge of the screen. This was established to account for distortion at the edges of old CRT television screens, as well differences in the design of different TV brands.

With screencast recording, you don’t have to worry so much about edge distortion or manufacturing discrepancies. But you should definitely keep in mind the difference between your screen size and your target output size.

For example, my MacBook display is 1680 x 1050, or a 16:10 ratio. If I want to export using the 720p HD standard, my output size will be 1280 x 720, which is a 16:9 ratio. Since I want to avoid black bars on the side of my final screencast, I’ll need to crop the bottom portion of my video before I export it.

Cropping a 16:10 video to 16:9

Cropping a 16:10 video to 16:9 in iMovie

So when recording, I simply have to keep in mind that the bottom 80px will be cropped out, and perform all my actions in the rest of the screen.

Rehearse, speak slowly, and expect retakes

Walk through your demo once or twice, and write a loose script before recording. Don’t try to read the script word-for-word when you start the real deal, just use it as a reference to keep yourself on track. Consciously force yourself to perform the demo slowly – most of us have a tendency to speak too quickly when we’re being recorded.

Odds are high that you’ll flub a line or make a mistake during your demo. Odds are also high that this will happen several times before you get a good take, so budget enough time in your day to do a few retakes — and don’t stress if you don’t nail it on the first try.

Fix it in post

You’ll need a simple video editor to do some light post-production work, such as:

  • Cropping the recording to a standard size (such as 1080p or 720p)
  • Removing the beginning and end of the screencast, which probably shows you starting and stopping the recording
  • Removing any long pauses during the demo
  • Removing any background noise (especially computer fan noise)
  • Adding brief titles

While I started out using Adobe Premiere, I soon found it to be overkill and switched to iMovie. iMovie allows me to easily crop my clips to 720p and remove any unneeded footage. Plus, I’ve found the Hum Reducer option in the audio equalizer does a great job of removing my MacBook’s fan noise. And finally, I can simply export the final clip directly to our video host, Vimeo.

iMovie's hum reduction preset does a great job of eliminating fan noise.

iMovie’s hum reduction preset does a great job of eliminating fan noise.

Practice makes perfect

So there you have it – a few simple steps to help you record consistent high-quality screencasts without buying a lot of equipment or outsourcing the work. It may seem like a lot of work the first time you make a recording, but the more demos you record, the faster and easier it will become.

Jeremy Kratz is a developer at DoneDone. Follow him on Twitter via @jwkratz.