Making Effective Tutorial Videos: Behind the scenes of a Screencast

I’ve been creating “how-to” style video tutorials (“screencasts”) about music software programs for a number of months now.  Whilst I would not consider myself an expert, I do receive some lovely compliments about the clarity and style of the videos I make.  I also receive regular questions about how I go about making them and which software program/s I use.

I thought it might be useful to put this information in a blog post in case there are educators out there who would like to have a go at screencasting, but don’t know where to start.  The information here will relate to the general approach I use, and sequential steps taken to create screencasts, rather than specifics about how to use a screencasting program.

Before starting: choose your screencasting style

The first thing is to choose which style of screencast you’d like to make.  When I talk about style here, I’m referring to choosing between the following:

  • planned, organised, succinct screencasts which require a decent investment of time (a couple of hours or more)
  • off-the-cuff, casual screencasts which contain some “ums and ahs” and fewer effects

My own style choice is the first one: scripted and edited as tightly as possible so that’s what I’ll be discussing in this post.  The off-the-cuff style needs less explanation: think about what you’re going to explain, practise it a couple of times and record what you’re doing on the screen, talking it about it as you go.

1. Plan and practise

The first thing I do is decide the main aim of my video tutorial, and think about how best to explain that concept.  At this stage I might run through the steps on the software program that is the subject of the tutorial, taking note of the necessary sequence of events.

2. Script the tutorial

I write out my script in full, word for word, including any shortcuts I’m going to mention.  I like to stick to videos that are 5 minutes or less in length, so I make sure that the script is no longer than 1-2 pages long.

3. Record voice-over

I choose to record my voice-over in the free program Audacity, because I find there’s more flexibility in editing the audio track there than in the screencasting program itself.  I use a USB mic (a Blue Snowball) with a MacBookPro and my “recording studio” is my children’s bedroom which is located at the back of the house.  When I read the script, I make sure that I speak more slowly (with pauses) when describing menus and sub-menus (as in “go to File > Export > Export audio”) since I’ll need to match my mouse movements with the audio later on.  I also try to leave a nice amount of space between paragraphs or sections.  The extra space makes synching the audio and visuals easier within the screencasting program.

4. Edit the voice-over

Still in Audacity, I edit the voice-over removing slip-ups, ums, ahs, cars driving past and so on, but I leave in the spaces in between sections.  I also boost the sound by running the Normalize effect (go to Effect > Normalize).

5. Export the audio

The next step is to export the voice-over track from Audacity using a format that will be accepted by the screencasting program.  I’m using Screenflow on a Mac, so I export the audio as an AIFF file.  PC users would likely choose WAV.  At this point I also set up a folder on my hard drive that will contain all the necessary bits and pieces for this video tutorial, and make sure that my exported audio file goes straight into that folder.

6. Record the visuals

This is the part where I record the visual part of the tutorial – the screen recording.  I do this in the screencasting program Screenflow which is for Mac users only.  Camtasia is an excellent option for PC users (they also do a Mac version) and Jing is a good free option for both platforms.  It’s a good idea to keep mouse movements to a minimum when you record: don’t use the mouse to make repeated circles around an object or a button on the screen because it’s very distracting for the viewer!  It’s also a good idea to try to move the mouse smoothly and deliberately from one object or menu item to another so that the viewer’s eyes can track the movement.   Later in the process, you can draw attention to the mouse and other items on the screen by using some of the inbuilt video effects in your screencasting program.

7. Gather all media in the screencasting program

Gather together all the media (such as images and music) you might use in your screencast and add it to the folder you set up earlier.  Then, import your audio (voice-over) track and the other media into the screencasting program.

8. Editing #1: Synch the audio and visuals together

This is perhaps the most time-consuming step.  I play the screencast and the audio track at the same time, cutting out (or extending) sections so that they fit well together.  I aim to remove any slow parts in the action, as well as any unnecessary gaps..  It’s best not to fuss around with effects at this stage. Just make sure the timing is right.

9. Editing #2: adding effects

Once the screencast is synched to the audio, I add in some effects: transitions, fade ins/outs and zooming.  I think the key here is to act with restraint.  Too much zooming may make your viewer feel ill and just because your screencasting program is capable of a swipe-ripple-cross fade transition doesn’t mean i’s appropriate for your software tutorial.  At this time, I also add intro and outro music and all text including opening titles, credits and on-screen instructions like shortcuts.  If you’re planning on making a few video tutorials it’s a good idea to set up a template which contains the music, title text and credits which you can use again next time.

10. Export

When you’re happy with your tutorial, you’ll need to export it in a format you can share with others.  In Screenflow, I export the video as a .MOV file.   If you’re planning to upload your video to Youtube, you can refer to their list of accepted file types.  You’ll also need to make sure that your video is 10 minutes or less.

And that’s it!  If you do choose to share your videos with the wider world via Youtube or another video-sharing site, one of the pleasant side-effects is that you can expect to receive gratitude and feedback from all over the world.

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Quick Karaoke: Remove Vocals from CD Recordings

You can easily create your very own Karaoke CDs using the latest version (1.3.12 Beta) of the free audio editing program Audacity, which is available for both Mac and Windows users.  To download Audacity 1.3.12, go here.

Before we get started, you should be aware that removing vocals from a recording it not a perfect art.  There will always be some residual vocals left on the backing track, but once your singer is performing along with the backing, they’re generally not too noticeable.

Import Your Song

The first step is to import your song into Audacity so it’s ready for editing and there are a couple of different ways you can do it.

Method 1 (if you use iTunes to manage your music):

  • Open Audacity
  • Open the iTunes window and re-size it (or position it) so you can see the Audacity window behind
  • Locate the song in iTunes
  • Drag the song from iTunes on to the Audacity window
  • After a moment (be patient!), the song will appear as a wave file in Audacity

Method 2 (if you don’t use iTunes)

  • Open Audacity
  • Go to File > Import > Audio
  • Locate the song on your hard drive
  • Click Open and after a moment, the song will appear in Audacity as a wave file

Removing the vocals

  • Once the song is in Audacity, you can play it back using the playback controls in the top left-hand corner
  • To remove the vocals, go to Effect > Vocal Remover (for centre-panned vocals).  Leave the settings as they are and click OK

    Vocal Remover

  • Play back the song to test the results.  If you get a poor result, try running the effect again with different settings

Tutorial: How to Convert Audio Files Using iTunes

If you ever need a specific file type for use in an audio editing program or other multimedia program, you may need to convert your audio file from MP3 to WAV or vice versa.  iTunes, which is available for both Mac and Windows users – can do the job for you.

When you import a CD into iTunes, the default import setting is:

  • Import as AAC (Mac)
  • Import as MP3 (PC)

You can easily check the format of the songs already in your iTunes library by switching on one of the View columns.  Go to View > View Options and check the box next to Kind. Click OK.  You may need to re-size the other columns in order to view the Kind column.

1. Change iTunes Settings

To change a song, from MP3 into a WAV or AIFF file, you’ll need to change the import settings in iTunes:

  • Go to iTunes > Preferences (Mac) or Edit > Preferences (PC) and click on the General tab
  • Click on the Import settings button in the lower half of the window

  • In the next window, click on the “Import Using” drop-down menu and select AIFF Encoder if you’re using a Mac or WAV Encoder if you’re using a PC.  Click OK and then click OK again to close the Preferences window

2. Convert the song

  • Find the song in your iTunes library that you want to convert
  • Right-click on the song and choose Create AIFF version (Mac) or Create WAV version (PC)
  • Be aware that some purchased songs are “protected” and won’t allow you to create a new formatted version

3. NB: Change import settings back again

It’s really important to change your import settings back again once you’ve converted the song, otherwise everything you import into iTunes from now on will be a WAV or AIFF file and your iTunes library will be enormous!

To change it back:

  • Go to iTunes > Preferences (Mac) or Edit > Preferences (PC) and click on the Import settings button
  • From the “Import Using” drop-down menu select Import as AAC (Mac) or Import as MP3 (PC)

4. Locating the contents of  your iTunes library

When you need to directly access the songs in your iTunes library, you’ll need to know where they are located on your computer.  You can’t just drag a song from the iTunes window into another program.

The location of the music files is as follows:

  • Mac OSX – /Users/username/Music/iTunes/iTunes Library
  • Windows XP – C:\Documents and Settings\username\My Documents\My Music\iTunes\iTunes Media
  • Windows Vista – C:\Users\username\Music\iTunes\iTunes Media
  • Windows 7 – C:\Users\username\My Music\iTunes\iTunes Media

And if you can’t remember the above locations, you can always right-click on a song in your iTunes window and select Get Info. The location of the song is listed on the Summary tab: