Learning Camtasia Screencasting

I love being part of a startup, except when I don’t.  One thing I love - and occasionally hate - is wearing 47 hats. Unlike big corporate life where there are specialists for everything, in a startup, it’s just you and your team. There’s an amazing range of tasks that you simply must do for yourself. You live by your wits and versatility.

In a heady rush of uninformed confidence, I set off last week to take my nascent screencasting skills to a new level.

I just created my second screencast and I learned a ton in the process though it felt, at times, like having my head pounded with bricks.

My adventure started with me searching around to learn that Camtasia is the tool of choice for creating screencasts.  Plus, I found some great tips for using it to create YouTube HD screencasts.   I was very relieved, for instance, not to have to figure out for myself that H.264 is a really good codec but that it’s only compatible with MOV and not MP4.  I think, hey this won’t be too hard. And with my wife and two boys away at the beach, I decided to make the most of my bachelor weekend by ratcheting up my ambitions and taking this opportunity to also play with the awesome Adobe CS4 Production Premium suite.

Before delving into the details of my many trials and tribulations, let me tell you how everything turned out.

The Oracle Speaks

After three days of nearly round-the-clock work – and a number of kitten-startling screams at my computer using language I was happy my two boys weren’t around to hear – I posted it to YouTube and requested feedback on the Business of Software (BoS) discussion group.  A few hours later, I was shocked to discover that Ian Ozsvald has posted a comment linking to a critique of my screencast.  I recognized his name immediately as the guru behind thescreencastinghandbook.com which I subscribed to last week.  Uh, oh!

Fortunately, Ian generally liked my newbie effort – even applauding some controversial choices I wavered over like including my never-been-mistaken-for-Brad-Pitt face on the opening and close.

However, Ian had a few suggestions for me in a section of his critique entitled “The Bad”.  Well, he is absolutely right on every point.  But there is a funny behind-the-scenes story as to why…

  • when webcam is displayed, the video and audio aren’t quite in sync
  • there are some unwanted volume fluctuations in the audio track
  • there are a couple quick cuts that make the conclusion look and sound chopped up.

Growing Pains

I learned a lot on this project, but man, what a PITA! For example, I learned that Adobe SoundBooth is great for applying EQ and equalizing volume, but the 48K mono wav files I produced aren’t supported by Camtasia. Although they play fine in Windows, when I imported them into Camtasia the waveform showed a flatline and, sure enough, nothing but silence when I tried to play them.

So, back to SoundBooth to convert them to 44.1K - only to learn that it doesn’t have the batch processing capabilities of Adobe’s earlier Audition product - hence conversion requires a tedious series of 33 one-at-a time Save As operations.

Ian accurately noted that my video and audio weren’t quite aligned. I only wanted PIP video for the beginning and end of the screencast and just audio in the middle. I also wanted to use Soundbooth to EQ and equalize all the audio (I’m also a musician and my business partner use to be an AV engineer so we’re picky about sound).

I tried recording audio in Soundbooth and it sounded great so I decided to use it for ALL my audio recording, thus restricting the use of my cheesy Logitech WebCam to only recording video. I used Premiere Pro to align the two together. This turned out to be an extremely painful, time-consuming process. And, despite hours of painstaking tweaking, I never could get everything quite in sync. Never again.

Talking Heads Stop Making Sense

Recording the video was also painful. I couldn’t memorize my entire intro/wrap-up scripts. So instead, I shot them a line at a time and used Premiere Pro to splice the clips together because I wanted to use Camtasia’s sweet fade in/out on the PIP. Unfortunately, when I concatenated multiple clips in Camtasia, to form one larger sequence, the clips kept fading in/out at each of the seams.

So, I finally get my audio and video clips together and pull everything in Camtasia. I put the PIP clips on the PIP tracks and the audio-only clips on the Audio 1 track. But, now, for reasons I don’t grasp, the audio levels for the PIP video clips are much softer than the audio-only clips.  WTF! I theorize I lost some gain in the conversion from WAV audio to WMV video. This might be because Premiere Pro can import 44.1K mono WAV files, but it won’t export audio in that format when creating WMV video files. The closest I could come was 48K stereo audio (funny that Camtasia doesn’t mind 48K stereo WMV but won’t play 48K mono WAV).

Next, I tried to use Camtasia to equalize the volume to no avail - it won’t equalize across the PIP Audio and Audio 2 tracks. I end up pulling the audio-only clips onto the PIP Audio track. Camtasia only allows this after I agree to permanently unlink PIP Audio from PIP Video — thus creating new opportunities for video and audio to get out of sync.

Eventually, everything seems to be more-or-less fixed.  Not perfect, but pretty good.  After granting my computer an hour of quiet-time rendering and encoding my four minute video, I’m finally ready to upload to YouTube.  As a final check, I watch the video one more time. It’s 3 AM and, OMG, everything starts perfectly, but about a minute in the audio totally drops out. WHAT!? I go back to Camtasia and, sure enough, see the same thing – but only when I play the video from the beginning . If I click in the timeline and start at other points in the video, the audio is there.  An hour later, after poking various rocks with an assortment of sticks, I notice some weird little soundwave artifacts on a couple audio clips that must have gotten introduced somewhere in the cascade of tools. I trim them off and finally get the audio to play from start to finish.

One Last Edit

I watch it again and feel like it’s finally good-to-go except – ugh! — when I see the whole thing in context, I feel like the conclusion looses steam right at the end because of  stutter in my delivery. At this point, reshooting that clip is absolutely out of the question. I have exactly zero confidence I’ll be able to match the audio levels, the light in the video will be wrong (it’s the wee hours of the night now vs mid afternoon when I originally recorded. And, most significantly, at this point there is no f@%*ing way I’m going to risk hosing everything up messing with those audio video tracks again. Still, this is the punchline of the whole video and it’s falling flat right at the finish line.…

So, yeah, I go back to Premiere Pro and splice away telling myself that it’s the lesser evil and maybe even is kinda hip — so many youtube videos use fast-cut video splicing… yeah. This isn’t a defect, it’s cool.  And besides, with a little luck I can get to bed before my neighbor’s rooster starts mocking me.

So, I make the changes, set Camtasia to rendering/encoding again and catch some shut eye.  In the light of day, after confirming that my audio still plays end-to-end, I decide not to tempt fate any further with additional tweaks and upload to YouTube, warts and all.

It’s a Wrap

Well, that’s my tale of woe. This is only my second screencast and I (obviously) still have a lot to learn from Ian and his Screencast handbook — especially about using tools optimally in a workflow that is efficient, yet resilient enough to accomodate change during the creative process.

I also think there are some interesting parallels between my experiences in miniature creating this screencast and the challenges I’ve faced on teams building large software projects (platform selection, change management, agile vs waterfall, etc).  But, that’s a topic for another day.

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