If you want to share your favorite software tips and PC gaming strategies with friends and family online, you need to look into producing your own indie screencast. Screencasting (recording video of your desktop along with audio narration for sharing with others) is a great tool to make tutorials or just show off your new desktop, app, or website. Businesses big and small offer screencasts all the time to demonstrate the strengths of their software products, but figuring out how to record your screen on the cheap can be a bit of a hassle.
Screencasting requires specialized software and has its own rules and best practices that take time to pick up on your own. So we’ve put together a short guide that should get you recording, editing, and broadcasting slick screencasts straight from your PC in no time.
To get started, you can download some free screencasting tools from places like Screencast-O-Matic and Jing. But be aware that these sites and others like them will try to push you to pay for software by limiting the length and file size of your free screencasts. Still, if you don’t need to record particularly long screencasts, free is free, and their tools are a great way to get started with screencasting.
If you want to get more serious with your recordings, you’ll need to pay for an upgrade to a full screencasting program of some kind. The best paid screencasting tool depends on what platform you prefer: Linux users have few options outside of browser-based recording tools like Screenr, but Windows and Mac users can find more choices.
Windows users should first consider this pair of free, open-source apps: Wink and CamStudio; both are Windows-only (and a little bit buggy), but they can record audio and video pretty handily. Mac users must (as usual) shell out a bit more for screencasting software like ScreenFlow, which costs $99 (as of 7/24/2012). You get what you pay for, though, because the app includes a ton of video and audio editing tools along with free video transition clips for cutting between takes.
Depending on what exactly you want to broadcast, various specialized tools can also help you out. For example, if you’re looking to make machinima and need to screencast yourself playing PC games, a video capture tool specifically for your game of choice may exist. Valve recently released Source Filmmaker, a free tool that allows you to capture video from any of its source engine games (including Team Fortress 2 and any of the Half-Life or Portal games); and anyone who plays World of Warcraft on a Mac will find a built-in screen recording tool in their game settings menu.
Screencasting Tips and Tricks
While each app works slightly differently, generally you need to select the screen area you want to capture and press the record button to start capturing video. Sound easy? It is; what sets your video apart from others isn’t the software you use so much as the preparation you do before you start screencasting.
The easiest way to up your screencasting game is by making sure your audio levels are sensible before you get started. Most screencasting apps will record both “environmental” sounds from your PC and external sounds from your microphone. Before you start recording for real, do a few test runs and play them back to make sure your audio levels are high quality and easy to hear.
Though it’s possible to record voiceover using your computer’s built-in mic, you really should spring for a pair of headphones with an attached microphone to help stabilize your audio; gaming headsets like the Razer Tiamat are great for this purpose. While audio settings will vary from app to app, you’ll generally want to make sure that your normal speaking voice registers clearly without your mic hissing and popping if you get excited or speak up a little.
Once your own audio is stabilized, hop into your recording software and adjust the recording volumes of system sounds from your PC. If you're producing machinima you should obviously just turn off your PC sound effects entirely, but if you're screencasting a tutorial or commenting on a video game, you want your PC sounds to be audible (yet as quiet as possible, to avoid distracting the viewer from the melodic sound of your voice).
Of course, a high-quality recording is just one part of producing a great screencast. To make your screencasts appear polished and professional, you’ll want to lay out a plan before you get started. We've produced a lot of screencasts and editorial videos here at PCWorld, so trust me when I say you should always have at least a general outline of your task and what you’re going to talk about before you press the record button. Ideally, you should take the time to script out your whole screencast before you get started. You don’t need to slavishly memorize the whole thing, but you’ll be surprised how much having a plan for what to say when will keep you on track and cut down on the “umms” and “errrs” that slip out of your mouth while you think about what to say.
Finally, try to keep your PC workspace just as organized as your plan for the video. Organize any files you’ll need into specifically labeled folders (I like to name mine with a "mm/dd Screencast" format inside of a larger screencast folder), and open any apps you’ll be using before you begin. Not only will such organizing make your desktop look a bit nicer on film, it will make it easy for you to find resources while you record. And though this step may seem unnecessary, trying to remember where your files are while continuing to talk into your mic often leads to awkward fumbling in your directory structure and forces you to start your take over again.
Putting It Online
Once your video is recorded and edited, you’ll want to put it online. You can obviously post your videos to hosting sites like YouTube and Vimeo, but many screencast apps allow you-- automatically--to export your videos and post links to social networks like Twitter. The easiest way to get better at screencasting is to get feedback, so try to distribute your videos as widely as possible.
While screencasting can be intimidating at first, it won’t be long before you can organize a screencast on very short notice. If you get really confident in your screencasting abilities, you can even try the screencasting equivalent of a live broadcast, streaming your desktop using services like Twitch.tv or UStream. You’ll lose the ability to edit your footage before putting it online, but you’ll gain a live audience that can give you feedback as you go, so you can clear up any confusion or even change the whole direction of your recording while you’re making it.