Upgrade my Zoom game
June 18, 2020 9:45 AM   Subscribe

Help me up my game for recording zoom sessions and asynchronous tutorials for this fall's classes. What equipment do I need? Extra level of difficulty: closeups of soldering/stitching/making.

I'm a professor who will be holding online class sessions and playing asynchronously recorded short lectures/tutorials in the fall. In the spring I just used zoom and my built-in macbook and microphone. The quality was baaaaad - grainy and glitchy. What do I need to up my game for the fall? If I'm reading right, it will be a webcam, some kind of ring light (my room is low light) and maybe a headphone/microphone combo. Is that right?

Extra complication: some of the tutorials will be of the kind you see on Twitch or YouTube crafting channels, eg closeups of soldering/stitching/making. So ideally I'd like a camera/lighting setup that would help make these tutorials look as well lit/professional as possible. I don't really know how to film these but am willing to give it my best shot.
posted by media_itoku to Computers & Internet (7 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I run a student shop and am facing similar problems, though at this point I'm more concerned with live work than recordings. The setup I've come up with is a microphone stand with an adapter to permit mounting a phone holder on a ball mount, so that I can use the phone's cameras, easily point it where it needs to point, use pinch zoom to emphasize certain details, etc. Phone is paired to a bluetooth headset (with a noise-cancelling mic, because my shop is noisy).
posted by jon1270 at 9:59 AM on June 18, 2020

I taught circuits, soldering, etc this past semester. My setup included a second monitor, an external webcam - specifically an overhead document camera, and a wireless headset with a built in microphone.

The doc cam I use is made by IPEVO. It has a built in light, and was great for getting closeups of circuits and soldering. I paired this live video with illustrations made in fritzing (if you register on the site, you can download without paying).

The second monitor was my canvas. I positioned the live video with the overhead camera, the illustration, links to relevant code, and any IDEs all in that window, and was able to share the screen. It worked really well for recording youtube lectures and debugging on the fly in a zoom session. You can see how it all looks in this video.
posted by tip120 at 11:34 AM on June 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

If you want to get fancy you can use OBS and as many cameras/browsers/text editors or whatever as you like. It lets arrange these elements any way you want, as well as animate them as you might in a PowerPoint, if you wish, and it outputs a single video feed that you would select as your Zoom "camera".
posted by SNACKeR at 12:45 PM on June 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

Work is maker stuff for me. Basically, an autofocus webcam is the main thing. Most of them are fixed focus.

OBS is great, but it's very easy to get into building a killer OBS setup rather than focusing on your core presentation purpose
posted by scruss at 12:54 PM on June 18, 2020

(oh, and for Fritzing, the  Releases · fritzing/fritzing-app page is free. It seems that the devs don't get the money, and the site login has been broken for new users for years.)
posted by scruss at 12:56 PM on June 18, 2020

Audio is really, really important. I will happily watch a program with good audio even if the video is out-of-focus / badly-lit / pixelated / has a frame rate of potato. A program with lovely video but nasty audio is excruciating, and I would have to force myself to watch it no matter how good the content otherwise. If you're willing to spend money, do audio first.

Forget your laptop microphone. The easiest route to a usable external mic is probably a USB microphone like the Blue Yeti or the RØDE Podcaster. (Be a smart consumer -- counterfeit mics are a thing! If you see a too-good-to-be-true price from some Amazon reseller, walk away.)

If you want something fancier that allows for more flexible upgrades, consider an XLR mic with phantom power and a USB audio input of some sort. (Beyond the obvious products that are just an audio interface, you can get mixers decks and recorders that also act as a USB interface.)

A cardiod mic on a stand with a shock mount will sound awesome, but your microphone will be in the shot, and you'll have to arrange things carefully so it isn't right between your face and the camera.

A lapel / lavalier mic is a compromise, and may pick up rubbing sounds from clothing as you move, but can produce good results.

A shotgun mic on a boom or stand can capture good audio from out-of-shot. It's spendy, fiddly to set up, and it's easy to accidentally move off-axis -- then nobody can hear you.

A USB headset with a microphone is a huge step up from the built-in mic on your laptop, but is nowhere near as good as the options above. (It can be a win if you have to record in a noisy environment, and there are some budget-friendly options.)

At home, I'm using MXL 990 large-diaphragm condenser mic going into a Zoom H6 recorder (acting as the USB interface). (That "Zoom" is no relation to the video conference software.)

The mic sounds great, but is really good at hearing background noise. (I'm not talking about self-noise, but hearing passing traffic in the street.) In hindsight, I might have gone with a dynamic mic since I don't have the greatest soundproofing.

The H6 gives me great audio quality. I like the pre-amps, and I get 6 channels at up to 192kHz 24bits. It gives me lots of options for field recording, and has a small footprint. But it is fiddly to set up, is nowhere near as convenient to use as a full-size mixing board, and on Windows you need to be willing to wrangle ASIO drivers to get full benefit.

Other thoughts on audio: Shock mounts, pop filters and things to hold your mic in the right place conveniently are all useful and important, and don't have to be expensive. Hard surfaces are echo-y, which is not what you want. Carpets, rugs, soft furnishings, heavy curtains and (if you want to go that far) foam on the walls all help. A little 45° foam at the junction of wall and ceiling can work wonders if you're in a bouncy room. (Record yourself clapping slowly. Does it sound like you're at the bottom of a well? On a scale from good to bad, that's bad.)

If you need to listen to audio and record at the same time you need (not want) headphones or earbuds or something. You cannot have audio playing over speakers and expect your microphone not to hear it. Echo cancellation software will not save you. If you have ever been on a conference call in your life, you have heard the echo-y bastard. Don't be the echo-y bastard.

Lights are good. Lots of light (short of total stupidity) is better. A minimal lighting rig for live video would probably be something like a couple fill lights and a key light. For fill, softboxes are nice, but you can get a lot done with floodlights bounced off white walls and ceilings, or even of a bit of white posterboard.

Here's my cheap fill lights and my Viltrox L116T key light. The cheap fill lights are... cheap. The key light is awesome, and I love it -- especially at the US$40 price point.

A ring light is good for two things: macrophotography, and close-ups of humans where you want to see interesting reflections in the pupils of the subject's eyes. Honestly, the latter is really only relevant if you're DOP on a feature film and need that specific effect. A ring light can work fine as a key light, but there's no reason to pay above the odds for it.

A decent webcam is a big step up from your built-in laptop camera. Some of the nice ones are hard to source right now, and you'll see a lot of price-gouging. I was lucky enough to pick up a Logitech C920 a few years ago, and I like it OK.

You can also use a video camera, DSLR or mirrorless digital camera as a webcam with a suitable HDMI capture interface. (If you buy a DSLR or mirrorless camera for this, make sure it has a "clean" HDMI output -- the option to output video with no overlaid graphics.) That runs into a lot of money, for incrementally better results.

A second camera (document camera or similar) is probably what you want for soldering. You might also consider something like a GoPro on a bendy stand to get specific angles you want with minimal fuss.

To do live production in a multi-camera environment, by yourself, OBS is the trick. You can use the VirtualCam plugin to make the OBS output look like a webcam Zoom can use. Use VB-Cable virtual audio device as the OBS monitor output and the Zoom microphone input. (On preview: Yes, OBS is a rabbit-hole that will eat all the time you are willing to throw at it. But it does let you do simple things simply -- way more simply than trying to switch cameras on the fly in the meeting software interface. And OBS works the same way, no matter what specific conferencing software you end up using on a given day.)

Consider using Jitsi Meet instead of Zoom. Same setup as above still works.
posted by sourcequench at 1:05 PM on June 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

Here's a good rundown of specific products and instructions for how to replicate overhead filming and lighting for close-up cooking videos.
posted by stellaluna at 1:09 PM on June 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

« Older What is this poorly remembered and vaguely...   |   Thin Blue Line on the American Flag Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.