- Performance aspects
- Recording aspects
Live vs. online performing: why I began this page
With a live audience, storytellers instinctively use their performance skills to draw the spell-bound listeners into the tale.
But can the same magic work when the teller is alone in a studio and the “audience” is alone at home?
The answer is definitely yes.
But success depends on more than just being able to tell a good tale.
Digital storytelling, whether audio or video, has three essential components:
- The performance skills to structure a tale and bring it alive.
- The studio skills to bring it alive even when there is no audience but just a mic or a camera.
- An understanding of basic technical aspects of video and audio recording.
With the help of several colleagues, I have created this page to consider some of the issues involved.
As with so much in storytelling, judgements are subjective. So this is definitely a page of personal opinions.
None of us believes that our way of recording is the only right way. But we have learnt that some things must be considered if recording is to be successful.
We hope this page helps you find what works for you.
Self-taught, learning-by-doing can be a slow and frustrating business, as I know from years of building up my video gallery. (The technical quality of my early efforts was really pretty bad!)
With the 2020 Corona lockdown, many more storytellers are similarly discovering the delights and difficulties of recording. Having painfully taught myself a little, and been prompted by others, I know how much I still have to learn. Yet several tellers have recently asked for answers to various aspects about recording. So this page began as an offer of a few tips and technical details. It has then grown!
Although you can invest as much money as you wish, many of these options are either free, inexpensive or use what digital devices many will already have.
Take it in the spirit of Oscar Wilde’s dictum, “I never give advice, and to give good advice is fatal.” But perhaps some ideas may help you develop your own solutions to recording.
If you have comments or additions to this topic, I’d be pleased to hear from you.
Structuring a recorded tale
Most storytellers perform for storytelling audiences
This may seem so obvious that it does not need to be considered. Yet in the internet world it is different.
When we perform on stage, typical listeners have chosen to come to a performance because they love storytelling. Similarly, performers typically know that they are stepping out to be faced with people united as an audience: people who know what to expect and are prepared to love what they are going to hear.
Online storytelling is an opportunity for storytellers to reach a new audience on the internet. But it is an audience which is new to storytelling. Moreover, many may be sitting at home alone.
Expectations, the dynamics – everything is very different from a stage performance.
Consequently, what works in a stage setting, may not be so appropriate for an audio or video recording.
It is up to us to win them for our art form.
Start with the story
Look online at the time some storytellers waste at the beginning of their recording – anything to avoid starting their tale!
- They say their name. (Recordings have titles which can do this!)
- They say where they come from. (Only do this if it is relevant to the story, otherwise best left out. Or add that to the title with your name.)
- They may say something about how they are feeling. (Am I really drawn closer by someone telling me they are happy to be on my screen, or how unhappy they feel about Covid-19 lockdowns?)
- They say something about the provenance of the tale, or where they found it. (Information like this is important, but best added to a webpage, or given as a title.)
Doing all of the above might be all right on stage with an uncritical audience. But it will not help capture a newcomer to storytelling.
Yet there many tellers on the internet waffling on for more than two minutes before beginning the story. And online, even half a minute is a very long time!
Creating the story arc
With a recorded story for a “non-storytelling” audience, the underlying structure is, arguably, even more important than when performed live.
- Consider the opening of the tale. Can your first words catch the listeners and move them into the story?
- Consider the ending. Can it somehow echo the opening?
- Can the listeners feel the satisfaction of inevitability which should come at the end, even when the ending is a surprise?
Of course, structuring a tale is subjective, so view these critically. But I hope they will help you to find your own answers.
Without an audience MUST NOT mean without dynamism
The energy in good storytelling comes from the interplay between the story, the teller and the listeners. All performers know the magic which can arise with the first step on to the stage, with the first words spoken – everything is right and the story flies!
Clearly, with the audience missing and replaced by a camera, that level of dynamism is harder to create.
Harder, but not impossible.
My personal strategy is to accept that this necessary dynamism will take longer to find than when on stage, and schedule the recording session to allow for it.
That recognition already helps me avoid the frustration which many tellers complain of when first recording.
In a typical recording session I start the camera, the audio recorder and then the tale. But almost invariably, within the first few seconds I am unhappy with the way it sounds. It may be the energy level of my voice is too low, perhaps the phrasing of a sentence comes out rather clumsy. But something tells me that I am not quite “there” in the telling of the tale.
I stop the recording, take a slow breath and start again from the beginning (after all, this has happened in the first half minute). The next take is usually already better. But probably I again find something to be dissatisfied with, and again stop the recording.
It is not unusual to have several such false starts. Expecting this to happen helps a lot to accept that this is inevitable with studio recording.
And I do notice that each take is becoming better.
Then suddenly it happens: the dynamism is there, the story tells itself – and that is the take I can use without cutting anything while editing.
While recording, do not look at yourself onscreen. The effect for the viewer is that you are avoiding looking at them.
Instead, maintain strong eye contact with the camera lens: this is your audience with whom you are establishing a personal bond. Allowing your eyes to drift away makes you appear uncertain, or worse that you need to look at a text!
Beginning and ending
I am hopeless at remembering a text, so I never try to tell a story verbatim. However, I often think of exactly how I’d like to say the first sentence in a recording. And similarly, how I might end the tale. This helps a confident launch towards a distant but known goal. What happens between those two points is the great adventure!
How long is a story?
Tellers may find that a recorded story is shorter than when the tale is told to an audience, This is not surprising given the amount of interplay there often is between teller and listeners. But it is worth bearing in mind if you are creating a set of stories or contributing to a virtual performance with other tellers.
Basic camera and mic setup
Your computer’s in-built camera and mic may be adequate for a family Skype call, but not much more.
The good news is that most smartphones now have a camera which is far better and will provide a reasonable quality.
The bad news is that the smartphone mic may not. So audio is a following section.
Using a smartphone camera:
- Use the camera lens on the back of the phone – invariably better quality than the selfie lens on the front
- Use a microfibre lens cloth to carefully clean the lens
- Use a phone clip/holder, preferably with a tripod
(See more advanced camera options)
The video shows my very amateur home studio
To perform a story online is to take a step into the art form of videography.
Admittedly, and fortunately, storytelling does not require a mastery of the whole range of videographic techniques. But a basic understanding will help the storyteller to recognise what is relevant for our art, and to create an experience which will resonate with a new audience.
Videography Tips for Beginners – if I had known this useful overview 12 months ago, I would have saved myself a great deal of time spent learning in trial and error.
- Videos should be in landscape 16:9 format.
- Minimum quality: HD 1920*1080 pixel and 25p/50i.
- 4K has certain advantages when recording and editing: read
- But send, upload and livestream videos in HD format.
- To repeat, audio quality is almost more important. If possible, use an external mic.
Much on this page is a matter of personal preference.
But camera positioning is not.
The camera or phone should be mounted firmly on a tripod or holder and positioned straight ahead at face level. (Not, as in so many YouTube clips, slightly below and pointing up the teller’s nose – watch Aurora Piaggesi’s demo.)
… all rules have exceptions. Jeff Gere’s Jack and the Evil Mountain Spirit shows that a conscious use of this position can be effective. The key word is conscious.
The basic frame size should take in head and chest (called medium closeup). Changing frame size during the telling can add dynamism, but needs to be done sparingly. A simple way is to move towards the camera.
For greater control, use video editing software. Most free Mac and Windows apps will change frame size, either moving in or out using a Ken Burns effect, or cutting between frame sizes. (The first minute of The Wounded Selkie shows the Ken Burns effect from medium closeup to closeup and back again.)
Some tellers like the effect of telling an entire story with their face filling the screen (big closeup). A personal preference, but one with which I strongly disagree!
And watch Aurora Piaggesi’s tip on framing.
Avoid anything which distracts. Pictures or bookshelves behind the teller may create a homely atmosphere, but viewers will soon begin to judge your artistic taste or try to read the titles – see Aurora Piaggesi.
If it has to be a wall behind you, avoid showing light switches, doors, etc.
If you hang fabric as a backdrop, ensure it fills the entire screen.
A beautiful pattern?
Patterned cloth can add atmosphere.
BUT BEWARE: intricate pattern may react strangely on video and appear to move: watch the dancing background in the video example.
Once a viewer has noticed such a phenomenon, it can prove a distraction from the story.
Before recording a story, set up the recording space, take a video and consider critically what the viewer sees. Anything which might distract from the tale?
Green screens, virtual backgrounds: the tale and not the technology
Again a personal matter. For me the name says it all: the primary function of a background is to remain in the background, allowing the viewer to focus on the story. My preference is a plain studio backdrop – as shown in the video on the right. A backdrop can be bought for a few euro.
Having one with a stand can make setting up a temporary recording space much easier.
However, green screens in editing apps offer many technical possibilities: used with care they can enhance the tale.
Diane Edgecomb’s tutorial Green Screen Fun! offers an excellent introduction to the creative uses of this technology. (Thanks for permission to add this link, Diane.)
If you have chosen to record video rather than only sound, you probably want the viewers to see your face. That, after all, is the nature of the medium. So lighting is crucial – and three-point lighting is best of all.
There are many online introductions to the standard three-point lighting setup. This one stresses the importance of the back light.
The first 90 seconds of my studio setup video shows the difference it makes.
Easy mistakes to avoid
It may seem obvious to avoid having light behind you, yet see the many YouTube clips with a window behind the teller (see Aurora Piaggesi’s lighting clip).
If possible, avoid having light shining too directly as this can affect the exposure and white balance of a digital recording. If you are using a digital camera, consult the handbook to see if these settings can be changed. (Not knowing about this caused me many problems when recording at live gigs. And even now I am only slowly understanding more about avoiding problems in the studio!)
Studio lights with a diffuser are the best option, and not too expensive. Some studio lights can be bought as a set together with a backdrop.
Here are suggestions for making your own diffuser lighting.
Studio setup showing three-point lighting
Advanced camera options
If you already have a reasonable still camera, explore its video capabilities. My mirrorless DSLR (Sony A6400) with a 128 GB memory card, records around two hours of continuous video.
Not being a photo buff, when it came to choosing a new camera, I found the wealth of information on the internet frighteningly confusing. Fortunately my local photography shop provided excellent explanations and advice, plus a price scarcely higher than the cheapest online offers. (The assistant also explained that the video camera I had contemplated buying online had a relatively small sensor, and so would not have given good video quality.)
A useful feature of many digital cameras is that the screen can tip forward. This allows you to see your image while recording yet, most importantly, the viewer still feels you are maintaining eye contact.
However, the best camera is only as good as the person setting it up. With only a limited understanding of terms like ISO, colour temperature, AF-C, etc., the tales in the video gallery show that my results are generally improving, but still rather hit-or-miss.
So I booked a talk with the Fotogena video adviser (another good reason to buy from a shop rather than going for false economy online). He re-set the camera as follows. It works well in my studio, and may be a guide for you:
- Video file format: XAVC S 4k
- Record settings: 25p 100M
- White balance: K5700
- Shutter speed: 1/50
- ISO: 5000
- Metering mode: Centre
- Exposure mode: Manual
- Focus: Continuous (AF-C)
- Focus area: Wide
- Metering mode: Centre
I use the Sony not only for video recordings, but also for live streaming.
Audio: let us hear the story
Consider how your voice will sound. Bare walls, floor and ceiling will create unpleasant echo and reverberation. Wall hangings, curtains, carpets, bookshelves, furniture will greatly improve the way the recording will sound.
Watching a few of the many YouTube storytelling videos proves what all recording engineers know: audio quality is of prime importance, even with video. The mic in a computer or smartphone may be fine for a personal call or video chat, but may not give the crisp sound which enables someone to enjoy listening to an entire story.
(All of Aurora Piaggesi’s demos of what NOT to do use the camera mic to demonstrate this.)
A headset with a mic will improve the sound, but you may not want to present your story while wearing something around your head.
A better solution is to use a separate clip-on (lavalier) mic to connect to a smartphone or digital recorder. (This tutorial by Izzy gives a very good introduction to the options. Even better, he demonstrates the different sound quality given by different mics.)
The separate mic provides an independent audio track while you record the video on a phone or camera. It is not difficult to synchronise the two tracks with video editing software.
There are free apps for Mac or Windows which do this simple editing. The editing section lists two sites reviewing software.
(Tip: if you buy a mic and digital recorder, look for ones which make a screw connection. My first mic did not, and a careless connection lost the recording of an entire theatre performance.)
We are so accustomed to background noises that we often do not notice them. But the mic may have picked them up.
Traffic noise, rain drops on a windowsill, a heating unit switching on, someone moving around in the house: these can sound much louder during a recording.
Closing shutters and putting cushions against a window can give improved insulation. Record at times with less road traffic.
Audio software can also reduce ambient noise.
- Format: .wav (or .mp3 but SAMPLE RATE must be 44.1khz)
- Never come closer than 20 cm to the mic.
- If you want to whisper, come closer (but never more than 20 cm). If you want to shout, move away.
- Do not breathe loudly or have a “wet mouth” while speaking (unless it is part of the story).
- Avoid echoes by not recording in a room with bare walls and floor.
- Beware of external noises. If you hear something, it is not necessary to stop the recording. Just stop speaking, wait and start again from the beginning of a sentence. The final synced audio/video track can easily be edited.
When recording only audio, advanced audio has further suggestions.
Advanced audio options
For short audio-only recordings with a clip-on mic, a simple way to avoid echoes (i.e to improve the ambient noise) is to go into a closet or even under a blanket.
For longer recordings, such as voice-overs which require a script, this home-made vocal booth was cheap and works well. Any external mic, lavalier or diaphragm, can be mounted inside. The internet provides plenty of instructions on how to make one.
I have also used the booth when live streaming online workshops.
More audio advice – from someone who knows
While I am a self-taught amateur, Storytell friend Simon Brooks is not only a storyteller but a self-taught sound engineer.
He kindly allowed me to post these blogs, but did ask me to add this disclaimer:
I wrote these blogs in 2016 and a LOT has happened in the field with new (and sometimes) better products. I use an sE 2200 microphone for studio work, and an AT 2005 for live broadcast work. I would not use the AT for studio voice but it works well for streaming. Microphones have sound bias. Where and when you can, you should try out a mic before buying. The cost of a mic does NOT make you sound good. You might find a cheaper mic works better for your voice. I still use and love Studio One. The latest is Studio One 3.
Editing and advanced video effects
Video editing is an art in itself, and like most art forms its possibilities expand the more you discover. Although I need only relatively simple editing techniques, it has taken some time to learn what those are.
My minimum list would include:
- Syncing an audio and a video track using a decibel meter.
- Trimming – to remove the unwanted beginning and end of the video (see Aurora Piaggesi’s demo).
- Cutting – to remove any parts within the video.
- Cropping – to transform frame size and re-position the image.
- Titles – to add any text.
- Video adjustments – to correct colour, saturation, etc. (see Advanced editing below)
- Audio adjustments – to improve sound, etc.
- Sharing – to upload to the internet, social media or a computer folder.
Syncing the audio and video tracks: problems and solutions
Most storytelling videos show the teller’s moving lips. If the sound is even slightly out of sync, this quickly becomes irritating.
As part of an international project, Storyflix, currentIy I am sent many videos. To my surprise, when I download them a significant minority have synchronisation problems. Although the solution is fortunately simple, the causes appear to be various. Here are a couple of the things I have learnt (thanks to Storytell).
This arises from the fact that while cameras say they are recording at 30 fps (frames per second), they are actually recording the video at 29.97 fps. However, the audio is being merrily recorded at the equivalent of 30 fps, so after about 8 minutes the gap is really annoying.
Good video editing software takes care of this, and good audio editing software can adjust the length of the audio to match the video.
PS – lots of YouTubes on this – search for “audio drift.” (Contributed by Jim Brulé)
I think the sync problem may be due to internet bandwidth issues. If you are downloading a large video file and the internet is busy and/or your own computer environment is straining to keep up you might see a lag. I’ve noticed it on streaming movies too. The original recordings are fine, but the downloading conditions interfere with all of the many “packets” of info reassembling properly.
Try downloading the videos at a different time of day when internet use is lower in your area. Test your internet / downloading speed with your Internet Service Provider. Or try downloading from a different intermediary website. If, for example, facebook isn’t working well for you, ask to have the video placed on DropBox or a less busy web service. (Contributed by Ken Oguss)
Clap for the solution
If the recording is made without a separate mic, you have one track containing both audio and video. Use the decibel meter in all video editing software to mark the track at the point of the clap. Use the software to detach the audio and present it as a separate track. Use the db meter again to mark the audio track. Then proceed as described below.
If the recording is made with a separate mic, the video track recorded by your phone or camera will also contain audio.
Remember films set in film studios? The scenes of shooting always began with a clapper board. Simulate that by clapping your hands (visibly, next to your face) just before beginning the tale. Repeat after you have finished telling. These points are easily found on the decibel meter.
Set a mark on both tracks, align these (the software allows the audio track to be “nudged”). Listen carefully to check the syncing is correct.
Check the two marks at the end of the video are also in alignment.
Finally reduce the db level on the video track to zero.
You now have the silent video track with the sound coming from the audio track, and the hand clap can be trimmed out.
If you still have problems syncing, this short tutorial might help.
Jerkiness – a related problem?
One of the Storyflix videos presented a strange distortion. Like many such problems, we are not entirely sure of the cause. The uploaded file was distortion free. There was a good internet connection for both upload and download. Yet the video which arrived with me in Germany and also with my colleague in Rome was strangely jerky.
Our contributor, Tim Sheppard, suggested the following:
There is a possible explanation: different countries standardise on slightly different frame rates for videos (e.g. 29.97, 30.0, or 24 or 25 frames per second). Apparently that can mean that software editing (or playing?) at one rate can look a bit wrong at another rate.
I ran into this myself when I edited my video for you: the editing software (PowerDirector) warned me that I was saving the edited file at 30.0 frames per second, but the original video was shot (on my phone app OpenCamera) at 30.08 frames per second. I think my app was meant to record at 30.0, and that’s what shows in the file properties, so that’s a mystery to me but it plays perfectly in my desktop video player software.
I assumed this would be unnoticeable, but actually I can see a very slight difference after editing – the trimmed video that you’ve seen is almost unnoticeably jerky all the way through whereas my original is completely smooth. If you look closely at my facial movements there’s a very slight hint of it.
So if you want I can upload the original unedited file and give you the exact timestamps of the places where I trimmed off the two ends. I didn’t do any other adjustments or edits. You can then replicate the trimming very simply and quickly, but using your own software which perhaps may not replicate any slight jerkiness or glitch. If it does, you could try re-saving it at 29.97 frames per second, or even 25, and check if that’s better. Or even at 30.08 if your software gives such control.
In short, I think the glitch you’ve noticed is a conflict caused in your software by the slightly conflicting frame rates.
Once we had received the unedited file, all was well. (As soon as Storyflix launches in Jan. 2021, this will link to Tim’s video.)
Advanced editing – video effects: the for and against
Discovering the bells and whistles offered by an editing app’s special effects can be seductive. Used well, they enhance the storytelling. Used clumsily, they distract from the tale.
A helpful contrast is Jeff’s video of Margaret Read MacDonald telling Not Our Problem (thanks for permission, Margaret).
Jeff adds: MRM did that in a studio, 3 cameras, live switching shoot […] And MRM did what I suggested; followed the red light so she was always looking into the camera = she is speaking to video/viewer.
But note the very restrained editing. Well lit against a black backdrop, a few judicious changes of framing are all Jeff needs to make this a memorable telling.
Also see Diane Edgecomb’s tutorial Green Screen Fun! for an excellent introduction to the creative uses of this technology.
Her Halloween Countdown shows how some relatively simple techniques can be used very effectively. Above all, they do not distract from the story or her powerful interaction with the viewers. (Thanks for permission to add these links, Diane.)
It is interesting how Emily’s artistic editing looks so professional yet, at least to my eye, remains relatively simple. For example, with the creation of Ymir, a professional film might have gone into special effects of melting ice forming a pool from which a figure emerged. Emily’s video images are much simpler, and consequently much more suggestive (as well as probably remaining within the range of what a determined amateur might be able to achieve).
And just as the art of timing lies in the pause, so can a blank screen be the ultimate image!
If I as an idiot can learn the basics, so can anyone!
Editing apps – here are three lists of recommended free software:
Most apps will have accompanying online tutorials. All will require practice, so allow time for your first attempts. However, it is not rocket science and these skills are likely to be increasingly useful in the future.
Unless you wish to be really dedicated, I would not recommend doing what I did and buy a professional editing program – in my case Apple’s FinalCutPro. I use just a fraction of the capabilities, and the learning curve is rather steep. But having bought it, I persevere!
Recording a live performance
This is how my video gallery began many years ago: mounting a cheap digital point-and-shoot camera on a tripod, switching it on, hoping for the best and uploading the result without any editing.
But once you have learnt how to record at home, you will certainly get far better results than I did when you record a gig. Above all, you will have the energy of the live audience!
My setup is:
- Sony A6400 camera.
- Zoom lens.
- Rode lavalier mic wired to a digital recorder worn on a belt beneath a shirt.
Once finished, the video needs to be presented to the waiting world.
The choice is yours and for many that means YouTube. Although I dislike YouTube’s intrusive display of recommended videos, it is possible (at least currently) to ensure that these recommendations are limited to your own videos.
My preference has long been to use Vimeo as a video hosting site. The files are stored there and I paste an embed link to display them on my video gallery or send to social media.
That said, I know that YouTube is likely to gain a wider audience. Having discovered that the display of recommendations can be adjusted, perhaps it is time for me to overcome my prejudices and explore what YouTube can do for me. (We’ll see.)
Video files a LARGE. If you need to send your video files to someone, use one of the many free file-sharing websites.
Zooming and live streaming
Technically not recording, but using much the same equipment. And like recording, it is important NOT to rely on the poor quality of your laptop’s built-in camera!
There are two other options
- A video capture card can connect a DSL camera to the computer, making it function as a high quality webcam.
- A smartphone’s camera can be linked to the computer and used as a webcam.
Various apps are recommended to use a phone as a webcam, and frustratingly none of them worked for me. Until, that is, I discovered a new one: Camo Studio – and that worked immediately. Camo’s free version has basic functionality. For example, it will only allow the selfie lens rather than the higher quality one on the back, and it watermarks the video. Even so, the image quality is far better than a laptop camera. I opted for the paid version, at €39 a year.
This photo was taken quickly for a friend to illustrate DSL setup. In spite of the rather poor quality, it shows the backdrop, two studio lights with diffusers, and the camera on a tripod shooting over the vocal booth on the desk. When filming, the camera’s digital display would be tipped forward so I see what the viewers see.
Bandwidth restrictions can cause connectivity problems. Dartmouth College has useful tips.
Story Producer Resources is an extensive collection of materials, links and information, generously offered by Rachel Hedman of Story Crossroads.
In particular, look through the 5-PART BLOG SERIES, SPECTACULAR SECRETS:
- Part 1 – OBS…Software Worth the Struggle – REVEALED
- Part 2 – Sound and Lighting – REVEALED
- Part 3 – Trial & Error – Test Runs – REVEALED
- Part 4 – Involving More Than One Language – REVEALED
- Part 5 – Multi-Streaming and “Scenes” – REVEALED
He recently sent me (with kind permission to use here) two documents about his own editing discoveries. The links to the video examples make them particularly useful:
The condensed read
Faced by the “overwhelming” amount of information on this page, my colleague Ivar Nygaard suggested these few more manageable tips.
So with thanks to Ivar, here they are.
If you want more, explore the page above.
- Know your story, rehearse your story, compress your story.
- Think carefully whether to sit or stand. Sitting might lead to a more static recording.
- Know your equipment.
- Test your sound.
- Place the camera so you look straight ahead and carry your head in a comfortable way.
- Relax and warm up even more than you usually do. (See Performing without an audience.)
- Make at least two recordings. Ten or more will improve your performance in the long run.
- Ask someone you trust to tell you the truth about your recording before you publish.
- Look at the digital world as a natural, important, fun and necessary part of your work as an artist.
- If you think it’s a boring or frustrating waste of time, don’t bother doing it!
Audio but not video?
I’ll also add this to Ivar’s tips as several tellers have told us their preference is for audio rather than video.
- Consider the microphone as the ear of your audience – and tell the listener!
- Consider the differences in terms of timing because the visual element is not there.
- Consider sound effects.
If you have comments or additions to this topic, I’d be pleased to hear from you.
Go here for a list of all tales included on this site
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Permission to tell outlines my views on copyright
For those who are teachers: Telling stories in the classroom: basing language teaching on storytelling