How to record: some opinionated thoughts, tips and suggestions

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 there is no audience, only a camera and a viewer at alone at home?

The answer is definitely yes.
But success depends on more than just being able to tell a good tale.

Digital storytelling 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 the 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 an opinionated page. 
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.


Page contents

  1. First thoughts
  2. Structuring a recorded tale
  3. Performing without an audience
  4. Basic setup to record at home
  5. Audio
  6. Video
  7. Camera position
  8. Frame size
  9. Background
  10. Lighting
  11. Advanced camera options
  12. Advanced audio options
  13. Editing
  14. Recording a live performance
  15. Uploading and sharing
  16. Live streaming
  17. Further tips
  18. Further resources
  19. Why I made this page

If you have comments or additions to this topic, I’d be pleased to hear from you. 

First thoughts

Faced by the “overwhelming” amount of information on this page, my colleague Ivar Nygaard suggested these few more manageable tips.
So with thanks, here they are.
If you want more, explore the page further.

    • Know your story, rehearse your story, compress your story to max 7 minutes.
    • 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 waste of time, don’t bother doing it!

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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. Typically, performers know that they are stepping out to be faced with people already in a group, people who know what to expect and are prepared to love what they are going to hear.

Digital storytelling is an opportunity for storytellers to reach a new audience on the internet, one which is new to storytelling.
Moreover, many may be sitting at home alone.

What works in a stage setting, may not be so appropriate for a 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. (Videos 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 that they feel unhappy 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 enough 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!

Structuring the story arc

With a recorded story 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 echo the opening?
  • Can the listeners feel the satisfaction of inevitability which should come at the end, even when the ending is a surprise?

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Performing without an audience – a few thoughts

The dynamism 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 energy 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.

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.

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Basic setup to record at home

Your computer’s inbuilt 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.
(Details of more advanced camera options.)

The bad news is that the smartphone mic will not. So audio is the next section.

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Audio: let us hear the story

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 is very unlikely to 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. (Google to find inexpensive recorders.)

This 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.)


Audio specs

  • 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.

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Video specs

  • Videos should be in landscape 16:9 format.
  • Minimum quality: 1920*1080 pixel and 25p/50i.
  • Record in full HD standard. (4K is not necessary.)
  • To repeat, audio quality is almost more important. Use an external mic.

(Thanks to media engineer Tim Schätzke of Gandayo for the above.)

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Camera position

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.)

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Frame size

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. 

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.

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Background

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 screen.
Patterned cloth can add atmosphere.
A cloth of a single colour can easily be changed to a different colour using an editing app’s green screen function.

If you want to invest in a studio backdrop, these can be bought for a few euro.
Having one with a stand can make setting up a temporary recording space much easier.

Before recording a story, set up the recording space, take a video and consider carefully what the viewer sees.

Virtual backgrounds: the tale and not the technology
Again a personal matter, but 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. The technical possibilities of virtual backgrounds offered by green screens in editing apps or Zoom platforms may seem tempting, but should be used with care.
Moreover, your movements against a virtual background may cause a distracting shadow effect as the pixels break up.

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Lighting

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.

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 white balance of a digital recording. If you are using a digital camera, consult the handbook to see if white balance settings can be changed. (Not knowing about this caused me many problems when recording at live gigs!)

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.

Using a light on either side reveals everything – warts and all!

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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, 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, allowing you to see your image while recording.

I use the Sony not only for video recordings, but also for live streaming.

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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 also use 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 trained audio 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.

 

Simon also added:
In regards to headphones I bought a pair of Sony MDR-7506 Professional and they are SO good. I also have the AKG-K240 Studio headphones and PreSonus cans. The Sony have something about them which allows me to tweak more and get a better end result. If I could go back in time I would have made the Sony 7506 my first and most likely only set of cans!
 

Editing

Video editing is an art in itself, and like most art forms its possibilities expand the more you discover. Although I only need 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.
    • Audio adjustments – to improve sound, etc.
    • Sharing – to upload to the internet, social media or a computer folder.

Here ere are two lists of recommended free apps:

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.

Syncing the audio and video tracks is easy because the video track recorded by your phone or camera will also contain audio.
Remember films set in film studios: the shooting always began with a clapper board. I simulate that by clapping hands just before I begin the tale. This point shows easily on the decibel meter.
Set a mark on both tracks, align these, then listen carefully to check the syncing is correct. 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.

Unless you wish to be really dedicated, I would not recommend doing what I did and buying 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!

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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.

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Uploading and sharing

Once finished, the video needs to be presented to the waiting world.

The choice is yours and for many that means YouTube.
Disliking their intrusive display of other 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 website or send to social media.
That said, I know that YouTube is likely to gain a wider audience, and that the display of other videos can be adjusted. So 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.

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Live streaming

Technically not recording, but using the same equipment. A video capture card connects the camera to the computer, making it function as a high quality webcam.

This photo was taken quickly for a friend to illustrate the 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.

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Further tips

Unless you have a soundproof studio, choose a time when external noise (traffic, etc.) is least. Closing curtains and window shutters will help.

Maintain strong eye contact with the camera: 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!

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!

Arrange your session to allow you to record twice. Once you are warmed up, the second take is always better and often needs virtually no editing. (More at Performing without an audience.)

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Further resources

Storytell friend Jeff Gere has given me much encouragement to explore the world of video.

He recently sent me STORY VIDEO: THE BIG PICTURE, a page of further thoughts on editing, etc. with kind permission to use it here.

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Why I made this page

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 Coronavirus 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. 

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Go here for tales to watch

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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