Wednesday 31 October 2012

Free Expression screen video capture software from Microsoft

I have tested various screen capture products in the past, always looking for the free version. It's a request I often get where an academic requires some form of screen capture in order to incorporate a vodcast as part of their repertoire of teaching materials for the VLE,  a virtual learning environment or simply as a video tutorial. 

I have used Adobe Captivate, TechSmith Camtasia Studio (very good) but these are all pay versions. What about free ones? There are those in various guises, some very basic like CamStudio which works well, however, as a user you have to know your video codecs to get the best out of most, and other ones are typically locked down with limitations. One of the better free versions I have come across is kindly provided by Microsoft, called 'Expression 4'.

N.B. those of you running to grab the free software, ensure you go to this download page (avoid the trial versions unless you want the pro version trials...). Please check the system requirements before installing. During installation the free version may ask you for a key, just click past that without entering anything.  For Windows 7 PCs, this should work as above, however 

Windows XP users 'may also' be promoted to install the .NET Framework 4 in addition to expression (a lengthy task).  Ensure that the .NET install file is renamed to include .exe at the end to ensure it runs.  .NET takes  a while to install, so leave plenty of time. Then reinstall Expression 

Capture interface
Personally I think Microsoft have been very generous, it comes in two parts, the screen capture encoder allows audio and video to be captured simultaneously (and even allows you to choose which microphones or audio output you require within the settings menu - shown below). The editor also provides some very useful  options with the ability to output in a range of formats (I would recommend leaving it as default, which is WMV format - make a note of where you are saving your files!) 

The main limitation for the free version appears to be the 10min capture limit.  Personally I don't think that is bad at all, as it gives most people time to take a breath and record a new section, each segment can be assembled together later.  The Capture interface provides: microphone on/off, main volume control, webcam (if you have one), settings, your previous capture list, and of course the record (as shown above).  When selecting the record option you are presented with an area to capture, either full screen or custom.

Choose the audio you want to capture!
I tend to encourage users to adopt PowerPoint 2010 for it's excellent tools (familiarity) and providing an all round lecture experience for their students outside of the classroom, it's also an approach being used to good effect in distance learning projects such as the Hydrographic Academy. Video compatibility if often an issue, fortunately, Expression 4 (free version) outputs in WMV, which allows them to be embedded straight into a slide with ease. WMV is also rather good for YouTube uploads too ;) 
Fortunately  the encoder also works on Windows XP (at the time of writing this post) However - I'm not sure how good it will fair on older systems? ...You may wish to try it and see...

To add to this arsenal of tools, I must not forget the excellent free Windows Live Movie Maker (Windows 7 and greater), which all adds up to some pretty powerful tools for editing an creating professional teaching and learning videos. Output your screen videos from Expression as WMV, you can then easily drop them straight into Movie Maker timeline, add titles, streamline and then upload straight to your YouTube. Of course it also has options to create stand alone WMV or even produce your own DVD if you want to go the whole hog.  

Happy editing :)

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Recording environments and microphones

Microphone image
I get asked from time to time what microphones should I use for recording podcasts, instructional videos or simply capturing a voice during a PowerPoint presentation.  Sound is probably one of the trickier elements to get right.  If the quality of the sound is poor, then it can make listening uncomfortable or not very enjoyable for the listener.  Most mid range microphones can produce very good sound, where most of the problems originate is the environment, and how the microphone is connected to the recording equipment (in these examples - a PC).

A few considerations:
  1. Get a good microphone Don't be a cheapskate on this one... else you could spend hours of your time on re-recordings - Ill provide some more details on why later in this post.  
  2. Invest in an anti-pop filter - this gets rid of the 'puffing' sound, caused by wind movement when very close to the microphone.  A decent 6 inch one will only set you back around £12+ always check the reviews.
  3. Be consistent with your environment - different rooms will have different sound reflections - for example rooms that have more carpet are less likely to echo. Get into the habit of positioning the microphone at the same distance from your mouth. There is also a lot of noise coming from PC cooling fans, if you have a window open (next to a busy road) or noisy corridor, its often difficult to escape. Find a quiet place or even invest in a portable sound boothbuild your own or if you have a big budget, go for a Vocal Booth (which is a self contained unit with audio damping).  Yes, I know they look silly, but it helps cut out the background noise behind the microphone.  It really boils down to how seriously you take your audio.
  4. Monitor, USB mouse and Keyboard extension cables - I don't hear this mentioned often, but if you want to keep the computer noise at bay, why not get some 3-4 metre extension cables for the PC - maybe a separate monitor if you are using a laptop.   This allows you to place the microphone far enough away from noisy computer fans. (Typical PC setups will require a Monitor extension cable - a USB cable for the keyboard and and USB cable for the mouse - check the monitor plugs for the types you need.) - N.B. extending the length of your microphone lead will introduce noise - ensure you choose high quality cabling. If it reaches with the standard length it's probably best to stick with that!

What is a decent microphone?

Pop filter - they're big but work well!
For most things (voice in particular) you are likely to end up spending at least £80+ on a decent condensing microphone.  Condensing microphones capture the natural timbre in peoples voices and capture the most naturally sounding audio.  However, as most of us record via our personal computers there are a few things to consider:

  1. On-board sound card using standard (3.5mm plug) microphones - you may find that your sound card is not up to the job.  It is probably capable of fairly good sound, but can lack detail if using cheap microphones (N.B. the pros use XLR connectivity for best sound which is lacking on all standard PCs!), depending on your operating system, you also may have a battle with software volume controls and microphone boosts to get it sounding reasonable.
  2. USB microphones  - these have their own built in sound cards - typically manufacturers have developed them to compensate for noise introduced via cables etc. Be careful, as not all of these are up to the quality you may expect.
  3. Lapel microphones, you are looking at a lot of money to get professional quality sound - its a trial an error game for the cheaper ones.
  4. Mixing benches (lots of knobs and dials) - these are good if you have multiple microphone set-ups allowing users to blend sounds (and provide pre amplification for professional microphones). However you have to ensure that you have a relatively noise free USB audio adaptor to introduce clean digitised audio into your PC,  or else all the benefits you get from the microphone are lost in noise introduce at the final stages. Top end sound cards with XLR plugs may work but they are expensive and can add extra levels of complexity.  Most people just want to plug in and record with out the trouble of multiple knobs and sliders to contend with. 
  5. Omnidirectional or Unidirectional (loosely speaking 'Cardioid') microphones?  Which ones?  Omnidirectional picks up sound from every direction, whereas Unidirectional only records from one direction (the front of the microphone, typically).  Omnidirectional tend to be more sensitive and you can expect ambient noise to be collected in huge quantities, whereas most unidirectional have the specific directional properties and are typically only usable between 4-10 inches from the mouth. Because of a lack of sensitivity behind the microphones (particularly Cardioid) they are less likely to pick up external noise directly behind them (N.B. using them the wrong way round makes them sound muffled). Unidirectional (Cardioid) are likely to be the best ones for use in office spaces with a decent sound booth.  Further details on the various types of microphones available on wikipedia - its vast - only if you're interested!
JISCDigital Media have a cracking article on USB microphones, with some setting up guides, worth a look. Here are the key facts:

·         The microphone connects to the computer USB port
·         Consistent sound across different systems
·         Plug and Play installation
·         Many USB mics have a headphone jack for monitoring
·         Many USB mics are optimised for voice

‘…In many cases settings are chosen with a particular use in mind, and many are optimised for voice recording. If your intended use is compatible with this preset factory set-up, a USB microphone can save you a lot of the time and knowledge needed for correct set-up, and will simplify the recording workflow. While there is a quality ‘ceiling' beyond which a USB microphone will not take you, it also presents very few opportunities to go wrong.’

The ceiling that JISC Digital Media refer to consists of a number of factors.  The biggest is that condensing microphones require their own pre-amplifier, the only way you get the power via a USB microphone is normally the USB port, you are then at the mercy of the quality of the power emanating from any given USB.  However, most companies worth their salt build in electronics to smooth out noisy power.  Its a case of try it and see - if you like what you hear, stick with it!

JISC Digital also include some audio examples in their article:

Hover over the various black markers to see which microphone they are testing (during audio playback it is possible to move the orange slider to those positions by dragging). Personally I was not impressed with the headset sound and some of the cheaper condensing microphones are a little hollow sounding (its all down to personal taste really).  The Blue Yeti, certainly provides some excellent sound in the JISC Digital Media review, although its design may lead to tricky clamping and positioning of a pop-filter (it's a minor quibble).

A few examples of good USB microphones (Always check the reviews before making the final decision!):
Remember that all the examples of audio recording provided for these microphones will only sound as good as the headset or speakers you are using to review them!

I'll quickly add that headphones such as the Sennheiser HD 202 Closed Back On-ear Stereo Headphone are relatively cheap (considering) but provide really excellent sound. If you dont like the look or design try looking through the reviews for other brands or more expensive versions.  I can recommend these as I have a pair. I was also pleased to see people like Steven Spielberg using them to review audio in a recent movie review - if its good enough for him... ;)

Happy microphone hunting...

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Learning to use Premiere Pro CS5 - 5.5

Adobe provide a number of free learning resources that most users would find helpful and even get you started, if your're a beginner. The CS5 - 5.5 versions are available via Adobe TV They take you from understanding the interface right up to collaborative projects.

Granted they are also trying to sell a brand/product but if you look past the plug some of the hints and tips are very helpful. Adobe TV work along side, who create a number of other training materials (at a cost) They do provide examples for their training materials, its worth a look as you may find one you you are looking for... happy learning :)

Monday 18 June 2012

Hydrographic Academy at HE STEM Workforce Development & Employability in the South West Conference


I attended a presentation for the Hydrographic Academy with HE STEM today. It was chaired by Prof Jim Griffiths (Head of the School of Geography, Earth & Environmental Sciences, University of Plymouth) and presented by Dr Richard Thain (soon to be Director, The Hydrographic Academy) His slides are available from the HE STEM site in PowerPoint format.

The rest of the team 'in attendance' were placed on a panel at the front for 20mins to an audience of some 80 persons to help answer any burning questions. It included: Tony Jenks, Luke Denner, Jon Scott and myself. We had a range of questions from student tutoring, support and choice of interface. I think we all did a very good job at answering everything successfully, after all, we know it inside out. We were warmly welcomed by Ruth Waring (HE STEM) thank you Ruth, and delighted at all the positive feedback from others. The Hydrographic Academy has indeed been a lot of hard work from a great team of people and it shows!  

IMG_0022Alison Austin (Placements Officer) and Carolyn Deeming (Schools Liaison Officer) set up the Plymouth University stand with all the Faculty of Science and Technology information and kindly looked after the Hydrographic Academy banner, thank you to them! They chose not to be in the picture... I did try!

The event was situated at Sandy Park grounds in Exeter, this is what it looked like outside the venue!  The team even had the opportunity to briefly sit in the padded executive chairs at the top shown in the right of the picture (below) during lunch, just a shame there was no game at the time ;-)


A big thank to all the other presenters and everyone involved in making this a very enjoyable event.  I think this was a superb and fitting finally to our work with HE STEM (South West) region and we were all very pleased to share our knowledge and experiences.  

P.S....not quite finished with HE STEM...the Academy will also be presenting in the final HE STEM conference in Birmingham later this year.

Friday 15 June 2012

Mercury playback engine and NVidia cards: any difference?

I did a little test a few months back and I finally had time to upload my findings. I was asked by some colleagues if the Mercury Playback Engine utilised in NVidia graphics cards for users of Adobe Premiere CS5 or greater was actually a feature worth its money? I performed a very basic test, placing around 2.5 hours of footage from a Canon 550D camera in full HD format and with a lot of editing to boot. I thought it would be useful to test how much time it saved rendering out the footage, either with or without the engine.


The screenshot above shows both GPU-Z and task manager running with the Mercury switched off. The results are typically what I would expect, in relation to this much footage, 8 hours for a render WITHOUT mercury. In contrast it's less than 2 hours with mercury enabled (screenshot below), giving the user headroom to do other things and also get some more time to do other video projects!

Without GPU the main CPU cores are maxed out and the computer is stuttering, it was actually difficult checking email let alone anything else (not great for workflow). With Mercury enabled (GPU), smooth and sweet and only ~75% on all cores – 42% on GPU. It also uses a bit more ram in the process – understandably (12Gb is recommended).

As an observation (not tested in this case) I generally find that with mercury enabled, editing is wonderful, it's only 'ok' without… Users should note that only certain video effects (that can be applied to clips) are optimised for the Mercury engine, if you want a speedy editing experience, try sticking to the basic ones first (see the video from Adobe below).

Ill also add that where video has been imported in from After Affects it reverts back to processor driven encoding, have not done any real tests, but if others have I would be interested to hear their experiences particularily involving After Effects and Premiere Pro.  Notably, this adobe article explains that After Effects is multi-threaded and only a few 3rd party plug-ins work with CUDA, so After Effects people will have to stick to long renders, and big CPUs rather than GPUs for the moment.

Mercury Playback engine performance on:  i7 Viglen (Windows 7 64bit pro) with 16Gb ram, an Nvida Quadro 4000 2Gb graphics card, with 2x2 Terrabyte 7200 rpm 6Gb/s drives. Premiere Pro CS5.5 Canon 550D full HD footage.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Domains for the Hydrographic Academy

I have been buying and setting up domains for the Hydrographic Academy (HA) this week. It was a tricky balance between, how the HA would like to see itself externally and what we are likely to use.

I also considered whether we actually need to buy monthly hosting, use University systems or free third party solutions. The later, particularly Google based products allow for free hosting and users to add their own bespoke domain. For me this was the way to go, as I have had good experiences using blogger and linking domains using CNAME has worked without fault.

How did I do it?
This process is different for whichever URL host company you use.  The important bit to note is that when setting up the CNAME ensure that there is a full stop '.' at the end of the following:  It is likely to misbehave or not work properly if you don't.  This is actually not shown in all the guides, one of the official guides actually has this missing.  Setting the "A" is straight forward with the IP addresses provided.  It normally works straight away, but I would recommend setting this up with your URL host first then setting it up on the Google product 24 hours later, just to ensure that it points at the new domain properly, and to avoid weird re-directs.
The Hydrographic Academy website now has the domain name pointing to our blog.

Thursday 26 April 2012

E-Book showcase: Meet the publishers

I was pleased to be invited by Fiona Grieg (Content and Development Manager, Plymouth University Library) to speak at the E-Book showcase, an another opportunity to present again for the Hydrographic Academy. I wanted to concentrate on the materials that are used in the interface, rather than the interface itself. Discuss the concerns of copyright and also give a bit of insight into how Learning Technologists can aid in this development. I only had 15mins to talk with the remaining left for discussion, so it was difficult to pack in all the essential background before continuing. Feedback included being impressed with the user interface, a lot of questions on why USB stick (should we have encrypted them? Although these concerns we actually related to their own in-house problems rather than a problem with our content!) I was also asked how well did the tutoring work for an interface that contained predominantly off-line e-learning content?  The Academy chose the offline approach so as not to disadvantage students working on-board ships or locations with poor internet, this of course has to be balanced with a little on-line for tutoring to be effective (for the times when students have a connection).

Thank you for the strong support from the Learning Technologist! All in all a very good debate and feedback.

I will add that I also enjoyed the line up of speakers (below), there are certainly crossovers of development in all these areas, something that Learning Technologists are willing to help develop. I often work with digital mapping and mobile devices utilising GPS, and found John Abraham's talk very interesting. I'm currently applying a little learning technologies to John's GeoTrail that will enable students and visitors to explore the wonders of geology in and around the University and Plymouth.

The Charles Seale-Hayne Library had invited a number of major academic publishers to talk to staff about e-books on Thursday 26 April between 10am and 2pm.
  • 10.30am - Phil Gee 'Psychology's e-book bundle: first year texts for students'
  • 11.15am - Jason Truscott 'Developing technology enhanced, distance learning materials for the Hydrographic Academy'
  • 12.00pm - Publisher Reps 'Future strategies in e-book publishing'
  • 12.45pm - Rachel Christofides 'Using devices in the classroom: Aspire and e-offprints pros and cons'
  • 1.30pm - John Abraham 'Maps and spatial data from Digimap and other sources'  

Friday 20 April 2012

Pelecon 2012 Day 3


Pelecon 2012 Day 3, a set on Flickr.

These are all Day 3, quite a few...

Hope you find some you like :)

Really good to be surrounded by a great bunch of people, already looking forwards to next years! Hope to see you there too! :D

Thursday 19 April 2012

Pelecon 2012 Day 2

Pelecon 2012 Day 2, a set on Flickr.
I went a bit mad taking photos this year, sorry all...  I wanted to include the vendors as well as the presenters.  The later images in this set also have some snapshots from the conference dinner :)  yum.

Don't forget to join the PELeCON Flickr group so you can share your own!