Oldskooler Ramblings

the unlikely child born of the home computer wars

How to make better YouTube videos

Posted by Trixter on July 4, 2017

(updated 6/22/2020)

I’ve been dabbling with making content-specific videos for YouTube for many years.  Some of my videos have gotten a respectable amount of views and are full of nice comments, while other well-meaning content has forever fallen into the unwatched abyss.  It’s been fun, but I have been giving thought to producing slightly more polished and professional work to see if I can attract a larger audience and get them interested in retrocomputing and personal computing history.

It is easy to get carried away with investing a lot of time and money into making better videos, so I felt some research was warranted before barreling ahead.  I reached out to a few friends and acquaintances, some with podcasting or YouTube careers (ie. they earn their living making media) for some advice.  I also scoured several “How I make my YouTube content” videos from a few channels that make content similar to what I want to produce.  The advice and research was so helpful that I felt it could benefit anyone else in a similar position, so I’ve reproduced the best tips here.

Before reading on, be aware that these are all tips for you to make better videos that you are happier with.  This is not the same thing as making videos that get more views or are more easily monetized (which usually involves pressure to make videos you are unhappy with).

Don’t be afraid to write a script

It may seem daunting to watch some of your favorite YouTube presenters and see them rattling off perfect copy directly to the camera, and wonder how you could ever get that polished.  Some of them really are good at improvising in front of a camera, but it may surprise you to learn that some of them are actually reading from a teleprompter.  This isn’t a sign of weakness, but rather a way to speed everything up while ensuring accuracy: You can put notes in a script for any cutaways or graphics you want to use, which can help during video editing.  It also ensures you won’t forget anything you want to say or stumble over your words.

On a related note:

Don’t be afraid to put yourself in front of the camera

The only drawback to using a script is that you may find yourself with something you really want to say, but have no graphics or cutaways to illustrate what you’re presenting.  David Murray (aka The 8-Bit Guy) gave me the helpful advice that he uses himself talking on-camera as a fallback when he needs to fill video with something he lacks assets for.  (What a brilliant idea!)

There is another benefit to putting yourself on camera:  It may surprise you to learn that some of your potential audience is actually more interested in you than the material you’re presenting.  Content is king, but what gives a YouTube channel a personal feel is you, a unique person, with a unique viewpoint.  There is a portion of your audience that wants community more than information; they are already familiar with your video’s basic content, but they want to hear other opinions and viewpoints.  It reminds me of Douglas Adams’ quote about nerds:

“…a nerd is a person who uses the telephone to talk to other people about telephones. And a computer nerd therefore is somebody who uses a computer in order to use a computer.”

Nerds want to commune with other nerds, so no matter how awkward you feel, see if putting yourself in front of the camera feels right.  If you can show off who you are at the same time you present content, you win twice.

If you are worried about remembering what you want to say, or being awkward on camera, a cheap teleprompter can help reduce performance anxiety.

Background music is a quick way to add polish

If you think your videos feel “stale”, a quick way to add some production value is adding background music, as long as it isn’t distracting or makes the narration/talent hard to hear.  That’s obvious, but you can’t use any music you like because it might be copyrighted and/or not licensed for YouTube videos.  Luckily, there are repositories and catalogs of music you can use that are either public domain, Creative Commons-licensed, or otherwise free for non-commercial use:

YouTube Audio Library: The most obvious choice, and a good starting point.  Everything there can be used even if you monetize your videos, although a short credit/text in your video’s description may be required.  I like starting here because they allow filtering by duration.

Epidemic Sound: A very generous license (as of this writing, $15 a month) and even if you cancel the service your previous videos are still licensed.

Free Music Archive: A searchable catalog of tons of music with various licenses.  However, be sure to read the fine print, as not all music on the site is licensed for video.

Artist.io: A very cheap option, a yearly subscription gets you access to their entire library and you can download as many as you can use. If your subscription lapses, the music you’ve already used is still licensed.

uppbeat.io is the free/freemium version of Music Vine, and is worth checking out if you don’t mind getting free music in exchange for putting the music credits in your video’s description.

bensound: Filterable, and free for youtube use as long as credit is given.

There are many others, as well as multiple resources for finding them, but the above should get you started.

Poor audio recording is WAY worse than poor video

Most people who watch YouTube are forgiving of poorly-created video because of cell phones:  Almost everyone has shot a shaky or poorly-lit cell phone video, and for most people, that kind of quality is “good enough” for getting the point across.  Humans are pretty good at filtering the signal from the noise when it comes to visual content.  Poor audio, however, is more jarring and requires more concentration to listen to.  Unlike bad video, poor audio is much more difficult (or impossible) to fix later in post-production.  If you recorded outside and wind noise completely drowned your voice out, or if you recorded inside in an empty or harsh room and your voice is echoing, there’s no way to fix that.  The only solution is to record decent audio in the first place.  That means:

  • Use the right tool for the right job:  Don’t use an omnidirectional microphone for recording just your voice, but instead use a cardioid mic for close vocal sources, or a shotgun mic for farther-away vocal sources.
  • Don’t record in a harsh room (bare walls, no carpet, etc.) no matter what the situation is.  If you have no choice, hang heavy blankets on the walls to try to stop sound from echoing.

If recording voiceover and podcasts, Jeremy Williams of tested.com swears by this combination:

  • Audio-Technica AT2020USB Cardioid Condenser USB Microphone: You don’t need a functional sound card to use this; it is powered by and transmits data over a single USB cable.  (Any cardioid condenser mic is acceptable, if you don’t want to use USB, but this specific model comes highly recommended.)
  • An AT2020 Foam Windscreen Pop Filter: To protect against plosives from ruining your audio.  Most windscreens and pop filters are cheap, so there’s no reason to skimp on this.
  • RODE PSA1 Swivel Mount Studio Microphone Boom Arm: Good voiceover means being able to record comfortably and consistently while reading copy, and a boom arm facilitates this.  It also makes it easy to store the mic out of the way when not in use.

Some people are wary of getting a dedicated microphone that is only good for picking up voice, and want something more versatile.  A lavaliere microphone of sufficient quality and placement can make a big difference in recording your voice if you are in front of the camera (or even off-camera) and lets you move around while you present your content.  You may also be able to use a field recorder, such as the Zoom H4n, for multiple scenarios.  Corey from My Life In Gaming uses a Zoom H4n for his narration, and it sounds very good, I came up to this site http://epicgifts.net/15-pokemon-gifts-for-true-fans where I was able to find the best gifts for gamers online, specially for those who love pokemon go. Corey was playing this new castle escape game, it seem very addicting so check it out first. And because it’s a field recorder, he can record his voice as well as two other audio tracks and mix them in the recorder to save time, or store them individually for flexibility in the video editor. Recently My friend bought this Zockersessel and he loves it, it’s really comfortable. .

Good lighting can drastically improve any shooting situation

All cameras record light bouncing off of objects.  The more light that hits a digital camera sensor, the less work the camera has to do.  To illustrate this for yourself, shoot some video outside on a sunny day, then shoot some video inside at night with all the lights on.  Even though your electric lights are bright enough for you to see comfortably at night, you’ll notice that the inside footage will have more noise and grain than the footage shot outdoors.  This isn’t limited to high-end cameras; it’s a general principle that works for any camera, including the camera on your cell phone.  More light — as long as it isn’t a harsh spotlight or casting visible shadows — makes all video footage better.

The best compromise to getting better light in your shots is to use at least two bright photography/videography lights with some softboxes to diffuse the light so it doesn’t cast harsh shadows.  Clint of Lazy Game Reviews was kind enough to let me know what he currently uses, and also used previously when his budget was tighter:

  • For those on a budget, Cowboy Studio makes some affordable lighting kits appropriate for video production.  They’re on the cheap side, but they perform admirably.
  • Clint currently uses LED Panels.  These are more expensive, but give more much more flexibility in how you can use them:  Some panels can run off of batteries, some have adjustable color temperature, and overall they generate less heat.

He concluded with the following:

I typically use at least three lights when I’m filming. Usually 2 LED panels in front/side and then something overhead, like another LED light or even just the light in my room.

Practical advice.

Use manual focus and tripods wherever possible (even cell phones)

Autofocus isn’t perfect; it can have a hard time tracking a moving subject, or “refocus” randomly for seemingly no reason when both the camera and subject are completely still.  If you are shooting a stationary (or mostly-stationary) subject, use a tripod, and use manual focus on your camera.  You’ll get consistent results every time.  Amazon makes a cheap, perfectly functional tripod that is great bang for the buck.

“But I shoot everything with my cell phone!”, you cry?  Not to worry, there are cheap cell-phone tripod adapters available from just about everywhere.  And any smartphone made in the last 3 years allows you to fix the focus while shooting, usually by tapping or long-pressing the area of the shot you want to keep focus-locked.

If you have more money than skill, shoot in 4k

If you have a camera or cell phone capable of 4k recording, try shooting everything in 4k even if you are making a 1080p video.  Why?  Because the extra resolution of 4k allows you do fix all sorts of errors in post-production.  Didn’t zoom in enough?  Is your subject framed a little left of center?  Was the camera rotated slightly on the tripod?  Forgot to film a quick close-up shot?  You can fix all of this in the video editor, and even though the 4k footage is manipulated, it still has more resolution than your 1080p target as long as you don’t zoom past a 1:1 ratio (ie. 100%) of the original footage.

Putting it all together

Armed with the above advice, I decided to revisit making videos, and came up with this on a whim:

While the result is far from optimal, it represents a quality baseline that I am happy with and that I feel can steadily improve on.  Here’s how the video was produced, from complete start to finish:

  1. Thought about what I was going to do and how I could make sure I could get video and photos while doing it: 20 minutes
  2. Performed the activity, gathering media along the way: 6 hours (much of it spent waiting for the chemical process to happen)
  3. Wrote a script that contained everything I wanted to say in the narration: 90 minutes
  4. Recorded the narration: 60 minutes (I needed several takes before I felt I sounded like I wanted to, which was a balance between formal, informal, and natural)
  5. Imported all assets into a video editor, laid down the audio track, cut video to the narration, researched license-free images from the web to fill in the gaps for areas I didn’t have original footage for, and researched license-free music to use as a background audio bed: 4 hours
  6. Export + encode + upload the result: 1 hour

So yes, it took ~14 hours to produce a 5-minute video, but that was because I was inexperienced, and I also could have cut the time down by doing some production tasks while I was waiting for the chemical reaction to finish, like researching the background audio beds, writing parts of the narration, or tracking down graphics I needed.  Before you think that’s crazy, a lot of top-notch YouTube content does indeed take 10+ hours to produce a 10-minute video, even when people are experienced.  It all depends on whether or not you require a script to stay focused, or whether you are capable of winging it.

The most important advice multiple people gave me was this:  Make sure you’re having fun.  If it stops being fun, then you’ve turned your hobby into a depressing chore and ruined it, so back off or change direction if you start hating what you’re doing.

For more tips and inspiration, here’s some leisure viewing:

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