COVID hit planet earth a few months ago and everything has gone online. Research group meetings, reading group meetings, tutorials, and even conferences are all conducted in some form of virtual format (mostly via zoom). I was creating online content since before the pandemic as an extra way to make my research accessible. Now it has become the only way.
Recently, I found myself discussing my content creation gear and setup with multiple colleagues. I ended up searching for links and sending the same information repeatedly. Therefore, I eventually decided this justifies a blog post.
Here I will share the gear I am using for online academic content creation and digital presence. The goal here is to help you improve your quality while also reducing production time by enhancing your workflow. Scroll to the bottom for a TL;DR and a short link list.
Network (How to improve my zoom experience?)
This is the latest piece of gear that I purchased. It should have probably been the first. I bought it “by accident”. I didn’t think I needed it. You probably don’t think you need it either.
Here is the story: I was starting to get annoyed by the zoom disconnects and latency when my contract with my internet service provider was about to end. I decided its time to increase my speeds (It was for about the same price as before anyway). After the upgrade, I checked to see that the speeds were indeed updated. I used speedtest.net to check and got a very poor result. Immediately I called up my service provider to say they forgot to upgrade my speed. The representative was very nice and asked me to go with a laptop and connect it using a physical cable to the modem-router itself. I did. The speed was fine, great actually. She mentioned that, although my modem-router has Wi-Fi capabilities, it is not the best at it.
I did some homework and it turns out ISP modem-routers are notoriously bad at providing high-quality Wi-Fi. I used Wi-Fi analyser app and realized the modem-router signal drops significantly after 3 steps. After some additional homework, I decided to buy a used Netgear N750 from the FaceBook marketplace.
The speed boost is presented below:
Yes. The numbers are correct. I got a huge speed boost for 20$ (I got a really good deal). I am using the 5Ghz option, but there is also a 2.4Ghz one available if the router is located a few walls away (it’s a bit slower in my case). Another nice feature is the vertical stand that comes with the router. It reduces dust accumulation and takes up less space on the table.
This may sound trivial but the first thing to consider in order to improve your zoom experience and online content experience is to use an Ethernet cable! Alternatively, you can invest in a good router. My experience has improved tremendously.
If you can’t use a cable (like me) and your PC doesn’t have a built-in Wi-Fi (like mine) I recommend buying this TP-Link Archer T2U 11AC USB WiFi Adapter. There are much cheaper one’s available but this one has proved to be very reliable and supports Linux (after installing the correct drivers). Just make sure never to connect it directly to the PC (use an extender, the interference is super impactful).
Video (Which camera should I buy for zoom?)
When we moved to Australia, I wanted to provide my parents with a decent chance to see their grand kids. I bought this Logitec C922x pro stream webcam. It provides a high quality and very crisp image, has a built-in microphone (which I never use, more on audio in the next section) and it sits nicely on top of my monitor. It even comes with a small tripod. After all of the meetings moved to zoom I noticed how crappy the laptop camera is.
When recording things for my research YouTube channel I like to have a bit more control on aperture, to get a nice depth effect. For that, I use my DSLR Canon 750D. It was not purchased specifically for recording video. Anna and I are hobby photographers and bought it for still images. It turns out it does a great job at video as well. I used it to shoot the first few seconds of my latest paper on surface fitting and normal estimation for point clouds. One thing I learned is that no matter how good the camera is, the lighting is even more important to set up (more on that in accessories).
I mount the camera on this T170 62inch tripod by Selens. It folds up easily (and with a small footprint) which is great for travel and storage. It is durable and reliable. I had it for a while now and it delivers every time.
Audio – Input (Which microphone should I buy for zoom?)
I’m not an audiophile. Not even remotely. But after spending several hours listening to paper presentations on YouTube, you start valuing the authors that invested in a good microphone (and the importance of a pop filter). I initially bought a used Blue Snowball. I actually wanted to buy the Blue yeti, but it was out of my budget. It’s a USB condenser microphone. Provides great sound quality. You can even tweak it using only free software and get really crisp sound. But (!), if you don’t have a sound-proof room, it is going to pick up EVERYTHING around you – refrigerator, air conditioner, GPU fan, and don’t get me started on the mouse clicks and keyboard press noise. I don’t have a soundproof room, so I ended up spending a lot of time trying to filter out the background noise in post-processing, which degraded the sound quality.
I eventually purchased the Audio Technica ATR2100x microphone. It’s a dynamic microphone, therefore, picks up much less of the surrounding noise. It also has a headphone jack to give you zero-latency monitoring. To save space on my desk I also bought a Neewer NW-35 Microphone stand. It comes with a pop filter and foam windscreen that make the sound post-processing even easier (notice the weight limit, it is not compatible with heavier microphones). I am currently toying with the idea of starting a podcast. I think the ATR200x will do the job, but if the podcast takes off I will definitely look to upgrade to the Rode Procaster (XLR mic) or the Rode Podcaster (USB). So if you have a bigger budget I will definitely go for one of these two. Note: when doing my online microphone comparisons I found Podcastage YouTube channel to provide great side by side comparisons.
When recording YouTube videos where I don’t want to have the big microphone in the shot I use this very low-cost Boya BY-M1 lapel mic. Its surprising the improvement in sound quality given its low price tag. Its main downside is the cable. It is very long, so you can position yourself far away from the camera, but it is annoying. It is a hassle to try not to trip over and to roll it up for storage. To overcome that, I got my eye on this Rode VideoMic PRo, but I feel like I already spent a lot of money on these things so I am waiting for a project that will justify this purchase.
Audio – Output (Which headphones should I buy for zoom?)
My “daily sound drivers” are the Bluetooth Samsung Galaxy buds or Galaxy buds+. Good sound, decent battery life, great BT connectivity. A nice app for tuning things. I just love them. The interchangeable silicone pads provide great comfort. The small and smooth case provides extra battery life. However, all Bluetooth earphones sometimes have issues like connecting to the wrong device or forgetting to recharge them (which happens to me a lot). I always keep my wired in-ear AKG headphones nearby (they also have a built in mic).
When the pandemic hit Canberra and the kids were “remote learning”, I knew that in order to get any work done I have to get a good noise cancelling headset. Unfortunately, this is one product I bought and cannot wholeheartedly recommend. I got the Sony WH-1000XM3 and I don’t like them. They had tons of connectivity issues (got a little better after firmware update). After wearing them for a while it feels like my head was in a vice (maybe good for people with a narrower head than mine?). The touch interface is extremely bad, not responsive and unintuitive. The upside is that they have a nice case (which I hardly use) and the sound quality is good. I regret not getting the Bose QuietComfort 35.
Accessories (What to buy to improve digital content quality and production workflow?)
Getting a good bag for my DSLR Canon 750D camera was one of the biggest improvements to my workflow. I got this Neewer camera bag. It is amazing! It has multiple compartments for storing the camera body, lenses, cables, memory cards and other accessories. I even fit this camera cleaning kit in there (for those annoying times when someone accidentally touches the lens). Its very light and the sling functionality is a gamechanger. It got me excited about photography again. When going on a trip with the kids, taking the camera out used to be a hassle so we ended up taking pictures with our phones and leaving the camera at home. The sling allows you to take the camera out, take some pictures and put it back in without taking the bag off. Comfort!
For improving video quality, lighting is even more important than the camera. I am currently using this Neewer 18 inch LED ring light. It has a white and orange lighting options and you can continuously adjust the light intensity. If you are a bit far from the camera, it might not be enough so consider adding a studio light. I recommend watching this tutorial on three-point lighting before you buy.
Anna is working on a new project so she got a small Teleprompter (we got a cheaper knockoff from Aliexpress than the one in the link, it does the job just the same). I initially thought it’s a useless toy. But then, when recording my latest video I found it to be super useful. No need to memorize anything anymore! Forget about looking down at the text. No more forgetting the text and starting over. Just read it from the teleprompter. Not a must have, but definitely a workflow upgrade.
Ergonomics (How to avoid back pain and wrist pain when spending a long time on a laptop?)
Before transferring my PC home, I worked on my laptop (a lot!). It turns out that working long hours on a laptop can cause some back pain, mainly because of the monitor height. I noticed that placing it on a pile of books helps a lot so I decided to get this nice foldable and adjustable laptop stand by Nexstand. The problem it created was that the keyboard is uncomfortably elevated. So I also purchased this wireless keyboard (Microsoft 850). This keyboard is a bit on the large side and has a dongle (that takes up one of the few USBs available on the laptop). In retrospect, I should probably have gotten this Bluetooth keyboard.
If you care about your ergonomics I also recommend a high-quality vertical mouse. It helped me a lot with wrist pain. Admittedly, it takes time to get used to and you will probably knock it over several times until you get a better sense of its size. However, it worked amazing for me and my wrist pain was gone. I personally own this ANKER vertical mouse and its wireless version.
Software (What software to use for screen capture and video editing?)
Don’t use zoom for screen capture (unless its part of a talk you are giving anyway). I recently discovered OBS studio and I think it is amazing. It allows capturing multiple video streams and audio streams simultaneously. Works with all operating systems (I tested only on windows). Most importantly – it is free! For video editing, I use Adobe Premier pro. It takes a while to learn how to work with it (and even after a while I’m sure I am not using 90% of its potential). However, it gets the job done. It allows you to input some graphics, remove audio noise, cut, move, speed up/down clips, insert video transitions, and more. It turns out that many academic institutions have an enterprise agreement with Adobe, so be sure to check that before ordering an individual license (they can get pretty pricy).
Before discovering OBS studio I used to work with Camtasia (which offers a recorder and editor built into one) and its lighter version Snag-it . Both were good but are not free. I guess Camtasia would be a good option if you don’t have an Adobe creative cloud license.
For Audio capture I use Audacity. Its interface is a bit old school and its not very user friendly but Its free and has some powerful noise removal features. I also heard good things about Pro tools first but haven’t got around to play with it yet. If you want to go full pro, Adobe Audition is the tool for you. It has great features for audio mixing and mastering. It is a bit of an overkill for my current needs, but I might play around with it when I start a podcast.
There are endless tech gadgets you can get to enhance your online content quality and production workflow. This is a full run-down of what I am currently using but your mileage may vary. To reduce costs even further, I recommend buying some gear second hand. You would be surprised what people are selling and for how much (my golden rule is to buy for less than 30% of RRP).
Remember, there is no gadget in the world that will make the content itself better, this part is up to you.
Happy digital content creation!
For video: Logitec C922x pro stream webcam for zoom and everyday use and Canon 750D for YouTube. For Audio: Audio Technical ATR2100x microphone on a Neewer NW-35: Microphone stand, or a Lapel mic – Boya BY-M1, and Galaxy buds or Galaxy buds+. To boost internet speed I use Netgear N750 and TP-Link Archer T2U 11AC USB WiFi Adapter. Software: OBS studio for screen capture, Adobe Premier pro for video editing and Audacity for audio capturing and editing. Ergonomics: NEXSTAND laptop stand, Microsoft 850 wireless keyboard, ANKER vertical mouse.
Note: There is no sponsor for this post and I purchased all of this gear with my own hard worked money. However, some of the links here are “Amazon Associates” links. Associates (also known as affiliate) links means that if you purchase through them, amazon will share the love ($) with me.