Simple Setup for Lectures Recording

Motivation

At University at Buffalo (UB) I regularly offer a set of somewhat diverse courses: CSE 470/570, BMI503, BMI577/CSE577. One technique that I found highly effective when teaching, is recording all my lectures, and making lecture videos available to students almost immediately after the class (UB provides Panopto to students and faculty). Contrary to some opinions, posting lecture videos does not decrease in-class attendance (and no – I am not enforcing attendance in any way, say, by sign-in sheets). At the same time, it gives students flexibility in reviewing lectures on-demand, and at the pace they find comfortable. Additionally, it gives me the ability to review my lectures for potential improvements.

For a very long time my recording setup was based on a camcorder with a wireless mic transmitter/receiver. The solution was very suboptimal: it required someone to operate camcorder, and video quality was not the best, especially when a classroom was dim. However, this setup had one advantage: switching between, slides and black-/white-board was essentially seamless, giving me flexibility in how I deliver my content. I should note that UB provides classrooms that have built-in hardware for video-recording (that records automatically for you), however, from my perspective the issue of quality remains.

Last semester I switched to a new setup, that effectively gives me complete control over how I deliver content (slides, hand-writing, live coding, etc.) while allowing me to record video and audio in HD. In this setup, only lecture content is recorded (i.e., slides, board and of course voice, optionally my face) and not the entire classroom, as is the case in camcorder-based solution. In other words, no distractions just the essence.

Below I provide description of the setup, with a disclaimer that it is based on Apple hardware and some non-free software tools.

Hardware

The main idea is simple (TL;DR): I am using 12.9-inch Apple iPad Pro, coupled with Apple Pencil, from which I can project slides, do hand writing (essentially think of it as a digital white-board or an overhead projector) or browse web, etc. The iPad is connected to my MacBook Pro (however, any other computer that is able to act as a fully-capable AirPlay receiver will do). The laptop records the screen of the iPad and my voice/face, and it takes care of projecting the screen to a classroom beamer through HDMI, or whatever other port is available. To record the audio I am using an external USB mic connected to the laptop.

The key element is Apple iPad Pro with Apple Pencil. The current resolution of iPads is close to that of a paper sheet, enabling seamless handwriting in good resolution. In fact, I find writing on iPad much more convenient than on a white-board, with the added value that you never have to erase one content to make space for the other (more about it in the Software section below). However, iPad has one important limitation: projecting to a beamer while recording screen and audio are currently impossible to do directly.

This is where AirPlay and MacBook come into play. I am using built-in Apple AirPlay protocol to mirror iPad’s screen to the AirPlay server running on my MacBook Pro (more about it in the Software section below). Both devices are connected via WiFi or USB network. In screen mirroring, whatever action you take on iPad the result is visible in the server application running on the laptop. Because we can easily record or broadcast laptop’s screen, effectively we can record/broadcast the iPad’s screen.

To capture audio, I depend on rather inexpensive Blue Snowflake USB Microphone, which provides much better sound quality sound than the MacBooks' built-it mic.

Software

The main software element is Air Server for macOS (the license cost is $11.99). This software turns my MacBook Pro into an AirPlay receiver enabling iPad recording and projection. The software has quite a few options (the official web site provides all details), and is very easy to use.

To record screen on my MacBook Pro, I used to use QuickTime Player which comes with macOS. The QuickTime has option to record any screen that is available in your system, including a beamer, which shows up in macOS as an external screen. Of course, it also allows to record voice from an external mic. However, even better approach is OBS Open Broadcaster Software. This is lovely free an open source, and multi-platform, package that turns your laptop into recording/broadcasting studio. On top of that it is fast and easy to use even though it has huge battery of configuration options.

The last ingredient are applications that run on iPad. Here you have quite a few choices, but what I found to work the best is a combination of Apple Keynote and Notability for iOS from Ginger Labs (the current price is $8.99). If you have not used Apple Keynote, it is essentially a better designed Powerpoint. Presentations in Apple Keynote are easily transferable between macOS and iOS, and Keynote has fairly good (although not optimal) support for Apple Pen in case you want to put notes on the slides while giving presentation. Notability on the other hand is one fantastic note taking application. It has excellent support for handwriting, and you can easily insert images into your notes, including PDFs. This is important, because this way you can use Notability for presenting PDF slides (thus far, I was not able to find a better application to do PDF presentations from iPad). When running on iPad and projecting via a beamer, Notability acts as a whiteboard (or a blackboard, if you decide to change background), it gives you choice of pen styles, colors and sizes. Moreover, since it provides continuous page scrolling you get essentially infinite space on your board (you need more space on the board, just scroll a little bit your screen). Finally, you can export your notes to PDF, and hence you gain option to archive and share with your students what you wrote during the lecture.

Putting it All Together

To put it all together, I provide a small step-by-step how-to start recording a lecture with the above setup. Note that I am using macOS Catalina and iOS 13, but the steps should be very similar in older versions of both systems.

  1. Connect your iPad to your MacBook Pro. If both devices are running on exactly the same WiFi no extra steps are needed. Otherwise, use USB wire to physically connect the devices. I am assuming that external screen (e.g., beamer) and external mic (if you are using one) are connected to your MacBook. Make sure that your built-in retina display is not mirrored.
  2. On macOS, start Air Server.
  3. On iPad, open Control Center (swipe from the top-right corner of the screen) and select Screen Mirroring. You should see name of your MacBook listed – select it.
  4. On iPad, you will see prompt for AirPlay Code. On macOS, AirServer will display a code – enter this code in the prompt on iPad. At this point connection should be established, and you should see your iPad mirrored in the AirServer window.
  5. Move the AirPlay window to the external screen and enter full screen mode.
  6. On the built-in retina display, open QuickTime Player. Go to File→New Screen Recording. A QuickTime Player configuration window will appear. Click on Options and make sure that your preferred mic is selected (by default mic is selected to None). If you are using OBS instead of QuickTime Player choose your video and audio sources (this is where you can add view from your MacBook camera).
  7. Whenever ready, click on the external screen to start recording. Once you start recording, a recording icon will appear in the menu bar of your macOS.
  8. To finish recording, click on the recording icon and save the movie to your preferred location.

Below I provide a sample video (without voice) to show you how Keynote slides and Notability handwriting look like when recorded.

Demo

Hope you will find information in this post useful!

Copyright © 2019-2020 Jaroslaw Zola jzola@buffalo.edu