I’ve been hosting and participating in additional hangouts lately. It’s something I really enjoy, and I love that my job not just lets me, but encourages me to participate in them. I was recently asked to share the tools I use to produce the hangouts, so I thought I’d enumerate them here.
Let’s start with Audio equipment. I had the opportunity to interview Robert Scoble, and he was gracious enough to stick around for a few minutes afterward and chat about improving production value. The first thing he said to improve was the audio. Most people will stick around through a fuzzy video, but if they can’t understand you, they’ll leave your video. So I invested in some additional audio firepower. One of the main reasons we chose to improve our audio quality is that it allows us to strip the video layer of our YouTube videos away, and share the resulting audio as a podcast. The better starting product we have, the better our audio final product can be.
Mic: Audio Technica AT2020
I use an Audio Technica AT2020 mic. It’s a cardioid condenser microphone, which means a lot more to people with more audio training than I have. For me (and a lot of the podcasting community) it means a reliable mic that does a solid job of capturing spoken vocals at a reasonable price. It’s not the best mic for spoken word recording, but it absolutely does the job. This mic connects with an XLR input, so an audio interface is required to send sound to your laptop. A second option would be to use a mic that connects directly from USB. Audio Technica makes a USB version of the AT2020, the AT2020USB PLUS, and many podcasters are fans of Blue microphones, especially the Yeti.
Audio Interface: Focusrite Scarlett Solo
Of course I can’t plug an XLR mic directly into a laptop, so I added the Scarlett Solo USB interface from Focusrite. I plug the mic into the Scarlett, then connect to my laptop via USB, and all of my sound flows through the Solo. The Solo is simple, and that’s part of the allure. It’s also a limiting factor if near perfect audio is your goal. If I had to do it over again, I would have gone with the Solo’s big brother, the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. I would definitely appreciate the option to plug in a second mic and have a second person in the room.
Always. Wear. Headphones. On. A. Hangout. The most annoying thing in a Hangout is hearing your audio echoed back because someone’s mic is picking up the audio from their speakers. Wear headphones. Hear your friends. Make great hangouts.
Cables, stands, etc.
The mic needs a cord, and I’m too lazy to hold the mic the whole time I’m speaking, so I invested in a boom scissor mic stand from Neewer. The reason I like the boom stand is that it keeps the mic and stand away from my hands. A lot of the time while I’m live casting I’m on my laptop, looking up a tip or tool someone mentioned, communicating with the producer via chat, or some other function that means hands on the keyboard. A simple tabletop mic stand puts the base of the stand right where my laptop, and thus my hands, normally want to go. The boom stand puts it all above and beside my hands, leaving them unobstructed. This Neewer stand is nothing to write home about. It’s cheap, and gets the job done, but did I mention it’s cheap? I already broke the clamp that holds it onto the table, and it just feels a bit cheap. But it also has the cable pre-run through the body of the boom, which saves a ton of time in setting up. Additionally, the shock mount is invaluable, because it prevents a lot of bumps and thumps that would otherwise come through the floor and table and up through the mic.
Now let’s take a look at the video components.
The main video component is the camera. Most modern laptops have a buit-in webcam, and that works just fine for most casual videos, but the angle can be a bit weird (hello, nostrils!) and manufacturers trade quality for size. I decided to step up to an external webcam to improve the angle and the overall video quality. I researched a few different webcams, primarily the Logitech C920 and C930. They’re very similar, with the C930 carrying a few additional features that, ultimately, I decided weren’t necessary.
The two features I like the most (present on both the C920 and C930) are on-device encoding, and the ability to mount on a tripod. Encoding on the device means that your laptop isn’t using cycles to do the encoding, leading to a better overall stream quality. Both the C920 & C930 have a wide field of view, which allows us to go “two in a box,” and have two participants in one camera shot.
The ability to mount the webcam directly to a tripod allows me to move the camera around independent of my laptop, and, more importantly, place the camera in a position where it is more in my line of sight. making eye contact with the camera (aka the audience) makes it more personal to the view. It takes a bit of time to get used to looking at the camera, itself, and not the video stream of the people you’re on the Hangout with, but it does make a big difference - and I’ve got a tip for that.
Because my camera is on a tripod, and independent of my laptop, I can place the camera anywhere within the reach of the USB cable tethering it to my laptop. I take advantage of this by placing an extra monitor with the hangout feed directly in front of me, with the camera, on a tripod, in my line of sight. So while I’m looking at the monitor, and the people on the panel with me, I’m also looking at (or very near) the camera. I use my laptop monitor to keep track of the twitter chats, and anything else I might need to keep track of.
Taking the show on the road
All of this equipment fits nicely into a backpack. So it’s very mobile. It would be feasible to make the whole kit more mobile. The minimum you need is a phone and an internet connection, but your overall product will be limited by the weakest link in the system, and that is often the internet connection. I’ve seen some other tools that might be beneficial to mobile broadcasters, including the Livestream Broadcaster Mini, which can connect to a higher quality camera, and handle all of the streaming. I haven’t had a chance to try this.
This is a setup that works for me, for the shows I produce and take part in. I think it will work well for others, too. One thing we do that helps is to use a producer to handle much of the behind the scenes work. Our Office Hours Hangout wouldn’t go as smoothly without the hard work of our Technical Producer, Tyler Lutz. Tyler initiates the feed from his laptop, coordinates with guests, and queues up questions from the audience. It keeps cohost Drew Cox and I free to talk to, and more importantly, listen to our guests. If you have anyone that can help in that capacity, I strongly recommend bringing them into the hangout.
If I had to assemble this hangout kit again, I think I would have gone with a slightly different audio interface, one that would allow for more guests. I would also invest in some lights. That’s the next frontier, and I hope to be able to update this post with that information soon. I’ve assembled an Amazon Wish List with all of the equipment that I would purchase if I was building a Hangout kit from scratch. This kit includes a USB mixing board which would allow up to 4 participants at once, from one connection. I think 4 at once would work well for a roundtable discussion show.