When I reviewed Steinberg Sequel, an entry-level music production suite, I created a short video to demonstrate a useful UI feature from that software. In hindsight, I wish that ScreenFlow had been available back then, as that would have made creating that movie so much easier, and the movie itself would have been more compelling.

According to Vara Software, ScreenFlow is a "Professional Screencasting Studio," and that description nicely sums up what ScreenFlow is all about. ScreenFlow grabs audio and video from the computer and from external sources, provides a timeline for editing these recordings, and offers a range of effects aimed specifically at creating on-screen software presentations -- aka "screencasts" -- like highlighting the mouse pointer or visualizing key presses and mouse clicks.

To put ScreenFlow to the test, I thought that re-creating that Sequel demo movie would be just the thing.

Hands-on Example - The Magic Mouse Tool

Steinberg Sequel has a feature called the "Magic Mouse Tool" for editing audio clips. Depending on where you place the mouse pointer in an audio clip when clicking the mouse button, the Magic Mouse Tool performs a number of different functions. Since Sequel is aimed at users just starting out on that fascinating journey into recording and editing music on a computer, I thought it would be a nice touch to include a quick demo video in my review, showing this Magic Mouse Tool in action.

Using Ambrosia Software's Snapz Pro X, I grabbed the on-screen video and later added QuickTime sub-titles manually (just don't ask...) for explaining to the viewer what she is seeing. Here's that original video:

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The original video used in the Sequel review (Click to watch video.)
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As you can see, the "production values" don't quite qualify as impressive, and it's distracting to have to switch between watching the actual clip and reading the sub-titles, then having to synchronize both inside your head to fully grasp just what it is that the Magic Mouse Tool does. So, how about an audio track for the explanations instead of the sub-titles? And maybe somehow enlarging that mouse pointer to point out how its icon changes? Also, wouldn't it be nice to start off with a full-screen view of Sequel before zooming in on that audio clip?

ScreenFlow (and a 2GHz Core 2 Duo MacBook and a not-really-expensive Logitec USB headset) made all that possible, but before I explain the nitty-gritty to you, have a look at the result: the Magic Mouse Tool Screencast, Take 2.

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Audio replaces sub-titles in Take 2 of the Magic Mouse Tool demo (Click to watch video.)
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ScreenFlow's Configure Recording window
In this dialog box, you tell ScreenFlow which signal streams to record (my sincerest apologies for the corny "Listen up kids, there's stuff to learn!" pose...)

Capture This!

Installing ScreenFlow on your Mac is as easy as dragging and dropping the application from its disk image into your Applications folder. The audio driver required by the software is installed "behind the scenes" when you first launch the application.

Quite obviously, every new screencast project starts with a fresh recording, and, consequently, the first thing to greet you after launching ScreenFlow is the Configure Recording dialog box. It's in this dialog box that you select what, exactly, should be captured, and you can freely mix-and-match four A/V sources:

  • Video from the computer's desktop
  • Video from a camera (built-in iSight or external cam)
  • Audio from a CoreAudio-compliant external source like a microphone or USB headset
  • Computer audio
Note that selecting which sources to record is all the configuration ScreenFlow requires before starting a recording. Specifically, there is no need to decide beforehand which area of the screen you'd like to capture, as ScreenFlow will always record the complete desktop area. Which means that you will never have to re-record a screencast just because that all-important dialog box happened to pop up outside the recording area.

If this makes you worry about the grabbing performance, don't! The Vara Software developers have done a very decent job of optimizing their code, and the screen-grabbing performance is very impressive. As an example, running on a MacBook with a 2GHz Core 2 Duo processor and 2 GB of RAM, ScreenFlow managed to capture five QuickTime movies running concurrently without inducing too much stuttering in the resulting screencast movie.

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ScreenFlow managed to grab five concurrently running QuickTime movies on a 2GHz MacBook without any major hiccups (Click to watch video.)

Once you hit the record button, or press the corresponding keyboard short-cut, to trigger the recording, ScreenFlow gracefully moves out of the way, presents a configurable count-down, and then your computer screen becomes your stage. Since you can assign any hard disk as your ScreenFlow "scratch disk," you won't run out of disk space even when recording longer screencasts, either.

From Raw Screengrab to Polished Screencast

Recording what's on a Mac's screen isn't really such a big deal, and there are a number of other software tools that can do this. It's when you stop your recording and are being taken to ScreenFlow's main window, that you'll notice the difference.

ScreenFlow's main window
ScreenFlow's main window with my freshly recorded Magic Mouse Tool movie

ScreenFlow's main screen is divided into three sections: a real-time preview of your movie, a Properties pane on the right, and the timeline at the bottom.

One of the panes in the Properties section is the Media Bay. Any tracks you record with ScreenFlow are stored here, and you can also import existing movies into the Media Bay or trigger a new ScreenFlow recording for adding fresh content.

Speaking of the Media Bay, one important feature in ScreenFlow is its non-destructive editing. No matter which edits you apply to a track, you will never lose your original recordings unless you delete them from the Media Bay. Non-destructive editing is a very useful safe-guard and is found in many media editing applications, but the way the Vara Software folks have implemented this is unusually elegant and intuitive. Even when you split or trim a track in the timeline, effectively cutting off sections from it, you can always drag out the left and right edges of the resulting clippings to bring back the removed parts.

Make 'Em Look Good

For sprucing up the media you've recorded and compiled in the Media Bay, the Properties section is where it's at. You can massage numerous properties for video, audio, screen recording (e.g., visualization of key presses), and callouts. With the Properties panels working as inspectors, any changes you make to the properties are directly applied and also reflected in the preview, so you can tweak them in real time. Farewell, Apply buttons, and please don't come back, hear me?!

Changes in the Properties are applied globally to the currently selected track, or tracks, unless you add so-called Actions to a track. If you're familiar with audio or video editing, think of ScreenFlow's Video Actions, Audio Actions, and Screen Recording Properties as analogies for fades. By adding them to a track in the timeline, you can set properties differently for the segment before and after the Action, and ScreenFlow smoothly morphs between the settings for the duration of the Action. For Callouts, the settings are applied as long as the Action lasts.

As with any other features in ScreenFlow, the way you edit tracks in the timeline -- including any Actions or Callouts you've added to these tracks -- is very intuitive and almost entirely mouse-based. What really impressed me, though, is that the Vara guys have thought these edit functions through to the end. For example, the timeline has a snap-to function. Move an Action along a track, and its left and right edges will snap to Actions on neighboring tracks. This makes for effortless synchronization of Action effects. You can even select a number of Actions on several tracks and drag out either edge on any one of these, and they will be dragged out in parallel. In other words, everything in the timeline works just like it is supposed to work!

Sharing with the World

So, you've recorded a great screencast, added a choice selection of delicious effects, edited it to perfection, and maybe even sprinkled it with some tasty background music -- in other words, it's ready to be sent out into the wild of the Internet. Then it's time to export your polished screencast to a QuickTime file.

ScreenFlow's exporting options
Tweak the exported movies to your heart's content

ScreenFlow comes with a number of useful presets for exporting, but you can also fully customize the audio and video settings with the standard QuickTime options dialog box. And if you're not happy with the result, you can always go back to ScreenFlow and keep polishing that screencast -- it's non-destructive, remember?

See it in Action

I wouldn't be surprised if some of my explanations so far seem a bit cryptic, e.g., that paragraph on editing in the timeline, and maybe you would have liked to see a few more screenshots.

To that, I say: pah! Screenshots... Who needs screenshots when you can have screencasts!

That's why I created a little screencast of a screencast, so you can see -- and hear -- how I edited the Magic Mouse Tool video in ScreenFlow.

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Editing the Magic Mouse Tool video in ScreenFlow (Click to watch video.)

I'll be honest with you, recording a screencast is hard. A lot harder than I initially thought, and my sympathy for actors and musicians has grown exponentially since making this video. And the word "outtakes" has taken on a completely new meaning for me.

Still, despite the many rehearsals I admittedly went through before I was happy with the result, the video above does give you a realistic idea of the workflow for applying those edits in ScreenFlow that resulted in the overhauled Magic Mouse Tool movie. It's smooth, fast, and intuitive. And because of the polished UI and a choice selection of animations that don't get in your way, it's fun, too.

Some Ideas for ScreenFlow Take 2

Writing a review that hardly mentions any short-comings in a product may make the reader feel as though said product hasn't been tested thoroughly, that the author of the review did not invest enough time in writing the test, or that there is some other non-kosher reason for the lack of criticism. So, just for the balance, here are a few things that bugged me about ScreenFlow.

When working on longer videos, navigation along the timeline is sometimes awkward. Having a command for jumping to the current location of the scrubber cursor on the timeline would be useful here (the new version 1.1 introduces time line markers, though). Also, when exporting to a QuickTime file, the file name is initially set to ScreenFlow.mov instead of the project's name. And when moving the right edge of the longest track(s) in the timeline towards the left to shorten a clip, the right edge of the timeline itself will follow, so you cannot easily drag the track's edge out towards the right again.

There, I tried, but there really isn't much negative to say about ScreenFlow's current features. As for feature requests for future versions, though, I do have a few:

Just a Nominee or a Real Winner?

Despite this list of feature requests for a future release, the verdict on the current version of ScreenFlow is still straightforward:

ScreenFlow does deliver on the promise of providing a one-stop-shop tool for creating high-quality screencasts with excellent visual effects, and it does so in a polished, modern, and totally Mac-like user interface. Its smooth and seamless workflow squarely earns it "best-in-class" honors on the Macintosh; its results simply cannot be achieved by juggling separate screen snapping and audio hijacking utilities.

The software requires Mac OS X Leopard (10.5 or greater), is available as a 4.4 MB download from the Vara Software website, and has a $99 price tag.