My home office setup
Updated: Oct 26, 2021
It seems to be a trend these days to share details on home office setups… so It thought my new blog couldn’t not have a post about my setup, right?
Actually I got asked several times recently what gear I was using for recording demos and IoT Show episodes, what microphone, what camera,…
So here we go, with all the details!
Let me walk you through all of that.
Disclaimer: the links below are not affiliates and I don’t make any money when you click on them 😊. But Amazon gifts card are always welcome if you like what you read here 😉
What do I use all this for?
That’s a lot of gear and all pretty dense on a single desk, so I guess the following question is legit: why do I have so much stuff going on here?
I work at Microsoft in the Azure IoT Developers and Devices group and my team is focused on communities engagement and IoT developer experience. I also have the chance to host the IoT Show produced by my friends at Channel 9.
My day-to-day is about (in no particular order) Emails, demos development, (tons of) Teams meetings, blog post authoring, video recording and production, social media browsing and posting, hardware tinkering… Hence the need for a comfortable desk and chair, large enough monitors, powerful machine, good audio/video gear.
The requirements stuff
Like for all projects, you have to have clear requirements. I didn’t have a home office at the time when we were all going to the office regularly, and when I was working from home, I would squat in the living room, my wife’s workshop/office or the kitchen, using my Surface Laptop. That was plenty enough for meetings, occasional dev, emails. All the video recordings were done in the Ch9 studios, so no need for anything particular in terms of audio/video setup.
That all changed last year (yep, I am just realizing it’s almost been a full year already!) as most of us had to start working exclusively from home.
To work comfortably form home I had to have my own designated space. I claimed the guest room (which also serves as video game/movies room for the kids) but had to go easy on how much I could invade the space: you never know, maybe one day travel will be possible again and we’ll have guests using the room😊.
Here are the main requirements I had for the project:
All has to fit on a single (rather small) desk: if I need to move the office to some other place it has to be simple and not a moving nightmare.
A single video/audio setup for meetings and recordings: I switch too often from one to the other and also need to save space.
The whole thing had to be reasonably priced, nothing crazy allowed, as much reuse as possible.
The desk stuff
I do like to spend some of my day standing, and it also gives you a better posture for when you record videos, so I went with a pretty small (48” wide) SHW electrical standup desk.
With that size you don’t have much real estate to work with, so I had to be creative in how I would have monitors/laptop, keyboard, mouse, speakers, mic, camera and all the stuff laid out.
I have 2 27” Dell monitors. Not 4K but decent resolution. One is horizontal, the second vertical as not only does that save space, but I also do like the vertical layout for long documents, as well as stacking apps. You gotta have the great fancy zones’ feature in PowerToys by @ClintRutkas’s team to deal with custom positioning of apps! To hold the monitors, I have a dual monitor desk mount with a desk clamp.
For the chair, I brought one from the office, a Knoll Generation, they are super comfortable, fully adjustable and Microsoft is super cool with that, allowing you to take some of your equipment home. My 14 years old now prefers using it for playing Xbox rather than sitting on the sofa, he thinks it feels like a professional video gamer chair 😊!
The laptop is sitting on a Rain Design mStand to save desk real estate space and elevate the monitor.
The computer stuff
Because I need to do some decent video editing, but preferred to have a laptop, I went with the Razer Blade 15, with a 9th gen Core i7 and GeForce RTX 2080 Max-Q, 512GB SSD (I am using an external USB drive for all the video files, so I didn’t need a bigger drive… I kinda regret that now and if I had to do it again, I would go directly with a TB SSD drive. If I had to purchase a new laptop today, I would certainly go with the Surface Book 3.
To connect all the peripherals, I went with a thunderbolt 3 dock by OWC, it fits right under the laptop stand, and so far I have not had to complain about it: all USB peripherals work great with no issue whatsoever (and you’ll see below, some of them are pretty heavy duty).
For typing and clicking, I opted for the lean design of the Bluetooth Surface Keyboard and Surface WS3 Mouse (I think they don’t make this one any more). No cable, compact design, great typing feel.
The audio stuff
For the speakers, I once again wanted to optimize for real estate on the desk. But I didn’t want to compromise on sound quality too much as I like to listen to music when working (and not in meetings or recordings). I also didn’t want to go too crazy on cost and after some research and reviews reading, I settled on wired computer soundbar by TaoTronics. Pretty happy for a speaker below $40.
If I need to be more immersed, I have the first gen Surface Headphones. I love the noise cancellation tuning nob!
For the microphone, I wanted to have a condenser mic with cardioid pickup to have a decent voice quality on recordings, not have to wear a headset in meetings and recordings (this required some filtering and setup described later in the post), and once again didn’t want to break the bank. I decided to go with a USB Tonor Q9. It has decent reviews and was pleasantly priced at less than $70. Some told me I should have gone with XLR rather than USB, but that meant an XLR interface to put somewhere on the desk, and at the end of the day, it’s not like I am streaming daily to millions of people!
The boom stand that came with it was bad and I rapidly replaced it with a more decent one by InnoGear.
The Video stuff
Here is the part that usually generates the most questions as my camera comes up pretty neat on Teams meetings. For this one, I had some demo hardware that had been used only once a couple years ago and required high quality video. In the stash I had a BlackMagic Micro Cinema camera with a Panasonic Lumix 8-18mm lens. This is pretty expensive gear and honestly if I didn’t have these around I would not have purchased such equipment. But it would have been a real waste to let this just take the dust, right?
I had the adapter/cable to power the camera, so no need to juggle with batteries, which is a must on this kind of all-day use setup.
The BlackMagic is a cinema professional camera and gives an image that has a very flat profile with a lot of data. That means the default image comes out greenish and needs post-processing. I had to apply some filters on the image for it to look good (see later in the post in the OBS stuff part).
To connect the camera HDMI output to the PC, I ordered an August VGB500 capture card. I initially wanted to go with an Elgato Game Capture but they were all out of stock. I am happy with the August one, works like a charm.
I have been asked why not going with 4K video equipment. The answer is simple: all recordings we do for the IoT Show are published in Full HD 1920x1080, which is the standard hi-def resolution for YouTube and other video platforms. Also, not many online meeting or streaming tools/services accept 4K resolution. Full HD is plenty enough for video conferencing and home recordings! The quality of the lens as well as a good lighting is what makes the image look good.
Talking about lighting, I went with a couple Wifi Elgato Key Light Air. They are perfect for adjusting brightness and color temperature, which is a requirement for capturing decent image with any sort of camera. I always tell guests on the IoT Show that good lighting is a big part of the image quality you can get on a webcam.
The Key Light Air comes with a big base that was taking way too much room on the desk, so I decided to replace the base with some heavy duty desk clamps.
The teleprompter stuff
I have always felt weird looking at the camera (instead of my screen) while talking to guests on the IoT Show or to someone during a video call. And on the other side, it feels weird when someone talks to you but doesn’t look at the camera.
When you take a video call from a laptop, the camera is so close to the screen that you do have the impression the person is looking at you when, but when you have a separate camera, it’s like looking in another direction.
I wanted to test using a teleprompter and my friend @camerontomisser from the Ch9 studios had a spare Glide Gear TMP 100 that he was kind enough to lend me. I had a Surface Go lying around that happened to be the perfect size for this teleprompter. I fixed the teleprompter to the desk with the same desk clamp I used for the lights plus a heavy duty mounting pole. To fix the camera with a little angle on the teleprompter rack I used a Manfrotto 244 Micro friction arm I had inherited as part of the camera package. These things are crazy! With a single twist you can set the 3 joints loose, orient the camera, then tight the whole thing up. It’s graded to hold objects up to 6.6 lb.
To be able to look at the camera while on a video conference, while talking to a guest on the IoT Show or while doing some coding, I needed to have a portion of my screen displayed on the Surface Go. After some trials with different solutions, I found a good way to display part of my main monitor onto the Surface Go using the NDI tools. Here is how I did that:
- On the main machine, I am running NDI Scan Converter which allows to capture a region of your screen and send it over the network as an IP video stream.
- On the Surface Go, I am running the NDI Monitor tool that allows displaying an IP video stream and also has settings to mirror the image (so that it doesn’t show inverted on the teleprompter)
With that, all the hardware and A/V part is covered.
The OBS Stuff
To make it all work well, especially for the camera and microphone filtering, there was some software tooling involved as well.
I needed to apply color grading filters to the video stream as well as audio filters to cancel background noise, apply a noise gate and some EQ to the microphone input. I could have used different tools for that but because I was already using OBS for demo video production, I figured I could just use it to filter audio and video at once and output video and audio to Windows for other apps to use as regular webcam and microphone.
If you are not familiar with OBS, I really recommend taking a look. It is supposed to be for live streaming but it can actually be really useful for creating video scenes for recording demos, which comes very handy for IoT demos where you want to show something happening on a real device while also showing a cloud application interacting with the device.
As I described earlier, the camera I am using is a professional one that delivers a flat image. This type of image is great for video professionals as it comes with a lot of data per pixel and allows for great post-processing. But for the common mortal like you and me, the image just looks ugly (colors, brightness, contrast seem all off). This is where you let professionals do their job: I asked my friend @camerontomisser for some more help and he created a special LUT (Look Up Table) file for my camera, which allows applying the right color profile on the video footage. OBS has a video filter for applying LUTs to video sources, so that was straight forward. I created a scene with just my camera, applied the LUT and some color correction on top, et voila, a clean image!
To output the video to Windows as a Webcam to be used by applications such as Teams or streaming apps and sites like StreamYard, you can leverage a feature of OBS called Virtual Camera. When activating the Virtual Camera mode, OBS will present to Windows a webcam that shows whichever scene is active in OBS.
For filtering the microphone audio I used the same concept: added the Tonor Q9 microphone in the scene and applied some audio filters. To output the audio to Windows so it could be used in apps, I installed the Virtual Audio Cable app by VB-Audio. The app allows to send OBS audio to an output listed as VB-Audio Virtual Cable Output in Windows and apps can access it as an input listed as VB-Audio Virtual Cable Input.
The “next time” stuff
There are a couple things I left out for future posts.
The first one is the Stream Deck I am using to control all this hardware easily and streamline recordings, meetings, scenes changes, lighting, music, debugging. The other one is this additional camera & light on a boom stand you can see on the right of my desk and that I use to capture devices while recording demos.
Tune back here in the blog for details on how I am using these: I’ll make sure to share some of the tips and tricks I have learned as well as the scripts I put together to automate some of that.