Live Production? A Tangled Web.

Contrary to what we believed from the start, this could never have been easy. Of course we went in head on.

…on candy stripe legs the spiderman comes,
softly through the shadow of the evening sun.

1989 © Robert Smith, Lullaby

Contrary to what we believed from the start, this could never have been easy. It is then no wonder we went in heads on to prove otherwise. And it is not as if we did not have experience.

Hence this, very long, post.

History

Having been involved in a vast network of debaters and debate organizations, IDEA has always been on the forefront of sharing information to the widest audience possible. And as the popularity of debate tournaments and speech events continued rising, the small capacity of said events were always the limiting factor to the interested parties. Early on, the team that now constitutes IDEA Southeast Europe initiated a series of [by today’s standards] crude streaming shows that established a future benchmark for the world’s premier speech events.

Some of the events we have covered, among many others, include:

  1. World Universities Debating Championships [2011 in Botswana, 2012 in Philippines].
  2. European Universities Debating Championships [2010 in Netherlands].
  3. Belgrade Open [2010, 2011 in Serbia].
  4. IDEA Youth Forum [2010 in Netherlands, 2011 in Turkey, 2012 in Mexico].
  5. US Universities Debating Championships [2011 in Vermont].
  6. United Asian Debating Championships [2011 in Macau].

Additionally, we have been covering a number of conferences and impromptu events [Mite has famously live streamed the major citizen demonstrations in 2011 against police brutality #protestiram in Macedonia using his, now antique, Nokia phone].

No matter the cultural impact and audience validation, those were in hindsight, technically torrid affairs, limited by available technology and constrained by cost. Typically single camera setups using low definition webcams with embedded audio and little archival value post factum.

So at one point, having passed down our accumulated knowledge to teams from local debate organizations which took on live streaming in said capacity, we moved on to improve our recording and production capabilities.

Live Production

Move forward a few years, and we now have visuals we are not ashamed to show, audio which is borderline studio grade, and we are toying with the idea [here at IDEA] of giving live production another chance. But it is now live production, not mere live streaming, as we are dealing with multiple camera setups, processed audio, broadcast graphics and scoring and quite the substantial archival value.

And the outputs are independent of the delivery medium, giving the option of live producing a conference or a detached event, live streaming an activity or doing both at the same time, drastically increasing capabilities and producing technically sound output.

So, what goes in our system?

Video

Cameras

We use Nikon DSLRs, as opposed to studio camcorders. They fit our workflow better based on our photographing experience, and they have a larger number of possibilities for lateral upgrades, utilizing both DX and FX format cameras.

  1. Nikon D800 – full format DSLR with FHD output. Using firmware v1.10.
  2. Nikon D5200 – DX format DSLR with FHD output. Using firmware v1.02 enhanced with LiveView timeout removal, and 64mbps video throughput.

Both types of cameras are powered off the AC line, utilizing Nikon power couplers [EP-5A and EP-5B].

Lenses

We use Sigma full frame lenses, specifically the primes from the Art series. Extended range and low light sensitivity make these lenses a solid choice for both studio and outdoor work. An added bonus is the fact that each lens comes with a built-in motor allowing for camera control even with bodies that lack internal motors, should the need arise.

  1. Sigma 24mm f/1.4
  2. Sigma 35mm f/1.4
  3. Sigma 50mm f/1.4
  4. Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8
  5. Sigma 70-200mm f/2.8

Each lens is configured for manual control to avoid motor noise during production.

Converters

Nikons can be connected to a video hub / switcher primarilly through HDMI. That connection method comes with a length limitation, and using active HDMI cables is usually detrimental to the signal. For larger lenghts of cable, where the cameras are at a longer distance, we switch to SDI over coaxial cable, utilizing the Black Magic Design HDMI to SDI Mini Converter.

Audio

Microphones

Depending on the immediate requirements of the live production setting, we use a variety of microphones, suited both to studio and outdoor work. In an acoustically treated, and movement controlled environment, we tend to rely more on shotgun microphones, falling back on wireless lavalier microphones when movement is expected.

  1. Rode NTG-2 Shotgun
  2. Shure FP15 Bodypack
  3. Rode Lavalier

Every microphone is routed through a microphone preamplifier / compressor before mixing begins.

Processing

We run condenser microphones through a dynamic microphone preamplifier, allowing for direct compression control. A digital conduit connects the microphone preamplifier to the soundcard / mixer leading to final mixing, based on Focusrite gear.

  1. Focusrite Octopre Dynamic MKII
  2. Focusrite Scarlett 18i20

The analog connecting lines are based off of balanced cables with XLR connections, to avoid slippage and introduction of noise.

Production

Live Switcher

The heart of the live production facilities is the Black Magic Design ATEM Production Studio 4K. Featuring full 4K throughput and a multitude of formats, the ATEM line is a nicely priced [compared to professional grade switches!] rackmout switcher controllable through TCP/IP, supporting up to 8 separate sources [HDMI + SDI].

The principle production format has been set as 1080p29.97. A TV monitor is connected to the “multi view” output of the ATEM allowing for seamless switching.

Audio Delayer

Having digital video signals run through a switcher introduces an inevitable de-synchronization between the video and audio segments of the digital signal. The discrepancy is standard length and depends on the calculated signal path within the ATEM switcher. A standard solution is to introduce a delay during the processing of the audio signal to avoid lip-sync issues.

To deal with this, we utilize a Behringer DEQ2496 digital EQ / delay unit. In our case, the delay amounts to five frames, which, within the 1080p29.97 format, defaults to 166.84 miliseconds, which is what the delayer has been set to.

HDMI Capture

A finalized digital stream is fed through the HDMI output, into a Black Magic Design Intensity Pro HDMI capture card afixed to a PCIe slot on the principle studio machine. A loop out allows direct monitoring of the capture stream.

When on the move, a Thunderbolt based capture card is used, Black Magic Design UltraStudio SDI.

We’ve drawn up a diagram to showcase the elements of the system, and the interconnects we use – this will hopefully help to ease confusion.

And to paraphrase a Pirelli ad, power is nothing without control – the system is controlled through a host of software packages.

Software

ATEM Software Control

TCP/IP based control surface for the ATEM Production Studio 4K. Allows up to 5 concurrent users, which makes it handy in a larger production environment – we have had a maximum of four people work on individual computers connected to the ATEM, perfoming [1] switching and transitions, [2] graphics and keying, [3] audio monitoring/mixing and [4] camera control.

Black Magic Design Media Express

A ProResHD capable capturing software, utilized when the output is recorded, and not streamed live.

WireCast Play

The freemium version of the dedicated for YouTube software encoder. We use the basic version with the watermark removed to perform encoding work. The low-end version is perfectly suitable since the majority of the production work is being done through the ATEM switcher.

CasparCG

Open source graphics and play-out network based system. Allows for layering of graphics and video materials directly to our production environment.

Is that all?

Not really, but it is the gist of it. There are also cables, and DSLR cages, and support equipment, and studio lightning and acoustic treatments and many more things which pop up on a daily basis. But the above rundown was to concentrate on the crucial aspect of the live production system…

…after all, I would not presume to tell you how sturdy a tripod you need for your live camera.

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An avid tinkerer, Marjan has dabbled with software, hardware and the occasional guitar (he is not very good at the latter). Could hardly wait on the emergence of IoT, and now will simply not let it go...

...burns fingers regularly on soldering irons.

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