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iMag on a budget – Redundancy

Posted on : 03-24-2014 | By : Andy | In : tech

Tags: , ,


(Note: this is the eighth post of a series on how to do iMag without a megachurch budget.)

The good news is that BMD devices are cheap. The bad news is…I’m still looking for the bad news, but I had a friend from another church tell me they refused to use them because of reliability issues. We haven’t experienced this (I thought we had a broken SDI jack once, but it turned out to be the cable).

However, because these BMD devices are so incredibly cheap, we can afford a failover system. If a “better” switcher is $5,000 and a BMD ATEM TVS is $1,000, I figure you just buy two of them, right? You’re still saving $3,000, and you have dual switchers to boot! (And, of course, even that “better” expensive hardware can fail.)

Well, not so fast I guess. If you want a live failover system, you need your cameras and your graphics feed to go into BOTH switchers, and you need BOTH switchers to feed into your projectors.

So I wired up frankenstein. You can get Monoprice 3G SDI Splitters splitters for cheap, so I bought a bunch. Now, each source goes into a 1×2 splitter and gets routed into both of the ATEM devices.

Both of the ATEM outputs run into the A/B Switch, which controls which device is being sent to our projectors. If our main goes down, we hit the A/B switch and poof! We’re routing through the backup. Total cost: somewhere around $300 all said. That does mean a LOT of power and SDI cables floating around, so there’s that. If you want the ‘better’ way, it’s not as cheap.

$1,500 buys you a BMD Micro VideoHub. It’s a 16-in, 16-out SDI matrix, again for a fraction of a price of the competitors. It will do all the routing and switching you need in one rack-mountable unit. Add $500 for their physical controller for this router.

If you’re good at math, you’ll notice that the cost of cleanliness and convenience is about $1,700, which on our budget was just a little too much. Of course, if you could find a gently used VideoHub on eBay…you might close that gap a little bit. Your choice!

Either way, you’d still come out cheaper than a single, more expensive switcher. I dare my Television Studio to fail…we’re perfectly poised for failover!

NOTE: Aside from redundancy, there are other benefits to having two ATEM Television Studio devices. Given that both devices have access to all the same video sources, we can show one live feed/mix to our in-house audience while simultaneously producing a second, different feed to our live internet stream through the second unit. For example, a wide-angle staging shot is helpful for a remote audience, but distracting for our live audience. This also can help keep your video operators from getting bored.

NOTE: The two BMD Video Matrix items I mentioned can also be purchased integrated into one unit.

Next up: final recommendations

iMag on a budget – Projection

Posted on : 03-24-2014 | By : Andy | In : tech

Tags: , ,


Projectors are a project in and of themselves, and can easily cost you $10k-$100k or more depending on your needs. We already had OK projectors, but we made some updates to make them more, well, awesome.

Problem: ambient lighting. We have 5000 lumen projectors that are bright enough for our room, except for the awful amount of ambient light hitting our screens. It’s really bad, but we can’t turn down the lights because we preach from the Bible and we want people to actually bring theirs and read them with us. The net effect is washed-out video that looks like a cheap-o LCD from the early days. Ick.

Solution: Screen Innovations Slate screens. New to SI in 2014, you have to see them to believe them. The real solution is their Black Diamond line, but they’re so incredibly expensive that it will make your head spin. The Slate line is almost as good, but at a palatable price. We were able to get replacement screens for our setup for under $6,000, which is far short of the $10k+ per projector that we’d need to spend in order to get a similar performance boost out of projectors. It’s still a lot of money, but all it took was for me to get them to send me a sample. I taped it to our current screen, turned on our lights, played back a video through our projectors, and had our finance guy and our senior pastor look at the difference. Sold! We also found some new 1080p widescreen projectors to replace our old 4:3 ones that so far have been absolutely stellar: 5000 Lumens for less than $2000/each. (I think we found a dealer to get them for us at $1500 a piece, of you can get them direct from Amazon here: Optoma EH-501)

Problem: getting video to our projectors. Our current solution involved a VGA over Cat5 video sender, which was dodgy at best. Trying to maintain the right EQ and Gain balance for the signal was hard enough, but the scaler that downsized our video to fit on our 1024×768 projectors also messed with our signal. Our projectors could accept a 1080i or 720p signal, but getting that signal to the projectors untarnished just wasn’t happening.

Solution: HD-SDI can reach about 300′. Our ATEM Television Studio has 2 SDI outputs, so we just strung the output over RG-59 cable up to our projectors. The projectors can’t handle SDI in, so we used an HDMI-to-DVI cable to plug our projectors into the HDMI out of a ghetto-cheap SDI to HDMI converter. Getting our signal to multiple projectors involved using Monoprice 3G SDI Splitters, which I highly recommend. Monoprice makes a 1×4 SDI Splitter splitter as well, and a 1×8 SDI Splitter.

Next up: redundancy.

iMag on a budget – Live Streaming

Posted on : 03-24-2014 | By : Andy | In : tech

Tags: , , ,


(Note: this is the seventh post of a series on how to do iMag without a megachurch budget.)

Note: while we have done this in the past, we’re not currently doing this.

Note: we may never do this consistently.

Note: we will probably do this, at least on an occasional basis, so I did my homework.

Note: if you plan on doing this for your musical worship, make sure you update your CCLI license to cover that kind of usage.

As I mentioned earlier, the ATEM Television Studio supports a live H.264 feed over USB 2.0 to a connected Mac or PC. If you use Livestream’s service for live streaming, their producer software recognizes the TVS and makes it work like magic. You set the quality requirements to match your network’s upstream link speed, and it does the rest. We’ve streamed a few memorial services, and one children’s choir performance, using this method. I’ve also used it in-house for a quick-and-dirty overflow room, since you can just subscribe to your own Livestream event in another room with a computer connected to a TV or Projector and sound system! (It has about a 15-second delay round-trip).

If you want to use another streaming service, I’ve read a gazillion recommendations for MXLight (£55), which allows you to output a usable stream for just about any service out there. I’ve never tried it, but there’s so many people out there recommending it on every corner of the globe that I’d be remiss not to mention it.

If you don’t like paying for your live streaming, you can use YouTube live for free, now that Google is opening live events to anyone with a verified account. (This is our planned course of action). I haven’t done much research into PC requirements for this however (Adobe FMLE or MXLight should do the trick), since our initial forays into this consumed massive CPU resources. (60% or more of an i7-960) I’d hate to think that a PC crash could take down our live stream, and frankly I’d rather have that PC free for other purposes such as running the control software and saving our backup recording.

The perfect solution is a Teradek VidiU ($699). It’s a little box that supports HDMI input and does hardware H.264 encoding that is perfectly compatible with YouTube live. Plug it in, set a few settings, and you’re up and running.

Next up: Projection

iMag on a budget – Graphics and Lower Thirds

Posted on : 03-24-2014 | By : Andy | In : tech

Tags: , , , ,


(Note: this is the sixth post of a series on how to do iMag without a megachurch budget.)

Video is nice and all, but adding on those ever-popular lower-thirds graphics adds a bit of panache that makes your video stand out as professional, and not home-hacked. It’s also incredibly helpful for visual learners, and for underlining important content that shouldn’t be missed. We use them for word definitions, key points, and the text of supplemental scripture passages.

Thankfully for us, the ATEM Television Studio includes support for 1 upstream and 2 downstream keys. Definition time: keying refers to taking a video feed and cutting out parts of it based on color, luminance (brightness), or a separate feed. An upstream key happens first, typically, (think the weather guy in front of a green screen) and a downstream key is added after all video compositing is finished (think lower-third or logo bug). They both work more or less the same.

We started with a chroma key, as it’s super simple. Using ProPresenter, we set the background of our presentation to a bright magenta. (We chose this over green simply because our content was more likely to contain greens rather than magentas). This output went directly into our TVS using one of the HDMI inputs.

When we activated the upstream key, we set the chroma key to cut out anything magenta, which let the video of our pastor show through. This was OK, mostly. However, because of some problems, we eventually shelled out the money to upgrade to the “proper” solution outlined below. Those problems?

  1. The most ‘fool-proof’ method of using this key was to leave the key turned on during the whole service. Unfortunately, that meant that if we played back any video or other graphics through our system that included colors close to that precise shade of magenta, those parts of our slides would become transparent and show our video through them. Not great.
  2. The alternative method was to only turn on the key during the preaching portion of the service. However, if the operator missed turning on that key, the moment we went to the slide intended to be keyed out, a bright-magenta screen would show up instead. Since we usually show a pre-sermon intro video, this window was rather small. We had some purple screens show up, and that wasn’t nice. Furthermore, for some reason I had a hard time training our volunteers to understand the key well enough to ensure they wouldn’t screw it up again in the future. *sigh*.
  3. ProPresenter fades all of their transitions, even the swipey ones. When a graphic faded out, the magenta behind it would essentially grow brighter and brighter as it disappeared. Unfortunately, a chroma key is only so effective, so there was always a brief flash of dark purple on our screen right before the magenta got bright enough to be recognized as the key color. Our best solution was to make the fades go really fast (or use cuts), but that was very jarring and not ideal.
  4. The solution to our purple flashes would be to use PowerPoint or Keynote to run your slides, which could animate a slide-in motion of your graphics without fading. But we like the features of ProPresenter, and we paid a lot of money for it, so we weren’t going back to the stone ages of PowerPoint.


So what did we end up doing? ProPresenter has an add-on product that costs more than the software itself. (Yes, it’s stupid. No, there’s nothing we could do about it but pony up the cash.) For $1,000 you can get an “Alpha Keyer Module” that allows you to set ProPresenter to create two simultaneous outputs: one “Fill” that contains the graphics you want to show, and one “Key” that tells the switcher what parts of the screen to show, and at what transparency level. What stinks is that it only works on a Mac. What stinks worse is that it also requires you to have an extra piece of BlackMagic hardware that retails for about $1,000. I found one used on eBay for $600.

The great news is that once it’s properly configured, ProPresenter does all the heavy lifting. You plug in your UltraStudio 3D or UltraStudio 4K with a thunderbolt cable, and connect the two outputs to two of your SDI ports on your TVS. We set one of our Downstream Keys to use those two feeds (Fill and Key), and we can leave it on all the time. No purple involved, no human switching involved. We can use nice long fades and it looks absolutely beautiful. Expensive, but super-worth it. (Note, however, that leaves us with only 2 SDI feeds for cameras. There are still 2 HDMI feeds you can use if you need them.)

Tip: For some reason, Renewed Vision recommends turning on Additive Blend in your settings for ProPresenter. Don’t do this. You can follow their instructions here, but leave the Additive Blend box unchecked. On your Downstream Key on your ATEM, make sure “Pre-multiplied Key” is checked.

Bonus tip: If you’re not using the Alpha Keyer, or if you’re having issues switching between HDMI sources, try an ConnectPRO HDMI EDID Ghost. When we were plugging our iMac directly into our switcher for graphics, there were some issues involved with the HDMI “handshake” that gets negotiated when you connect and disconnect displays, especially if we turned on the Switcher after the Mac was already on. The EDID Ghost is a little box that accepts an HDMI in from your computer and sends HDMI out to your TVS. It copies the handshake of your TVS and fakes the computer into thinking it’s always connected. You can turn your TVS on, off, disconnect it, or even use an HDMI switch or splitter to send that signal to other devices as well, and your iMac will never know the difference.

Next up: Live Streaming

iMag on a budget – Recording

Posted on : 03-24-2014 | By : Andy | In : tech

Tags: , , , ,


(Note: this is the fifth post of a series on how to do iMag without a megachurch budget.)

Our initial plan for recording was to use the H.264 encoder built into the ATEM TVS. If you connect the switcher to a PC or Mac, using the free control software allows you to record already-compressed video to your hard drive. If you want to use Livestream, you can also use their software to stream directly from that same feed. It’s pretty slick. (See more on the streaming post)

All that aside, we had one occasion where the H.264 stream failed to start recording when we were also live streaming the H.264 feed at the same time. Granted, it’s possible that I just didn’t give it enough time, because since then we’ve noticed that it will frequently take a few seconds to get rolling (we’ve temporarily suspended live streaming). For my purposes, however, I certainly didn’t feel comfortable relying on a feature that had threatened to fail on us before. It also made me leery to trust such a high-importance item to a PC that may or may not crash at any moment. Our sermon video needs to get recorded right the first time!

The other problem with relying on the H.264 feed was quality. The compressor does a pretty good job, but the fact remains that H.264 is lossy compression, which means that you’re losing quality right off the bat. I want the option to be able to go back and edit the video in post-production, and I’d rather begin that process with pristine video.

Finally, we also wanted the ability to directly distribute our sermon videos in the highest-quality format with a minimum of work.

Enter the Blackmagic Design HyperDeck Shuttle 2. ($327) This compact device records uncompressed video to Solid State Drives. It accepts either HDMI or SDI input, and also supports loop through output. In other words, you can dump your live video into this device directly from one of the three program outputs on your TVS (It has 2 SDI and 1 HDMI program outputs), and even daisy-chain 2 or more of them together. After our service, we can pop the SSD out of the shuttle and plug it into an eSata dock. Given the speed of eSata and the SSD, we can edit the footage directly on the SSD and export either back to that same SSD or elsewhere. Very handy.

A new venue that wants our video can simply purchase their own dock and attach it to their video system/projector/TV via HDMI. All we need to do is dump the completed video onto an SSD and send it their way—no need for trying to master, burn, and verify Blu-Ray discs, no need to rely on network-based streaming, which is dodgy in some rural areas.

For recording, we use a 240GB Intel 520 Solid-State Drive, which gives us enough space for two 40-45 minute sermon recordings (we record both Sunday morning services), plus a little room to spare. For distribution of finished videos, we’d just go with a 120GB drive. The most important part is sustained read and write speeds, as uncompressed video is very high bandwidth. BMD keeps a list of compatible drives to guide you.

One of the biggest pluses here for me though is redundancy. Now we record directly to a solid state drive with the HyperDeck, and simultaneously make a backup recording with the TVS’s H.264 to PC feature. If either fails, we’re still golden!

You might ask why we don’t just take the digital recording from our fancy-schmancy new cameras and work from there? Well, precisely because the feed that comes out of our TVS unit already has graphics and overlays embedded in it, while the camera’s recording does. (We don’t want to have to manually add them in post-production) Which leads us to….

Next up: Graphics and Lower Thirds

iMag on a budget – Cameras

Posted on : 03-22-2014 | By : Andy | In : tech

Tags: , , ,


(Note: this is the fourth post of a series on how to do iMag without a megachurch budget.)

As I mentioned, we started this project with older prosumer-grade cameras that did support HD, but lacked SDI connectors. The one camera just directly plugged into our switcher via HDMI, and the other camera used an Analog-to-SDI converter. We used this method both to get the necessary distance over cable, and to remedy the fact that this camera didn’t have HDMI out.

Tip: We only use two cameras primarily due to the advice of North Coast Church. They’re very, very big, with many venues and lots of experience, and they still only use one camera for their preaching feed. They found that for people watching a preacher in a church setting, it’s jarring to be switching angles, so it’s best not to. We basically have one straight-on shot for the whole sermon, with a backup camera cued up that we also use for staging of live-streaming and web video.

Tip: You want a straight-on, eye-level shot if you can get it. We try for a torso shot, which covers from about the preacher’s waist to maybe 4-6 inches above his head. Since our preachers remain within a pretty tight box, we can catch almost all gestures and good facial expressions and rarely have to move the camera.

Tip: for people viewing on the web, it’s nice to get a sense that you’re “there” during the sermon. This is typically done by inserting one or more wide-angle shots that capture the building and atmosphere of the church. We’re set to use a live backup switcher to also stream web video, so on that switcher we can start with a wide shot of the worship center and stage at the beginning of the sermon to help establish the scene (without affecting our local/recorded feed). This is obviously optional, but a nice side-effect of having a redundant system. We don’t want to establish that scene for our venues, because it would just serve to highlight the fact that they’re not at a “main” location.

With our original cameras, the system worked tolerably well. We had HD video that looked good. We had about 3 frames of delay (maybe slightly less) on our iMag video, which is tolerable when live and easily fixed when exporting our recordings.

Why, then, did we replace our cameras at a cost of $8,700, more or less doubling the cost of our project?

  1. Our main camera was failing. Audio already didn’t work. This wasn’t a big problem, (we were taking our sound from the soundboard, not the camera) but an indicator of failing hardware. More problematic was the way the camera did not hold white balance. You never knew what you were going to get color-wise on your video. The four screen shots below were from the same 40-minute sermon! We knew we were going to have to replace them eventually, and this pushed us over the edge to do it now, before it was too late.
  2. Our cameras didn’t match. No matter how hard we tried to adjust white balances, sharpness, and saturation, we could not get the two video feeds to look the same. This is a big problem when cutting between cameras. (This is ultimately why we bought two identical cameras together, for consistency)
  3. Our cameras did not have SDI output. This means we were relying on a sometimes-questionable HDMI connection and a powered video converter for our feeds. By upgrading to cameras with SDI, we were able to eliminate those two potential failure points.
  4. Our cameras did not have Genlock. In order to provide smooth fades and cuts, the TVS has a built-in frame sync devices that ensures the video in your system is synchronized. However, this feature adds some delay in the video, which is bad if you’re doing iMag. (Too much delay and you hear the preacher before his lips move, and it’s really jarring) You can avoid this by using Genlock, where a sync generator tells all your video equipment when to sync their frames. Our keying device and our switcher supported Genlock, but our cameras didn’t.
  5. Our cameras were tape-based. When recording our sermons, we would occasionally have screw-ups with our lower-thirds overlays or slides, which would force us to rely on our second (or third) service recordings. On one isolated occasion (on older firmware) our TVS froze up. This can be easily remedied if you have a direct on-camera recording to cut in during post-production, but tapes are a terrible hassle. Our new cameras allow us to record forever, eventually just looping back and overwriting old recordings. If we need a recording we can quickly pop the card out and use it (the micro P2 cards fit a standard SDHC reader), and if we don’t need it, there’s no need to go back and rewind or switch tapes.
These were all taken from the same sermon, on the same camera!

These were all taken from the same sermon, on the same camera!

Which cameras to buy? Well, I did a lot of research. I’ve heard many churches recommend Sony EX-3’s, because they have nice 1/2” sensors that perform decently in low light. Unfortunately, their successors (PMW-300K) are $8,000 each, and the lens they come with maxes out at 14x zoom, which would be barely enough for our church, and using a lens at its max zoom is usually to be avoided due to optics issues. I looked into getting creative with DSLR-style cameras, but the larger sensors on that type of camera makes it tough to keep things in focus, and we’ve got volunteers running our cameras. I finally settled on Panasonic AG-HPX250PJ cameras, which have 1/3” sensors that are very competitive with the Sony’s 1/2” sensors, and a 22x zoom that would be more than enough for our sanctuary. At $4,700 each, they weren’t cheap, especially when you add in the (ridiculous) price of the Micro P2 media and adapters they use. Compared to anything else though? An absolute steal when you consider the price of the competition. Because I also got in on a couple of Panasonic rebates totaling $1,500, the two of them (with media) ended up costing us a total of around $8,700.

Note: If you buy the MicroP2 Adapters (about $195), rumor has it that you can use them with regular high-speed (Think UHS-I) SDHC cards and record to some of the lower-bitrate formats the camera supports. You lose some of the features of the P2 cards, but can save a couple hundred bucks. I haven’t tried, because the rebates I got on the media made the micro P2 cards a better bet.

Want to research and buy your own? Here’s the criteria I looked for:

  • Sensors no smaller than 1/3” and no bigger than 2/3”. Bigger typically does better with low light situations, but I found some convincing video samples to help me decide to go with the Panny’s 1/3” sensors. Anything bigger and you might have issues keeping your subjects in focus.
  • Genlock. Cuts down on sync issues.
  • SDI-out. I didn’t want converters that could fail (or that depended on power supplies that could fail)
  • Zoom. If your sanctuary is big enough to merit iMag, you may have to get a camera with interchangeable lenses in order to get a long enough ‘reach’. (Problem is, many long-zoom lenses are really expensive.) The 22x on the Panny’s is about as long as they get when it comes to built-in lenses.
  • Remote ‘paint.’ The (one-step-up) Panasonic HPX255 supports a CCU unit that allows for remotely adjusting various video settings and controlling the camera. This would have been nice, but at the extra cost (for the camera, plus the controller) I couldn’t justify it. For multi-camera setups, it’s very helpful in matching video color balance, etc.

Next up: Recording