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CTA Review: Livestream HD500 Studio

Streaming video continues to be a hot topic amongst churches, and it’s a topic I get asked about frequently. More and more manufacturers are building turnkey solutions designed to make it easy and we’re back to look at another one. This time, from what is likely the most popular streaming destination for churches, Livestream. 

Livestream recently released a series of products called Livestream Studio. As of this writing, there are four hardware solutions along with the standalone software. We received the mid-range and highly portable HD500 model for testing, though the software is consistent across the line. 

Self-Contained and Portable

The first thing you notice about the HD500 is that it looks like a small desktop PC with a handle on top. It ships with a magical carrying bag from Tom Bihn (seriously, this bag is nice!) What sets the unit apart is that it also has a 17” 1900x1200 LCD screen built into one side, protected by a removable metal cover. Weighing just 15 pounds, it’s easy to carry around, and would certainly qualify as carry-on luggage. 

Inside the box is a six core Intel Core I7 running at 3.2 GHz. An Nvidia GForce GT520 graphics card drives the built-in display, along with an external one that can be set up as a multi-viewer. There is a 2.5” 500 GB hard drive inside, and with 7 USB 2.0 and 2 USB 3.0 ports, you have plenty of ways to add more storage. 

Each of the Livestream Studio systems are built around Blackmagic cards; in this case a Decklink Quad and a Decklink Studio. The Quad gives you 4 HD/SD SDI inputs, and the Studio can be configured for input or output for a local live mix. In output mode, one can mix four cameras (along with internal graphics) to both a stream and local video output. 

The cards support embedded audio on the SDI inputs. The Decklink Studio card will accept analog and AES inputs, or you can use a USB audio interface. The built-in audio mixer in the software allows you to mix sources or have audio follow video. 

Everything you need fits neatly into the carry bag, making this an ideal solution for portable churches even if they don’t want to stream. The latest software update to the Studio software now allows for recording of up to four video streams at once. You can select from iso camera feeds, and a pre-graphics “clean” or post-graphics “dirty” feed. 

Full-Featured Software

Rather than relying on third-party software control, Livestream built their own. It has a clean, modern interface, and is easy to learn. Whenever I test systems like this, I always try to see how far I can get without looking at a manual. With this system, I had multiple inputs configured, was able to switch both a live feed and get a stream running in about 20 minutes. 

For the demo, they also included the Livestream Studio Keyboard. It's an Apple Extended keyboard, with custom key silk screened icons for every function. In no time at all, I was switching between our four cameras, adding lower thirds, and sending video to my Livestream account. 

I’m not exactly sure why, but the latency from the HD500 to what I saw on my laptop via my Livestream page was a matter of seconds. Most streaming appliances I’ve tested add a good 20-30 seconds of latency; this was more like 2-3. Setting up my account was as simple as entering my username and password, then hitting “Stream.” 

Built-In Multi-Viewer

The built-in screen will display the four camera sources plus preview and program. The source windows are too small for accurate judgments of focus and exposure. But, the system provides both VGA or HDMI port, which allow for a configurable multi-viewer of any size. There are quite a few screen layouts to choose from, and with a simple drag-and-drop interface, you decide what goes in which box. You can even add a clock, a stream window (to verify it’s online) as well as a viewer count. 

Much to my delight, when I plugged the second display in, it was immediately recognized by the system and the multi-view window appeared. I had fully expected to at least re-start the software, if not the OS. In fact, this rather summarizes my experience with this box; everything works pretty much as you’d expect without a lot of fiddling on your part. You can pretty much plug in and go. 

Graphic Options

Livestream Studio features a two-channel graphic engine with some pretty cool features. It’s easy to build lower thirds and full screen graphics in the editor. Where it gets interesting is the dynamic features. The graphic window offers a design mode, where as you might expect, you layout your graphics, text, logos and other features. Once complete, you enter data mode, which allows you to change the content of the text boxes on the fly with minimal trouble. For example, you could build a lower third graphic with dynamic text. Then, create several possible lines of text for different pastors or speakers. Simply clicking the line makes it active. In just a few minutes, you have a full set of graphics for your staff. And there is only one layout to update with new graphics for each new series.

Moreover, the graphics can contain video windows. Thus, you can build complex multi-input picture-in-picture effects that go to air with a single click. What I like about the software is that once everything is set up, it’s easy to operate, and completely visual. While it’s not hard to set up, it would take no time at all to train a volunteer to handle fairly complex graphic overlays. 

Other Cool Features

A new feature called Remote Camera allows you to turn a computer desktop (via network) into an input. Studio will accept network camera feeds from a variety of sources. This includes Google Glass, Android and iOS devices, and Windows PCs.  This could be handy for including sermon notes on the stream or IMAG screens. Even better, imagine the interactivity you could create for special events. You can also pull in content from your Livestream account as another input source. I didn’t get a chance to test this feature, but it may make it possible to stream from one location to another easily. Quality would be my main concern—but, the quality of the stream I sent from the HD500 was quite good.

Each of the four inputs has a scaler available to it, making it easy to mix and match input formats. For my tests, I pulled in a SD SDI feed, a 1080i output from my switcher and another 1080i camera. It converted each source to 1080i as needed without issue, sync'ing everything up in the process. For IMAG systems, everything should be running genlock, and the system allows that. 

Tally is not supported directly, but a recent software update makes Studio compatible with the tally system made by metaSETZ. Tally is often forgotten with these systems, and I’m glad to see it’s available. 

While this unit is obviously made to stream to Livestream, it’s also possible to send video to UStream, or YouTube Live. You can also use any RTMP compatible server or CDN, such as Wowza Media Server, Akamai, Flash Media Server. 

Conclusion

With an MSRP of $8500, the HD500 isn’t inexpensive (though you can find it for considerably less). But, when you consider that you can walk into a venue with a bag on your shoulder and in under 5 minutes be ready to stream, switch and iso record a service, it’s a compelling option. It’s easy to use (I never once consulted a manual or help file to figure anything out), and as far as I could tell, stable. We had no problems streaming a weekend, and the video quality was quite good with minimal latency.

The inclusion of the built-in monitor makes it especially appealing for portable churches. Not having to trudge a monitor in and out each week would be a huge benefit of this system. The system comes with a year of  phone support a one year warranty and software updates are free.

Roland

Today's post is brought to you by CCI Solutions. With a reputation for excellence, technical expertise and competitive pricing, CCI Solutions has served churches across the US in their media, equipment, design and installation needs for over 35 years.

CHCC Renovation: Main PA and Lobby

Because of the cool rigging bar, we only needed two pick points to fly the array and get the angle we needed. Gotta love good hardware.

Because of the cool rigging bar, we only needed two pick points to fly the array and get the angle we needed. Gotta love good hardware.

By now it should not be news to anyone that we put in a Bose RoomMatch PA in Coast Hills. I have taken no small amount of flack for that decision, but I stand by it, especially now that we really have it dialed in. As I’ve said before, there are other PA’s that we could have used, but none fit the budget and provided the directivity control RoomMatch does. And in that room, we really need control.

Asymmetric and Symmetric Boxes

As far as I know, we are one of the first installations to use both types of boxes in the arrays. Now, I should point out that RoomMatch may look like a line array, but it’s not. It’s billed as a Progressive Directivity Array. That means each box covers a specific part of the seating area. There is some combining at lower frequencies, but for the most part, the boxes don’t interoperate much. 

Because of that, we were able to mix and match boxes for a very specific design. I wanted to provide some sense of stereo imaging across a wide chunk of seating in the middle, and keep as much sound off the walls as possible. To meet those goals, we used boxes that were narrow on the outside and wider in the middle at the top of the array. The arrays are mirror imaged and the coverage is indeed pretty tight.

I do love a good rack. Amp rack, that is...Get your mind out of the gutter.

I do love a good rack. Amp rack, that is...Get your mind out of the gutter.

Keep The Colors Straight

Apparently, when I wired up the arrays, it was dark and I was tired. I inadvertently wired a few NL4s wrong and we had some phase issues initially. But once we got that sorted out and began the tuning process, it was all fun. 

A couple of guys from Bose came down and started taking measurements throughout the coverage area. They averaged those together and we came up with a room curve. Interestingly, the curve they came up with was shockingly similar to the one I put in using a LAMA transfer function with the measurement mic at FOH. 

We ended up with about 4 filters in the system, and two of them are there to tame room anomalies. Otherwise, the system sounds really good out of the box. We did a little gain shading in the amps to dial out some summing that was happening with the LF elements in the arrays, and to compensate for the air loss at the HF end. But otherwise, the system is pretty flat. 

Stereo Imaging for Days

I really wanted to have an LR system, but didn’t expect to get great stereo imaging. I was surprised to be wrong on this point. Throughout almost the entire center four sections and much of the back outside sections, there is an excellent sense of stereo. We played a bunch of tracks through the system and each time we kept looking at each other saying, “Wow, the stereo field is amazing!” It’s some of the best I’ve heard in a live PA. 

But vocals image right in the center where they should and speaking sounds fantastically present. So I’m very pleased with that. Time will tell if they really utilize the stereo image as well is can be, but it’s nice to have it available. 

This is a terrible photo of the subs. but you get the idea.

This is a terrible photo of the subs. but you get the idea.

Big Bottom

The system also has four dual-18” subs in a cardioid pattern flown over the center of the proscenium. They are in a 2x2 arrangement and once we got the timing right, it’s pretty remarkable how little low end there is on stage. But throughout the whole seating area, there is plenty. We ended up dialing those back a little bit because Coast Hills has never been thumping the bass. There’s headroom there, however, should the new style of worship desire more bass. 

Because the main boxes go down so low, the subs are really only working at the very low end, just like they are supposed to. Off hand, I don’t recall where they are working, but I believe it’s from about 30-90 Hz. 

Good Lobby Sound

For the last 5 years I’ve been frustrated by the sound in our lobby. It was terrible, really. We had a bunch of ceiling speakers mounted in the walls. Under the best of conditions these won’t sound good, and these were not good conditions. 

I spent a little more money in the lobby than I ordinarily would have, but I’m glad I did. We hung four RMU208 Utility Speakers from Bose up in the corner where the wall meets the ceiling. The RMU208 is a dual 8” plus a horn configuration, and it’s driven by a PowerMatch 8250. The 8250 puts out 250 watts into 8 channels, so each speaker is powered individually. I went with 8 channels because someday, they want to blow the front of the building out and put speakers out front. So they have 4 channels to expand into. 

I didn’t have time to do any tuning of the lobby speakers, but I thought they sounded acceptable out of the box. At some point, I want to go in and play with the Smaart rig and tweak them a little bit, but for starters, it works. My choice of Bose speakers for the lobby was based on the idea that I wanted them voice matched to the mains. As you walk in from outside into the lobby, then into the sanctuary, it just keeps getting louder, but it sounds the same. I think we hit that goal. 

Overall, I’m very pleased with the system. It has enough headroom to get really loud if they want, but it sounds clear at lower volumes. It’s very present without being harsh and has a nice, warm low end that doesn’t mask the midrange. And the lobby sounds good. That’s a win in my book.

Roland

CHCC Renovation: The Lobby Video

It's gratifying to know that the video was done before the floor was!

It's gratifying to know that the video was done before the floor was!

For the last 10-15 years, the Coast Hills lobby has been the home of some really high-tech video. A pair of 27” CRT displays flanked the doors to the sanctuary. They were fed by—wait for it—RF modulated video, originally from the Panasonic MX-50, which was all composite. Yeah, it looked awesome. 

A few years ago, we upgraded to a Ross Crossover Solo, but I didn’t update the video because it kept getting cut from the budget. Thankfully, we had a flood. One of the CRTs was destroyed (Yes!) and the other mysteriously stopped working. Hmmm…

So it was time to update when we re-did the lobby. Somewhat on a lark, I did a Sketchup design of the new lobby to help leadership visualize what was being discussed. In that design, I stuck four 55” flat screens on the side walls, and four 42” flat screens in front of the doors for digital signage. We ultimately trimmed down to two screens on the right of the lobby, but that was it. 

TV Locations Left Side.jpg

Routing Needed

The previous CRTs were fed the same signal from a DA. I wanted to be able to address each screen individually. That meant a matrix switcher. I spent a fair amount of time going back and forth between which one to buy and ultimately decided on a Blackmagic Compact VideoHub, a 40x40 SDI matrix. When I installed it and fired up the software, I immediately regretted it. The software is very flaky and after 3 hours, I never did get VideoHub Control to work. Thankfully, the other VideoHub software works, though only through USB. While it will work, I will not likely use any more of their products. The bitter taste of poor implementation lingers long after the sweetness of the low price is gone. Next time, Ross or For-A.

Anyway, each TV in the lobby—and the building for that matter—is its own destination on the router. That means we can route program, ProPresenter, or any of our four digital signage channels, or any other source to any TV. The wiring is more complex, but the flexibility it provides is pretty great. 

Digital Signage Choices

I looked around at plenty of options for digital signage. We could have used ProPresenter with a couple of Dual Head2Gos; or AppleTVs or even four Mac Minis with Keynote. But I settled on DigitalSignage.com. They provide signage for many restaurants, hotels and other retail venues. It’s not the most elegant user interface, but it is very powerful. There are robust scheduling rules that make it possible to come up with really custom signage for each event during the week. The service is free, and they sell custom-built players. We went with the MediaBox 200, which is basically an Intel NUC with a Core i3 processor and dual HDMI outputs. 

Two of them give us access to four channels of digital signage. It’s all accessible from the web, so it’s easy to manage. The only trouble we had was with our firewall. We had to assign static IPs to each MediaBox and open up those ports so they could communicate with the cloud server unencumbered. 

Again, time will tell if that was a good choice or not, but I can report that their tech support is pretty good and the system does work as advertised once it’s configured correctly. 

Monitor Options

While you can go to Costco or Amazon and buy a cheap display for your lobby, we chose to buy LG commercial grade displays for our install. The cost is about 30%-40% more, but the power supplies are more robust, and the displays are warranted for use in commercial installations. If the display was only going to be used occasionally, or was for a weekend only use, I would likely go consumer grade. But these will be on 10-12 hours a day, 7 days a week, so they need to be robust. They can also be controlled via RS-232 if you like.

As the router is SDI, and the displays take HDMI, we had to convert. I used the Monoprice HD-SDI to HDMI converters for this job. At under $100 each, they are the most budget-friendly options around, and they seem to work just great. I’ve had one around for testing for over a year, and we’ve had no issues with it. My guess is we’ll have the occasional power supply go bad on them, but we’d have to replace all of the 3-4 times before it would have made sense to go with a more expensive option. I don’t think that will happen in the next 5-7 years. But I could be wrong…

So, that’s the lobby. Next time, we’ll talk about the PA and the lobby speakers.

“Gear

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Gear Snobs

Audio guys can be snobs when it comes to gear. But the reality is, we can’t always have our favorites. Sometimes, it’s a simple budget issue. For Coast Hills, we didn’t have the budget for Meyer, d&b or L’Acoustics. If I had held out for those brands because they have more cachet, we would not have a new PA at all. The money is just not there. But the church can afford RoomMatch. And having heard it, and after some considerable evaluation, I’m convinced we haven’t sacrificed that much. 

Is RoomMatch as good as a L’Acoustics Kara rig? Maybe not. Will the average person notice a big difference between those two? Probably not. Will the average person notice the upgrade from what we had to RoomMatch? Absolutely. I’ll take that outcome over no change at all.

Be Open

Lighting guys can be snobs, too. Some will say, “If it’s not Varilite, it’s not in my rig.” Or Martin. Or High End. Whatever. In the past, we’ve rented about 6 VL2500s for Easter. Those are great fixtures, to be sure. But this year, we rented 18 Elation Platinum Spot 5R Pros. Are they as good of a fixture as the VL2500? Not really. The panning isn’t as smooth, the color mixing isn’t as nice and we had one go flaky on us. However, we made a bigger visual impact with 18 of them than we ever did with the 6 VLs for the same money.

And you know what? If I were buying moving head fixtures for Coast Hills, I would probably go with Elation. No, they’re not as rugged as a Varilite. But, we can afford more of them, and they would be fine for what we’d need them for. 

Use What Fits

When I say “fits” I mean both budget and application. If you’re at a big church with big budgets and can afford the best gear, go for it. But if you’re at a smaller church with small budgets, don’t feel bad about going with brands with lower cool factor. Sometimes, the smaller companies innovate really well and come up with great solutions at great price points. Don’t discount them because they are not what the big church or big tour is using. 

I’ve talked with guys who are at smaller churches with all volunteer tech teams who are convinced they need a Digico at FOH and a Grand MA at lighting. Those are great pieces of kit, but they do have a steep learning curve, as well as big price tags. In a smaller setting with lower production demands, there are better options. Never feel bad about choosing the best option for your church; even if it’s not what all the cool kids are using. 

Get Good Advice

In my new role, I find myself helping churches decide what to buy. While I have my preferences on what I like, I have to set those aside and make sure I’m recommending what is best for them. I recently steered a church toward a Yamaha QL away from a Digico SD9. Personally, I would prefer the SD9 any day. But in this setting the QL makes much more sense. Not only is it considerably less money—and they were already at the top of their budget—it’s much more friendly to non-professional operators with zero digital console experience (and 20 years of analog experience). 

When purchasing equipment, make sure whoever is recommending what they are recommending knows your situation and how it will be used. Make sure they aren’t just giving you their stock solution. It would be a lot easier for me to have a “small church package” of gear that I can price and sell. But it would not likely be the best fit for everyone. So we stay custom for each church. 

I’ve always been a contrarian, so this concept is not foreign to me. But I write this to encourage those of you who are nervous about not doing what everyone else is doing. They used to say, “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.” That may have been true, but a lot of companies missed out on better options because someone took the safe route. 

Don’t be a gear snob. Get what works for your church. Everyone will be better off for it.

Today's post is brought to you by CCI Solutions. With a reputation for excellence, technical expertise and competitive pricing, CCI Solutions has served churches across the US in their media, equipment, design and installation needs for over 35 years.