Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: February 2008

Media Shout Out, ProPresenter In

ProPresenter Logo

If you’ve been reading this blog for more than a week, you knew it was coming. I’ve been keeping a close eye on ProPresenter for about a year and a half, but was never in a position to implement it until now. Though I gave Media Shout 3.5 a fair chance, it’s time to show it the proverbial door. We’ve been having issues with it for a while, and this weekend was the final straw.

Challenges We Didn’t Need

This was an interesting weekend. Our Creative Director, Craig, was out of town, which meant his duties fell to me. Thankfully, we have a great team (and they could probably do the service without either of us there…) so it wasn’t to much of a burden. Still, it was a complicated service cueing-wise and I really needed everything to work.

It looked like everything was going to be fine at the start. I pre-build the Media Shout scripts, and push them to our HP computer in the video booth before the team arrives. I loaded up the script and all appeared fine. We had no clue there was a problem until run through. We had 5 videos to play this Sunday, which is a lot for us. The first 2 went fine, but when we got to the third, we had picture but no audio. Figuring it was a simple setting issue, we pressed ahead with run through. We got to video #4 and again had picture, no sound. By this time, run through was for all intents and purposes over and I began digging into the problem.

Volume up on PC? Check. Unmuted? Check. Volume and mute settings on clip? Check. I figured it was a Windows issue and re-booted. Still no sound. It’s now about 4:25 and we have doors opening in 20 minutes. We tried the first 2 videos again, and we have sound. Common denominator? The first 2 are WMVs, the other 3 are AVIs. I attach the PC’s hard drive to my MacBook Pro over the network and double check the videos for audio–they play perfectly. Now I’m ticked. Media Shout has just decided that playing AVIs with audio is no longer in it’s job description.

Saved by a MacPro

Thankfully, I have a wicked-fast MacPro tower in my office on which my videos reside. I run back and quickly send all three videos from the FinalCut timelines right to Compressor and have them encode as MPG-2. It’s now 4:45 and doors should be opening. I launch DVD Studio Pro and whip up a quick DVD. Less than 20 minutes after I discover the problem I have a DVD with all three videos on it.

Thinking I can still use Media Shout to play the videos with the new DVD playback feature, I drop the DVD in the drive (while the walk-in loop is running and people are walking in), and try to load up the cues. I insert a cue and click on the first video in the menu. The mouse freezes. The computer won’t respond to any kind of input, including the three-finger salute (it is about now that I once again remember why I really prefer working with Macs…). I’m forced to slam the computer down and restart it. I really wanted to throw it over the balcony, but I figured children could be injured.

End of the Line

By now the prelude is running, and we’re moments away from our first video cue. We get the computer back up (after the requisite 2-minute boot-up), and hit the cue. Thankfully, I have a 3-song worship set to figure out how we’re going to play the three videos which are pretty critical to the evening. I decide to use the DVD player in the booth and make the switch with our switcher instead of trying to use the computer. A cute little play arrow shows up on the screen for all three videos, but we at least get the video–and audio!–to the house. Our soundman deftly handles the audio levels, having never actually heard the tracks before.

If I had had time during the message, I would have re-built the entire show in ProPresnter on my MacBook Pro and run the 7 off of that. I had been planning on buying an iMac 20″ 2.4Ghz for the booth and running ProPresenter on that sometime in late March after I can get everyone trained. After Sunday, that plan has been moved up. For now, we’ll run off my MBP and I’ll train people on the fly. We still have issues to work out with CPC’s presentation people (they currently do everything in PowerPoint–yikes!), so the iMac installation is on hold for a few more weeks. I’ll probably order it this week anyway.

But at this point, I’ve decided I have enough stress in my life that I don’t need my presentation software going on strike at random intervals. ProPres is so easy to use, I’m pretty sure I can get everyone up to speed quickly.

Lessons Learned

Test Early, Test Often. Back when I was doing interactive development, that was a motto to live by. I’ve slipped a little bit and didn’t think to test the videos at 12:30 when I loaded the script. Of course, I had no reason to suspect they didn’t work, I tested the AVIs after I rendered them, and it played AVIs last week. Still, I should have verified it.

Have a Backup Plan. There have been days when I’m thinking about getting rid of the VHS and DVD players in the booth. I think they’ll stay for a while longer. I’m even thinking of burning a DVD each week with all the videos in order just in case from now on. It’s cheap insurance in case of a computer failure (and I’ll admit, once in a while, even my Mac software crashes–though it rarely requires a full restart).

Leave Margin for Problems. When I started at Upper Room, we were frequently just finishing the Media Shout work at 4:45, as doors were opening. By pre-building the shows, we have some margin in case things go wrong. We’ve adjusted our schedule to make sure we are done with run through by 4:30 or 4:35. Normally, this give us time to relax, catch our breath and just hang out. When things go wrong, it provides the necessary time to come up with a plan to fix it.

Use a Checklist. I’ve been working from a pre-flight checklist for the last few weeks, and it saved me yesterday. Because I knew I had all my other stuff done and ready for service, I had time to go make a DVD at the last minute. I was also able to make sure everyone else was doing what they should be doing.

In the End…

It’s Media Shout’s lack of ability to play more than 2 flavors of video that ruined it’s chances with me. That and the PowerPoint integration is a kludge at best. By this time next week, I suspect I’ll be writing about how our first service went with ProPresenter. Since I used it a few weeks ago for Meal Link with excellent results, I’m hoping I’ll be a lot more positive and we’ll have one more item crossed off our “done by May 31” list!

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Keep Your Graphics Safe!

It was our first night of Meal Groups. Meal Groups are like small groups, only we eat together, then study the Bible in homes. This season, instead of reading a book and doing a study, Meal Groups are working through a DVD series. It’s a good series, with some good teaching. I was really enjoying it until the first scripture graphic came up. The graphic itself was well designed and looked really good. What we could see anyway. Sadly, the creator of the graphic did not adhere to well-accepted standards of what makes titles safe. Instead of seeing what he (or she) saw on the computer monitor, which could have looked like this… 

Non Title Safe Graphics

What we saw looked a lot more like this:
Not safe at home

The problem is called “overscan.” Nearly every TV sold to a consumer today will have some level of overscan. That means that the image cuts off part of the picture. This is done to ensure that the screen is always filled, even if someone messes up in production and sends a non-standard picture over the air. Overscan is a bit of a pain, but it’s been around as long as TVs have been around, and we know how to deal with it?

Or do we? At one time, video production remained a mystery to most mere mortals. If you didn’t know how to line up horizontal sync using a waveform monitor or cross pulse, you could not get a clean edit. This was back in the days of tape to tape editing, which is where I started. Back then, to simply cut some video together, add some dissolves, the occasional effect and text, it took 3 decks (all in perfect sync), a switcher, a digital video effects unit (DVE), and a character generator (CG)–all in perfect sync–and an editor, usually a CMX-style text based editor.

At the beginning of each edit, we would double check our alignment, roll some bars, make calibrations and ensure things were where we left them. That could take 1/2 hour or more. Not so today! If I want to edit some video today, I wake up my MacBook Pro or MacPro, launch FinalCut Pro, hook up my DV camcorder via FireWire and capture. All my edits are done graphically, and my images can come from just about anywhere. It’s a lot simpler.

Unfortunately, with that simplicity comes ignorance. Here’s what I mean. Back in the day, if someone knew how to line up an edit suite, they also knew the rules for creating “broadcast safe” video. Broadcast Safe means that it will show up properly on just about any TV in the country. Given that the above mentioned edit suite could cost anywhere between $100,000 and $1Million, the average Joe didn’t have access to it, but people that did knew what they were doing (probably because they went to school or through an apprentice program).

Today, Joe can walk into an Apple store and in 30 minutes (and for less than the cost of a used car) come out with more video editing capability than we could have dreamed of with our our A-B roll suite. Except Joe hasn’t been to broadcast school. Joe doesn’t even know what “title safe” means. And he’s positively stymied when his graphics are cut off when he watched his masterpiece at home.

Thankfully, ignorance can be cured. To help take the mystery out of Title Safe and Action safe, I’ve created a tutorial, which you can view here: Creating Title Safe Graphics. Later, I’ll work one up that deals with legal color and luminance levels.

Now if only we could fix the 85 sets of DVDs that we have out for our Meal Groups…

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Blu-ray Wins!

Well it’s official, the format war is over. This is genuinely good news. We can now finally get on with the business of changing over to a high definition format. Now that the industry has sorted out the format, manufacturers will jump on the platform and start getting good, affordable players out there. We should see some additional recorders as well. The studios finally know which way to got, and marketing and distribution should be more effective as well.

All of this is good news for consumers, and by extension churches. For churches considering upgrading to an HD format (and for those that already have), the big question was, “What do we do with it?” Now we know. Burn a Blu-ray!

Many have compared this to the VHS-Betamax war of old. I think this is a fair comparison, except this time, the better format won. I’m personally glad for this development as I have been giving serious thought to replacing my old Sony DVD player at home. I was going to pick up a regular SD player, but now I think I’ll wait a few months until more Blu-rays hit the market and come down in price.

We’re not planning on doing anything in HD for a while here, though our new projectors could handle it. I’m going to push for a new camera this coming budget year, and it will likely be HD. I’m thinking we’ll shoot in HDV, capture to Pro-Res and down-convert for presentation. Then again, we may just project HD. We’ll have to see how ProPresenter handles it once we make the conversion.

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A Year from Sunday

Now that Valentine’s Day is over, it’s time to take a look at something else we all love (or love to hate): Wireless audio devices. I would wager that most readers of this here blog have at least one, and probably more than 6 channels of wireless audio (mics and/or IEMs) in their churches. Some of you may already know what I’m about to share. Others may be in the dark. Either way, you have 367 days to get clued in and come up with a plan. Thanks to Jason Cole for inspiring this post.

It happens February 17, 2009

What’s that? The day that analog TV shall cease, digital (not necessarily HD–but that’s another post) TV will take over and all wireless audio devices above 698Mhz will henceforth be illegal to use. Now you might not care about the first two items, but you should care about the third. Take an inventory of your wireless audio and see how many of your systems operate above 698Mhz. I counted ours up today: We currently have 8 channels of Shure UHF (the original UHF), and 6 channels of PSM700, all in the 700+Mhz range. A quick check on Northernsound.net tells me we need to shell out almost $20,000 to replace these soon to be rogue devices. What’s that old line, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help?”

I did some quick checking and at press time (I’ve always wanted to write that), the bidding for the 700Mhz spectrum is up to $4.6 Billion. Most are speculating that it will fetch at least $10 Billion, with some suggesting it could easily go as high $30 Billion. That seems like a lot of money to me. Then again, $20,000 seems like a lot of money, too. Maybe this is part of the “economic stimulus package?”

Today I contacted Shure to see if they would offer any kind of re-frequency-ing of their products. To my surprise they said no. According to them, it costs more to replace the PCB boards than it does to buy new gear. Now, given that a new UHF-R set will be over $2,500, those are some darned expensive PCB boards. I haven’t checked with AT yet. I don’t really blame them–if I were a manufacturer, I would rather have my production lines running cranking out new gear to sell than changing chips on old stuff.

So I was thinking today about writing to my esteemed representative and asking for a small piece of that $30B windfall to replace our old wireless stuff. Only seems fair; some of that money is already earmarked for “easing the transition to digital TV.”

The other thing that is troubling is how much electronic refuse will end up landfills next spring. You might not realize it, but electronics are pretty hazardous stuff–containing mercury, lead, and all kinds of other nasty chemicals. It’s bad enough we throw away tons of cell phones every and computers every year, but this is a government mandated disposal of tens of thousands of electronic components. What’s the true cost of that?

For some churches, this will be a good excuse to replace some aging wireless gear with new, getting better sound and performance as part of the bargain. For churches like ours, instead of putting money toward new speakers (which we desperately need), we’ll be replacing equipment that still works fine.

Now I’m sure there will be all kinds of great new technology and revenue streams that will come from the privatization of the 700Mhz spectrum. However, it seems a lot like building a football stadium with tax dollars. The big corporations (who contribute generously to re-election campaigns) collect the checks while the little guy takes it in the shorts. So join with me and write your reps and senators and ask for a piece of the pie. If the bidding goes up to $30 Billion, there should be plenty to go around. I’ll settle for $10,000…no, make that $15,000.

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It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

Boxes have been arriving at my office this week. Late last week we finished our priorities list and established the budget for the rest of the year and I started ordering. So now, my office looks like Christmas morning, with all sorts of new and wonderful toys. As I get each item set up and tested out, I’ll work at putting up some mini-reviews of them. The ones I really like will get more in-depth reviews. Here’s a sampling of what has arrived.

  • Alesis M1 620 Active Speakers
  • Lexicon Alpha USB Audio Interface
  • Ansman Professional 9v Battery Charger
  • Production Intercom 700 Headsets
  • ProPresenter 3

I also picked up the necessary parts to build a 25′ 12-channel snake to run from one side of the stage to the other. Every week we end up stretching 8-10 cables from our main snake to most of the band. When I make up the snake, I’ll also make up some short XLR cables to keep clutter down. Should make setup and teardown go a little faster.

Also on their way are various racks, mounts and hardware to clean up our installations. Once I get a USB to Serial interface, I’ll also be playing with Shure’s Wireless Workshop to run a full-on frequency coordination. I ordered a antenna combiner for 4 of our PSM-700’s, along with 2 wideband antennas. Turns out we have a bunch of dead spots on stage with the IEMs, probably due to the fact that we’re just using 1/4 wave antennas right on the transmitter (that are mounted in a metal rack backstage). I hope to vastly improve our coverage by going with a nice cardioid pattern antenna for each combiner.

In a few weeks, I’ll be ordering an Aviom 16-0 output module to make up a digital snake. We’ll use the Aviom MY card in the M7 to send 17 channels of IEM mixes backstage to a new IEM rack I’m making up. The idea is that we’ll rack up all of our PSM-700s, the antenna combiners, 16-0, power conditioner and a patchbay. Then when we need to set up a system somewhere else in the church (or elsewhere), we’ll just pull the power and cat-5 cable and go. Eventually, I’ll rack up 8 channels of wireless with the same idea. This should save us a few thousand dollars in rental costs each year.

Finally, I’ll be ordering a 20″ iMac 2.4 Ghz to replace the PC in our presentation station. After using ProPresenter live at our Meal Link event on Monday, I’m convinced it’s the way to go. I trained our volunteer in about 10 minutes and she said at the end of the event, “Wow, that’s so much better!” When a product makes my volunteers happy, I’m sold.

Our new Eiki LC-X80 projectors are installed and once we get cat-5 pulled to them so I can do a full calibration, I’ll write up a full review. For now, let me tell you I’m impressed. I’ve had at least a dozen comments in the last few weeks about how bright, colorful and crisp these projectors are. I’m a little disappointed in the Navitar lenses that Eiki supplied (Navitar hails from my native Rochester, NY–East Rochester to be exact–and I did one of my first ever projects for them), but the average viewer isn’t likely to notice anything amiss.That’s a quick update for now. As the new gear comes on line, I’ll give you my unbiased thoughts. Peace.

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The Best Part About My Job

There are a lot of things I like about being a Technical Arts Director. I get to play with and dream about cool toys all day. My office is filled with Macs and fun technology. I create videos and graphics and see tangible results all the time. I work with some great people who are passionate about what they do. I’ve got enthusiastic volunteers to work with who enjoy serving God.But the best part of my job is being part of community that is constantly changed by God and changing the world for God. Every week, I play a small roll in creating an environment that is conducive to the worship of and service to God. As people enter in and take part, they are changed. As they leave each night, they change the world. Take this for example: 

Heal Africa Offering

A few weeks ago, we challenged the community to look around their house and see what items they had of value, that they used often and would be willing to sacrifice for the good of others. On this night, they brought that stuff in, and placed it on stage. In order to give a visual representation of how much was offered, we had them take a plastic syringe (no needle) and place it in a thermometer type holder. Each syringe was worth $10. Five syringes represented 1 life saved through the use of a drug that when given to babies born to an HIV positive mother within an hour of birth reduces their chance of contracting HIV by 80%. By the end of the night, both services had filled the stage with stuff to be sold on eBay. We told people if they didn’t bring anything, they could donate cash as well. The cash was tallied up and it amounted to nearly $10,000. Items are still being sold on eBay, but we could see that amount again. This equals somewhere in the neighborhood of 350-400 babies who, in all likelihood, will not develop AIDs as they grow up. It doesn’t eliminate the AIDs problem in Africa, but it makes an enormous difference in the lives of those 400 kids.One of the books I’m reading (still, I know…), The Dangerous Act of Worship, talks about how worship should lead us to a response, and that response should move us to feel compelled to challenge the injustice of the world. That’s something our community does well. We often sing a song, the refrain of which goes, “Let what we do in here fill the streets out there…” It really does happen; it’s amazing to watch, and incredible to be a part of.Which brings me full circle. Certainly, I don’t take credit for any of what God is doing in our midst. Still, it’s an honor to be used each week, in some small way, to help create an atmosphere where He can touch the lives and hearts of those who darken our doors. What more can we ask for?

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Media Shout 3.5

I told you some time ago this was coming. I feel like I’ve lived with the new version long enough to write a reasonably well thought out review. Since it’s pretty long, I put it on the main Church Tech Arts website. Here’s the teaser, follow the link for the whole article.

Ahh, Media Shout. I’ll confess right up front that I’ve not been a huge fan of the software. I’ve used it for about 2 years now, and gotten pretty good at it, but haven’t been crazy about it. It is pretty popular, however, and while we’re taking a close look at ProPresenter in the near future, I felt it would be a good idea to run down what’s new in v. 3.5. A ton has already been written on the program, so I won’t delve into a complete description of what it is or how it does it. Instead, I will talk mostly about the key differences between 2.5 and 3.5, what I like and what I don’t. My reasoning is that the initial launch of v. 3.0 a few years ago was a big disaster (videos wouldn’t play, there was a huge lag between advancing a cue and a change on screen, etc.), and there are probably a bunch of users out there still using 2.5 because it works reasonably well and they are leery of an upgrade. This I will say upfront: If you’re still using 2.5, you should upgrade (double check the system requirements first to make sure your machine can handle it, however). If you’re new to the presentation software game, read on.

Read the whole review…

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The Write Stuff

This is a quick one. I don’t remember where I heard about this software, so I can’t properly credit the source. But I recently came across a really great bit of code called WriteRoom from Hog Bay Software. It’s designed to do one thing and do it really well. You write. That’s it. No fancy tables, formatting, indexing, footnotes, blah, blah, blah. You write. I’m using it right now, in fact. My favorite feature is the full screen mode, which blacks out your entire screen and displays your text in the font and color of your choice (default is Monaco green, I like Helvetica green). It’s like an old terminal word processor. Even the “cursor” is a flashing translucent box. The publisher bills it as “distraction-free writing.” It’d say they’re spot on.

I have learned to really appreciate the distraction-free writing style. Because I’m slightly ADD, when I sit down to write, I find myself checking my e-mail, looking up web pages, tweaking my to-do list, etc.. Spaces helps a bit (one of my favorite features of Leopard), but the desktop beckons. In WriteRoom, I am alone with my words. I rather like it. It’s a deal, too at $25. It even spell checks on the fly, and auto-saves every 5 minutes (user definable).

It won’t auto-number pages, draw funny shapes, include clip art (thankfully), track changes, or color your text every color of the rainbow. But it will help you write. And that’s all-write with me (sorry, I couldn’t resist!).

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New Projector Preview

Loyal readers of this blog will know that one of my goals for 2008 is to replace our sanctuary projectors. A two weekends ago, this became a top priority. During the 5 PM gathering, the projector at house left decided to turn off. Attempts at remotely re-starting it failed. So as our speaker introduced the video we were about to roll, I trudged back to the projector cove to restart the offending unit. Though it powered up, it promptly shut down again. I tried it again, this time covering the lens, so it wouldn’t distract as much. This time it stayed on for a few minutes. It was just teasing me, however as the moment I unblocked the lens, it shut down again. A final re-start kept it going throughout the rest of the night. All for reasons unknown. During the next week, I placed 4 calls to Barco to try to get help with this problem; not a single one was returned. Doesn’t say much for their tech support team…

Ultimately, the entire affair turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Not wanting to throw good money after bad (or in this case old), I started campaigning to the leadership of the church that we should move on new projectors. We had it in the plans anyway, so why spend anything fixing the old ones, that when at their best are 1/2 as bright as we need them to be, when we could just get new ones. I had been researching projectors already, and had my eye on one that looked really good on paper; the Eiki LC-X80. Having not seen the projector, I didn’t want to just order them up. And again, we were blessed.

A local company has them in their rental inventory, and had them available last weekend. I arranged for a rental for our weekend services. They arrived Thursday night, and I was anxious to set them up Friday morning. Now, I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, and there are many things I wish I could do over. But once in a while I do something that works out really well. This was one of those times. My first step was to pull down the projector with the happy on/off circuit, and place the first rental Eiki. I powered it up, made a few image adjustments then fed it some signal. Just for fun, I powered up the remaining Barco. The difference was night and day. In a fully lit sanctuary, with all the windows open, the Barco was barely visible. In fact, if you got off axis, you could hardly tell it was on. The Eiki however, looked like a giant TV. And this was when I had the stroke of brilliance. I started rounding up some of the church leaders, many of whom would be influential in freeing up the funds to purchase the projectors and invited them to take a look. The results were just as I had hoped.

Now, when it comes to gear, I’m a bit jaded. I’ve spent most of my career working around really high level equipment and have just come to expect that level of performance and quality. I’m such a gear snob that I consider our Canon GL-2 a consumer-level toy (I know I’ll get e-mail on that one…). I’ve done shows with some really incredible projectors, and expected we would have to pay a small fortune to get a decent projector in there (small fortune defined as $50,000+). I have to say, my expectations were greatly exceeded with these projectors.

As I said, the look great on paper: 6500 lumens; 2000:1 contrast ratio; 90%+ uniformity; UXGA capability including 1080p and 24p support; DVI, VGA and 5 BNC inputs; a new single bulb design and a really cool self-advancing filter. I’ll come back to many of these features in an upcoming full review once the new ones are installed. For now, I want to focus on the main thing—picture quality.

Put simply, they look great. We’re in a series that requires a lot of use of videos each week. Until last weekend, the videos looked really lousy. They lacked punch, clarity and any level of brightness, even in a totally blacked out room. Last weekend, we ran part of an older black and white film. It looked stunning. Our lyrics for worship looked amazing. In fact, that was one of the biggest differences from the Barco. Whites always looked grey, so they never really popped off the backgrounds. With the Eikis the whites are pure, clean white and jump off the rich hues of the background images. As I stood over our presentation tech last weekend, I had in my lower view the 17″ lcd “program” monitor and just above that, 70′ away, was the 9×12 screen. The Eiki looked better than the lcd monitor right in front of me.

At this point, I had not done any calibration or anything else to adjust the picture. I sized it and squared it up, focused it and flipped it for reverse. Yet the colors were deep and accurate. Saturation was excellent, without being overblown. Whites were white and blacks were black. In fact, that’s another noticeable improvement, no doubt a function of the high contrast ratio. When we went to a black screen, it was black. So black in fact, that our lighting director commented that he thought we switched them off.

If it sounds like I’m enthused about these projectors, you’re right. What is exciting and amazing to me is that they don’t cost any where near the $40,000-50,000 I expected we’d have to spend. Remarkably, the pair with lenses, spare bulbs and filter pacs come in at a bit over $16,000 (just $2,000 more than we paid for each of the Barcos 9 years ago—thank you Moore’s law!).

Once we get them installed, I will be running them through their paces and will post a complete review. While we wait for the processing it takes to fund the purchase, we are renting again this week. Seems no one wanted to back to the dark ages. Especially me!

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