Media Shout Out, ProPresenter In

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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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