Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Month: October 2012 (Page 2 of 2)

CTA Review: Scopebox

I’ve said it before, I’m a bit of a video snob. I learned how to edit on 3/4” U-Matic machines with an A/B Roll controller. Later, I moved up to M-II and a CMX style editor (some of you young guys don’t even know what any of that means…). My video education taught me to keep things within broadcast standards, because that’s where the good video ended up. A big part of an editor’s job back then was monitoring levels using a waveform monitor and vector scope. Those tools ensured that colors where what they were supposed to be, and black and white levels were within spec. Of course, we also had to line up various decks, and do a whole lot of other things.

Today of course, you dump some files from a card to a hard drive, drop them on the timeline and cut the story. No one cares much about levels, color or any of those pesky details (which is clearly evident every time I watch many of the second-tier cable networks). In churches, it’s really easy to put up a few cameras and a switcher and send the signal to a couple of projectors and call it video IMAG. 

Call me old-school, but I like to know what I’m looking at; and have an empirical reference to know that my whites are actually not overblown, faces are where they should be in level and my blacks aren’t crushed. Most churches don’t spend the $1,500-6,000 on a professional broadcast monitor that can be calibrated (or know how to properly calibrate the one they have), so it’s easy to end up with bad video on the screen. 

All of that to say, I’m still a firm believer in having a set of scopes available to monitor the video image before it hits the screen. Back in the day (and it’s still true today), a hardware waveform monitor/vectorscope would cost you at least $4,000, probably more. Today, with processing power to spare, several companies have virtualized the scopes. One such firm is Divergent Media with their product called ScopeBox. 


ScopeBox is a software video monitoring solution that performs all the functions of a WFM/Vectorscope, but does it in software. Paired with a video input card (we’re using a Blackmagic Decklink SDI), ScopeBox lets you keep an eye on your video signal. In addition to the waveform monitor (which tells you about the luminance, or brightness, values) and vectorscope (color), you also get RGB Parade, YUV Parade, both Luma and RGB histograms, a channel plot, HML balance and stereo and surround audio meters. 

Each instrument is quite customizable, and presents you with most of the options you’d have on a hardware scope, as well as some new ones. I particularly like the color mode of the waveform as it represents the luma values in color, corresponding to the color they actually are. It’s a great way to teach people what they are looking at. 

You can also include a calibrated preview of your video signal on the computer monitor (well, it’s mostly calibrated—it won’t adjust hue). You can save the palate and window locations, which is very handy for us. We have 3 monitors attached to our MacPro at video; one is used for Safari to control the projectors; one is for Media Express, which pulls program video in through an Intensity Pro card; with the third being dedicated to ScopeBox which gets the preview bus of the CrossOver via the aforementioned Decklink card. Once we launch the app, I recall our set up and the windows magically move into position—this is not a revolutionary feature, but it’s very handy.

I don’t have a hardware scope to compare to, so I can’t promise you everything you monitor with ScopeBox would be 100% accurate, but so far, it has proved more than adequate for getting properly exposed video up to our IMAG screens. The best part about the app is that it’s all of $99. We already had the Mac, and it took another $275 or so to get the Decklink installed. So for under $400, I have a very capable software scope solution that works quite well. 

If you don’t have any way of monitoring your video, I strongly recommend you look at something like this (Blackmagic also has a similar solution called UltraScope, though it’s hardware & software, and thus more expensive). We had an issue with the software not recognizing both cards, and support has been very responsive to getting us fixed up. I love supporting the small developer community, so check them out at DivergentMedia.com.

This 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.

Interesting Alternative for Blackmagic Switchers

I’ve written before about the Blackmagic ATEM switcher. The switcher is OK by itself for what it costs (the basic 1 M/E is $2495, so it’s not bad for a 4 SDI input switcher that also has 4 HDMI inputs). What I really didn’t like was the surface. I felt it was cheap and yet very expensive (the 1 M/E is $4995). That seems very steep to me considering it’s just a dumb controller with inexpensive buttons on it. 

The C250 Touchscreen/Multiviewer surface.

However, I’ve recently become aware of an alternative. A fellow believer in Denmark named Kasper Skårhøj has been building control surfaces for the ATEM. Now, I haven’t actually seen or used one, but these look interesting. Not only does he have a pretty standard looking 1 M/E controller panel (the C200), he also makes a touchscreen/multiviewer version with a T-Bar (the C250) and some pretty cool smaller controllers for simpler tasks. 

The C200 Desktop Controller

He’s also able to to custom builds and offers DIY kits if you should want to build a controller yourself (now that would be fun!). Based on the pictures, they look fairly basic, but pretty rugged.

Pricing is significantly lower than Blackmagic as well. Take the C200 for example: Available in multiple configurations, you can get a 1 M/E version with a T-bar for $2,899. If you’re not in a hurry, they’ll knock 20% off the price when you participate in the “pool order” program. Basically, they will wait until they have enough orders for it to make sense to run a batch then build and ship them. 

I don’t really know a whole lot about these guys other than what they told me and what they read on the website, but I applaud people doing stuff like this. See a need, fill it and come up with some unique solutions. 

This gets really interesting to me when you consider that the TV Studio version of the ATEM is $999. If all you need is simple cuts and dissolves (which, let’s be honest is 99% of IMAG), you could pool order a C30 for $1,200 and be switching cameras for less than $2,300. You could save even more if you assembled it yourself.  

The C30 Pocket Controller

Granted, this is not for everyone, but if you are part of a small church with a limited budget that still wants to get into video, this may be a solution.

Part of me wants to buy some parts and see what I can build just because. I keep looking around the tech book thinking, “What could I trigger from one of these little switches…” So maybe there are other ideas and things to do as well. 

Anyway, check it out. It could be just what you’re looking for!

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The Technology of Streaming

Last time, we talked about asking some relevant questions before launching into the live stream pool (or is it a…stream?). Today, let’s consider some of the technical things you’ll need to think through before pointing that fire hose of data to the world.

Video Acquisition

The first step, of course, is to have a video stream to…ah…stream. This can be a single camera (though that might get boring after a while), or multiple cameras. It may include embedded graphics (lyrics, sermon notes or Scripture). And you’ll need to have audio on that stream (which we’ll get to in a moment). This of course means cameras and camera operators; a switcher and a switcher operator. It also may mean a director, a shader and producer. You could take the IMAG feed and stream it, or do a separate switch for broadcast. Think through the implications of both scenarios. 

Now, to stream it, you’re going to be taking what is known as baseband video (either HD or SD, uncompressed) and compressing it down for distribution on the web. Some suggest that quality is not that important because it’s going to be compressed heavily anyway. But that’s not really true. In fact, the best looking streams on the web start with the best looking video. Avoid lots of small, detailed objects; light it well; minimize dissolves; keep the gain low so the video noise floor is low. These steps will mean a smaller data payload that looks better at low bitrates.

Some churches want to run to BestBuy and pick up a cheap camera, point it at the stage and stream it to the world. That will look just as bad as it sounds like it will. People won’t watch a stream like that for long, except perhaps to make fun of it. Do it well, or don’t bother.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Audio is almost as critical as the video, especially if you are streaming the musical portion (which also means you have all your licenses lined up, right?). At the very least, you’ll want a pretty well balanced matrix or aux fed mix going to video. Ideally, you’ll have a separate mix that is made up from the actual inputs from the stage (or at least stems). 

That means another operator, in another room with decent audio monitors. Also, don’t forget to keep in mind the dynamic range differences. Music can easily be 30+ dB louder than speaking. That works OK live, but can be a real pain on a 13” MacBook Air. Make sure you know how to deliver an optimized audio stream.

Big Pipes

Streaming live requires many things, but perhaps none is as important as a big, empty pipe to get the data out there. How big? Well, if you want to do HD (and who doesn’t?) you should plan on at least a 20 Mbs line; and that’s upload speed (continuous, not burst). You can get by with less if you do an SD feed, which might be OK, especially if you are thinking mobile devices. 

You need to know if your IT department can help you configure the network properly so you get this continuously wide open pipe during the entire service (even when you have 200 iPhones and iPads connected to your guest network) every single week.

This is not impossible (it’s not even that hard, really), but it can get expensive quickly depending on where you live. Don’t have an IT department (or even a guy)? Then be careful before you dive into streaming. I can’t tell you how many tweets I’ve seen on Sunday morning that go something like this, “Uh oh. The live stream is down. Again.” 

Who’s Your Partner

It would be almost impossible to stream the service live to the world from your building. You’ll need a partner, often known as a CDN (Content Delivery Network). There are a ton of them cropping up all over, some specialize in the HOW market, others will stream anything. Choose your partner carefully. Find out if they have tech support available on Sunday. Watch their streams. Make sure they can deliver a good user experience without making you pull your hair out.

Often, the CDN will supply hardware for encoding and getting the stream to their servers. Other times, they can recommend vendors to help with that. Either way, it’s important to make sure your stream is encoded and formatted properly for distribution by their network. Again, it’s not necessarily hard, but it has to be right.

Do or Do Not Do, There is No Try

If you want to live stream the service, by all means go for it (assuming you read my last post and have a good ministry rationale for doing so). But please, do it well. Yes, you can buy a $49 FireWire encoder and send your service to uStream for free. But that stream will be ad-supported and you have no control over the ads. And some of the ads might not be content you particularly want for your church service.

Putting poorly lit, poorly shot, poorly mixed streams of poorly programmed church services does not help “get our message out there.” Unless our message is that we don’t care enough about what we do to do it well. 

This whole series may sound like I’m against streaming; but I’m really not. Some churches are doing it well, and using it effectively. But like I said on Thursday, not every church needs to do it. And if you don’t need to, please don’t. We’ll all be better off.

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You Stream, I Stream, We All Stream; But Why?

Every time I attend a technology conference, I hear a lot of talk about streaming. In fact, I was just asked to speak at a day-long workshop devoted to streaming (and after this post, I may not be invited back…). Wherever you go, you hear streaming. I talk with techs all over the country who want to start streaming their services live. Or their pastor just found out you can do it, and they want to be “live on the internet” next week.

But what I don’t hear talked about much is, “Why are we streaming in the first place?” Let me say this at the outset; I don’t think streaming is bad. It’s a technology and as such, it’s not inherently good or evil. Stream or don’t stream, doesn’t matter to me. But if you are going to stream, at least know why.

When I hear the people talk about why churches should be streaming—and this quite often comes from people who sell technologies or services related to streaming—similar themes crop up. 

You can reach your shut ins; you can get your message out to your community and the world; and you can reach people who watch TV on their mobile devices. 

None of those goals are wrong. But let us consider each one. 

The Shut In

Certainly we have people who once attended our churches who can’t any longer because of health reasons, or maybe due to an injury. It is a noble goal to bring the service to them. But before we invest $10-50K (or more, depending on your existing infrastructure), not to mention the ongoing monthly cost for bandwidth and streaming services ($1K+), perhaps we should see exactly how many shut ins we have. Maybe it would be more cost-effective to duplicate DVDs of the first service and have volunteers drop them off on the way home. If you’re a shut in, watching the service at 11:30 is just as good as 9:00. 

Again, streaming to reach the shut in is not a bad idea. Just be sure you know the real cost for that ministry and know that it makes sense in the big picture.

Reach the Community, Reach the World

This is certainly a laudable goal (and one we’re charged with). And if you want to reach your community by streaming your services to the internet, by all means, get on it! But don’t forget to include a sizable chunk of budget for marketing. Simply turning on a stream won’t get you an audience of even one or two by accident. 

There is so much noise on the internet right now and simply having a stream out there is not enough. You need to tell people about it. A lot. Over and over. Make it easy to find. Treat it like an actual marketing campaign. 

And don’t forget to have someone available to interact with your new congregation. Few churches do this well, but the ones that do have an “online pastor” who cares for this flock. Someone is going to have to answer the e-mail and comments, tweets and Facebook posts (or at least someone should). Who is going to do that?

Again, this is not a good or bad thing‚ Just be sure to consider the whole picture. Technically, it’s not that difficult to set up a stream anymore (especially if you partner with a good CDN), but you’ll be wasting a lot of money being cool if you don’t treat it like a real ministry.

Church on your iPhone

This is the reason I have the biggest issue with. Ostensibly, because young people do so much on their smartphones, some have reasoned that they would like to go to church on their phones, too. I think this is inaccurate.

The 18-28 year-olds I know don’t want to go to church on their phone. In fact, they don’t even care about going to a church that has super-high production values. They go to be with their friends, be in community and talk about Jesus. In fact, if you really want to engage this demographic, ditch the traditional lecture service style and make the service a dialog (now I’m really stepping on toes, right?). 

This age group (as far as I can tell) is much more about relationships and much less about technology. Yes, technology enables a facet of their relationships, but they value spending time with each other far more. 

Moreover, the idea of “church” is not a building or service time. It’s the body of Christ coming together for corporate worship, fellowship and learning (and celebrating the sacraments, depending on your tradition). Watching the service on your phone doesn’t really facilitate any of those things well.

This is not to say that the church can’t change and adapt, but I wonder if we’re trying to adapt because it’s necessary or because this is just cool now.

I should point out that this entire post is referring to live streaming of the service; I’m not talking about video on demand, which is significantly easier and cheaper to do. We use VOD, posting our sermons on our website on Monday morning. This is relatively easy, costs very little and brings a high return on investment; at least for the 20-30 people who watch each week. And also know that I’m not against streaming your service live. If you want to do it, great. I just always want to be sure someone is asking the question, “Why?” How does it fit into your ministry plan? Who is actually watching and how are you interacting with them? I’m not afraid of streaming, though I honestly don’t think we’ll ever get to a point of having virtualized churches; it’s just not the same. 

So if you’re thinking of streaming live, be sure to count the costs—all of them. If you’re not streaming live, do not be ashamed (in fact, be grateful, it’s a lot of work). And don’t let someone talk you into doing it because it’s what all the hip churches are doing (because they’re not).

What’s your take? To stream or not to stream?

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CTW Review: Matrox MicroQuad Multiviewer


We took a quick look at this product at NAB earlier this year, and my friends sent me a sample this summer to play with. If you’ve been following this blog, you know my summer was a bit, well, busy. I finally got a chance to download the control software, configure my system and give the MicroQuad a run through it’s paces.

What is it?

The MicroQuad is a pretty simple product. It’s a small 4 SDI input, 1 HDMI output multiviewer. When I say small, I mean small. It’s roughy 5”x4.5”x1”. It has a grand total of seven connectors on it; four SD or HD-SDI inputs, a power connector, a micro-USB port and an HDMI output. Three buttons control all the functions. You can use it perfectly well in stand-alone mode, or connect it to a computer (Windows only at the time of this writing) to access a few more functions. 

To test it out, I plugged in a variety of sources, all spitting out 1080i video. The image quality on our Panasonic broadcast monitor was quite good and there was no discernible latency. The MicroQuad will sync all inputs, so you don’t have to have them all gen-locked together. 

When you plug the first input into the MicroQuad, it automatically detects and switches to the appropriate resolution. It doesn’t do any scaling on the input or output side, so all your input sources need to match, and the output will be the same as the input. 

The MicroQuad supports up to 16 embedded audio channels on each SDI input, and 8 embedded channels on the HDMI output. You can quickly select which audio you are monitoring using two buttons on the box, or in software. Press the third button and the selected input zooms to full screen. That functionality is replicated in software. When using the software, you can also assign custom labels to each source, and toggle the VU meters on and off. 

If you are so inclined and have a need, you can even monitor 4K sources through the MicroQuad using a standard HDMI monitor. So now those walk-in graphic loops can look really sharp. 

How does it work?

Quite well. Once I had four 1080i sources in one place, I plugged them in, and it worked. After installing the software, I connected via USB and it showed right up. The software requires no explanation; it’s immediately intuitive. In no time, I had custom labels assigned and was switching inputs for audio monitoring and zooming sources to full screen. 

Dual color (red & green) lights on each input indicate either the presence or lack of signal. And that’s about it. This is one of those products that just pretty useful and easy to use. It’s not fancy, nor does it claim to be. It solves a simple problem quickly and elegantly. Those are all wins.

What’s not to like?

I have only two nits to pick about this product. First, the way the connectors are laid out will make clean installations tricky. With two BNCs on one side and two more plus the HDMI connector on the other, you have cables running in two different directions. If it were up to me, I would re-design it to be longer and have all the connectors on the same side. 

Second, it got really hot during my short trial run. The manual even mentions a built-in warning system that will flash all the lights red if it gets too hot. At that point, you need to power it down to let it cool off. If I were installing one of these, I would be sure to allow for plenty of air movement around it (don’t sandwich it between a few other components). 

The cost might seem high at first glance ($995 list), but most other multi viewers are in the $2,000+ range, so it’s not really that bad.

The Bottom Line

If you have a few different feeds you want to keep an eye on using a single monitor, this could be the perfect solution for you. If you don’t, you probably don’t need it. This is one of those things you either need or don’t; it’s not a matter of comparing it to other similar products, because there aren’t really any quite like it. For what it is, I think it’s a good value. If it fills a need for you, place the order. If not, be sure to check out the rest of the Matrox line; they make some pretty cool stuff. 

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Talking Leadership Into Using Technology

The question has come up at every conference I’ve spoken at for the last year, and it’s been a frequent topic of e-mails as well. It usually goes something like this: “How do I convince my very non-technical Sr. Pastor to use [insert technology of choice here]. He just doesn’t seem to get why we need it.”

This is one of those questions that has multiple answers. If you ask an integrator, they are likely to advise you to sell the benefits of the technology to the mission of the church. That’s not a bad answer (and I’ll cover it in more detail in a minute). But lately, I’ve been thinking about this differently. Lately, my answer has been, “You don’t.” 

The Mantle of Leadership

Right off the bat, you might be thinking, “Mike, you’ve lost your mind!” Well, hear me out. In the Biblical scheme of things, our Senior Pastor has been given (by God, mind you) the authority and responsibility to lead that particular church. It is up to him to discern the direction and mission of the church, and figure out what is best for that congregation.

By nature, we tech leaders want to continually advance the cause of technology in our churches. We see other churches doing multiple camera IMAG, or streaming to the web or big light shows, or EP or using digital consoles with hundreds of plug-ins. None of those things are bad in and of themselves (nor are they inherently good, either). These are all just tools; and each individual church will have need for some of those. Perhaps all, perhaps not.

I think the trouble arises when we become convinced that we simply have to stream our services live to the web (to use one example) and we go on a crusade to convince our leadership to spend the $5,000-50,000 it takes to do it. When they say no (which they likely will, at least at first), we get frustrated and start trying to figure out how to convince them we are right. 

But here’s the deal; if they say no, we need to respect that decision. The pastor is the appointed (by God, remember) leader of the church. If he’s not convinced it’s a good idea, you need to live with that decision. 

Advocate, Don’t Argue

So many times, I hear TDs arguing for the use of a given technology. “It’s just so important that we do this! It’s the medium of this generation!” they scream. I’ll debate the second point in another article, but the question is, how “important” is this really? Do we want to do [insert tech here] because we can, because it’s cool or because our friends at the hip church are doing it? Or do we really believe this will advance the cause of the gospel? For your church

See, the reality is, not every church needs to be streaming their service live. Sure it’s cool, but is it effective? Maybe, maybe not. And if you really have a deep, deep conviction that God is calling you to [insert tech here], then sure, you can advocate this to your leadership. But never argue.

You’ll need to tie the tech back to the mission and vision of the church. How will this tech—and I’ll keep using streaming as an example mainly because it came up recently—make your church more effective in carrying out it’s specific calling. Each of our local churches has a different and unique call, and we need to be careful that we don’t get caught up in the comparison game. 

Leading for the Long Term

If you really want to be in this game for the long haul, you need to learn two things. First, how to submit to authority, and second, how to effectively advocate. The tech department is at it’s core a service and support ministry. We support the vision and mission of the senior leadership. And we will serve as long as they will have us. We are not irreplaceable. To last, we need to submit, even when we disagree. And we need to learn to properly and respectfully advocate for our position. 

If you can do that well, over time, you’ll build enough trust with your leadership that you won’t have to argue. Your voice will be heard and your position will be advanced. But don’t short-circuit the process. 

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