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Guest Post: A Portable Studio on a Budget

Wilmington Portable Video Studio

There are many tiers of video production. At the simple end, a single camera can easily record a presentation or lecture, using a tool like CaptureSpace to sync slides as the lecture is recorded or adding slides in during post-production. At the high end, a full studio or lecture hall equipped for lecture capture could include multiple professional grade cameras feeding into a computer through a broadcast-quality mixer. But it can be harder to find a good solution in between the two extremes.
Wilmington University wanted a portable broadcast studio that could be used to record an instructor or a small-scale guest speaker, and that could easily integrate multiple streams into a video ready to be uploaded. The trick? They wanted broadcast-quality on a consumer budget, an entry-level portable studio in a box.
The problem is that computers generally need additional equipment to recognize broadcast-quality cameras, which gets expensive on the consumer level. In addition, it can be difficult to upgrade individual pieces of the set up without having to start over, a pricey endeavor. They wanted to find modular components that played nicely with their Kaltura video portal, with the flexibility to have multiple camera inputs and to bring in consumer grade components.
Fortunately, they found a solution they were happy with. To help others in a similar situation, they’ve offered to share their experience and insight.
How to build a portable studio
By Russ LichtermanPortable studio: monitors
We recently put together a small, portable studio to do multi-cam switching, HD recording, and live streaming through Kaltura on a really tight budget. We were looking to put together a portable rig with similar functionality to the Tricaster Mini, but with more of a modular approach (and a mostly SDI workflow.) We hoped to use the studio at our university for event coverage, instructional segments, guest speakers, high-end lecture capture, and other similar events. We were specifically looking for something to add multi-cam productions that would integrate well with Kaltura for both file uploading and live streaming. We were initially interested in the Tricaster Mini itself, but the lack of SDI inputs turned me off. They do have a SDI version about to come out, but even the academic bundle with control surface was going to come in at $12,000. We were able to put our own setup together for under $5,000 using the new Datavideo SE-1200mu switcher as the base. We’ve used it for several major events now, along with dozens of hours of testing and demos, and have been pleased with our success.
Portable Studio: Sound boardThis switcher does a lot of things right – 4 SDI inputs, 2 HDMI inputs, 2 assignable SDI outputs and 1 assignable HDMI output. (There is a 2nd HDMI output but it is not currently in use. Datavideo engineering is working on a new firmware update that will use the multiview output on HDMI 2, freeing up HDMI 1 for assignable outputs.) As of right now, we have the multiview output on HDMI 1, but it would be nice to have a program out here assigned to a big consumer TV, so I look forward to being able to use HDMI 2 with the firmware update.
Other things this switcher does right: the inclusion of HDMI inputs along with SDI inputs allows for mixing consumer-grade Portable Studio: filmingcameras with professional cameras. This is very handy in higher ed where budgets are a concern, and HDMI-only cameras may be readily available. The HDMI inputs have scalers/framesyncs on them so they will take almost any signal with no issue. (I have used Panasonic P2 SDI cameras, Canon Vixia HDMI consumer-grade cameras, and a GoPro Hero 2 all in the same production, mixing the SDI and HDMI inputs with no issue.) GoPros are especially finicky with switcher inputs, and I was impressed that the switcher could take the GoPro on the HDMI input without the use of an external up/down/cross converter. We have also run a computer HDMI output direct in with no issues, but to get a VGA input you’ll need an up/down/cross converter. (We have done both and it’s a huge advantage being able to bring in the podium computer as an input.) With 6 total inputs, you have plenty of flexibility for cameras, computers, roll-in decks/media players, etc.
Portable Studio in use at live eventThe switcher also supports analog XLR stereo inputs that it will turn into embedded SDI audio (or HDMI) for running out to your favorite recorder. We are using an ATOMOS Ronin with it and it’s worked perfectly. The Ronin records ProRes at several different bitrate choices and all of them will upload straight to Kaltura. However even at ProRes LT you might want to compress them a bit first with something like Handbrake to save space before uploading. We have also done live streaming for a large event recently sending the switcher program out to our live encoder and the stream was rock solid. We have been using the Teradek VidiU with Kaltura for live streaming for over a year now, and it integrated perfectly with this new switcher setup.
The switcher seems very robust and we’ve now used it for a 6+ hour production with no resets needed, no crashing, no glitches, Portable Studio: Teradek with RTMP, HDMIetc. Each time we use it for a production, I enjoy it more and more. We have not done much with the built-in keyers yet (other than a simple PiP effect) but it sports 2 downstream keys, a still store, a simple clipstore (100 frames of video according to the manual—enough for a looping animation), a chromakeyer, luminance keyer, etc. But again, I haven’t personally used those features.
The multiview output is solid, exactly what you’d expect from any similar product. The virtual switcher controls are laid out exactly like a real, physical switcher, so if you’re used to any type of traditional production switcher it’s very intuitive.Portable Studio: HDMI/SDI outputs
An SDI-workflow at this cost is truly amazing. However, there are a few downsides:
• There is currently no control surface for this switcher. It is meant to be controlled by software running on a PC. A laptop would work just fine but we’re using it with a Surface Pro. The switcher is also meant to be network controlled, but it didn’t like our network. Datavideo tech support provided me with instructions to set up a static IP address between the switcher and the surface, connected with an Ethernet cable. This has worked 100%, but it did take a bit of setup and configuration to get running.
• Also, with no control surface you need to use mouse clicks (or touchscreen) on the virtual control surface in their software. For me, this is not ideal for switching a show, I like physical buttons. We purchased a programmable USB button panel (x-keys from Pi Engineering) and made our own control surface. However the Datavideo software doesn’t currently use hotkeys. It’s mouse clicks (or touch) only. Therefore, when programming the keyboard, instead of being able to use hotkey shortcuts (ie: shift-1 is preview 1, 1 is program 1, etc.), everything has to be programmed using the X-Y coordinates of the mouse. This works 100% but it will take some setup time to get it all configured. (And it’s only necessary for our workflow; if you don’t mind switching a show with a mouse or touchscreen then you can skip this altogether.) I hope that someday Datavideo releases a control surface for this switcher that can plug into the RS232 jack, That would truly enhance this already great product.
• Another small downside is that there are only 2 SDI outputs (both assignable.) If you’ve got dedicated monitors for preview and program (we do) you’ll need to add a video DA to get additional program outs. We are using a Black Magic 1 in 8 out DA/reclocker with the switcher to give us tons of program outs so there’s no need for looping through monitors (and potentially creating sync issues.)
• This switcher also caps out at 1080i, so if you’re looking for a 4k workflow this may not be the right move for you. 1080i is just fine for our needs though. There is also no VGA or DVI output, which would allow putting the multiview on a computer monitor rather than a pro monitor or consumer TV.
• The internal audio controls are very limited, there are no faders or gain control on the stereo channels.
Overall, we’re extremely happy with the switcher and Datavideo’s engineers have been very helpful with questions. They are also communicative about upcoming features and firmware updates, since this is a very new product. (It debuted at NAB in 2015.)
In our use cases so far, it has performed at or beyond expectations.
Russ Lichterman spent nearly 15 years in broadcast television production before moving to higher education.  He has a B.A. in Film and Media Arts from Temple University and an M.Ed. in Applied Educational Technology from Wilmington University.  He is currently Multimedia Manager at Wilmington University.  Feel free to contact him with questions at [email protected].     

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