Tech review: Havering Asks 2016

img_20161130_140105With a few hours to go before the end of the year I thought I’d do a quick review of our last event of the year – our TV production “Havering Asks”.

It’s part of our live TV week, where media students produce their own shows as part of their course programme. We then live stream it on YouTube and via the website http://www.hcronair.com

I’ve been helping with the technical side for 4 years now and each time we try and add something extra. In the past that’s gone from live streaming across college, then online with Planet eStream then using multiple input streams with vMix and a Datavideo capture server.

This year on top of our now business-as-usual vMix setup we wanted to add a live videoconference link so I went away to gather some kit and ideas…

Skype for Business prime time

We already use Skype for Business within college in some of our conferencing rooms and ah-hoc usage on staff PCs so my first thought was if we could use it here as well. I did also consider Google Hangouts on Air after being on a Google conference a few months back but found out it was discontinued in September, which was disappointing as the YouTube replacement didn’t fit our needs.

I gathered a few of our newer loan laptops (Core i5, 8GB RAM etc.) and headed down to set up, realising we’d need to make some adjustments to get this to work…

  1. The output from our mixing desk was via SDI cables so I dug out a USB capture card that we keep for occasions like this, first problem solved with the help of a phono adapter
  2. An audio input from the mixing desk was also required, our sound engineers sorted that out quickly and made sure there was no feedback while mics were active
  3. Our large screen TV was at the front of the set but the mixing desk at the back. Given we don’t have any wireless HDMI extenders the only option was to stitch together a long cable or two to get from the back of set to the front via some neat use of rubber cable mats!

In the end Skype for Business proved to be a good call as it accepted our decidedly non-standard video input without a grumble whereas the consumer version of Skype refused to connect to the capture card. With the cabling out the way we used the now-standard federation from Skype for Business > Skype consumer to invite our guests to the show.

For the purposes of the event a dedicated Office 365 account was created so the branding would look right on-screen. Radio presenter Iain Lee was first up and I’ll admit it was a relief to see the full screen conference up and running when he dialled in 🙂

Havering live TV week Skype video call

Twitter wall

On the day of the main Havering Asks event I was also asked to set up a Twitter wall for viewers to interact with the show via our hashtag #haveringasks

In the past we’ve used Zoomph with great results so I was pleased to find they have a free option for up to 250 posts, which was fine for the needs of this event. The display was placed at the entrance to the show and also via our digital signage screens using Planet eStream.

Havering Asks Zoomph Twitter wall display

Plans for the future

In the end the TV went really well and it was another great experience for the students, who excelled with the quality of this year’s show. The video conferencing went down well too so I’m sure that will return again next time round, maybe we’ll go for multiple remote guests to keep things interesting!

I’m hoping that by the time we run our next show we might get some shiny new mixing kit to work with. The current setup has done a great service but would be good to move into the world of 4k, perhaps with some (very nice) Black Magic kit … Santa any chance of some additional presents? 😉

and finally…

Wishing you all a Happy New Year and best wishes for the year ahead.
Recently hit 300k views on here now so thanks for reading and hope to see you all back in 2017!

Video streaming update and a visit to BVE 2016

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This week I was able to visit the BVE expo to have a look for the next generation of video mixing and streaming equipment for our media block. There was plenty on show, including an interesting talk on using drones in TV production that drew quite a crowd!

It’s really interesting to see how networking and video technologies are converging and definitely something I’d like to do more work with in the future.

Our equipment is used by students in their classes for as well as projects such as HC Radio and our yearly Havering Asks TV programme. The visit also reminded me to write a little about some of the new kit we used in our recent productions.

vMix updates

After using the free version of vMix for the video stream of HC Radio we decided to purchase the vMix HD edition for video production use. The additional inputs and extra features such as Video list were what we needed to add pre-recorded content into the live show production.

Ref: http://www.vmix.com/purchase/

One thing we found with the video list is that the UI started to lag when we loaded 20+ videos into vMix. A workaround from the support team was to use VLC to generate a playlist and load the content in that way instead. End output was the same but this method seemed a lot more CPU friendly. We’ll need to check this again as new versions of vMix are released.

We’ve also since found out about the free vMix Social plugin which will allow live updates to be posted as on-screen graphics so will be trying that out next time round as well.

vmix-logo-large  Planet-eStream

For those wanting to record the output to Planet eStream use either of these methods, credit to eStream support for the below as they were testing vMix around the same time we did. Great minds and all that 🙂

1) On vMix there is an option for ‘External’ at the bottom, if you go to the settings next to ‘External’ then go to ‘Outputs’ make sure that Recording/External is set as output and all overlays selected. Now when you click ‘External’ and it goes red you can open an instance of the encoding application, on the same machine and there will be a video device called ‘vMix Video’ this will allow you to record the output window on vMix.

2) Stream it through eStream by editing the settings next to ‘Stream’ at the bottom. You can create a custom RTMP server. The settings will be:
Server: rtmp://svrestream/HCBcast
Stream Key: vMix

Now you can go to the encoder machine on another pc and use a network video source. Use the URL rtmp://svrestream/HCBcast/vMix please note capitalisation is important.

vMix GO

vmix-goThis is one of the new (to me anyway!) products I spotted at BVE today. It’s a self-contained, portable production system with all the inputs etc. you need integrated with a suitably powerful PC and vMix Pro included. It provides an interesting alternative to the Blackmagic Design kit I also went to see today, which is hardware-based rather than vMix’s software approach.

Streaming across multiple locations

One of the new requirements for Havering Asks 2015 was to provide an additional video source so we could transition between the live show taking place in our performance area “The Space” as well as our TV studio in the media block. vMix would then be used to mix the inputs and provide the stream to our YouTube channel.

Given that the two buildings are at opposite ends of the college it was a pretty simple decision required that we needed to use the network to get video from one place to the other. The question was how best to do it. We also wanted to use whatever solution we found for future events so it needed to be robust and easy to set up going forward.

From a cost perspective we thought of using a PC \ laptop but after adding an external capture card the solution seemed rather clunky. There’s also a fair bit to go wrong and once you put all the hardware prices together it’s not particularly cost-effective either. We then moved onto dedicated streamers to see what was available and looked at a couple of different products:

I liked the look of the Teradek and the output LCD would made it easy to use with DHCP as we could easily spot what address it had obtained as it gets moved around. Unfortuately it’s HDMI only and was the most expensive of the three options. It also turns out not to be supported with Planet eStream so we continued onto the other options.

The unbranded Chinese device did its basic job of streaming but, as is often the case with these no-name products had some odd firmware issues that meant we couldn’t 100% trust it. The main one was with DHCP, where the stream output link seemed to stick with the previous address it had been assigned, rather than the current lease. This presented a problem for us as setting up a static port each time we wanted to stream would add an extra administrative burden.

Now we come to the NVS-25, which does a great job of offering lots of flexibility at a great price:

  • SDI, HDMI and composite video inputs
  • RCA and XLR audio inputs
  • multiple streaming protocols
  • USB port for recording of video stream

The multiple inputs are particularly good as it means we can use our current hardware over SDI \ CVBS and then in future have the flexibility to move to HDMI should we want to.

I had a look around BVE for similar devices and was rather pleased to see one of the suppliers rate it as the best devices for feature set in its price range, always a relief to hear we chose wisely!

Experiences with the NVS-25

We learnt a few things from setting up and using the Datavideo device so here’s a few lessons learned to save anyone else the trouble:

Networking

The IP scanner utility is very handy and helps get up and running quickly.
I hear that an NVS-30 is on the cards and if Datavideo can get a screen on the new product it’ll be even better!

Storage

The front USB port should only be used with USB sticks or, at a push SSD drives on an adapter. It won’t run USB hard drives that don’t have their own external power and the side effect is that the encoder will freeze up until you do a hard power off and disconnect the offending drive. The media should also be formatted as FAT32.

Firmware

Update the firmware to the latest version as there are bugs in previous versions relating to how streams are presented. We had problems getting an RTSP stream into vMix due to incorrect header information in the stream. Apparently from what I was told at BVE an update has since been released to resolve this. As a workaround we changed over to RTMP instead, which worked OK.

IMAG1029
Datavideo NVS-25 in action connected up to our mixing desk

Whilst on the Datavideo stand their tablet-oriented autocue caught my eye. Again rather reasonably priced it syncs the script with multiple devices and allows central control from another station wirelessly. Perhaps one for the 2016 productions 🙂

IMAG1198

The making of HC Radio

hcradioFollowing on from previous success we’ve had live streaming our Havering Asks event our media block wanted to try going one step further by running a student radio station, permanently live with both audio and video streams.

From a technical and e-learning perspective it sounded a great way to get students interacting with the technology available and also provided another way to get value from our Planet eStream solution, which already provides our video content repository, TV recording server and digital signage across the college.

As always though nothing is ever completely straightforward, especially as we kept trying to push the bar a little further by adding more features without breaking the bank!

Video stream

The video side was in theory the easy part as it’s something we’ve done before and only needs the Planet eStream encoder and a capture device with composite input. Simple? Of course not!

One idea was to have two cameras: one showing the students in their broadcast studio as you might see on Kiss FM or Capital and then another one directly above a mixing deck for certain radio show features.

The next fun part of the requirement was that the cameras would need to be in a physically separate location to the PC used for streaming due to space restrictions, which also makes things a bit more… interesting….

IP camera

The camera to be used for the studio ideally needed to be mounting in the ceiling to get the right kind of angle to get everyone in shot. Now although we could run composite cables through the building that really didn’t seem a sensible option as there was a very conveniently placed Ethernet port nearby, an IP camera made perfect sense.

I had a look around at the BETT show and various suppliers but found many devices were way too overpowered for our needs (read expensive!) or there were cheap and cheerful cameras at the polar opposite end of the market on Amazon, eBay etc. which didn’t seem to have a great track record for reliability.

We wanted something in between to provide HD quality video, which was when I remembered that Ubiquiti Networks also sell IP cameras alongside their Unifi wireless range (which we’ve had good experiences with recently).

$_35 (1)https://www.ubnt.com/enterprise/
https://www.ubnt.com/unifi-video/unifi-video-camera-dome/

Eventually I found their Unifi Video Camera Dome product, which looked solid, was made for ceiling mounting and came in just under £100 – sold!

RTSP stream

After receiving the camera I ran through the configuration steps then had a look around for how to get an RTSP stream I could enter as an input for Planet eStream. However I soon found out that this isn’t possible straight from the camera, but can be done via the free NVR recording software that comes bundled with the device.

Ref: https://www.ubnt.com/unifi-video/unifi-nvr/

The RTSP stream option needs to be enabled per-camera, which then provides a unique link that works perfectly in the eStream encoder. For simplicity I installed the NVR software on the streaming machine so the RTSP stream comes from the 127.0.0.1 loopback address. The host machine runs on an i5 CPU and hasn’t showed any performance issues running both pieces of software at the same time.

Ref: http://dl.ubnt.com/guides/unifivideo/UniFi_Video_UG.pdf

ubnt rtsp

Mixing software

Now we had two cameras in place we still had a requirement to solve in terms of how to switch between them. If possible some form of branding \ overlay was also mentioned.

Spending any form of significant sum on software was out of the question so I hit Google hoping for something good and wasn’t disappointed, enter vMix:

http://www.vmixhd.com/

The basic premise of the software allows you to live produce video by switching and overlaying various inputs to create your output stream. I really like the interface – everything just seems to be “there” and it also contains all the transitions, overlays and controls you’re likely to need…

…oh and did I mention the free version? 🙂

vMix-Screenshot

Two capture inputs plus two more from title sequences and overlays was a perfect fit for our needs. Yes there is a resolution limit but to get the project off the ground it was a compromise we’re willing to make. In the future I hope we can at least get to the Basic HD or HD package.

At the time I sent a quick question over to the ever-helpful eStream support team to find out how best to connect vMix to the eStream encoder; in a strange twist of fate it turned out they were testing it at the same time! All you need to do is click the External button in vMix, which then creates a virtual capture device that eStream can see and stream.

We’re using the eStream encoder rather than broadcasting via YouTube at present as it’s simpler for us to push the video internally to our signage screens on Planet eSign. However I may need to change this in the future depending on traffic, if our video stream starts getting a lot of hits it may be easier to let YouTube take the load.

hcradio screen
one of our screen layouts showing dual camera inputs via vMix

Audio stream

I was also asked to provide an audio-only stream so we could offer the channel up as an Internet Radio station. All the necessary licensing was already taken care of so it was time to find another technical solution that would do the job.

The students already do all the creative work using Virtual DJ software in the radio studio then we split the output into multiple signals that are used to play the station inside the media building as well as providing a 3.5mm jack for the streaming machine.

Icecast immediately looked to be the front-runner to encode the audio stream although it needs something else to act as a front-end. After a bit of searching I settled on an unfortunately named but rather good (and open-source) program called Butt.

http://butt.sourceforge.net/

I configured Icecast with its own dedicated external domain name and after trying a few different format settings went for an MP3 stream at 192Kbps.

Getting the stream to embed nicely took a few tries too, mainly down to how picky browsers are about what code and tags are used. Eventually settled on the format below which plays on most devices using an HTML5 player:

<audio name="media" autoplay="" controls="">
 <source type="audio/mpeg" src="http://yourstream.domain.tld:8000/mountpoint"></source>
 </audio>

This embed code generator may also provide useful
http://jasonlau.biz/embedcodegenerator/

The end result

We now have a website up and running that hosts both video and audio streams, along with the usual smattering of social networks for audience participation.

TuneIn_Logo_2000pxAnother upshot of setting up the audio-only stream was that it’s recently become the source for our upload to TuneIn radio http://tunein.com/radio/HCRadio-s245212/

Students broadcast their shows throughout the week and we’ve now partnered with some other stations and even celebs to raise the profile of the station.

Now we’ve done radio the next challenge lies ahead; HCTV will be coming soon as part of a TV week that will include Havering Asks and a couple of new shows, watch this space!