I’ve had one or two people ask about my kit for live production work: i.e. what cameras, switcher, monitoring, encoder, converters, etc, I use on a typical multi camera live streaming or live recording gig. As always, the answer’s not entirely straight forward, as it depends, to some degree, on the nature of the gig and the client’s requirements.
Ultimately, the equipment I use is a little on the eclectic side, as pretty much all my gear has to have multiple usage. Maybe someday, when business is booming, I’ll be able to justify a completely bespoke set of tools for every main area of my business; or maybe one strand of my business will take off so successfully, that I can abandon everything else and tool up to be a single service provider. Right now neither of those is the case, so I have to think about making every tool I have perform a number of roles within my business.
I use three main cameras in my live streaming rig: a Panasonic HC-X1 camcorder, a Panasonic Lumix FZ2000 hybrid and a Fuji XT-2. A bit of a mix, but as I said above, I have my reasons. All of these units give respectable results in low light, all are 4k capable, all output a clean video signal over HDMI, all offer a fairly comprehensive range of resolution and frame rate options, and all offer full manual control.
Let’s start with the XT-2. This is my workhorse stills camera, which I love for being so light, so small, so versatile and having a range of superb glass available for stills work. In addition, if I really want that ‘cinematic’ shallow depth of field look for video work, the XT2 fits in nicely because of its larger sensor and some of the very fast glass that goes with it. The XT2 also sits nicely on a hand held gimbal that I use for some video work, again because of its size and weight. It falls down as a video camera in some respects because a) it doesn’t have the capacity to do longer recordings b) it doesn’t have the sheer reach of my two other cameras, which I’ll talk about next, c) it hasn’t got many of the connectivity options I’m really looking for for much of my video work, d) its audio pre-amp isn’t all that good, so an external audio recorder is a must.
Enter the Panasonic HC-X1. If I had the capacity to have specialised equipment for every job, I may well opt for three (or more) of these for all of my multi camera live production work. They’re a great piece of kit at a sensible price, circa £2500 per unit, if you include a spare battery, carry bag, etc. However, at my scale of operation, having several of these would mean a lot of money invested in tools that, for most gigs, I only use one at a time. They’re also quite large, so carrying three or four of these as a single operator would be quite a bind.
So why not just use smaller form factor cameras….?
My reasons for having a large traditional camcorder for the bulk of my video jobs, rather than opting for the current vogue of using a DLSR based rig, are quite simple: a 1inch sensor, giving good image quality and respectable low light performance; a 20x cine style, par-focal f2.4-f4 zoom (great for tight, long distance framing and quick focal length changes); two built in, routable XLR inputs (making good quality audio capture so much easier than messing with separate audio devices); full size HDMI output (so much chunkier and more reliable than mini or micro HDMI); plenty of mounting points, so no need to attach a separate cheese plate, or the like; and excellent battery life. It also has lots of dedicated manual controls, making a whole range of adjustments very quick and pleasingly menu free. In short, for day to day video work, this is so much more versatile and convenient than using a DSLR type rig.
Last, but by no means least, is the Panasonic FZ2000. This is a fixed lens, hybrid camera with a 1 inch sensor and 20x par-focal f2.8-f4 zoom lens (sound familiar). In fact, this is pretty much the same image capturing unit as the HC-X1, but in a different form factor, which means the output from the two cameras is, as near as makes no difference, identical – which is always desirable for consistency. TBH, from a portability and sheer cost benefit point of view (they currently go refurbished/used for about £600), as a next step I’ll probably get another one of these to replace the XT2 in this setup, giving me consistency across three 1″ sensor, Panasonic cameras. I’ll be able to fit both FZ2000s, plus all my cables, converters and other gadgets into my back pack, with only the HC-X1 in its own carry bag.
In terms of deploying the cameras, I tend to use the HC-X1 for tight framing of the main presenter/s and the XT2 locked off for wide shots of the whole stage. Both of these are on tripods, within easy reach of my control desk. Meanwhile the FZ2000 is used for a third, usually more side-on view of the stage, to also include the first few rows of delegates. I use this in the most distant position from my control area, simply because it has great peer to peer wifi implementation, which means I can control exposure, focus and zoom from an iPad. This setup gives me three very different views of the stage and presenters and also allows me to capture audience reactions, presenter changeovers, etc. I’ll more often than not also take video directly from the projector feed, which I can switch to for any detailed graphical information or video that is included in the presentation, more on this later.
Key to any live production setup is the ability to switch from camera to camera and therefore from viewpoint to viewpoint, on the fly; thereby generating a more immersive experience for the viewer than the fixed scene captured by a static camera. Not so long ago, live video switches were prohibitively expensive and pretty much the province of full blown production studios. These days, there are several pocket friendly, though nonetheless effective switching systems on the market. I use a Blackmagic Design ATEM Television Studio HD, which gives me 8 inputs (4 HDMI, 4 SDI), two media players (for lower thirds graphics/titles, etc) and a number of outputs for streaming, monitoring, recording and so on. It also has two XLR audio inputs, but as explained above, I tend to route audio via my main camera. The ATEM is a decent little unit, which sells for around £800. It handles a 1080p end to end workflow, which is fine for the streaming and live recording work I do at present. Even though I normally operate the switch from my laptop or iPad, I like the manual switches available on the front of this unit, which serve as a failsafe if remote operation fails. I also like that its rack mountable with the addition of an optional tray.
The ATEM Television Studio HD sits in a rack case along with a multi way mains unit, a small wifi access point (used to run the control network for iPad control of the ATEM) and a Blackmagic Design SmartView Duo monitor (used for multi view and output monitoring). Any recording I do is currently managed from OBS software on my MacBook Pro and output to SSD, but eventually I’ll be fitting a Blackmagic Design HyperDeck Studio Mini into the rack for live multi camera recordings.
Open Broadcast Software, or OBS for short, is a multi use app that’s essentially a little TV studio in software form. For my purposes, it takes in a video signal and encodes it for web streaming, then outputs it to a Content Distribution Network (CDN) of your choice, i.e. YouTube, Facebook Live, Periscope, etc. It has a really comprehensive feature set, but this means that it does have a little bit of a learning curve when setting up. OBS can be used for switching as well, but this means a video capture device for each camera, which gets a bit unwieldy when you’re using more than a couple of cameras into a laptop. The software also takes care of recording to either a local or external hard drive. In use, I find OBS to be rock solid and versatile enough for me not to be considering a hardware encoding device at this point. Best of all OBS is an open source development, so its free!
Bits and bobs
There are a number of little bits and bobs that are either essential, or that come in damned handy to make this whole setup work.
First of all, I need to get the HD video signal into my laptop ready for OBS to do its magic. This is done by a Blackmagic Design Ultrastudio Mini Recorder, which is a natty little box that accepts HDMI or SDI inputs and outputs the captured video over USB. Its buss powered and therefore a straight in-line connected device. These devices handle 1080p, are built like miniature tanks and do an amazing job for something little bigger than a matchbox.
Next comes a Blackmagic Design HDMI-SDI Micro Converter, which I use if I need to run an SDI cable out to my third camera. HDMI is good for maybe 5 metres, but after that becomes decidedly dodgy, while SDI will happily run for 40/50 metres without problem. This device requires power over USB, so I either run this from a power bank or mains, depending upon the availability of mains power in the vicinity of the camera.
Last, but by no means least is my trusty Decimator MD-Cross V2, which is probably the single most useful gadget in the universe (if it occurred naturally we’d be talking Babel Fish. See my review). This little box can convert HDMI to SDI or vice versa, it can downscale or upscale video in a huge range of resolutions, its a frame rate converter, it can generate test bars for line testing and probably a lot more that I’ve yet to discover. Some of the work I do involves accommodating outputs from a selection of laptops and tablets used by presenters. This can mean a whole range of aspect ratios, resolutions, etc. These have to be matched up to the cameras I’m using, because the ATEM switcher can only accommodate 1 resolution and frame rate at a time across its inputs. As long as I can get a laptop output signal to HDMI (requires a separate VGA-HDMI converter), I can convert to a common frame rate and resolution for my switcher, while at the same time converting to SDI for a long cable run. The only video output I’ve come across so far that doesn’t play nicely with the Decimator is the 720p output from a Wireless Projector receiver called Lightshow IV, which, to be fair, is now discontinued anyway, so likely to be a rarity.
OK, I do have a few other gadgets (VGA-HDMI converter, VGA splitter, HDMI splitter, various audio converter cables and a DI box, etc), but the above probably covers the most important tools I use for live work. If I know I’m going to a gig without a presenter PA system, I’ll also carry a couple of mics and stands so that I can get clean audio from the front of the room back to my workstation.
Other than that, its tripods, cables, a couple of USB power supplies, a fully charged power bank and a Leatherman multi tool. It usually stays in the back of my car, but just in case the venue doesn’t have anything suitable, I always make sure I have a foldaway table at hand – you’d be surprised at how often it’s come in useful.