Elements for live production
By Carlos Medina, Audiovisual Technology Expert and Advisor
At present, LIVE production provides us with countless professional fields, from TV broadcasts to music coverage and concerts, even to the world of mapping and visuals; scenic arts disciplines; the various applications relating to Digital Signage; possibilities developed in the training area and professional environments of businesses by means of collaboration systems; and also merely acts and events to which the audience just goes in order to enjoy content such as political campaign closing events , opening events, prize-giving ceremonies, parties and social celebrations.
Each of the above situations poses a number of issues to sort out that are inherent to LIVE production itself. As for audiovisual technology used, we need to decide which is the most suitable and best adapted to make each LIVE production run smoothly, from preparation of content up to how end users get to enjoy it.
All these types of production have something in common, as they use a term such as LIVE: immediacy. Nowadays, making a LIVE production means generating audiovisual and/or multimedia content that takes place in real time and simultaneously between production and reception of the same by end users or end recipients. Therefore, in order to clear away some doubts on the reality of LIVE production, we must establish a difference between ‘recorded’ that is, any audiovisual product that has been produced previously and therefore becomes canned (closed) material and simply intended to be reused and/or viewed. Needless to say, the content of LIVE production may include recorded videos that are shared during said ‘live’ real time. And going even further, when a LIVE production is recorded and then viewed some time afterwards, it is not a LIVE production anymore as it becomes material for filing; it is a deferred production.
Yet another feature of LIVE productions is multi-spatial coverage, meaning that said content may come from one or several places/locations that coincide in time. Neither distance nor geographical location of such places matter; there are technological solutions in place capable of generating and sharing said multimedia/audiovisual content. By now we all understand what setting up a connection or link involves with a place that is different from a location where LIVE production is being made.
And last, LIVE productions are multiplatform. This means that different technologies and technical applications are supported both for generation of content and for distribution and reception.
Furthermore, one of the novelties we are now witnessing as compared to former times is that each of us is now capable of making LIVE productions for use in our professional and even personal environments.
Technology has put at the users’ fingertips the possibility of becoming producers and distributors of live AV/multimedia content. In these times we are now experiencing, with the prevailing COVID19 situation, who has not arranged to meet at a certain time for videoconferencing in groups of four, five or even more people to talk, share, connect with friends and relatives? Each of us has been -and is- an active part of a LIVE production.
This is just one example at hand, although large R&D+i (Research, Development and Innovation) progress is involved, and an increasingly common one that enable us to go deeper into LIVE environments. Therefore, we can simply list some of the elements comprising this kind of LIVE production: various smartphones equipped with a microphone, speaker/earphones and video camera, an application enabling interconnection among several users (either free or for a fee: Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp, Facetime, Viber, Facebook Messenger, Instagram Live, Houseparty, Google Classroom, Hangouts, or Microsoft Teams…) a current subscription to a mobile data network (domestic or international carriers such as Movistar, Orange, Vodafone, Jazztel, MásMóvil, Yoigo, Digi Mobil, Lowi, among others).
And then we can start sharing videos, still photos, and any other kind of documents such as PDF files, chatting, sending audios and links to websites… We can just carry out a true LIVE production with enormous possibilities and a high degree of interactivity. We just have to set a time and experience the vicissitudes of LIVE: it is good that everything runs smoothly and we are then able to enjoy communicating; it is okay that we may experience a number of issues such as image and audio lag, choppy conversations, poor signal reception, varying image and sound qualities, very long delay times or even error or disconnection messages.
The above issues can happen in home/personal environments, although no one likes to have them, whereas what we really want is a smooth, nice and close communication with friends and relatives. So, if a LIVE production increases in size, it is made with generous budgets, proper professional commitments and international coverage spanning many users and/or attendees, such errors, faults or negligence issues cannot be allowed in production.
Therefore, the first thing we need to establish in this article is a clear-cut definition of ‘LIVE’ in a specific environment such as technical audiovisual coverage of a live event, through the use of technical means suitable for said environment and skill and preparation of technical staff carrying out a LIVE production. This distinction must be very clear, as there are significant differences in the way of operating and the technology used as compared to other environments and professional fields, such as a movie shooting, the audio for a concert, or a broadcast of a sports event by a TV station (which is considered as the true LIVE), for instance.
In view of the fact that the TV environment has now years of experience in the generation of live content, the fitting thing to do is to use TV broadcast equipment as this equipment meets certain requirements and professional standards approved by various commissions and specialized organizations -domestically or at international level- that define the quality of both technical equipment and audiovisual results obtained. However, at present there are many manufacturers offering technology and solutions that are perfectly tailored to the desired degree of coverage, from 4K LIVE to low-end DSRL camera coverage.
Any LIVE production is normally based on the use of image/video and audio as the spark of the LIVE production itself, which we will term from now on as input sources. And taking into account that the end goal of a LIVE production is disseminating, broadcasting, projecting and conveying audiovisual content, this falls in which we know as output sources. This terminology concerning input and output sources allows us to generically cover all resources that exist and/or may exist when it comes to producing LIVE.
And before going into the elements of LIVE production, we must stress the fact that ‘live’ resources and ‘recorded’ resources may be used in order to form a whole within the LIVE production, depending on the type and intended use of each particular production.
Within the environment of image/video video cameras are used as ‘live’ input sources. Although it is simple to understand that we could only use a single video camera, both the audiovisual market itself and users/audience/viewers demand higher coverage in order to be able to ‘view’ and enjoy as much detail and content as possible. That is why the production element of a LIVE cast when it comes to capturing images is using the so-called camera chain/system and therefore a way of producing under a modality known as ‘multicamera’.
But why camera systems? The answer lies in the very way of producing, monitoring and offering visual content featuring the highest technical and artistic quality possible. A camera chain/system comprises the following elements: camera body with the most suitable optical system based on placement of the camera in regard to what must be captured and the kind of take to be offered, a camera cable through which the various signals and communication orders come and go –such as tally and intercom- (featuring optic fibre or triax cable nowadays), and a base station for controlling the camera from which the outgoing video signal that we will use as input source will exit. These elements must be used based on the number of cameras independently deployed. For example, a six-camera LIVE production must have six camera systems.
Additionally, each camera system will feature one OCP (Operational Camera Panel) for implementation of the camera’s own technical adjustments in order to have the whole camera set to use the same technical and artistic parameters so as to obtain an identical image (as for instance, the same red level or a correct exposure; but not the same content, framing or take).
There are two technological solutions in response to types of camera systems: the ones traditionally known as set cameras –in their current version as a camera system- with optical coupling, of which GRASS VALLEY’s product range known as Reflex SuperXpander or SE Expandor by IKEGAMI are worth highlighting. And a second solution, EFP (Electronic Field Production) or PCS (Portable Camera System) camera systems, these being more compact and portable pieces of equipment.
In the latter product line, manufacturer GRASS VALLEY has implemented in the market for some years now the LDK camera range for live production, which has been successfully adopted in TV series, LIVE coverage and/or TV broadcasts, thus becoming the prevailing standard for production of high-definition content. At present, the LDX enables meeting technical requirements in UHD, HDR and IP networks.
We can also mention the solutions that have been available from SONY nearly since the inception of the audiovisual field, which is nowadays reflected in the HDC camera systems. Model HDC-5500 comes standard with support for broadcast through optic fiber under an ultra high bitrate (UHB), it is exceptionally lightweight and enduring, and features HDR and slow-motion capture. And HXC in its most economical range.
On the other hand, PANASONIC -through its AK range- provides models featuring high capacities for signal broadcast (AK-HC500 o AK-UC3000GSJ); and this manufacturer’s flagship product, its 4K VariCam 35 model, for integration within coverage systems in live broadcasts with a cinema-like look.
Also HITACHI, which does not want to see its market share in camera systems decrease, presents it SK series to provide solutions both under UHD and FHD or providing high frame-rate (HFR) capture.
It is true that not all LIVE productions –due to budgetary constraints- are capable of taking camera systems onboard, but we consider them in this feature article as the most efficient solution in the process for multicamera implementation in LIVE productions. In this regard, it is highly convenient to be aware of the solutions being provided by JVC (ProHD range, and their multicamera adaptation unit) or BLACKMAGIC, through its most compact model, the Micro Studio Camera.
All these types of cameras must be mounted on a support (VINTEN, SACHTLER) or on a tripod (MANFROTTO, CARTONI, SACHTLER, BENRO, AXIS…), which offer safety, lightness and great stability for camera operations. Or also on-shoulder cameras equipped with some kind of easyring support or with some other accessories such as: steadycam, travelling, cranes, hot-heads, spidercam, slider Dolly…
Each model and range described so far require a camera operator in order to carry out tasks such as framing, focusing or camera movements. In the environment of LIVE productions, sometimes due to budgetary reasons –cutting down in human resources- and some other times because of location of cameras in small spaces or in order not to get in the way of the LIVE’s own content, remotely controlled cameras are being used. There are two modalities.
On the one hand, a multi-purpose camera system: SONY HDC-P1, PANASONIC AK-UB300GJ, CANON ME200S-SH, HITACHI DK-H100 or GRASS VALLEY LDX C82; and on the other, the so-called PTZ (Pan-Tilt-Zoom) cameras, in which the market leaders are SONY (BRC series or SRG series) and PANASONIC (AW series), although other brands have arisen that enable better accessibility of PTZ for LIVE production: JVC, DATAVIDEO, MINRRAY, BIRDDOG, NEWTEK, MARCAM, DIGITEX, among others.
Connectivity in the visual field has always tended to be ‘wired’ and therefore subject to the deployment of cables in LIVE productions. However, when it comes to sound we can choose either wired solutions or wireless solutions, as performance provided by any of these options is perfectly feasible.
As for audio, a ‘live’ input source is made possible through the use of microphones. Undoubtedly, there are broadly varying types of microphones depending on the work environment where they are used and their technical features for capturing some sounds or others. We insist on the fact that for very specific sound capture situations, there is a highly specialized range of microphones, mostly for musical instruments.
As a general rule are used in LIVE production microphones featuring adequate response levels for human voice. Based on design and operating reasons, the most widely used types are: handheld, neck (lapel or lavalier), headset and/or shotgun (short and/or long) microphones.
Manufacturers of handheld microphones such as SONY (F-112, F-780), RODE (M1, Reporter), SENNHEISER (XS1, E-835), AKG (D5, D7), SHURE (SM58, BETA 58), BEHRINGER (XM8500, SL 85); shotgun microphones: RODE (NTG series), SENNHEISER (MKE 600), SONY (ECM-VG1, ECM-673); lavalier: AKG (C-417 L), SENNHEISER (MKE series) SHURE (MX and TL series), SONY (ECM-44B, ECM-77B); and headset microphones: THE T.BONE (TWS 16 HeadmiKeD 821 MHz Set), AKG (WMS 40 Mini HeadmikeD ISM1 Set) or SENNHEISER (SL Headmic Set DW-3 EU R).
As a solution for wireless microphony, are worth noting the contributions by SONY (generation 3 of DWX or the URX – UWP-D series); Sennheiser (XSW 1-835, EW122P G4); Shure (UHF-R system).
In regard to audio, accessories such as windscreens, hooksticks, stands and booms are used, as well as other equipment for application of filters, effects and processors.
And we cannot be oblivious of ‘recorded’ (video/audio) materials that may be used as yet another input source, so we need to have playback equipment, recorders (VTR or what has nowadays come to be called recording and playback equipment or systems, also known as recorders or, under a classic acronym in the AV field, a VTR –Video Tape Recorder – PLAY or REC); or if you are a bit more up to date, the DVRs or deck systems). Thus, we find those that are stationary, that is, made part of a fixed technical installation; and the so-called external or portable units, which can be used in different work situations (such as outdoors) because of their easy mobility, compact size and weight. (See article ‘Duplication, Recording and Storage).
Of course, there is the possibility of having equipment that enables replay of previous ‘live’ action; as an absolute example watching a penalty kick in a football match. The solution most widely used is EVS (LSM), but we can also present the instant replay and slow-motion camera 3Play by NEWTEK. And also the inclusion of lettering, graphics and logos when we run software (GC) that facilitates integration of those visual and narrative resources.
Once we have established which are our input (video/audio) sources, as they are more than one, we need use equipment that is capable of putting all them together regardless of source equipment, quality and end use of the same. These are the video mixers and sound tables, essential elements for LIVE production.
Therefore, mixers or switchers enable us to select (play), mix, embed and manipulate sources for video input in order to get video output signals. This type of equipment works to make all input signals usable. The limitation here is that the output signal can only be a single one, the so-called master or programme signal (PGM).
This PGM is the video output signal that is broadcast, projected and disseminated (irrespective of the technology being used); it is a mix resulting from input video sources (together with audio sources), that is ‘the programme’. Although from a purely creative point of view, this signal may be a mere
background or a combination of visual resources (background together with various foregrounds, different keyers and/or DSK, that is, featuring 2D and 3D transitions, visual effects, logos, titling, key chromas, PinP…).
Both video mixers and sound tables feature a wealth of varying equipment depending on the use or the environment where the equipment is to be used. Both success and widespread use of LIVE productions have been configuring equipment that is adapted to the most significant needs in this environment as a solution.
That is the reason why it is pointless in this article to include the video mixers used for TV production of a control room in a set, so here we highlight equipment units that are lightweight while offering sufficient coverage for input and output through easy operations.
Thanks to the current possibilities offered by electronics and IT a ‘multiformat’ mixer type has become increasingly popular. This is equipment capable of processing and mixing an open range of signal types and formats by defining the input/output signal type in the configuration menu of the MIXER itself.
All mixers have a PST (B) bus and a PGM (A) bus for switching input signals and, in order to facilitate the change from one to the other, an effect known as ‘flip-flop’ is used for switching from previous and programme signals successively. When a source changes from previous to programme it is immediately replaced by another and so on. This is the most basic operation: mixing between A and B by applying transition types such as cut, mix, crossfader, fade or wipe.
Mixers allowing for increased functions and creative possibilities include a key bus or several keyers (together with their relevant adjustments), which combined with the above two make up for the main section of a mixer (P/P or Program/Preset).
The most complete, competitive mixers will replicate the functionality of buses by forming what is known as the M/E (Mix/Effect) bench, thus allowing higher processing and visual effect capabilities. This is one of the parameters that are easier to identify both in specifications and in design of the control panel in video mixers: by looking at the number of benches, we can identify 1 M/E, 2 M/E, 3 M/E, or whatever considered by the manufacturer of the equipment.
Therefore, for a LIVE production we can rely on two kinds of mixers. First, the so-called compact video mixers. These are of a smaller size, and less robust in build. Their economical price makes them truly attractive when multicamera production is simple, both due to the lesser number of video input/output sources and to the type of mix to undertake (cut, mix, wipe). Normally with an M/E console. BLACKMAGIC (Design ATEM Mini or ATEM Studio), DATAVIDEO (SE series) FOR-A (HVS-1200), JVC (KM-IP4100 Connected Cam Studio), PANASONIC (AV-UHS500 or AV-HS410), or SONY (MVS-3000, somewhat more complete) are some manufactures specializing in this video mixer market segment.
And the second type, known as integrated video mixers. Also called ‘All in One’ devices. These are consoles used for covering ‘live’ events, so they come crammed with functions in order to increase their operating possibilities. Thus, additions are an audio mix section, touchscreen, streaming out multiviewer or internal REC (through a USB port).
ROLAND (V series, worth noting is V-800HD), EDIROL, DATAVIDEO go for this solution, which join classics such as products from PANASONIC (AG-HMX100) and SONY (MCS-8M or MCX-500) and the innovation provided by EVS with X-One.
In this group worth noting are the so-called cast mobile mixers (portable switchers and video production studios). They are lightweight and feature a very attractive design, including a multi-view screen as well as a section for tally and intercom. Very relevant in this regard are models by SONY (Anycast AWS-G500) or DATAVIDEO (Mobile Studios, HS range) or LIVESTREAM Studio (H550 4K).
Whenever these mix/switchers are embedded in a rack in the fashion of a small TV studio, they are known as PPU (Portable Production Unit: multiviewer monitors, VTR recorder, CCU, waveform monitors and vectorscope, intercom, tally…), as for example NAGASOFT NSCaster 5812.
In regard to sound tables, we must once again establish a difference by table types: tables for radio, for TV, monitor tables, tables for PA and for multi-track recording. In a LIVE environment and provided there are no live sound technicians available, a type of table equipped with all the features offered by a radio/TV table is normally used.
This kind of audio tables do not come with many input channels and feature gain adjustment, equalization, sending to effects, panoramic and mute option and are therefore easy-to-operate units that offer L and R signals for master output.
Some manufacturers specializing in sound tables for LIVE production are YAMAHA (03D, MG12, 01V96VCM, or DM1000); BEHRINGER (X32, SX2442FX, or the slightly smaller Xeny802B); SOUNDCRAFT Signature 10; MACKIE ProFX16v3; TASCAM Model 24; DAS AUDIO Event 12.24 FX; ALLEN & HEATH Qu-16 Chrome, among others.
Video and/or audio output sources, when intended for projection, broadcast, dissemination, upload, and distribution are called master signals. These are a result of the technical coverage inherent to LIVE productions or whatever other technicians from other fields offer us. For instance, sound technicians in a concert performed by a music band will provide us with an audio master signal (L and R if we would like to have a stereo signal).
We have discussed both in the explanation and in the proposal for equipment a complete range that can be used in a LIVE production whenever the configuration is carried out on-site or in facilities located nearby the LIVE event. However, we must include a solution that will be increasingly affordable for LIVE production, such as the use of mobile units.
A mobile production unit (i.e. an OB Van) is nothing but a large-size vehicle (truck and/or van) in which the transport space has been devoted to installation of all the required AV equipment (set-up, wiring, technical controls) as well as the various work areas to enable technicians perform a multicamera LIVE production. Thus, we can use mobile units of different sizes depending on the coverage that must be made in the LIVE production. ‘S’ (Small) size in a mobile unit means relying on up to 4 camera systems and a 4-people team on board a van, whereas in an ‘XXL’ unit (trailer truck) work up to 30 people and about 25 cameras.
In any LIVE production the technology used is the key, but also is the documentation generated (scripts, work plans, quotations, block diagrams, camera reports, broadcast reports, step outlines…) in order to create efficient work dynamics; and no less important, the experience and professionalism of the human team allocated, with professionals such as: camera operators, video operators, sound technicians, sound and video mixers, director, producer, as well as assistants for each of the above areas, with specific, hierarchical roles.
Communication through airwaves, satellite and/or physical networks such as optic fibre, IP protocols or streaming is what makes possible reaching everywhere, blurring the borders between cities and countries.
Making a LIVE production clearly involves determining the technology we want based on performance and quality, also considering budget constraints and in view of the content and the communication intent, with a high degree of interaction/interactivity and a transmedia approach, given the times we are living in, with users demanding to be a part of said live production.
But always a LIVE operation, regardless of the decision made for production and broadcast, has a determining factor that makes it very attractive: the risk that everything goes well, not so well or bad, as well as the ability to improvise, the event’s own dynamism and the outcome of the content reaching the viewers and/or audience.
As the lyrics of the music band Queen rightly say: “Show must go on…”. Making a LIVE production is closer to what is experienced in a theatre than what is shown in a cinema, which is merely a canned film.