video studio

My Video Studio Version 2.0

It’s been a long time since I spoke at any length about my video studio. In fact the initial post about the studio and what I purchased was posted in January 2009. I followed that with a post in February 2009 with my Tele-Prompter-Scope (which I just retired from the studio). I’ve made incremental improvements in the studio since 2009 but many of the improvements had been evolutionary rather than revolutionary. However, the most recent set of upgrades are much more radical and as a result they really warranted some discussion.

What’s The Use?

Before talking about the upgrades it’s important to understand how the goals for the studio have evolved over time. Initially I thought I was going to be recording online training. While that’s still a goal it’s not the only goal. Really, I’m looking for a place that can be used to record a variety of video content including training, video podcasts, and training scenarios that include more than just me standing and talking.

The change in usage – or probably better described as a shift – means I needed to figure out how to get wider shots and it meant that I needed to plan for a wider collection of scenarios.

The Problems and Solutions

I hate admitting my problems but I have them. While the studio was great for most situations there were some things that I realized were challenging – and they were challenges that I wanted to deal with. I want to walk through some of the problems I faced in the studio and what I did to resolve them. At a high-level I had a few minor audio quirks to deal with and I had some rather significant video changes to support the idea that I’d be recording training by myself – and that I’m not perfect. I needed to get to two relatively similar looking camera shots so that I could stumble and do a transition that is visually appealing. This is something I hadn’t considered when I initially setup the studio. I assumed that I’d just rerecord that section but as sections got longer rerecording everything became a bit more challenging.

Audio

I had already dealt with many of the audio concerns over the years. Mostly I did this by adding ATS Acoustic Panels. Why ATS Panels? I had my assistant do the research and these panels had the best cost/performance ratio. There were other panels that had higher sound reduction – but none that had a better cost/reduction ratio. Ultimately I ended up covering the ceiling with the panels and having some on the walls as well. The ceiling mounted panels are actually on suspension wire so they will get a slightly better sound suppression. You can see the panels (two different colors) lining the walls and ceiling in the picture.

Along the way I also picked up the successor to the Zoom H4 Handycorder – the Zoom H4N. I really never used it in the studio – I was using it for some live shots but it is really nice—and is easier to connect than the Roland Edirol R-09HR I was using. The Handycorder has hybrid XLR / ¼” connectors that I can just plug into.

Rounding out the conversation about audio are two other changes I made that were interesting, first, I replaced the Line 6 Tone Port UX2 with a Focusrite Saffire 40. The real reason for this was that the Tone Port required software be running to function and the Saffire doesn’t. Of course, the extra six channels didn’t hurt. The Saffire also allows you to connect additional channels via an ADAT fiber interface so I picked up a Focusrite OctoPre MkII and connected it to the Saffire so I have 16 channels available. This too is not really designed for the studio. It’s really designed as a portable rig to be able to get multi-channel audio recorded.

The audio in the studio was as I mentioned really good. In part to improve the scene and in part to reduce noise, I added the rug you see in the image above. In addition to the wireless mics, I added a Rode NTG1 and a Rode NTG2 microphone to the studio. They’re essentially the same mic, but one allows for inline battery power and the other requires phantom power. I’ve mounted them above so they can record without a lapel mic on. I’m planning on using both lapel mics and recording from the shotgun microphones as well. This should give me four clean sources of audio.

Audio Sync

Audio Sync is something that you can get right if you really work at it. However, it’s tedious work and it requires patience to get right. It seemed to always take too long to do every time I setup another shot. The result was to purchase RedGiant’s PluralEyes. It does the synchronization for me. I did this some time ago and still love it. I do one solid clap at the beginning of the video and the audio sync is rock solid from then on.

Lighting

When I initially setup the studio I had one Interfit Photographic Super Cool Lighting Kit with two lights. I liked them but the Sony SDR-HD11 through the teleprompter really needed a bit more light so I picked up a second set. I also had some issues with shadows on the green screen so I had a custom made floor light made out of a 4 bulb fluorescent fixture. It adds up-lighting to the green screen and resolves – or mitigates the shadows caused by actors. The result is that I’m able to get a clean chroma key now – without too much fiddling. (This is a powerful statement because the Sony Vegas Chroma keyer is pretty lousy.)

Setting the Scene

I could record me standing for training and presentations but the studio didn’t really have a way to set a scene. So I added two director’s chairs and a café table. Doing that spread me out a bit more than I could comfortably get good shots against the green screen so I added some “wing” green screen fabric so that off-angle shots work. With that and the introduction of the rug, it feels like a real set now. I can switch out to one of the other backgrounds if I want to – and I can drop the green screen all together.

Camera Angles and Position

This won’t be a news flash but I am not perfect. When I’m recording I stumble and I don’t get this perfect. When you’re recording 20 minute modules for courses you’re going to make some errors. Some of these errors are normal and make the video feel more real but a few of the stumbles are going to be so big they’ll be distracting if left in the video. So I need to cut them out. This presents a problem because in video recording it looks weird to cut to and from the same camera and angle. I needed to have a separate camera to cut to when I stumbled. Along the way I had picked up a used Canon XH A1 as a second camera. It has a 1440×1080 recording rather than a 1920×1080 recording that most current high-definition cameras have – but it’s more than good enough for what I’m doing.

So I set the teleprompter on one tripod and the Canon XH A1 on another and wove their legs between each other and ended up with a roughly two foot spread between the cameras. The problem with this is that when I needed to cut to the second camera it always looked like I was talking to someone else. I wasn’t looking into the lens any longer. I needed to get the two cameras closer to each other. They needed to be so close that you couldn’t tell that I wasn’t looking at the camera when it was recorded.

The solution to the camera angle problem was to get the cameras closer together but the real question is: how do you do that? The answer, it turns out wasn’t easy. The obvious answer is to put the cameras side-by-side. That would mean putting both cameras behind the glass of the teleprompter. The problem there is that the camera body width – of the Cannon XH A1 is about 8.5″. That means that I needed about 20″ of horizontal glass space to get both cameras to fit. The existing teleprompter wasn’t big enough for that. So the next step was to decide how big to make the new teleprompter.

This led to a lot of math and work to determine what the best answer was and ultimately I decided that there wasn’t a great answer. The studio is about 15’x30′. Because of space behind the green screen and the editing bay being on the opposite side of the room I was actually shooting the scene at a distance of about 12′. Making the teleprompter bigger would mean that it couldn’t sit between the two racks it was sitting between. From a space management point of view, this was an issue. The solution was to rethink the problem.

The new approach to the camera angle problem eliminated the teleprompter all together and pushed the cameras back another ~8 feet. The additional distance from the camera means that my eye movements aren’t as noticeable even if I’m not technically looking directly at the camera. That also left me open to address some issues. I only had one camera preview monitor. So I added a second camera preview monitor. Because of the longer distance I needed a bigger screen for the slide preview.

I ended up with 2x 27″ camera preview monitors plus a 50″ program (PowerPoint) preview monitor. The next question was mounting. We’re now talking about three monitors of relatively large size plus mounting the two cameras. I looked a lot of solutions and finally decided on the overkill answer. I decided that I’d take box truss that is used for building stage lighting rigs and I’d use that as my stand. I selected a seven foot twelve inch box truss and then I got a 30″ base plate to attach it to. I decided to put it so that one of the points was facing forward so I could clamp everything onto the center.

The next challenge was how to mount the preview monitors to the truss. For that I started with some truss quick release clamps. For the 27″ monitors I used a three monitor vertical desk mount. This takes a bit of explaining. Buying nice mounts for the monitors that would tilt and swivel quickly would have been very expensive. With this solution I could cut the vertical pipe into sections and then attach the clamps to the pipe then the monitor mounts to the pipe. It gives me a great deal of fine control over height and also allows for a nice tilt able, tunable mount for the monitors. For the 50″ TV I used a Wall Mount and then adapted it to attach two of the quick clamps to it. (I had to put a larger hole in the bracket to accommodate the 10M screws on the quick clamps.)

The final component of the mounting was the cameras. I wanted to bring them forward and closer together since the truss is 12″ apart and I could really get the cameras closer. Here I used a set of L-Brackets that were affixed to the quick clamp then another L bracket affixed to that. I then used a mini-ball head to mount the camera on for fine positioning. The solution wasn’t awful but there was a fair amount of wiggle so I replaced them with some custom made brackets based off of ¾” box tubing. The benefit to the design here was that the box tubing provides a stable horizontal surface and I could design them with a counter weight so that the screw affixing the bracket to the quick clamp could be counterweighted so that there was less tendency to sag. They’re perfect and with the mini-ball heads I am actually getting the mounting so the cameras appear to be mounted to the top edge of the 50′ screen.

In the previous setup, getting the camera positioned correctly with the correct zoom was always tricky because you couldn’t tell what the camera in the teleprompter was actually shooting when you’re the only one in the studio. The weight of the curtain (to stop light getting in the one-way glass and ruining the mirror) and the micro adjustments in the positioning meant that you could get close to positioning but it would always “drift” a bit. I recorded several modules of courses with a bad video position that I had to fix because of this. Changing to the new tower – and eliminating the teleprompter more than resolved any issues I had with the cameras moving because I can literally see everything that’s happening.

Color Match

Having one camera behind one-way glass for the teleprompter and the other camera directly shooting subjects and having two different cameras – from two different manufacturers – resulted in a different color profile for the two different cameras. I did some work to get the two cameras to match in color and brightness and was able to get them closer together. However, getting the color profiles to be a close match turned out to be a much harder problem than I had anticipated. I’m sure I could have used software to solve the problem if I had to – but I knew it would never be perfect. I ended up shooting some color matching sheets and then comparing relative values to get some curves that were close… it was just a lot of work and I knew it would be hours of math and reshooting to get something that was barely passable (in my eyes).

The solution for color matching became easy. Get the two cameras the same and don’t shoot one behind a teleprompter and the other not. So I ordered a second Canon XH A1 and a Focus FS-5 (which is effectively identical to the FS-CV I had with the other camera). With two 3 CCD cameras that are white balanced to the same target the results are indistinguishable from one another.

Audio/Video Capture Issues

When I got the Canon XH A1 it came with a Focus Enhancements FS-CV hard disk recorder. (Focus Enhancements was purchased by Vitec.) The Canon is a tape based camera but has a firewire port capable of delivering 1080. The FS-CV records the video to hard disk. The recorder is great – except that occasionally it decides to drop just a few frames of video and audio when it swaps files.

The Focus Enhancements FS-CV and FS-5 are based on a 120GB 1.8″ hard drive spinning at 4200 RPM. I know this because I disassembled the FS-CV to inspect it after I noticed the dropped frames and audio. I decided that I could replace the 120GB drive with a 128GB KingSpec SSD. I needed to transfer the drive image from the old drive to the new drive but there are plenty of drive cloning tools for that – except that the drive had a ZIF connector. That meant buying a SATA to ZIF adapter so I could connect the drive to the computer to get an image of it. I copied the original to a virtual hard drive (vhd) I then took that image and put it on the KingSpec. The dramatic drive performance boost seems to have resolved the dropped frames and audio. One of the great things about PluralEyes (see Audio Sync above) is that it would show me the gaps in video when the recorder dropped frames – so after several tests I know that I don’t have this problem any longer.

That’s a Wrap – for now

That’s pretty much the list of upgrades for this round. I’m really happy with the results I’m getting and I’m glad to work out a few more bugs so I can focus on creating content.