Off-site but in control using remote event production tools

Off-site but in control using remote event production tools
Having the tools to control an event remotely are not new but have come to the fore in the last two years. Paul Milligan explores what is possible from afar.

The word remote has often had negative connotations. To be remote is to be aloof or disengaged from events happening around you. Since Covid struck in early 2020, the word has taken on new meaning and now represents the ability to carry on with your life, wherever you are. The live events industry has been hit harder than most during Covid times. Live events planned in the last two years were either cancelled or repeatedly postponed until restrictions were temporarily lifted. For the events that did occur, remote technology was the saving grace. And for those integrators who were ready to go once the pandemic hit or pivoted quickly to provide events that were managed remotely, there was money to be made.

So where are we two years into a global pandemic, has AV-over-IP technology now freed event production teams from the requirement to be onsite when delivering an event? “Absolutely, yes,” says Dave Van Hoy, president of systems integrator Advanced Systems Group (ASG). Since the pandemic hit ASG has been running “full blown, fully crewed shows, with technical directors, audio operators, comms operators, graphics operators, and everything else remote, very early on,” adds Van Hoy. Has the technology always been available to manage events remotely and it was just the case that we didn’t need it, or has its availability been a recent development?

Although the REMI concept (Remote Integration Model - a production workflow that allows content to be captured from a remote location and managed from a central technical facility) has been around a long time it has evolved in recent years adds Van Hoy. “What's changed is the technology and the speeding up of the internet in general, the availability of QoS (quality of service), and probably most importantly, new codecs and new transport protocols, which have really made it much more widely implementable,” he says.

Early iterations of remote event production included the streaming of performances from theatres from major cities to cinemas in smaller towns to increase an audience. But from venue to venue what was lacking was bidirectionality and control says Liam Hayter, senior solutions architect EMEA, NewTek. “We've had remote production tools using 3G or 4G, where they can carry traditional audio and video over cellular, we've always had satellite. What we've not had is the ability over the public internet in a simple, accessible and most importantly a free way, which is what we’re offering with NDI.”

In a world where we were told to stay at home for large periods of 2020 and 2021, has the outbreak of Covid actually accelerated the technology needed to produce live events from a remote location, would we be where we are today without Covid? “It has definitely changed peoples' thinking and required a lot of problem solving along the way,” says Craig Heffernan, technical sales director, Blackmagic Design. “We’ve seen a massive increase in demand for products from small, local venues through to global events, and even into emerging technologies like VR requiring remote production systems. Through this I think we’ve seen technologies, innovations and products become available from many manufacturers that we may not have had otherwise.”

The use of remote event production was ‘creeping along’ admits Van Hoy, “But as Covid came the acceleration was 1,000%, it went from ‘here and there experimental’ to ‘I guess we're going to use this now’ in about five minutes.” Through long established relationships with the likes of Grass Valley and Vizrt, ASG was able to get its hands on products that weren’t scheduled for release just yet, “There were a lot of very brave vendors who gave us things to work with that they positively did not plan on having out in the wild.”

Covid may have forced the hand of some, but going forward into a Covid-free world (or one with less restrictions at least), it seems obvious that integrators should take greater advantage of this technology. After all, it does have three significant benefits says Peter Brandt, the CEO of Remote Recording Network. “The first is quality, if you are sitting in a proper studio, not a home studio with speakers somewhere on your furniture, but a really well designed, original recording place, where you can listen to things properly in a good environment, you can judge your sound and your work much better than you can do in an OB truck no matter how good it is. The second is you save money. Before the pandemic you could save around 25% if you did it remotely, you save crew travel, diesel for the truck, the driver, the crew travel, the hotel, the catering, the per diems, so it adds up to a lot of money, that's just on the audio broadcast side. When you save cameramen as well it’s even more. Finally, it’s green and that’s the biggest thing. Instead of using 30-litre diesel truck, we use a 10-litre van. The equipment is small in size. Instead of using 10 kilowatts per hour for the mains, and the air conditioning, and the big consoles and the tape machines.”

Additional benefits include the ability to work across multiple events in one day and potentially dozens across a week. Another is the ability to bring in talent at a much lower cost adds Van Hoy; “If you want that rock star/TV star to switch on your show you might not have been able to afford to fly that person in, have them there for two days of rehearsal. Now you could put a TD (technical director) in their den at home and they can switch the show on in their pyjamas. That's a really significant enabler for productions and production values.” Production is about being in control, but can you control what is going on if you’re not physically in the room, is some control then lost? It’s often just a fear of the unknown says Hayter, “The biggest challenge has always been connectivity and it still is in a lot of ways.”

It has just become another skill to learn says Van Hoy, “It has caused the operators to up their comms games, there is always a plus to being able to turn around and talk to the person sitting next to you or run across the venue and into the control room when something is really wrong. Those have been challenges (to overcome), we’ve seen clients and our operators have to practice that and acknowledge that. Last-second changes to shows are definitely more difficult (being remote).” Recent advancements in products are closing the gap between ‘in the room’ and remote says Heffernan. “Newer IP technologies help increase and bridge distance between camera positions and production control - which may have ordinarily have only been across a venue or from the pit of a stage to backstage at much smaller distances.”

With so much of audio being about ‘feel’, can you remotely produce audio only events from a remote standpoint without any loss of quality? Peter Brandt has spent the last 15 years working remotely on a variety of audio projects, from creating an entire music studio inside a London black taxi in the early 2010s, to putting on the first live performances in 2017 as part of Telekom Street Gigs in Germany, where he controlled the audio from a Cologne-based studio using a mixture of broadband and 4G, and ProTools software. Being in the room is only needed for microphone placement he says. “We still have one engineer on-site who knows how to microphone an orchestra. It’s actually better sitting in a studio somewhere, which is properly aligned, where you can judge if a microphone needs to be changed by 10cm, because you can hear that. In a sound truck there's a good chance that you don’t hear that difference.”

Audio is the easiest part of remote event production says Hayter. “We've had compressed audio for quite a long time, and it works really well. It's about preparation at the remote end, what equipment do you really need there? Do you need to send someone to set it up, or can you send it to that person so they can set it up themselves? We have high quality USB microphones now. You don't want too much echo, so you might use AI noise cancelling to remove background noise on an incoming call as part of the production. There's lots of things we can do to help clean that up and make that more manageable."

All of those we spoke to mentioned how internet speeds and availability had improved recently but it is still an issue that can hamper the quality of the event being produced? “It’s very consistently a problem,” says Van Hoy. “You have many vendors with quite frankly very little guaranteed quality of service. The big professional shops (broadcasters, sports networks, live event production companies) all know how to buy and enable the quality of service and bandwidth that's required. But when you start going to the corporate world or houses of worship where you've got people presenting from all kinds of different places, from their home networks, this is where the danger becomes very live and very big.”

One aspect that has helped alongside rising internet speeds is NDI, which has emerged in recent years as the frontrunner to bridge SDI and AV over IP. Has there been a rise in take-up of NDI out there in the AV world? “When you look to guarantee sync between audio and video and transport, nothing is as widely implemented as NDI is, Vizrt and NewTek definitely gave the industry a gift there,” says Van Hoy. “There are certainly lots of other protocols that can work in various ways, SRT is fantastic, RTMP can be great in certain situations, but SDI and Cloud is not a thing. SIMPTE 2110 is a great standard but it really wasn’t designed for the Cloud, and it is literally impossible to implement it in the Cloud because it is a multicast protocol, and the Cloud does not do multicast.”

The one thing we've all learned in the last few years is what is good enough says Hayter.

“We've had a long obsession with chasing uncompressed, but the running costs and the production costs of working in that manner and the data that's generated is overwhelming. Compression has come on in such a way, especially with the work that we've done over the last five generations of NDI to make the images as visually lossless as possible, to make the audio as clean as possible, but then still offer the control at low bandwidth means it has really taken off.”

Remote event production is still relatively new, and for clients that want the security of having someone in the same room to shout at, do they need convincing to work this way? It seems not. “I find our clients are more optimistic than we are, that's actually the bigger challenge. We have to say that might not be a good idea, they want to broadcast from the CEO’s house and he has a 5MB line,” says Van Hoy. There is resistance from some system integrators says Hayter, who want to continue working in the same way they’ve done before. “We're still seeing lots of projects coming along with traditional SDI or HDMI, because that's how their businesses worked. It’s all hardware and specific units and rooms very rigid, they're the last little bit of resistance, I think it’s a 50/50 split, some get it and run with it, there's others saying ‘no, this is how we do things’, but the client has already moved on, that's how we've been doing things for 18 months. We’ve been through an awful time but from a creative and event and AV standpoint, the future couldn't be more exciting and brighter.”

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