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Equipping a Studio for Web Video Production: Three Models to Match Your Budget

Whether you're an independent production facility or a corporate or institutional outfit bringing professional online video production and webcasting in-house, what will it cost to create a flexible and functional studio? In this article, we'll spec out three different studios at three different price points—$5,000, $15,000, and $25,000.

The $5,000 Webcast Studio

My $5,000 webcast studio is designed to be very limited in order to keep costs down but quality high. I did not want to compromise on the audio and video quality for the sake of building a lesser studio that could accommodate luxuries like PowerPoint or computer presentations, more than one person on-camera, or even more than a single camera angle. Because of this limited scope I was able to build a studio within 18 cents of my budget. Unfortunately, this left no room within the budget to customize this studio to your individual needs. And while you might be able to ask your boss for a larger budget and be able to justify why, my publisher insists I keep to the budget – I guess $5,000 sounds a lot better than an arbitrary number like $5,274.34.

Camcorder

The camera I selected for this budget is the $1,999 Canon XA20 (Figure 1, below). I really wanted an all-HD-SDI workflow and to have been able to select the Canon XA25 ($2,499), but the costs of doing everything in HD-SDI is higher. The benefit of a professional connection like HD-SDI is the stability of the signal and the locking bayonet connector.

Figure 1. Canon XA20

One legitimate reason to skip HD-SDI and the XA25 is because the XA25 is limited to 1.5G HD-SDI, which doesn’t support progressive 1080 resolutions, and the HDMI output on the XA20 and XA25 does—meaning if you needed 1080p output, you’d use HDMI regardless of which camera you selected. But given that the XA25’s HD-SDI does support 720p, which is the webcast resolution we would target, the lack of 1080p support becomes a non-issue.

But then again, at $5,000, we don’t have the budget for HD-SDI webcast gear anyway. There’s a lot to consider when you’re building a webcast studio from scratch, and ultimately you’ll have to accept some trade-offs. The decision to skip HD-SDI and go with the XA20 and HDMI turned out to be a better match with the webcast encoder we’ll use in this scenario, which I will discuss in a little bit.

I briefly considered webcams such as the $80 Logitech C920, but they lack professional controls, and I knew that to keep this workflow under budget, I was going to need to design it without a computer-based webcast encoder. So a USB webcam wasn’t an option, although this would be a consideration for the $15,000 build if I wanted to add professional-looking Skype or Google Hangout chats to my capabilities.

I chose the XA20 over the slightly less expensive and similarly equipped Sony NX30 video camera. In the $5K scenario, I couldn’t afford to include an external monitor in my workflow, so I needed the best on-camera monitor I could get, and the 3.5" Canon OLED monitor beats the Sony 3" LCD one in both resolution and size. In general, OLED has better blacks, contrast ratio, viewing angle, and under normal usage, is brighter.

The XA20’s image quality is also very clean, thanks to its 1/2.8" sensor and Digic DV 4 processor, and a clean image is important when using aggressive webcast bitrates.

Camera Support

To support the XA20, I chose the Manfrotto 502HD flat base head and 055XPROB tripod kit for $324.90 (Figure 2, below). I decided against paying more for a ball-level head because a studio setup doesn’t require change as much as field work does, and I selected this head over less expensive tripod systems because of the quality of the build and the wide use of the Manfrotto 501 tripod plate.

Figure 2. Manfrotto 502HD flat-base tripod head

The benefit of a widely used tripod is that you can find replacement parts and accessories, such as quick release plates, almost everywhere. The 502HD ships with a long version of the plate too, which helps when you want to level an unbalanced load. This is a sturdy tripod that can execute smooth pans and tilts. It also pairs nicely with the weight of the Canon XA20, so this should afford a degree of useful counterbalance to avoid dips if the tripod’s tilt isn’t locked.

Lighting

For lighting I wanted to stay away from anything that would create excessive heat but wasn’t ready to invest in LED panels. The fluorescent two-light softbox kit from Adorama’s Flashpoint line (Figure 3, below) provides even front lighting for $129.95.

Figure 3. Streaming Media’s own Jan Ozer basking in the glow of Adorama’s two-light Flashpoint fluorescent softbox kit

I’m going to skip recommending any up-lights for the background or a hair light for the talent so that I can keep under budget, but a second matching kit would give more lighting options and a couple of bounce boards can serve the same purpose. Just be careful if you are mixing and matching lights that you make sure they all have the same color temperature, measured in Kelvin.

My editor suggested I throw in $20 for a can of green paint but I don’t want a greenscreen for my $5k budget webcast studio because that would require me to do live keying, which will ultimately cost more. I’m not even going to throw in $20 to repaint the wall of this studio because, honestly, the true cost in repainting is the labor and not the product, and we’ll make due with whatever wall we have when we dedicate the space to video. What’s more, the best way to hide an unsightly backdrop wall is to not light it, which is consistent with my minimalistic lighting design above.

Streaming Encoder

For this single-camera webcast workflow I ‘m going to spec-out a camera-mounted wireless streaming video encoder. I looked at the $495 Livestream Broadcaster but decided against it because, despite a lower initial hardware cost, it is tied to Livestream for webcasting. This limits future options by eliminating compatibility with other webcast services, as well as manual entry of RTMP streams. Ultimately, the Livestream Broadcaster would end up costing more in the first year.

The $699 Teradek VidiU webcast encoder (Figure 4, below) is very similar in size and adds 1080p support, although right now the intention is to stick with 720p. Like the Livestream Broadcaster, it has an HDMI input, which is consistent with the Canon XA20 camera selection, but otherwise the feature comparison doesn’t reveal many differences, except that the VidiU is not tied to any specific webcast service.

Figure 4. Teradek VidiU

I like Livestream on its enterprise side, but its $49 basic streaming package lacks the ability to embed the live video player on your company website, meaning your viewers have to leave your website, and because your boss thinks this is important (which it is), you’ll decide to look elsewhere. The Livestream Premium account does allow embedding of live video, but at $399 per month we would exhaust the entire budget with the encoder and webcast package alone.

In order to keep under budget and add the ability to embed live video wherever I want to, I’ve selected the Ustream Silver streaming package for $99 per month, and I’ll apologize later if the webcasts are so successful we run over the included 100 monthly add-free viewer hours and are billed an additional 50 cents per viewer hour. You can also look outside the top two streaming services to companies like DaCast that offer competitively priced, pay-as-you-go and monthly packages.

Microphones

For audio I decided on the $299 Shure PG wireless lavaliere microphone system (Figure 5, below). It lacks the ability to scan for available frequencies and is limited to only 10 preset channels, but this is better than a single-channel model. It also is a true diversity receiver with a pair of internal antennas and has a tone key squelch feature that pairs the transmitter to the receiver using a supra- or sub-audible tone; it rejects interfering signals without this tone, meaning an interfering signal at the same frequency won’t make it into your webcast.

Figure 5. Shure PG wireless system

For producers who find themselves in a busy RF airspace, and/or want more than 10 presets, I would recommend a wireless system that has the ability to scan available frequencies such as the Sennheiser Evolution 100 G3 for $530.

I’d prefer a wireless microphone kit that operates on AA batteries but I can work with 9V cells. I recommend rechargeable batteries both for long-term cost savings and to minimize the environmental impact. The Ansmann 300 Max Power Low Discharge 9V NIMH cell costs $13.25 each (I budgeted for two). Like all rechargeable batteries that are used in critical operations, the Ansmanns should be charged with a microprocessor controlled smart charger that can detect and condition faulty cells. I recommend the Ansmann Energy 8 Plus for $55.97. Low-discharge batteries also have a longer shelf-life than regular NiMH versions, so I don’t have to be concerned if I use a battery that has been sitting for a while.

Editing Software

Because there is no money left to buy a computer and software to edit the archive and add graphics for the on-demand version if desired, I included a budget for a single-app subscription to Adobe Premiere Pro CC for $239.88 per year. Less expensive software is certainly available, but the ability to transfer the license back and forth between computers I have not budgeted for, which might include your personal computers or one or more shared computers in the office, is a good trade-off compared to a dedicated computer investment.

SD Cards

This studio build is for a single-camera webcast so there is no need for an external HD recorder, but I do need to record the video in-camera for later re-editing. I’ve added $37.98 to the budget for a pair of Sony 32GB SDHC Class 10 memory cards rated at 40MB/sec.

As with the 9V battery, I could get away with a single SD card, but the Canon XA20 allows me to record two at the same time and it’s nice to have a backup. I’m going to assume you already have a card reader, but unfortunately I’m over my budget, so I can’t throw in $6.99 for the Transcend RDF5 USB 3.0 model that I would recommend if you can afford it. Using a USB 3.0 card reader will ensure speedier transfers than the standard USB 2.0 models, but if you’re paid hourly you probably won’t mind the forced break the additional transfer time will allow you.

$0.18 Over Budget

All in, my $5k studio has a cost of $5,000.18 before taxes, shipping, and an optional can of paint. Audio runs into the camera via its XLR inputs and both the video and audio output via the mini-HDMI cable (included in the XA20 box so it doesn’t affect my budget) into the Teradek VidiU. The webcast signal goes out via the office’s Ethernet connection to Ustream Silver, which is embedded on the company’s website for viewers to watch and listen to. The archive is then re-edited with additional graphics and opening and closing stingers and then re-uploaded to replace the live-recorded version.

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