I've been helping Donut.js record their meetup talks for about 3 years now. It's been a fun way to experiment with various video recording setups, and the talks are always great so it's nice to have those recorded.
I've always used a smaller kit compared to the rig I bring to large multi-day conferences. But lately I've had to hand off some camera gear to their volunteers since I've been out of town on work trips for most of the meetups this year.
I've been looking for smaller and smaller gear to make this easy to transport, cut down on setup time, but also so that it can be operated by someone without a lot of experience with the gear. I've tried a few iterations of kits for them, but so far the most reliable way to record the meetup is using a camcorder, a separate device to capture the presenter's slides, and a separate audio recorder, then sync up everything in post.
In an ideal world, I'd be able to hand them a small box and a video camera, they could plug everything in, and it would record a single stream mixing in the presenter's slides, the video camera, and the audio. Here's a little diagram showing what I'd like in an ideal world.
The video camera and presenter's laptop connect to the "magic box" via HDMI. We use a PA in the venue, which has an XLR output, and that needs to connect to the magic box to get audio into the mix. Lastly, I want the presenter's laptop HDMI to pass through to an output so that we can feed the venue's projector from the box. The box should be able to record the video output to an SD card or hard drive. I don't need it to be able to livestream, but bonus points if it can.
Part of the goal is also to cut down on post-production time. Right now I have to sync the audio and video (automatically) in Final Cut or Premiere, then line up the recording of the slides manually. It ultimately isn't that bad, but does mean the whole process takes around an hour for the three talks. Ideally I could record a mix of the video and slides already combined into a single video so that the only work is trimming the start and end, and adding the title slides. Here's a snapshot of the kind of layout I'd like to make.
This means scaling the slides and scaling and cropping the video. I would settle for a side-by-side layout like the below, where both are scaled but not cropped.
My last requirement, and one that rules out a few otherwise great devices, is that I need the device to be simple enough to operate to explain in a single page of instructions. I need it to be plug the HDMI and audio inputs in, then turn on the device, and hit record. Once I've set it up once, it can't require any configuration on site.
So far, I haven't been able to find a device that can do all of these things at the same time. Here's a list of all my requirements:
Here are a few setups that I've tried or investigated.
This device is so close to being perfect. It has only one HDMI input, but you can also plug in a USB webcam as a second camera. While that's obviously not going to be as good quality as a real camera, I would consider it good enough for this use case. The Webcaster X2 is the device that made the screenshot above with the text "My Great Presentation", so you can see that it's able to scale both the HDMI input as well as the USB webcam. Here's where it fails:
I'm also not a huge fan of the fact that it's actually an Android device, but it is pretty well done anyway, and mostly you can ignore that fact while using it.
Total cost: $300 for the Webcaster, but this doesn't really apply because it can't record locally at all so it's not really an option.
At a recent conference I recorded, I hacked together a DIY version of the box using a few components.
The inputs are connected with short HDMI extenders to expose them to the outside of the box.
This makes setup super easy, since you just plug in the three HDMI connectors and you're good to go. In this conference we were using a lav mic that fed into the camera, so the audio was coming in via that HDMI.
The scaler handles taking whatever resolution peoples' laptops throw at it and convert it to 1080p, plus outputs that back out for the projector. The multiviewer then takes the scaled computer output and the HDMI camera and creates an image with two smaller windows of each video. It's also able to select which one to use audio from. The output of the multiviewer goes into the Atomos recorder to record the final output.
This worked well, but is kind of a clunky solution, plus wouldn't work for Donut.js where the audio needs to get fed in separately from an XLR cable. That'd require a few more pieces of hardware such as an HDMI audio injector or such.
Total cost: $300 scaler, $300 multiviewer, $100 cross-converter, $500 HDMI recorder: $1200 plus some cables and maybe also an audio injector.
I haven't actually used this device yet, but it comes very very close to being a perfect solution based on all the videos and reviews I've seen.
It has three HDMI inputs, and one pass-through port which is perfect for feeding the projector.
It even has an XLR input on the side which we can use to input the feed from the PA.
But here's what it's missing:
Switching between picture-in-picture and one of the HDMI sources can be done with the physical buttons on top, and would be easy enough to instruct people how to do.
I suppose I could live with picture-in-picture instead of side by side, but I would feel better about that if it also had built-in recording to an SD card.
By the time you add an external recorder, you're spending $1500 on the VR-1HD and $500 on the recorder, for a total of $2000.
The Tricaster is definitely an all-in-one solution, but I'm ruling it out immediately since it requires quite a lot of configuration to get running and isn't something I would consider handing off to a volunteer. It's also quite expensive at a baseline price of $6000.
The Blackmagic ATEM is my goto for larger events, and I do really like it. However, it's still a bit too complicated to hand off to someone to use. It doesn't have built-in recording, so you have to pair it with an external recorder. It also doesn't have a built-in scaler so you need that for the slides too.
It also can only do picture-in-picture, not side by side video. In order to do that you need to step up to the much larger and more expensive devices.
I haven't actually put together a complete parts list for what it would cost for this option because I don't think it's viable at all. The ATEM TVS is $1000, the recorder is $600, and the scaler is $300, so the base cost before all the other accessories you'd need is $1900.
I'm including this option in the list just so people don't tell me I forgot it. It turns out this isn't actually a very good solution, because it won't be an all-in-one box, and also is kind of complicated to operate, requiring a monitor and keyboard and mouse.
Trying to do this on a laptop isn't really feasible since it requires two HDMI capture cards plus a USB audio interface. I wouldn't trust Windows to do this since it's very easy for a Windows computer to accidentally start running auto-updates at inopportune times. Running Linux is an option, but would then likely require more explanation to people using it.
I would want to be able to configure the computer to launch OBS on boot and restore a saved configuration, so that there is no fiddling with software to get it running.
Overall I feel like there are too many moving parts and different ways this can fail, and also would require a lot of plugging wires in so the setup time would actually be pretty long.
I've actually used the SlingStudio at Donut.js quite a bit myself, and it is again almost perfect.
The total cost of this setup is:
The Epiphan Pearl Mini sure looks like a fantastic device. I haven't tried it out myself, but I've looked at a bunch of reviews of it. It actually seems like it's the only thing that actually ticks all of the feature boxes.
The only thing I am not clear on is what happens when you first boot it up. I am hoping that it would restore the last used configuration and be ready to go immediately.
Really the only downside to this is the cost. It's a $3500 device, which is good for what it can do, but also still quite a lot of money. After this much research though, I'm coming around to the idea that maybe it's worth it.
So I think out of all of these options, the best is the Pearl Mini ($3500), and second best is the Roland VR-1HD with external recorder ($2000).
I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on this! Did I forget about any options? Is there a new device that's come out that I don't know about yet?
Write a blog post response or ping me on Twitter to get in touch!
If I ever do find the perfect solution, I will be sure to post a review video on my YouTube channel!
I've been looking for ways to slim down the amount of equipment I need to bring to record conferences talks, both to make it easier to travel to other cities, as well as to speed up the setup time during an event.
This post outlines my current favorite set of hardware for recording and livestreaming conference talks and meetups. I'm able to fit all of this into a backpack and carry it on my bicycle to local events, or take it on planes to events in another country.
The SlingStudio system has been a total game changer, packing an unbelievable amount of power into a tiny box.
At the core of the system is the SlingStudio Hub. This is the brains of the operation: a video switcher, encoder, and recorder. This device broadcasts its own wifi hotspot, which you can then connect your cameras and controllers to. You can use any HDMI camera as a video source by using a CameraLink to wirelessly connect the HDMI device, or you can use any iOS or Android device as a camera as well. This provides a great opportunity to have a super compact rig, since iPhone cameras are actually pretty good now.
For small productions, I will bring one iPhone camera, and one camcorder connected via HDMI. The iPhone provides a good enough picture for a wide shot of the room, and the camcorder provides good optical zoom and low light capability for a close-up of the presenter.
The rear of the device provides a few ports, most importantly an HDMI input and audio input, which means you have a built-in way to grab the slides from the presenter as well as a good audio feed.
I usually plug in an HDMI 1x2 splitter into the input, so that I can send the presenter's computer to the house projector as well as this device. This makes the computer show up as a camera angle in the switcher. The hub can accept a huge variety of HDMI resolutions as the input and it handles scaling itself. I haven't yet found a computer that this device couldn't handle.
The Hub is controlled via an iPad or Mac app. I usually use an iPad since it's nice having a dedicated device with a touch screen for this, plus it's easier to walk around with the iPad.
You start by connecting the iPad to the Hub's wifi hotspot that it broadcasts, then when you launch the SlingStudio Console app, it will connect to the Hub and provide you with a controller interface to see all the camera angles and switch between them.
Since my goal is to have this pack up entirely in a backpack, I wanted to find the smallest options for cameras, even if it comes somewhat at the expense of quality. I typically use one or two iPhone SEs ($100 used), and a Canon Vixia HF R500 ($200). (The R500s are discontinued, replaced by the Canon Vixia HF R800, which is only a minor upgrade).
I use the Canon for a close-up shot of the presenter, since it has optical zoom and is pretty good at low light. The camera itself doesn't weigh much, so it can fit on a small tripod. I use a short tripod with a monopod extension, which has the benefit of having a pretty small footprint. This wouldn't hold up a DSLR when fully extended, but handles the Canon just fine.
The Canon camera also has an audio input, so I can connect a wireless microphone receiver to this such as the super compact Sony ECMAW4 Bluetooth microphone.
The Canon provides a mini HDMI output, which connects to the micro HDMI input on the SlingStudio CameraLink transmitter. The CameraLink connects wirelessly to the Hub, so I can place the camera wherever. The battery in the CameraLink lasts a couple hours, long enough that I don't need to worry about it for a short talk, but if I'm going to be filming for a whole evening I'll make sure to connect it to micro USB power or at least an external battery pack.
With one good close-up view of the presenter, I just need a wide view as a secondary or fallback camera angle. I usually place this camera in the back of the room so that the audience as well as the projector are visible. Since I have both a close-up of the presenter as well as their slides brought in directly, I can get away with using an iPhone as this camera angle despite its slightly reduced quality.
The iPhone SE has a pretty decent camera. It's the same cameras as in the iPhone 6s line, but you can get a used iPhone SE for about $100 now, making this the cheapest way to get another camera angle into the mix.
To use the iPhone as a camera, you first connect the iPhone to the Hub's wifi hotspot that it broadcasts. Then you launch the SlingStudio Capture app and it will instantly show up as a camera angle in the Hub. You can long-press on the iPhone screen to lock the focus and exposure as well, which is useful when your presenters have slides that switch between white and black backgrounds, which would otherwise confuse the auto-focus and auto-exposure that the phone does.
Running the camera and wifi on the iPhones the whole event would drain the battery in about a half hour, so I always make sure to plug in the phone during the event. The stock charger cable is usually too short to do anything with, so I bring a 10' lightning cable which gives me enough length to run it to a power outlet somewhere nearby.
Audio is of course a huge part of getting a good quality recording of a presentation. The camera mics built in to camcorders or the iPhone will not get good results at all, since they aren't that good to begin with plus the devices will be typically 10+ feet from the presenter. Instead, you need a microphone super close to the presenter, like a lav mic or handheld mic.
Depending on the situation, I have a few different setups I use for capturing audio. If the venue is providing amplification for the presenter, then I first try to find a way to tap into the house audio. The Hub has an 1/8" input, so I just need to make sure to place the Hub close enough to the house mixing board to run an audio cable to it.
If I need to bring my own microphones and audio gear, or if I'm recording a discussion around a table, then I'll bring either a wireless mic or wired stage or boundary microphones.
The smallest wireless mic I've found is the Sony ECMAW4 Bluetooth microphone. The transmitter and receiver are both the same shape, both only slightly larger than the AAA battery that powers them. It's relatively inexpensive too, at $150. There is a microphone built in, but it also has an 1/8" jack to connect a lav mic. You definitely get better audio using a lav mic, so if you can manage asking the presenters to wear that I highly recommend it.
You can connect the receiver to either the SlingStudio Hub or the Canon camera using a 1/8" cable.
If you need to capture audio around a whole table, or if you can't get your presenters to wear a microphone, then the best option is to place a boundary microphone on the podium.
Audio Technica makes a fantastic wireless mic system that runs on 2.4ghz rather than a dedicated wireless mic frequency. There are some new FCC regulations coming that will re-allocate the frequencies that many wireless mics use, so it will no longer be legal to operate many of those. This system uses 2.4ghz, the same frequencies that Bluetooth and Wi-Fi use, so will always be safe to use.
Pair the ATW-T1006 Boundary Mic with the ATW-R1700 Receiver and connect the receiver to the Hub. The benefit of using a wireless mic for this, of course, is you don't need to worry about placing the Hub nearby the stage or podium. This also cuts down on the amount of wires you need to bring, which can save a lot of packing space.
For one reason or another, you may find it better to use a wired microphone. A wired microphone will usually provide better audio quality and be more stable than wireless mics, though it does come at the cost of more wires to carry and more setup time to connect them.
The Saramonic SmartRig+ 2-Channel Mixer is a small mixer that provides phantom power so you can use nice microphones with it. It plugs into the 1/8" jack on the SlingStudio hub. It does run on a 9V battery with no external power option, although I haven't been able to drain the battery during a normal one-day event yet.
I have two microphones I usually use depending on the situation.
Once all the audio and video sources are connected to the hub, you can press record and everything gets recorded as both the mixed track as well as individually. If you make a mistake while live cutting between camera angles, you can always recover by grabbing the original footage from the camera angle you need.
The other amazing thing is the SlingStudio Hub also has built-in streaming capabilities. It can connect to the venue's wifi, and then connect to Facebook or YouTube to broadcast a livestream. This makes it super easy to both stream an event live, while also recording the raw video for later editing.
There's not much more to say other than that, pretty much you just connect to a wifi hotspot and press stream. I've had good luck even streaming from an iPhone's wifi hotspot. You can choose the bitrate to stream at, anything from 2-5 mbps will give you a good result.
I'm super impressed that this device lets me pack so much into a single package instead of using separate devices for each. This all fits into a backpack, along with my computer and other electronics I normally bring.
Here are some videos I've produced with this rig so you can see the final results!