Audio Madness – Livestreaming Yoga

File this one under “never waste perfectly good pandemic” (this stuff is fun) and also under “just in case I get hit by a bus (or a virus)” – leaving breadcrumbs for some future entity picking up the pieces if I wander away (from the yoga studio or off this mortal coil).

Here’s how we make the yoga happen. We started with a simple mixer and amplifier (a standard stereo with A and B speakers) that has been in the studio since Jansen Court (circa 2002), being fed by:
* CD Player (just one teacher uses this regularly)
* Wireless headset (aka “Barbara’s Mic”)
* Phone / MP3 via 1/8″ stereo
* Bluetooth receiver (a fairly recent addition by yours truly)

Once COVID hit and we started moving to livestream classes, I started getting fancy – with a four camera video system, centered on the Blackmagic ATEM Mini Pro and AIDA HD-100A cameras. But the sound….there’s the rub.

The basics – a choir mic (hanging from the ceiling) and a boundary mic (on the floor) near the instructor mat – which does a pretty solid job of picking up the instructor. The Zoom noise filters (and post-processing noise removal for recorded classes) provide reasonable quality. Both room mics require phantom power, so a mixer (that I had on the shelf) was needed, and I initially ported this to the switcher aux inputs (Mic1 / Mic2) via the mixer main output (left / right)

Then it started to get complicated. Teachers use bluetooth or CDs for class music. Teachers want to walk around the room. There are a couple of different headsets in use. So here’s where it has ended up, after many months of evolution, experimentation, and experience.

Room Mics (floor / ceiling) are now panned left (levels set at the mixer, in the room), feeding mono into the switcher Mic1 input.

Headset mics (two types) are now panned right, mono into the switcher Mic2 input.

Headset mics (two types) are also sent via the mixer FX bus to the room mixer (to provide teacher amplification if desired.

CD and Bluetooth outputs are split, feeding the room mixer (dual 1/4″ mono) and two of the AIDA camera inputs (1/8″ stereo), where they run to the switcher via the camera HDMI. Latency is not a huge issue with the audio tracks (was a bit of an issue with voice, we found)

I think I’m (finally) done with all this – there’s plenty of flexibility to set levels, turn things on and off. Been a long time coming…

Blackmagic ATEM Mini Pro (upgrade)

We did not really need this, but the techie in me could not resist an upgrade / reason to mess around with better tech.

The Blackmagic ATEM Mini video switcher ($300) is a pretty sweet device – 4x HDMI inputs, 2x Aux audio in, lots of bells and whistles. However, the only real confidence monitor is a single preview output. Having worked on the periphery of AV production, I had some serious video wall envy.

Top – an inexpensive HD television.
Left – an iPad used as a zoom confidence monitor
Middle – Laptop for zoom
Right – ATEM Mini Pro switcher

Enter the Blackmagic ATEM Mini Pro – about $600 but you get this amazing video output that provides:
* Program / Preview / 4x Cameras (with labels)
* Graphics / Key
* Streaming & Recording
* Audio Indicators

The inset (picture-in-picture) was part of the base model, but having the full video wall makes it easier to use.

The audio indicators are super useful (we were flying blind trying to troubleshoot audio issues) – with 4 camera inputs, 2 mic / aux inputs, and output levels.

The recording (via USB) is a bit of a let-down, since it only works if you are not using the USB output (unfortunately, how we port to zoom)

However, the ability to livestream makes up for that – we use a web based service – Restream.io – to capture classes automatically. The operator simply needs to press the On Air button and the class streams to the restream site – they hold onto the content for 15 days then dump it. Plenty of time to download it and process classes for use on youtube, vimeo, etc.

Pandemic Crisis: Danger / Opportunity

Things have been very interesting in the yoga world since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the studio to close in March 2020. I taught my last in person class on March 11th; the studio last class was noon on March 13th.

After a weekend of stunned silence, we were back the following Monday. We started with free classes, live-streamed via Facebook Live and archived there and on YouTube. We started simple – an iPad on a tripod, and slowly added lights, sound (headsets and ambient microphones) as we realized this was not going away quickly. Unable at that time to monetize classes, we set up a couple of membership levels for those wishing to support the studio (whose revenues went to zero almost immediately). Lots of work for the studio technologist (me) to do both in terms of physical hardware, as well as online work as we transitioned away from in person classes.

Eventually, we followed our peers, teaching virtual classes via the Zoom platform. More tech work for me – setting up a zoom station at the studio as well as at home.

My home yoga room zoom set-up (left) is also handy to watch online concerts.
The studio zoom cart (right) is perhaps the 3rd iteration of the tech – with a wifi extender, on board lights, multiple cameras and a USB microphone. We can roll it anywhere!

Once the weather warmed up, we took our show on the road, teaching 7-8 outdoor classes each week. We’ve been doing free WHY in the Parks classes for many years through the local town Parks & Rec – now we ratcheted it up, with mandatory registration (to limit capacity and facilitate contact tracing), providing for donations and paid classes. We’d get up to 100 people at some classes. Opportunities for the studio techie to set up a second battery powered speaker, to figure out a way to daisy-chain (left / right speakers for larger classes), and to manage multiple wireless headsets. Oh yeah, and haul out the trusty iPad for some time-lapse videos!

Long terms, we knew that we’d be back teaching live classes, albeit capacity limited and socially distanced, so I started to build up some technology competence. I found a low cost video switcher, and some low cost HDMI cameras (think glorified security cams) and cobbled together a four camera set up that we used first for in-studio zoom classes and eventually to capture live classes.

Left: iPad confidence / stream monitor (what the end user sees)
Center: Laptop zoom computer
Right: Preview monitor and Blackmagic ATEM Mini video switcher
AIDA HD-100A cameras with Arducam lenses – top is the wide shot, bottom is the close shot. We’ve got two other cameras off to the side. HDMI cables + 12V power run into the studio office / control area.

We started with a temporary setup to prove concept and technology (HDMI cables on the floor, cameras on tripods or clamped to carts) – eventually moving to a permanent, four camera installation. You can see the end result on the studio Vimeo page here – https://vimeo.com/westhartfordyoga

Audio Project: Buying Local vs. Amazon

I’m in the middle of a small audio project – converting 11 digital micro-cassettes (the sort used in old answering machines and personal recorders) to digital MP3 files for a client’s book / memoir project. It’s potentially slogging work (each cassette has up to 90 minutes of content, that’s up to 16.5 hours of recording) but I’ve got it set up to run in the background, while I do other things. I’m sort of embarrassed to admit that I started doing this on my computer (using Audacity sound recorder / editor) before realizing I have this perfectly good TASCAM DR-07 digital recorder (that I use for live recording) that is actually designed for this sort of thing. Using the computer would have been exceptionally onerous; the digital recorder makes it almost trivial. The only potential problem is battery life on the micro-cassette – I picked up a DC power supply but it introduced severe hum into the signal so I’m back to AAA batteries (I have a stack of those, but I imagine that the batteries will die mid-recording a few times during the process.

I’m probably over-killing the set-up here – running the 2.5mm mono output of the recorder through adapters (2.3mm -> 3.5mm -> 1/4″), then through a DI to get XLR out, and into a Mackie mixer to tweak the sound a bit (cutting out some of the highs and lows, optimizing the level) and into the recorder. I’ve got a set of headphones to listen in now and then. Next time I’m out I’m going to pick up my spare monitor speakers at my storage locker so I can have it going low in the background and lose the headphones.

Getting the adapters was 1/2 the battle here – the 2.5mm mono out is super non-standard. I went to the local Cables & Connectors store which could only supply a 2.5mm stereo, which kind of sort of worked but not really (was a little flaky) – I ended up (as always) finding exactly what I needed at Amazon (2.5mm mono to 3.5mm stereo) and while I was at it, picked up a couple of 3.5mm stereo to 1/4″ breakout cables which I seem to be wanting every other time I pull out the mixer these days (record out to the TASCAM, line out from phones and tablets). I have a bunch of 3.5mm to RCA breakouts but the 1/4 is a lot more mixer friendly.

I like to support local retail when I can, but I’m invariably looking for something a little weird or left of center and rather than drive around all day for something that almost works, just pull up the exact right item on Amazon, order via Prime, and it shows up 1-2 days later. Probably better for the environment as well (considering my gas).

Sound Board Hacks

I’m not an audio engineer by profession, but I’ve been monkeying around with sound systems through my music career, yoga world, and tangentially though A/V freelancing for many years. So I’ve learned a few things, and figured some things out by myself. Here are a few of my favorite ways to stretch the capabilities of low end analog sound gear.

  1. Using the FX / Effects Bus as an emergency monitor bus
    Was at a band gig and the mixer board (not mine) monitor bus was not working (bad pot). Emergency fix, use the FX bus (not used by us, although some would add a bit of reverb / echo to the vocal channels) as a monitor bus. Good trick to have in the bag.
  2. Left and Right Channels feeding different sound systems
    At the big outdoor yoga class I do sound for, I feed front of house speakers, plus two time delayed satellite systems. Since we’re mixing mono, I just pan everything to center, use the left channel for front of house, and the right channel for rear of house (mixer → delay → mixer + amp → delay → amp) for the 2nd and 3rd speakers. That way I can tweak the level of the remote systems from the main board without having to schlep 200 feet down the road to the second mixer / amp.
  3. Monitor Channel as Talkback Channel
    Same outdoor yoga gig. I transitioned the musicians (an electronic / percussion / world music group) to headsets instead of monitors (they tend to move mics around and stuff, a real feedback nightmare in previous years). Last year, I set up my own headset / mic (using a gamer headset) and sent the headset audio only to the monitor channel, giving me the ability to talk to the band during the gig. Similarly, I set them up with a talkback mix that they could communicate with me (to set levels, etc.)  Super handy when setting levels and during the class.

RIP: MCM Electronics

From the ARRL Website (9/21/17):

MCM Electronics, in business for 40 years, will close two plants and its corporate headquarters in Ohio and lay off more than 90 workers, the Dayton Daily News reported earlier this summer. The company, which carries an electronics inventory of more than 300,000 items, including 3-D printers, tools, wire, cable, and other items, has been a Dayton Hamvention® vendor.

The layoffs will begin at month’s end and continue through the end of the year.

You can now find the MCM Electronics catalog on the Newark.com site:

MCM Electronics and Newark element14 have partnered together for over 32 years as part of the Premier Farnell family. Now, MCM will be strengthening this partnership under the Newark name. MCM’s unique product offering combined with Newark’s vast inventory, expanded services and global reach makes us the one stop shop for engineers, installers, educators and makers.

MCM Electronics and I go back a long ways. I’m pretty sure my first purchase was a set of Spin Tite nut drivers; I’d found them super handy in the labs at my first job at Superior Electric and soon after purchasing my first home I outfitted a workbench. Still have that small set of color-coded, english gauged drivers. Over the years I bought oddball tools and test equipment, parts and components, and most recently audio-video equipment. I’ve got a storage locker full of A/V gack: LED Par Lamps; speakers, speaker stands, lighting stands, lighting truss, XLR and speaker cables. Often purchased via one of the seemingly insane 50% off sales that would periodically flood my physical mailbox. MCM Electronics seemed to be one of the last bastions of physical catalogs; I still have their last catalog on my shelf.

Why yes, I did buy four of the 12″ PA speakers at $44.99 each…

It was never the highest quality stuff, but it was light duty, serviceable, good enough for my needs.And for whatever reason, their shipping department seemed to be amazingly responsive – I’d order stuff “slow boat” and it would show up 1-2 days later; big boxes of speakers or truss or whatever.

And while stuff still seems to be available, I have no doubt that the selection will narrow, the catalogs will stop coming, the to good to be true sales prices that often enticed me to buy will no longer be offered.

End of an era. There’s a lot of that going ’round in my world these days….

 

Om Street 2017: Time Lapse Video

“On July 22, 2017, over 2500 people gathered on LaSalle Road in West Hartford, CT to “get their asana in the street!” The weather was perfect and the energy was incredible, making the 7th annual OM Street a huge success. The 75 minute all-levels yoga class was led by Barbara Ruzansky of WHY (http://www.westhartfordyoga.com) and included assistants from 40 area studios and businesses. Every studio that gathered their tribe, and every individual that put a mat or a chair on LaSalle represented a community, a coming together of like-minded spirits into something like a neighborhood, like a family.”

Remarkably, I made it into the video frame this year (directly behind, to the left of the tree at the far right lower corner of the shot, blue shirt) standing at the audio table, keeping an eye on the sound. And at the end (around 2:50) I take the front speakers down…

It’s kind of amazing to be part of this each year, to be the adult in charge of the sound system, and that, seven years running, we’ve never had a significant technical issue!

Om Street 2017: Better, Faster, Stronger

We survived the 2017 edition of Om Street: Yoga on LaSalle road, my yoga studio’s annual “yoga in the streets” event that I’ve been audio engineering since the event’s inception in 2011.

Some history via the blogosphere:

Just finished cleaning up the audio equipment from the event this morning; three bins and one large duffel bag loaded with equipment that needed to get sorted, re-wrapped as necessary, and restowed for the next gig.

It was a pretty quick and pain-free recovery this year, owing to a few factors:

  • I ended up wrapping the bulk of the long cables myself – 4 x 100′ XLR (audio) cables, 4 x 100′ extension (AC power) cords, and all of the 1/4″ and speakon speaker cable (several hundred feet worth). There were just 2 x 100′ AC power cords that someone else wrapped and needed to be re-wrapped. In past years the cables were a bit of a hot mess.
  • I had a great assistant (yay, Steve!) who was dedicated to the band, so when I unpacked the storage bin from the band, cables were nicely  wrapped, mic stands nicely folded, mics and headphones all bagged up neatly. He also did a yoeman’s job of setting the band up (mics, direct boxes, and monitor headphones) so I could focus on other things.

Honestly, the only bin that was a bit of a hot mess was the main audio station bin (that I packed, last) because it was kind of the catch-all for everything lying around.

It’s a huge outdoor yoga event:

Om Street 2017 Wide Shot

Om Street 2017 (Breck Macnab Photography / West Hartford Yoga)

And it’s pretty much me handling the audio all by myself. Some things that helped out this year:

  • I added a pair of low cost wireless stick mics for emcee / stage mics this year. In previous years I used the studio wired mics but that’s a couple of fairly long XLR cables I do not need to worry about setting up or striking. I picked them up for Q&A for some larger workshops we have, but they proved useful for Om Street as well.
  • I did some more work on the band monitor setup, adding a small mixer, buying some dedicated cables / adapters, buying a gamer headset for myself (with a small headset mic on a boom), and setting it all up ahead of time to get levels. So the band had great monitors in both ears and we had a talk-back channel, with one band mic and my headset mic going only to the monitor channel, so we could communicate during the practice.
  • I took the time to kit out the audio equipment. Typically I show up with audio stuff in bins sorted mostly by who owns the equipment (yoga studio, or me) and general function (audio cables, power, speaker cabloes, mic stands, etc.). I would end up running around a lot during set-up, getting things to the right place This year I put everything for the band in one bin (power strip, mics, stands, direct boxes, cables, monitor headphones and amplifier) and everything for the main audio station in a second bin. I also got some of those big family zip-lock bags and kitted together all the cables and adapters for the satellite PA systems (200′ and 400′ down the road) so I could unload those with the speakers, stands, and amplifier, and not have to walk back and froth so much.

This year I took the time to sketch out the audio schematic:

RFFlow - Om Street 2017

I’ll add some links to “sure to be posted” video of the event, but here are a few news articles that have already made it to press:

OM Street 2016: Lessons Learned

OM Street 2016 Stage

Om Street 2016 has come and gone, and it was a big success on all counts. From the audio / tech perspective, lots of positive improvements from previous years, and thought it would be useful to document those.

Sound Systems: New for 2016, we were able to provide all of the sound reinforcement in house (yoga studio equipment and PowerLines equipment). While the equipment we’ve picked up is far from top-end or state of the art,  it was solid and worked well. In previous years, rented or borrowed equipment introduced a bit of unknown that could complicate the set-up.

Speaker Cables: Picked up some additional lengths of speaker cables this year – 2 x 50′ and 2 x 15′ speakon-to-1/4″. This gave me plenty of length to push the speakers right to the curb – aesthetically better and safer.

Om Street 2016 Instagram 2Band Sunscreen:  The band had asked to move across the street for shade. Not that practical (no super-long snake, no power on that side of the road, more narrow space with a sidewalk that can not be blocked) but I promised to set them up a sun-screen. I fab’d something from lighting truss and a couple of tapestries; one of our teachers is a set designer for Hartford Stage and buffed it up, and it was perfect.

Band Monitors: In previous years, the band set up a small PA and mixed themselves, and sent me a mix out to mains. Not a good plan. Then I took all the instrument feeds to mix and sent them a monitor feed for their little PA. Better, but lots of feedback potential (they tend to move the mics a lot and swap out instruments). This year, I dumped their PA (and insisted it not show up) and gave them a small headphone amp / distro with 4 separate outputs, and headphones for monitors. PERFECT. They got their sound without a lot of external interference, and I got zero band feedback.

Band Talkback: We’re a small event / location and do not own or rent PL headsets for communications. Instead, I set up two dedicated mics for the band and I which went ONLY to the monitors. With all of us on monitor headsets, it made it MUCH easier to set up the band mics and monitors, and then I simply pulled those mics out for the event.

We also streamed it via Facebook Live this year, so if you’d like to watch:

Om Street: Yoga Gathering Draws 2,000 To West Hartford Center (Hartford Courant, 7/23/16)

‘Om Street’ Draws Record Crowd of Yogis to West Hartford (we-ha.com, 7/23/16)

Brave New World – Stage Lighting

I’ve recently taken the dive into some stage lighting – investing in a low cost controller, some light stands, and some inexpensive ($30 / per) PAR cans.

Kirtan Lights 3

Once upon a time, such stage lighting was out of reach for many reasons. Cost, of course, but also infrastructure – with a typical PAR can running 300-500W, each lighting pole would require a full 15-20A  circuit. And dimmer technology (often phase-controlled SCR’s or triacs) was notorious for inserting hum and noise into audio feeds – requiring careful measures to separate lighting power and cables from audio equipment.

Modern LED technology, although not as aesthetically or artistically pleasing, has brought such lighting into the hands of mere mortals. At 20W a can, the entire lighting package here draws about the same power as 2 x 60 W incandescent bulbs. Not much to worry about in terms of interference (although I ran a separate power feed because I had the extension cord, and you never know)

Add to that reliability – incandescent bulbs might be good for 1000-2000 hours, the MTBF for these units is upwards of 50,000 hours. And at $30 a can, replacing a light is not much more expensive than replacing an incandescent bulb.

Kitran Lights 1

It was far from a “rock show” in terms of lighting effects (I was single-handedly setting up and running both sound and lights) but it really set the mood / tone for the evening. And because LED’s are RGB controlled (each fixture can run Red, Green, and Blue colors, from 0-100%, as compared to incandescent lamps which require fixed gels to control color) I was free to monkey around with lighting when I got the time or the mood of the evening dictated.

So for about $300 – I have a nice little lighting package at my disposal for music, meetings, productions, and fun.

It’s a different world from when I was young, to be sure!