How to Setup an HD Video Playback System with ProVideoServer
Recently, my church went to Saturday and Sunday services (a total of five in a weekend), and with that a "video expression" rotation for all but the first message. Basically, in the 4pm service on Saturday our Lead Pastor preaches live and in person. For all other service times, he rotates from preaching live, to a video playback of an earlier service that day.
In order to provide the best experience for church members during the video services, we have a large center screen that drops down and plays a static, wide-angle shot of the stage. Ideally this creates an illusion of the Pastor actually being on stage. On the two side screens, we show various close-up shots and video elements (the same content that would be seen if you were watching our services online.
Two parts must be accomplished in order to execute the video services with excellence. First, we needed to capture the main (or program) feed as one channel, and the static wide shot as a separate but synced channel. Second, we needed to quickly turnaround (without waiting for video compression) and play back both channels simultaneously and in sync, pushing the second channel to our center screen and the first channel to the sides.
The portion of our setup I'm going to focus on is the actual playback machines and software. In addition to the two computers performing all the magic, we significantly upgraded our entire video routing configuration. Our switcher is very old and we needed some failsafes on the hardware side before video ever got to the playback machines. Many hours went into that, and I will gladly explore the rest of the setup if you're interested.
We had a few options for this setup. We run Macs for all our video and graphic needs, so the software needed to run on OS X. We had used Movie Recorder in the past for video playback but I wanted to find a more elegant solution. We landed on Renewed Vision's Pro Video Server, or PVS for short.
After nailing down the hardware needs (I'll get to that in a moment), I've been very happy with PVS as our software solution. It makes recording multiple channels very simple, and is relatively user friendly. There are some minor bugs here and there, but after four solid weeks of playing back our two channel setup without a blip, I'm sold.
The only other software running on the playback machines is BlackMagic's Desktop Video drivers to support the capture card. One machine is running OS X Yosemite and the other El Capitan, both working just fine.
Here's where we ran into some difficulty.
We had the choice of purchasing new "trash can" style Mac Pros, or upgrading some current equipment. While plenty powerful for this use case, at over $3,000 per machine the new Mac Pros can get very pricey. Instead, we chose to repurpose two older Mac Pros that used to serve as our CG computers running ProPesenter.
Our new 27" iMacs for ProPresenter are now running Thunderbolt to a BlackMagic Ultrastudio 4K. This requires you to purchase ProPresenter's SDI and Alpha Channel plug-in. They are currently on Pro5, OS X Yosemite and are very solid.
The new iMacs replaced a 2008 and 2009 Mac Pro that were now going to be upgraded and serve as video playback machines. In short, one worked. One did not.
Both Mac Pros were upgraded to 8GB RAM and we added two 256GB SSD drives via PCIe. The built-in graphics card on the 2009 Mac was an ATI Radeon with 512MB VRAM. The 2008 had a slower NVIDIA card with just 256MB which proved problematic. Both received a BlackMagic Decklink Quad card which is capable of four channels in and out.
The 2009 Mac Pro is our default playback machine and hasn't had a problem. We move the recorded files to a 2TB spinning hard drive that's also built-in once the recorded service is no longer needed. The program, or side screen video channel is recorded to one SSD while the center static shot is recorded to the other. This way if one SSD fails, we still have the other channel to play.
In the desire for redundancy, the 2008 Mac Pro was to record and playback simultaneously with the other in case anything went wrong. But, every time we hit the record button we saw a repeated frame error. The machine couldn't record flawlessly, nor could it play "good" files from the other Mac Pro. After several weeks of failure, it went for a ride to the Apple Store.
Turns out the 2008 Mac Pro was only seeing half of the processor cores. Apple confirmed the logic board was bad, and because of its age Apple labeled it as a "vintage" machine. In other words, they wouldn't work on it nor could they get any parts. Now the choice was to pursue repairs on a very old system that would cost upwards of $600, or find another machine.
Spending over $3,000 on a new Mac Pro after all that we had already burned was not a feasible choice. So, I began to look for used, but slightly newer than 2008 Mac Pros. Not easy to find mind you. Luckily, OWC had several 2009 models for sale, one with an even faster processor than our first machine, and it only cost $830.
The new machine came in with only 6GB of RAM and the stock graphics card, but with a speedy 3.3GHz processor I thought it could handle the workload. I moved over the BlackMagic Decklink card and SSD drives, installed OS X El Capitan (upgraded from Snow Leopard) and gave it a whirl.
Found out the machine could handle recording two channels with no problem, but smooth playback was an issue.
The new 2009 Mac Pro could playback a single channel smoothly, but attempt to play both channels in sync and it would drop frames like they were hot. After watching Activity Monitor and further testing, I decided to upgrade the graphics card and RAM in a last ditch effort.
We purchased a used, Apple ATI Radeon graphics card at 1024MB and an 8GB RAM chip totaling about $400. Total investment in the new 2009 Mac Pro: about $1,280. Still almost a third of the price of a new Mac Pro.
I swapped out the graphics card, added the 8GB RAM, hooked everything up, and voilá! We have perfect recording of both channels and smooth playback of both in sync. A laborious process, but we managed to save some money and get two solid video playback machines running side by side.
Have any questions about our setup? Leave a comment below. You can also follow me on Twitter at: @stephenrobles