Behind the scenes: Upgrading my home studio

Why do I have a broadcast quality studio in my home office?

Because content is my product. Content is how I help you and what I am building my business around.

The easier it is to create content, the more “product” I can deliver. The higher the quality, the more valuable and useful it is.

Online business has become extremely competitive. Grabbing the attention of an audience inundated with content means separating yourself from the pack and delivering something better.

Over 8 billion videos or 100 million hours of videos are watched on Facebook every day (TechCrunch, 2016; TechCrunch, 2016). More than 500 million hours of videos are watched on YouTube every day (Business Insider, 2016).

Given the astronomical growth of video content, we’re at the beginning of a trend where online entrepreneurs, solo entrepreneurs, and online businesses build dedicated studios for content creation. While it is a significant investment to do so, the investment is far less now than even just a few years ago.

Image of the StrongStart.fm Studio

I’m in the middle of a significant upgrade to my home studio and thought it would be interesting to detail out how I am designing and building it. I am fortunate in being able to invest in this level of equipment as I build my online business given the success I’ve had in my traditional consulting career.

I know you may not have the budget, time, or space to do this, but rest assure you don’t have to to be successful. There are plenty of people dominating online business with just a blog and an iPhone. Companies that use videos in their marketing grow revenue 49% faster year-on-year than those which don’t (Aberdeen Group, 2015)
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Once you’ve decided to create a home studio, the next step is documenting your requirements.

Requirements

When designing a home studio, think about your requirements in these categories:

  • Content Types
  • Environment / Studio space
  • Cameras / Video Sources
  • Set / Background
  • Lighting
  • Audio
  • Mixing
  • Switching
  • Recording
  • Streaming
  • Monitoring
  • Equipment Location and Connectivity

Several key requirements drove most of my choices in those categories.

The fundamental requirement for me in all of the areas above is to minimize setup time to as close to zero for the different types of content I create.

What this means is if I want to go live on Facebook, I want to be live in less than 2 minutes with proper lighting, camera stabilization, and high-quality audio. If I want to create a podcast, I want to be able to be recording with professional sound quality in under 2 minutes.

Setting up the studio to support multiple content types (recorded video, live video, podcasting) with minimal setup time when switching between the two is what triggered the entire upgrade.

Additional considerations included establishing 4k video capability and recording capability on a per-camera basis (for repurposing content later, B-roll footage, etc.)

Content Types

As you can see, my requirements are driven by the type of content I need to create. So when planning out my studio, I listed the content types and variations such as camera shots or sets that I was designing.

Here’s what that looks like:

  • Weekly Live Streaming Show (Set One in the diagram): Two camera setup, sitting position, home office background
  • Online Courses/Demos (Set Two in the diagram): Two camera setup, standing position, behind a table/bench, color paper background and chroma key options (green screen)
  • Ad Hoc Webcast: One camera setup, ability to screencast, sitting position, home office or chroma key background
  • Remote Video: One camera setup, portable, indoor or outdoor
  • Podcast: No camera, pro microphone, access to mixer/processor/computer

Image of the home studio layout

That is a pretty wide variety of setups. If you have experience shooting video or have seen time-lapse videos of how long it can take to set up three point lighting, two cameras, multiple microphones, and proper recording, it can be half a day or more. That is the time to eliminate.

So how do I eliminate setup time? By defining each part then selecting or designing a solution to eliminate it. Here are the biggest contributors to setup time:

  • Cameras and Tripods: Getting your cameras set up, positioned, and configured takes a lot of time. The best case is having your cameras permanently set up, or at least marking out known good positions and creating a checklist of settings.
  • Lighting: If you are using stands, lights with power cords, soft boxes, etc. it can take a long time to get those all setup, not to mention you lose most of your floor space. For a dedicated studio, there are two better options: a truss system or a rail system. See below for my choice.
  • Recording Equipment: Switching between the setups I described earlier (two different sets, video vs. podcast) requires switching between microphones, cameras, mixer settings, and more.

Having to manually re-configure everything each time wastes a lot of time and is error-prone, even with good checklists. So my equipment upgrades all include touchscreen apps that replicate all of the functionality of the physical controls and enable switching between saved configurations.

Planning the home studio

Environment

I’m certainly fortunate in having a dedicated 17′ by 21′ home office space. Using the content types described above, I started looking at how best to lay out my desks and benches to enable the two sets I wanted. I have had a custom built standing desk for some time which lets me adjust from sitting to standing heights. I put together a second desk using similar components.

From a video perspective, you want to have good available distance between your subject and the background behind them and the camera in front of them. Distance enables a range of choices specific to the type of style you want to achieve (ex. blurred background or not).

A quiet room is essential. For most of us, we have to deal with the environment we have. Most of us won’t be building a custom, noise isolated room. In my case, my house is pretty quiet. There is thick carpet in almost all of the rooms, my office is on the lower level and the main space is on the upper level.

Image of three acoustic panelsSo my starting point is relatively. The next thing that I addressed was computer noise. Last year I custom built a “silent pc“. This is a niche within the custom computer building space which can get pretty esoteric, but the main idea is addressing the noise making components in a PC such as CPU fans, video card fans, case fans, hard disks, etc.

You may or may not notice the noise of your computer, but once you get a nice quiet room, you will see how much noise most machines take.

Now that the room and the PC are quiet, the only remaining item to address is any echo or reverb of my voice as I record. Some people line the room with black, sound absorbing foam panels. Personally, I think those look pretty ugly and are only arguably effective.

Instead, and since my space didn’t need all that much work, I hung five ATS Acoustic Panels on my wall. I may in the future add a few to the ceiling. While I didn’t do any specific measurement, they did seem to make a small improvement. A quick test is to clap or snap your fingers before and after installing the panels and see if you here any difference echo or reverb.

Equipment Links:

ATS Acoustic Panel

Video

I decided to make the two sets perpendicular to each other. This enables me to leave the “A” camera for each set in a permanent position. Then for “B” cameras I can either pan one of those or use a third, more portable camera.

Image of the Sony A7RiiI have two 4k capable DSLRs: The Sony A7Sii and the Sony A7Rii. These are fantastic cameras. Expensive, as are the proper lenses, but great in so many different situations. Each is the “A” camera for one of the primary video sets. I also have a Logitech C922 webcam for when I am sitting at my computer doing a webcast.

Image of the BlackMagic Design Web PresenterAnother option I have on the way is a Blackmagic Design Web Presenter. The web presenter lets you take any HDMI input and make it appear like it’s a webcam on your computer. Here are some of its features:

  • Converts any SDI or HDMI source to USB webcam video in 720p HD format
  • No drivers required, works with popular streaming software such as Open Broadcaster, XSplit Broadcaster, YouTube Live, Facebook Live, Periscope, Twitch.TV and more
  • Supports all SD, HD and Ultra HD input sources up to 2160p60
  • 12G-SDI input with 12G-SDI loop output; HDMI 2.0 input with independent HDMI loop output

As an example, I could take the HDMI out of one of my high-end Sony cameras, put that through the web presenter, then from my computer it will show up as a webcam.

Why is that valuable? Because Facebook and many other sites now enable live streaming from your computer via webcams. So you don’t need to be limited by relatively low-end webcams or need to purchase high-end software like Wirecast. You could plug in any camera source you want into the Web Presenter and then broadcast from your browser to Facebook live.

For those of you not able to have all the high end gear, Wirecast, and everything else I’ll talk about here, the Web Presenter is a great option to up your game.

Equipment List:

Sony A7Sii

Sony A7Rii

Blackmagic Design Web Presenter

Background

Image of three roller mount and paper rollsOn both background walls, I have 10′ wide paper rolls that let me put a green screen behind me or any other color I choose for my background.

For the weekly live streaming show, I am going just use the larger modular storage system as it lets me arrange interesting background items. Should I choose to, I can drop the green screen and chroma key in any background I want or even a virtual set.

Equipment List:

Three Roller Wall Mount

Single Roller Wall Mount

Green Background Paper Roll

Lighting

Image of rail system suspended from the ceilingProper three point lighting requires two lights in front of the subject usdually 45 degrees off to each side and a light behind the subject. Lights usually require stands, power cords, softboxes, and other accessories. Now when you think of that times two sets in the same room, a traditional approach would result in a ridiculous amount of time spent switching between them not to mention c-stands, cords, and other debris all over the place.

The choices here are either a truss system which gives you an infinite amount of mounting options above you for lights and anything else or a rail system. I went with a rail system because the trusses seemed like too much clutter to me and more difficult to switch between shots.

So I have a 4 rail system with the rails on the ceiling arranged like the # sign, meaning two fixed rails the length of the room supporting two sliding rails spanning the width of the room.

Image of Ikan ID500 LED lightMy lights are v-mount battery powered LED panels, so there are no cords. They hang from the rails on drop mounts. My light diffusers hang on clamps attached to the drop mounts.

The result is I can slide my lights to any position then tilt and rotate the light plus diffuser. No cords, no clutter, and very fast. I have three Ikan 500 LED panels

Equipment List:

Bogen / Manfrotto Rail System

Ikan 500 LED panels

Ikan PBK-S-X Pro Battery Adapter Kit for V-Mount

Battery – V Mount

Audio

The quality of the audio in your content is important. Your audience will forgive some lighting and other issues. But if your audio is too quiet, has persistent noise issues, or sounds like a phone call from 20 years ago, your audience will leave.

Microphones

Image of the Heil PR-40 microphoneGiven the different content types my studio needs to support, I have a range of different microphones. For my podcast, the most critical audio environment, I have a Heil PR-40 mounted on a desk-mounted boom arm.

For my video work, I have a few different options. I have a boom arm on my rail system with a RODE NTG3 shotgun microphone. This is the type of microphone you see on television productions where an operator is holding it just above and in front of the subject.

When I’m recording online courses or demos where I’m standing behind a table, I position this mic to be about 6 inches above the top of the camera shot. As close to me as possible but out of view.

Image of the RODE NTG3 microphoneAn additional option I use is a wireless lavaliere microphone, the RODE Rodelink Wireless Filmmaker System. Lavaliere mics are the small ones you clip to your shirt. These can be wired or wireless, where you have a small transmitter on your belt that connects wirelessly to a module plugged into your mixer or recorder.

I like the wireless version because you can move around without worrying about getting tied up in the wire. Also, for one of my content types, the remote shot somewhere else in or around the house or office, I can get high-quality audio back to my mixer.

As a backup, on my two “A” cameras, I have directional microphones, the RODE VideoMic Pro. So when I’m recording video, I run either the overhead shotgun mic or the wireless lavalier as my primary audio. Then on each camera, I record audio as well. The camera audio is the backup since the mic is much further away. It’s there just in case I set something up wrong on the mixer and don’t get my primary audio.

Equipment List:

Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone

Heil Sound PL-2T Overhead Broadcast Boom

Rode NTG3 Super-Cardioid Condenser Microphone

Rode VMPR VideoMic Pro R with Rycote Lyre Shockmount

Mixer

Whether you need a mixer or not depends on your overall approach to audio. Assuming you have multiple sources of audio, the purpose of a mixer is to switch between the sources, blend them together, or otherwise process multiple signals into a single output signal. The classic use case is a recorded performance with multiple musicians where you don’t want the drum player wiping out the audio of all the other artists. The mixer lets you set levels for each source for a balanced final output.

Image of the front of the Behringer X32 mixerThe function of mixing can be done on a dedicated device (like the one below with all the faders) or  in software such as Adobe Audition or Wirecast. Mixing is often augmented by processing, where the audio signal is changed or improved in some way like compression or gating.

The choice here is whether you want to have all of your audio sources going into your computer and using software for this function of whether you use a dedicated device.

In my case, one of my big upgrades is a mixer that enables both. I am in the process of implementing the Behringer X32 Compact mixer. The X32 is massive overkill for my content types, but I chose it for a few specific reasons. One is that in addition to doing all my mixing on the device, I can also feed all of my sources from the mixer via USB to my computer, so they all come in as different channels in Adobe Audition or other software I use.

The next reason for the X32 is that it includes a range of processing options that can be applied to each input and the final output. Filtering out noise and compression are key functions.

Image of the back panel of the Behringer X32 mixerThe most critical reason for stepping up to a high-end mixer was remote control capability and saved setups. The faders in this mixer are motorized, and all of the settings can be saved. You can then have multiple saved settings and switch between them, either through buttons on the mixer or through the touchscreen software that shows you the entire panel on your computer screen. The latter is critical for me. My content types require completely different audio setups for each.

Sometimes the overhead shotgun mic is the main source, sometimes the Heil PR-40 is. Sometimes I need multiple sources going into my computer. When switching between content types of shots, I want to be able to use my touchscreen as the control and instantly switch between those setup. With the X32, each of those are saved scenes, and it’s one click to switch all the settings on up to 40 inputs.

Switching

Where the mixer lets me mix and switch between audio sources, a switcher lets me switch between audio/video sources. The choices here follow the same pattern: you can do this in software if you feed all of your sources into your computer or you can do this with a dedicated device.

Image of the Blackmagic Design ATEM 1 M/E Production Studio 4kThis is one of the big upgrades I am making right now. I had been feeding my couple of sources into my PC, but as I move to 4k and add sources, this is becoming more than a single processor PC or Mac is going to be able to handle well.

For the computer side you need a powerful machine, then you need 4k encoder cards, software like Wirecast or OBS, and tuning all of that to not bog down your machine so much that you drop frames. This works fine for 1080p but at 4k it gets difficult.

So I am upgrading to a BlackMagic Design ATEM 1M/E Production Studio 4k switcher. I’ll be sending all of my sources to the ATEM, then from there, the final output will go to a single 4k encoder in my PC and into Wirecast for live streaming scenarios. For recording, the output will go to the recorders mentioned in the next section.

Equipment List:

BlackMagic Design ATEM 1M/E Production Studio 4k

Wirecast Professional

Recording

Image of the Tascam DR-100 mkIIIOne way or the other, your final output needs to be recorded. For this again you can use a dedicated device, your computer and software, or both. I use both, I have a Tascam DR-100 MKIII for recording the final output signal onto SD cards.

By upgrading to the X32 mixer from my previous Mackie mixer, I can also send all channels independently over USB to Adobe Audition and record there for backup in case I have the mix or levels wrong on the Behinger, I can fix that in Audition later.

Image of the HyperDeck Studio Mini FrontFor final audio plus video recording, I am sending my “A” camera feeds to Blackmagic Design Hyperdeck Studio Minis. These are 4k capable recorders (2160p/30). I record the final program output on an Atomos Shogun.

Image of the HyperDeck Studio Mini BackThis is a lot of gear and way more than what most folks need. In my case, the reason for the complexity is that I use my content in many different ways.

I am designing my studio for live broadcasting but with content re-purposing in mind. So in addition to broadcasting live, I need all of my sources recorded so that later I can create smaller cut-ups of the content for different social networks. I need to be able to edit all of my content together for my online courses.

Equipment List:

Blackmagic Design Hyperdeck Studio Minis

Atomos Shogun

Tascam DR-100 MKIII

Streaming

For live streaming, at the Elite level we are describing here and that I outlined in the Definitive Guide to Facebook Live, you will be streaming from your computer using something like Wirecast or Livestream Studio. Since most of my content includes screencasts, I wanted a powerful workstation.

Image of a Wirecast Screenshot with TitleI run Wirecast on my silent PC and both my Logitech C922 webcam and the output from my Blackmagic Design ATEM 1/ME go into this computer. The capture card I use is the Blackmagic Design Decklink SDI 4K. The program output from the ATEM goes to this card, and in Wirecast I can switch between that, the webcam, a screencast, or any other source.

The massive Achilles heel of my whole studio is Internet connectivity.

There are two downsides to living in an incredible, remote mountain location: getting 15 – 20 feet of snow a year and terrible Internet connectivity. My options are limited: DSL which tops out at about 2 Mb/s and satellite which is ok for download, but for upload is only 2 Mb/s. So while my new studio is 4k capable now, my streaming is severely limited.

I am hopeful that with the launch of a new Satellite, Hughes/DirecTV is planning to offer higher speed options. Our DSL provider is also running fiber to within a few miles of our house which should eventually upgrade the final DSL speeds we get. Fingers crossed.

Monitoring

With a complex setup like this, it’s always good to have a monitor somewhere that is displaying your final program output that is visible to you while recording. This is called a confidence monitor, so that you are sure you are actually broadcasting or recording something at the end of this entire equipment chain.

Your confidence monitor could be your computer monitor if you are using Wirecast or something like that as your final step and streaming platform. Higher end gear like the Blackmagic items I am using have multiple program outputs and also something called multi-view which is an output that shows each of your inputs on one large screen.

I will be running the multi-view output from the ATEM to a flatscreen TV I have hanging in the studio and then on one of my screens while broadcasting live I will see the final Wirecast output as well.

Equipment location and connectivity

My initial studio setup ran all audio to my mixer with the output going to a recorder and my PC. The video all ran over HDMI to capture cards on my PC. All of the equipment was in the studio. Most in a small equipment rack.

In the new setup, I’m upgrading the entire chain. All audio runs on XRL cables to the Behringer X32 then from there to a recorder. All input sources from the mixer and output go to the PC over USB.

A wrench was thrown into my plan when I heard how loud the Blackmagic Design ATEM 1/ME was. I had heard of this on the forums but thought that if it was in my equipment rack that would isolate it enough. No, it sounds like a 747 taking off.

So that made me decide to move the video equipment into a separate rack in a different room. So the ATEM, the HyperDecks, and converters are all in a different rack in another room.

Image of Blackmagic SDI to HDMI 4kFor video, an expensive upgrade is converting all my video runs to SDI instead of HDMI. This decision meant buying HDMI to SDI converters for my two main cameras.

Moving to SDI is a decision for the long term, where I expect a few more sources, longer runs from other recording location in and outside of my house, and better stability of the video signal during switching.

Since I had already decided to move to SDI connectivity, once I realized I needed to move the ATEM to a different location, I just needed some longer SDI cables.

Equipment List:

Blackmagic Design Mini Converter HDMI to SDI 4K

Blackmagic Design Decklink SDI 4K Capture & Playback Card

Summary

So that’s a look at the plan for my home studio upgrade. I’ll be detailing all the setup steps in future blog posts and in real time on Facebook Live and Instagram Stories. Later this all will go into an online course I am building.

The studio is a large investment. Easily $25k when you total up everything I’ve done over the last year or so. For me, this is a 20-year investment though. When I leave my technology consulting career and full-time job, this will become my new full-time job.

This studio is the factory where I create my products. It is the online store where I sell them. It is the service center where I will support my customers.

I plan to grow my online business to $250k per year in revenue within five years (at which time I’ll leave my full-time job). Investing $25k now to begin building that business will be well worth it.

Action plan

Regardless of whether you are starting at the foundation level with only a smartphone, the professional level and broadcasting from your computer, or the elite level with a high-end home studio, think about your business and content.

  1. Start thinking about a dedicated space for your content creation. Even if it is just your desk and your laptop, having a consistent location and setup will help you create content more consistently
  2. Consider your needs for live and recorded content
  3. Consider that brands are moving up in sophistication on social channels like Facebook Live and YouTube with a mix of professional grade production along with ad hoc live streaming
  4. Determine the level of home studio you’d like to create in the next year

Call to action

For a zero cost way to make sure you deliver your video or live broadcasts flawlessly, check out my free Facebook Live broadcast checklists. These tell you exactly what to do before, during, and after your broadcast.
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