Conference Audio: Problems, Procedures & Suggestions for the Future
I was going to reply to this in the mailing list, but after I spent half an hour furiously typing this, I thought it might be better to put it into a blog, for a slightly wider audience, perhaps a more permanent life and partly in an effort to end this thread on a more or less constructive note.
The backchat for this is that the LCA 2009 video has started to go up on the web, and some talks have some gaps in the audio stream... Russell Coker wants to make a constructive suggestion, as follows:
On Wed, 2009-02-25 at 18:02 +1100, Russell Coker wrote:
> I've pasted in the below paragraph (the third time I've included it in this
> thread) to reiterate my point. Note that I am not asking you to re-do any
> videos, I am making a suggestion for future people.
> # I suggest that in future when preparing such videos the sections with no
> # sound be omitted and replaced by a short note explaining the omission,
> # something like "sorry, due to technical difficulties four minutes of sound
> # were not available". Having a second ogg file for the lip-readers would be
> # an option although I expect that the demand would be minute.
As someone who has not been at all involved with the production of the LCA videos, but who has been intimately involved with the process of streaming DebConf 6, 7 & 8, I think this sort of additional effort will only happen if people voluntarily do it themselves.
Just the task of *watching* all of the produced videos is a huge job for one individual, but as a community of individuals it is quite likely that at least one individual in the community watches each video. If each person who was offended by the quality of post-production work took it upon themselves to fix up only one video then it is probable that we would see some changed. Otherwise I'm afraid it is unlikely.
Further in his e-mail, Russell Coker wrote:
> My observation was that the microphones were put down AFTER they ceased
> operating. A non-functional lapel microphone is no better than a non-
> functional hand-held microphone.
> Having a large supply of new batteries would be one way of alleviating the
> problem (I believe that some of the instances were due to flat batteries).
> Another possibility is having two microphones on hand so that if one died the
> other could be turned on.
> A wired microphone that doesn't rely on battery power would probably be the
> most reliable option. That of course might not fit with OH&S issues.
Most speakers are uncomfortable / unfamiliar with wired microphones. Spares are essential, of course, but the problem can usually be avoided by having a checklist for the audio person to confirm several things:
Before the start of the talk:
- check that batteries are good enough to last for the full length of the coming talk.
- check sound levels are correct for this speaker
- confirm sound is going through to recording
- check the speaker knows how to turn the mic off/on
At the start of the talk:
- confirm sound is going through to recording
At the end of the talk:
- Turn the mic off to save battery.
There are probably a couple of things that I've missed, but if you start with a checklist you pretty soon modify it into a *good* checklist, and it *really* helps when people are under fire.
In fact lapel mics are not the best microphones for these kinds of presentations. The best mics are the ultra lightweight 'headset' models which place a the mic near to the speakers mouth. These do not suffer when the speaker turns their head hard to the left or right, at which points a lapel mic stops getting their speech. They also work well with that more hirsute minority so over-represented in our particular community (alas, that this set no longer includes Bdale :-)
Of course DebConf has a large team of volunteers for streaming the conference, and has developed these kinds of procedures over a number of years. At DebConf there are usually only two main streams, each of which involves:
- The director, operating the video mixer
- Speaker camera operator
- Audience camera operator
- Slides to video convertor
- Sound mixer operator
- Talk timer, to warn speakers at t-10, t-5 & time is up.
- Two roving people responsible for getting audience mics to people talking in the room.
Ideally that really is 7 people (times two streams), and you can get by if you can't find all of the last three, but the other four are increasingly desirable. We mostly manage to do that with volunteers for two streams at DebConf, but for five or more streams at LCA it is inevitably a lot harder, and the quality necessarily has to be cut back to match the resources available.
While it is true that sound is critical to this communication, it is unfortunately also true that most people's (even most geek's) eyes glaze over when presented with a mysterious box with a mere 6 sliding potentiometers, let alone when there are 36 of them, each associated with another 8 rotary knobs, and a rats nest of cables worthy of the worst network nightmare they've seen, and where everything appears to be literally held in place with duct tape.
So it is not so surprising then that while it is relatively easy to find a gadget mad geek capable of operating a camera, or even experienced with operating a camera, finding people with experience operating a sound mixer is an order of magnitude harder.
At LCA the operation appears superficially to often involve a (single) speaker camera operator with a very basic sound mixer which has been configured once by an overworked person who is unobtainable during the actual talk to solve any audio problems. These people are volunteers, and are doing their best, but it simply isn't possible to get a consistently high quality of video and audio in those circumstances.
So as one of the organising committee for LCA 2010 in Wellington I will be watching what we do, and although I don't intend to get personally involved in the video production (I've got plenty of other stuff on *my* plate :-) I do intend to provide what advice and assistance I can. I know that we hope to have some professionals involved (as volunteers), but how many volunteers, and with what levels of skill & experience, we are unlikely to know until much closer than the date. I'll also personally try and get a run-down on all of the audio equipment so that in an emergency, if I happen to be available, I can sub as a sound mixer operator.
So we will try and do better in Wellington in 2010. Come to the conference, though, because we can make no guarantees, and if you do come to Wellington, and you see a single cameraman, and you know something about running a sound mixer, then perhaps you can come and volunteer to help out in that capacity, for the talks you are attending anyway. We'd really appreciate the help.
And finally I must say thanks, in particular, to Holger Levsen for all the learning I have gained since joining the videoteam at DebConf5 in Helsinki in 2005. And too, to all of those past conference teams (LCA, DebConf and otherwise) who have put their best efforts into providing videos of the talks I couldn't see in person. I know it's a bloody hard job, and often a less high profile one, so: