Building a broadcast-quality video studio for Skype in a 10x9 foot space

Building a broadcast-quality video studio for Skype in a 10x9 foot space

Summary: One of the most exciting projects ZDNet columnist David Gewirtz has been working on is building a broadcast-quality video studio for Skype in a 10x9 foot space. Here's the story behind that project.

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This is the studio in webcast mode, where the egg-carton foam behind is used to enhance the sound recorded. There's not much room for picture taking in this space, so this is taken from the door.

When the editors here at ZDNet and I put together our plan for DIY-IT, one of our key goals was to take you through some of the projects I've been working on. One of the most exciting has been a project I've been working on since about March, building a broadcast-quality video studio for Skype in a 10x9 foot space.

In this article, I'm going to outline the project's basic goals and objectives, and in subsequent articles I'll take you through many of the sub-projects that were necessary to put it all together.

Like most DIY-IT projects of mine, this is a work in progress. I'm adding, tweaking, changing, and improving as I go, and I'll share that with you as well.

How it got started

I've been a renter all my life. However, as housing prices here in Central Florida became more and more affordable, my wife and I decided last February that the time had come to buy a house.

As I've discussed before, part of being a "professional expert" is the need to have multiple streams of professional income. To do that, and also to be a successful book author, you need to promote yourself and, essentially, turn your name into your brand. Over the past five years, I've done hundreds of radio interviews, many network TV interviews, and, now, for CBS Interactive, I do a lot of webcasts and lectures.

See also: And now for something completely different. Welcome to DIY-IT!

In the old rental house, I had my office in a loft that was over the living room and front entryway. That loft office was where I did my interviews and webcasts. It was adequate, but not great. If someone had to leave or enter the house, the front door was right below me (and it creaked). If I had to do a video interview (where I was the interviewee), light was almost impossible to control, and what you could see on camera behind me was less than fully professional. Sometimes you could see the hallway, sometimes my computer desk, sometimes I had a divider up to try to hide it all. It was tolerable, but far from great.

Even so, I preferred doing video interviews from home. Miami is a very long three-hour drive away, New York City is a very long three-hour flight away, and either of those choices would take me out of my productive writing loft for longer than I'd like.

Back to the house story.

When we decided to buy a home, my wife took on the task of hunting for houses during the work day, while I was working on projects with deadlines. Shortly after she started, she found the house we'd eventually buy. When she came home that day, after almost instantly knowing it was "the one," she also told me it had a nice space for a studio.

I'd been unhappy with my office-as-studio space in our old, rented home, but I never really thought I'd have the option to carve out a dedicated studio space. But, as it turns out, the house we bought has a 125-inch by 95-inch room (that's about 10 feet by about 9 feet) that is perfect for a studio.

I think it was probably initially intended as a baby's room or a child's bedroom, but since we don't have kids, I immediately accepted the challenge of turning it into a studio for both broadcast-quality audio and video.

Next: Project goals »

« Previous: Project background

Project goals

Right from the start, I had three key goals for the studio. First, I wanted to be able to do quality audio work, both for the CBS Interactive webcasts and for the radio interviews.

Second, I wanted to be able to connect to network studios and send them live video and audio streams of me, where they could interview me over Skype.

And, third, I wanted to conduct and record interviews of interesting people, where I was able to capture talking-head video of both me and my interviewees.

Skype and green screen

Key to the second two requirements was that I wanted to use chroma key technology within the Skype video stream. This was in response to the video problem I'd had in the old rental house. There, the backgrounds were pretty bad in the video interviews I'd done.

At one time, I used privacy screens purchased from Target, another time I'd just had my desk behind me, and most of the time, the lighting from the room's windows was completely wrong for a good video image. It was definitely not the professional image I wanted to project and -- more importantly -- producers thought the results were usable, but certainly not great.

I wanted to change all that. In production video, chroma key technology (also called green screen) is used to mask out a vivid green background (other colors are also sometimes used) and replace it with anything else. This is how your friendly neighborhood weatherman stands in front of a dynamically changing weather map.

While Skype video is pretty universally accepted as a transmission medium, it has no facility for chroma keying. What your webcam is pointed at is what you get. I wanted to change all that and dynamically insert any background I wanted into my Skype video stream.

Talking to the screen

My other key goal was to overcome a common problem with Skype interviews. When you have a webcam at the top of your screen, but the person you're talking to is in a window on your screen, the video that results is usually a bit peculiar.

You've all seen it. The person on camera is always looking down, instead of at the camera. Sometimes you see a forehead, sometimes you see eyes kind of roll up, sometimes you see a distorted image of a particularly large hairline. It's weird, it's not exactly natural, and it certainly isn't broadcast quality.

So, I thought, what if I used teleprompter technology to project the image of the person I'm talking to right in front of the camera? Then, I'd be looking at and interacting directly with the person on the other end of Skype, but also looking straight into the camera.

Budget

There was one final factor: budget. We'd just bought a house, and as I'll tell you in some of the other project articles, we essentially bought a solid shell, but had to replace most of the systems. Budget was definitely important. My wife and I agreed that I could allocate about $5,000 to the studio project, for computers, cameras, lighting, software, construction ... everything.

This may sound expensive, but since broadcast studios often cost millions of dollars, five grand is pretty cheap. Also, remember that this is my job, how I make my living. Investing this in a hobby would be quite expensive, but I make a good part of my living sending spoken word out to all my audiences. Investing in this studio for me was no different than a manufacturer investing in a new piece of production hardware.

Next: The project begins »

« Previous: Project goals

The project begins

So there you go, now you understand my basic goals. Be able to do quality audio and video interviews, be able to control my background dynamically within Skype, generate broadcast quality talking head video, and use teleprompter technology to look straight at the camera, rather than down or off to the side -- and do it all for $5,000 or less.

There are a lot of moving parts in this project. What follows is a short summary of all the elements. Stay tuned for individual articles that'll take you through each piece of the puzzle.

Soundproofing: As it turns out, we moved in across the street from a family with five kids. I needed to be able to sound-proof the studio or the whole project wouldn't work out.

Sound balancing: Soundproofing introduces weird sound characteristics, especially in such a small room. So my next step was finding ways to make sure the sound was rich and deep enough to provide quality results.

Green screen: I found a really neat, inexpensive way to do this. Hint: it involves a Disney product.

Lighting and light stands: Lighting is always a problem, and in a room that's not much more than 9-foot square, you can't have a lot of light stands using tripod legs. I found an almost zero-footprint solution.

Studio computer: I needed a powerful enough, quiet enough, small enough computer to handle all the video and audio processing in the studio space. Plus, it had to run the special software that inserts chroma key video into the Skype stream.

Virtualized control room: You've all seen video studio control rooms, with all the dials, sliders, and buttons on big panels. I needed to make this happen on one computer screen, and so I built a virtual control room using some very slick software.

Camera: I wanted something better, and with more control, than a typical webcam. Here's what I came up with: Finding a camcorder that works with Skype is harder than you might expect.

Teleprompter: I tried a variety of ideas, but the key was I had to go beyond teleprompting software and somehow project a live Skype video window right in front of the camera. Hint: I'm using an iPad.

Motorized pan-and-tilt head: I wanted to be able to easily adjust the camera's position and focus from in front of the camera. I bought a device that failed, because the combination of the camera, teleprompter, and iPad were too heavy. My current attempt to solve this involves Erector sets and a blood pressure cuff.

Studio audio: There are a number of different ways needed to capture audio, depending on where it's going. I wound up using an analog phone, an old mixer, and a cheap mic from Radio Shack. It works astonishingly well.

Studio sound software: Given all the software running in my virtualized control room, I had to route the audio in interesting and creative ways. This required some slick software. I'll tell you all about it.

Studio video production software: For recorded video interviews, there's a need to cut in intros, outros, opening titles, credits, and so forth. There's no shortage of video production programs, and I look at a bunch of them.

Integrating Skype into studio production: This is all about the process. All these pieces have to come together into a final, working piece.

Oh, one final note: I know there are a lot of video conferencing tools beyond Skype. I'll probably test some of them out, but for the broadcast world, Skype is solid enough, cheap enough, and certainly universal. Everyone knows what you're talking about when you talk about Skype.

So there you go. It's a big project. I've gotten most of it working, and I'm now finding and squashing bugs in the production system. Stay tuned. I'll tell you all about the individual project elements in the coming weeks.

Topics: Social Enterprise, Collaboration, Hardware

About

David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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18 comments
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  • Marco

    Hi David,

    Tools that might be interesting for your project:
    - vidblaster --> production software www.vidblaster.com
    - iris2iris --> teleprompter technology combined with webcams www.iris2iris.com

    I think the latency will be your technical issue. The video stream is coming out off production software has a general latency of 2 to 3 seconds. This latency is too big to have a conversation within skype. It would be interesting to know if there is an skype add-on which give you your video production functionalities.
    Breuk
  • Polo

    Sounds like a great project. It will be very interesting to hear your solutions. I hope that you will also include the tools that were -not- selected and why. Perhaps a 1-10 rating that would make it easy to tell if the less expensive item was -almost- as good as the selected item or if it was nowhere near the selected item.

    Also, please clearly label each component as proprietary or open source.

    As a follow-up article, how about writing on the most effective ways that mere mortals can improve their interactive presence. Perhaps some of that is simply based on how we use it (free). But, there are many who might be able to free up a USD 100 to 300 budget for something that would greatly improve their situation.
    pwatson
  • RE: Building a broadcast-quality video studio for Skype in a 10Ã?Â?9 foot space

    You may want to look at Boinx Tv
    http://www.boinx.com/boinxtv/overview/

    I don't work for them, but i got to be a beta tester.
    It is a great solution for doing camera switching, lower 3rds and keying on a budget.
    DrVideo
    • RE: Building a broadcast-quality video studio for Skype in a 10Ã?Â?9 foot space

      @DrVideo Boinx is a key part of the solution. I've got a whole article on that coming soon.
      David Gewirtz
  • RE: Building a broadcast-quality video studio for Skype in a 10Ã?Â?9 foot space

    Where's some example video??
    AstralisLux
  • I see you have some "MacGyver" in you!

    Looking forward to all of this - what you are doing is what any professional should think about if they perform any audio / video work or being interviewed in this manner.
    TAPhilo
  • Add a wall

    A small, square space with parallel walls will always produce poor audio (resonance, slap-echo, etc.). Consider adding a diagonal wall from about the middle of one wall to about the middle of its adjacent wall. You can use the space behind it for a helmholtz resonator or hidden storage area and use its front surface for your green screen). Break up the ceiling by hanging a couple of half cylinders and then carpet the floor. Make a recording before and after to impress your wife how cool it sounds even if it looks weird. Good luck and have fun.
    BRD2
  • Remote & Live

    We are working on a video project also, but instead of a studio, we are about Live Broadcast on location, via wireless, not Skype. Everything works well enough for our app, but the video source is the same problem. Unless you are ready to spend $1500-$3000 good luck. The C910 works for us but needs to be mounted on a hand held something for our app. Enjoyed you article
    jim@...
    • Remote Live

      good, Respect for sharing this article. http://www.shoppharmacycounter.com/t-Adipex-Medicine.aspx This is really timely since I'm myself going through troubles similar to this, and I am actually planning attempting this for myself.
      bobdoskaen4
  • RE: Building a broadcast-quality video studio for Skype in a 10Ã?Â?9 foot space

    try 10'5" x 7'11"
    cad-man-06
  • RE: Building a broadcast-quality video studio for Skype in a 10Ã?Â?9 foot space

    I work for a non-profit and needed to do about 20 four-minute videos that required a green screen. I ended with a sub-$100 Pinnacle Studio offer that included one, and the chroma key software and screen worked 100%. Since the screen was up and down (not permanent) a clothing steamer helped knock out the wrinkles.
    psion@...
    • two ideas for eliminating wrinkes

      @psion@... we built a frame from 1" pvc pipe 6 to 8" bigger than the cloth. folded the bottom over and sewed it creating a 6 inch pocket. filled a 3" pipe with concrete (or just use a steel pipe) slide that in the bottom socket to place tension on the screen. If you need more get little bunji chords and plastic spring clamps. You can get a bag full at Walmart for $8.oo bucks. Attach 4 or 5 of these on each side. You don't need a lot of tension. and the "profesional" ilet systems cost much more. My clamp system has the advantage of being moveable, and expandable. and you can build it today without waiting. Don @ Jetmansblog
      michaelis2928
  • RE: Building a broadcast-quality video studio for Skype in a 10Ã?Â?9 foot space

    Somehow, I missed your previous article documenting the difficulty in finding a good Skype compatible video camera...

    Years ago, I bought a new Sony camcorder with the justification it could double as a great webcam. It did - until Vista came along. Fortunately, I found an unsupported USB driver that got it functional again. But that only worked until Win7 came along. Fortunately, I found out I could add a firewire port to my desktop PC and get going again. But that only worked until there was a Skype update. Fortunately, I found out I could use ManyCAM software to recognize my Firewire input and feed that into Skype. But unfortunately, I no longer had 640x480 resolution. But then Skype ver 5 came out and I could no longer get a decent frame rate. So, what was once 640x480 30fps high guality video is now not much better than using a cheap webcam!

    In summary, finding a solution today may not last long - at least that has been my experience over the last couple years.
    slowgeezer
  • Just so I understand: You're spending gobs of money

    to build high-end A/V so you can send 640x480 pixellated video over the internet.
    baggins_z
  • Great Article / Series

    It's these kind of articles that I really enjoy reading. I look forwards to further posts on the subject.
    Joe-Taylor-7
  • I was able to eliminate studio Mics

    In a similar but larger (12 X 20 ) studio I had mixers, sound FX, and 5 condenser mics with phantom power, and a 18 megapixel camera etc. but when I bought the new Logitec 910c webcam with stereo mics the sound actually improved, doesn't sound hollow, and skype (Suposedly) only broadcasts in 720 mode (not 1080) which the cam will shoot video in at 10 megapixels. Around $60.oo bucks. comes with simple software for easy splicing. Jetman
    michaelis2928
  • We have eliminated Studio Mics

    Similar to studios above we do use foam "Walls" angled away from each other to discourage bounce. but our size is 12 X 20 ft studio with 5 condenser mics, mixer, FX, booms, etc. I got a sixty dollar Logitec 910c webcam (1080 & 10 megapixels) which gave us better sound than we had previously unless we used sm58s, with pop filters & held them in our hands. for bebinners the 910 comes with easy to use software for recording, but will only use 720 mode for Skype. It has good clarity & excellent sound without all the foam if you are within 4 feet of the stereo mics. Nothing like it in this price range, and the shortest learning curve I've ever had. Don @ Jetmansblog
    michaelis2928
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