Austin City Limits' digital workflow

What do you get when 75,000 enthusiastic music fans per day converge in the center of Austin, TX’s Zilker park for three hot days, and then add 130 bands playing across eight stages for almost 12 hours per day? In Texas, you get what’s called Austin City Limits Music Festival, or using the common local moniker, ACL. In this part of the country, this is a big deal. In addition, much of this event’s content becomes a core component of the PBS show, Austin City Limits.

I was fortunate to be invited to attend ACL, which was my first outdoor music festival. To call the event impressive doesn’t do justice to the festivities—or the behind-the-scenes technology.

The genesis of the trip was an invitation from Dell to come and tour their technology at work in the festival’s “video village”, the location of the production trucks and related media. Dell’s participation, and co-sponsorship with semiconductor design company, AMD, represents a major push by Dell to establish the company as a serious player in the digital media content arena. Having worked plenty of broadcast remotes, I am familiar with the traditional players and products. This trip offered me the chance to see mobile and tower workstations performing tasks where other, and often more expensive, broadcast point solutions are typically used.

Dell builds faster workflow

Dell’s participation was based on a request for help by C3 Presents, ACL Music Festival producers, and the show’s video production company, Arts + Labor (A+L). ACL show organizers wanted to expand the show’s audience beyond Austin and one effective way to do that is via web streaming on YouTube.

While last year’s show was also streamed, this year’s goal was to feed two channels, while providing a growth path for up to three video channels. The local video editing and production team was experienced in web streaming, having originated content for Lollapalooza. But this time, the challenges were even greater; stream more content, do it faster and provide a wealth of wraparound content to support the ACL Festival YouTube channel.

Arts + Labor’s previous music festival productions relied on a combination of Apple Mac Books and Final Cut Pro. However, the demand for faster turn around and potentially dual broadcast streaming channels resulted in A+L creative director, Erik Horn, calling on Dell for assistance. Springboard Productions acted as the producers and directors of the webcast. They cleared the bands, directed all stage production and coordinated with YouTube on the satellite uplink, promotion and managed the streaming broadcast’s post fest archives.

Unique festival challenges

For those not familiar with large outdoor music festivals, let me set the scene for ACL. This festival takes place in Austin’s Zilker park, a 355 acre space located not far from the city’s center business district and served well by walking trails. I’ll talk more about the trails in a later post.

The music festival is staged in an open area of the park, in a space comprising perhaps four or five acres of flat and grass-covered field. Eight stages are carefully positioned around the periphery, which allows more than one stage to operate simultaneously with little interference or crossover sound. Of course, there’s plenty of space for the throngs of excited fans to roam between stages. Around the peripherally are booths selling souvenirs, a local food festival, VIP booths and other crowd services.

Key stages are equipped with multiple camera setups, including fixed and portable cameras. Panasonic P2-based cameras are key, along with auxiliary cameras using SX and CF card storage. These cameras capture interviews and crowd shots, providing both live and B-roll content. This forms the core content sent to the A+L production trailer.

Another ingest feed to the A+L trailer comes from a Vision Research Phantom high-speed camera, shooting 2500fps. This special effects demonstration booth was housed in the Media Lounge. Attendees could clown in front of the camera real time, then view their motions in 24fps slow motion. The content was routed to the A+L production trailer for use as vignettes around the streamed shows. Samples of the slow motion video can be viewed on YouTube

The stage cameras were connected to the main TV production trailer via HD-SDI over fiber. The multi-camera feed was switched with traditional broadcast gear and several outputs were created. One video feed was returned to the stage and projected on the sides and back of the band for crowd consumption. Another feed was recorded for use in future TV shows. A third clean output was sent to the A+L production trailer for use in the YouTube feeds.

Behind the scene

Figure 1 represents a system block diagram for just the streaming portion of the broadcast. With this as background, let’s now look at the solution implemented by A+L in partnership with Dell.

A total of four separate stage feeds were routed to the A+L trailer. A Matrox MXO2 capture card/breakout box converted the HD-SDI signals to HDMI for ingest to the mobile workstations. Centralized storage was provided by a Dell PowerVault NX200 NAS stuffed with 4TB of disk. Tied to the storage were two Dell Precision M4600 mobile workstations. Each workstation was equipped with an AMD FirePro M5950 graphic card. From these workstations, editors could select the desired video for broadcast or for real-time editing.

Linked to the central storage systems also were two edit seats. Each seat was equipped with Dell Precision T5500 tower workstations using AMD FirePro V5900 video cards. Each seat was running Adobe Premier Pro 5.5 and After Effects editing software. Dell UltraSharp U2410 monitors were paired with each T5500 workstation to ensure color-accurate editing, while also providing a large physical real estate to make editing visually easier.

These two edit seats assembled the wrap-around video and other special content. One of these T5500 tower workstations was assigned to also produce the actual streaming output feeds for the YouTube channels.

I asked Jason DeVoss, Messaging and Brand Consultant, Dell Precision Workstations about the new workflow being implemented by Dell. He said, “C3 had a webcast with one channel in the past, but so many [viewers] were accessing the webcast, they [C3] wanted to create a second channel and potentially a third channel. There was a real need to create content quickly. Today, people with phones can post to YouTube instantly, so it becomes a challenge to keep people informed in high quality, but also do it in a fast and timely manner. That’s why they came to us for a new and faster solution.”

Kirk Schell, Executive Director & General Manager, Dell’s Business Product Group, echoed that viewpoint. He said, “Dell is excited to be part of this show and [video] is a growing investment for us. The Dell Precision brand is our professional brand of portable and larger-scale solutions for engineering and scientific applications. This line of workstations is designed from the ground up for professional users. The setup you’ll see today also uses Adobe software, which is one of our key partners on the software side.”

Arts + Labor creative director Erik Horn compared the company’s previous show production workflow with the new Dell solution, “Previously we used Mac Books and Final Cut pro. We switched to Dell Precision workstations and Adobe software because both were designed to do what we needed to do. The new Dell workflow is faster. It removed a decode and encode step, saving us roughly 40% in time it took me to ingest, edit and then stream the content.”

I asked him why quick turnaround was important, Horn replied, “Last year it took me several hours to ingest, edit and complete the show’s closing clip. We’re concerned about others posting video (even if it’s of lesser quality) of such live events before we can get it on YouTube.”

Horn said, “The Dell work flow allows us to directly ingest a P2 file, which FCP cannot do. Adobe 5.5 can then take the file directly and we can immediately begin editing. This also saves on storage space by not having to store one format, convert to another which can be edited. It’s much faster.”

Horn says the new Dell setup works better for his day-to-day assignments at Arts + Labor. “We don’t need to invest in typical broadcast setup, [because] it converts easily for our other work, it’s dual purpose. With After Effects we can do web content without the need to invest in traditional broadcast gear. This stuff actually sits in my office where it’s used every day,” he said.

Horn highlighted some of the other video production work on which the Dell equipment is being used. “We’re currently using this setup for two feature films, other video production, a documentary, a TV pilot and even editing remotely. We’re even streaming edits to New York, and using Skype, all in an effort to move edit work from Austin to New York,” said Horn.

New opportunity for Dell

I ask Schell why Dell wants to compete in the fast-paced broadcast and production space? He said, “Clearly we’ll continue to invest in verticals. We’re currently the number one provider in the healthcare space. We have presences in all major verticals”.

Schell also noted that Dell already had been successful in the digital content creation space. He said that Dell workstations were responsible for the video graphics displayed above the stage on U2’s 360 tour. “On the media and entertainment side, we work with a lot of the top digital content creation professionals. For instance, Dell computers powered the 70ft tall, 50 ton stage screen used in U2’s 360 world tour. It is an important part of our business and in that space, we want to become a household name,” said Schell.

Continuing, “This [the Dell Precision line of workstations] is not a consumer product. We’ll work with our engineering team and change the product as needed to meet the needs of professional users.” Schell concluded, “People won't substitute with consumer products when their career matters. They will buy professional products.”

After spending a day with the Arts + Labor production team and Dell professionals at the festival, I returned to my hotel and decided to view a couple hours of the ACL YouTube broadcast. It all looked absolutely great. I encourage you to give the Austin City Limits music festival a look. You’ll find well-produced content with accompanying excellent technical quality.

Next year, if you can’t attend in person, watching Austin City Limits music festival on YouTube won’t be a bad second choice.