Remote Production: Control Over Distance
The concept of remote or “at home” production (also known as remote integration or REMI) is an idea that’s taking hold rapidly for live broadcasting, and for good reason. In the face of huge competition from on-demand web streaming services, traditional broadcasters are looking to expand their live coverage to include more local and regional events, giving audiences a broader choice and a more tailored viewing experience. Since many of these events have limited interest and appeal to a narrower audience, they tend to garner lower advertising revenues; therefore, broadcasters are seeking more cost-effective approaches that enable them to cover more events with fewer resources, and in less space.
In simple terms, remote production is a technology approach to generate a wider range of high-quality live content, ranging from regional sports to news programmes to musical festivals, and mixing it in a remote facility hundreds or thousands of miles away. Remote production presents an appealing contrast to traditional mobile broadcasting, which ties up expensive equipment and skilled staff travelling between events. Instead, remotely controlled, IP-connected equipment can be in a broadcast facility where it can be utilised more effectively. Control rooms can switch between jobs and remote venues, with plenty of engineering staff and operational coverage on hand. Plus, operators can work in the same daily environment, without travel expenses and setup time.
This article will explore the key elements for effective remote production over IP networks, particularly regarding audio workflows. We’ll also present a recent success story illustrating these concepts for an international sports broadcast.
The Need for Speed
Remote production is not a new concept, but IP connectivity is making it much more accessible and affordable – allowing for cloud-based workflows and cost-effective bulk transport of uncompressed media. With more video and discrete audio channels being transported around the world at low latency, production operations can be shared easily between remote sites and broadcast centres.
That said, signal latency is the single biggest barrier to quality audio in remote production. Broadcast audio workflows rely on effective monitor mixes with no latency, which can be difficult to achieve when the studio is hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
The key to cutting latency is to prevent the audio from making a long-distance round trip by deploying on-site remote production equipment with local digital signal processing (DSP) to generate monitor mixes and IFBs with no latency. An operator in a remote studio needs direct control over channel functions such as mic gains, aux send/monitor mix levels, and fader levels from the remote console’s control surface.
Meanwhile, at the venue, the scaled-down team of local engineers needs a convenient method of managing the DSP and bus configurations, including fast and easy setup of IFB routing and remote monitor mix levels. These considerations guarantee that venue infrastructure, routing and monitor feeds are functional prior to transmission. Also, local DSP also means there is no latency for commentary or talent monitoring.
With all DSP for monitor mixes handled on-site, the studio transmission console can concentrate purely on the main programme mix.
An effective production requires a simple method for operators to control the audio parameters of the remote production unit from a control room located many miles away. Using a familiar studio control surface, the remote operator needs real-time control over mic gains, fader levels, and monitor mix levels, with the ability to assign remote channel paths to local faders, just as with any other channel.
This functionality should include channel path fader levels and cuts, aux send levels and ons, aux master levels and cuts, VCA linking via the studio console, and control over EQ, dynamics and direct outputs. In addition, the remote operator needs the ability to mix all the remote site’s IFBs and aux buses independently in addition to the local transmission mix on the studio console.
For full scalability, the production should also have the ability to link multiple remote production units to the same studio-based console. This is especially useful for shows with multiple events happening simultaneously, such as multivenue sports productions.
A Flexible Infrastructure
In any remote production, an important consideration is the signal transport infrastructure. Multiple synced signals need to be moved in real time, and often down the same physical pathways. Audio, data, and video all need to be considered, as well as multiple control protocols.
Infrastructures need to be versatile enough to connect via a range of transports, allowing the broadcaster to use a preferred transport method. This minimises initial expenditures and builds confidence through the use of an established transport mechanism. The studio console mixing the transmission can then assign these signals where required on the desk, so workflows are the same as any other broadcast. In this manner, the infrastructure supports a shallow learning curve and minimises disruption as operations make the transition to a remote production workflow.
As our industry develops, these transports need to develop too. It’s essential to build in the flexibility to incorporate changing AoIP and IP protocols like Dante, AES67, and even SMPTE ST 2022. A remote production unit should be flexible enough to deal with any transport.
Case Study: ATP Tennis
In its recent coverage of the ATP World Tour Tennis finals, Sky Sports conducted a successful trial of Calrec Audio’s new RP1 remote production unit to create live audio mixing connectivity between the O2 Arena in North Greenwich, London, and Sky Studios at Osterley, London. RP1 is a 2U, single-box solution that provides local DSP for generating monitor mixes and IFBs with no latency, giving an operator in a remote studio direct control over channel functions such as mic gains, aux send/monitor mix levels and fader levels.
The RP1 unit was located in a technical bay at the O2 arena and connected via MADI to 16 microphones from around the court, umpire chair, and commentator positions. The RP1 took in the MADI data from a DirectOut M.1k2 MADI router, which was sent to one of four aux IFB outputs and then sent back out of the RP1 unit via MADI.
The MADI inputs were embedded into SDI streams before being passed through an SDI-Codec unit and fed into a Cisco switch, where the streams were sent via IP over 20 miles of fibre on a managed network with a latency of no more than 40 ms. The signals were received at Sky Studios, where the audio was de-embedded and remotely mixed on a Calrec Artemis console in Sky Studio 8.
In this trial, Sky Sports was not only able to show that audio could be passed over IP to another site, but also to prove that the microphone channel inputs to the RP1, and the IFB auxiliary outputs from the RP1 at the O2, could be controlled over long distances in real time over the same IP connection via the Cisco Catalyst 2960 switch. Control was tested both directly from the host console surface and from a GUI running on a browser in a variety of locations to the LAN1 port on the rear of the RP1.
Sky Sports was able to reinvent the audio workflows for remote production and allow critical functionality to be controlled remotely from the main studio complex.
Remote production will no doubt increase over the next five years as technology evolves to allow production teams to work from the same facility week in and week out, especially on longer-form, multiday events. While it may take some time for every major sporting event to be remotely produced, the approach is definitely on the upswing.
The key hurdles are no longer technical. The critical success factors for remote production lie in working with the production teams and all the key stakeholders at the planning stage to ensure everyone is going in the same direction. ‘Flight rules’ need to be defined to ensure that everyone understands how a remote programme differs from a traditional outside broadcast production. As the event evolves, these flight rules evolve too, and the programme gets better and better.
Ultimately by being efficient and working differently we can create a better product. Allowing presentations to break out from a studio environment to the actual event will always be far more engaging for viewers.