So I’ve been working on a playout solution for live video.  This is for my church, where we run fairly regular events that require on-point media playout.  I wanted to put together a portable rig, ideally with a rack mounted computer in a sturdy case with all of the other kit that’s needed, so we can just turn up and plug in.

My requirements list:

  • simultaneous dual-screen playout of separate video clips
  • a cue list that would allow shows to be pre-programmed with a ‘GO’ button to trigger the next item
  • software simple enough that it can be used ‘iTunes-style’ for simple events…
  • …but powerful enough that it could support not only the simultaneous dual-screen playout, but also clips spanning both displays, edge blending, looping of an ident etc.
  • cost under £1000 for two or three licenses (live machine, live backup, edit machine)

I would have vastly preferred to go with a PC-based solution.  Here’s the reasons why:

  • there are no rack mount Macs available anymore
  • Macs are more expensive (although the difference is less at the high end because a lot of the cost is in the graphics card)
  • Macs now have almost no upgrade options: memory, hard drive and graphics are increasingly soldered to the main board with no options to expand
  • more people still have PCs, particularly if they’re not media professionals, and ideally I would like people to be able to run the software on their own machine to get their shows set up

So I set out to find a piece of software that would fulfil the above requirements, ideally cross-platform, if not I would have gone with a Windows-based solution.

After many hours of web searches, downloading demos and contacting companies, I can confidently say there is no software for Windows that fulfils the above requirements.  I challenge you to find some!

Most of the software I found, and dismissed, fell into one of four categories:

Free/open Source software

This includes CasparCG, an amazing piece of free software developed by the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation.  I got it up and running, and it could do amazing things including the dual screen playout, but the front end is designed for TV Studio technicians and just wouldn’t work for our volunteers.

Also on this list is VPT 7, a very clever piece of software coded in Max which would do everything I wanted, but the cue list is a text file edited in an external editor – I’d use it myself, but again no good for our volunteers.

Screen Monkey gets an honourable mention for being simple, free and fun, and would be ideal for those wanting to do simple playout… but there’s no dual screen / dual clip option.

Free and commercial software for VJs

There’s some amazing software out there for VJs, most of which can do live compositing of multiple recorded media and inputs from video cameras and webcams, Arkaos being a popular example.  They have all sorts of effects, transitions and warps that can be applied… but NONE of the Windows-based ones have a cue list.  None!  Apparently the VJs of today are a dedicated bunch who like to trigger video clips manually and never have to leave their laptop unattended to pop to the toilet.

Commercial show control and/or TV studio software

There are several packages available for TV Studios, other than CasparCG mentioned above, they all cost thousands of pounds.  There are also several options designed for media playout in live entertainment, but these are usually linked to expensive hardware, e.g. Hippotizer.  I’m sure these are all very good, but far too expensive and overkill when modern Macs and PCs can easily handle multiple HD video streams.

Software designed for churches to show song words and play media

The song projection market is pretty much saturated, with not a great deal to help potential customers choose between different solutions.  Arguably the most feature rich (and most expensive) package is ProPresenter.  This promises multi-screen output, but it’s actually a bit of a kludge that only allows one video clip to be played at a given time (you could have song words or live video on the other screen).

The same company also sell ProVideoPlayer which will do most of what I want (although it’s not a proper cue list, more a blocky file manager type view) and costs $999 US dollars for a single license.  It feels like something of a con, as it’s blatantly the same playout engine as ProPresenter with some added features for a very high price.  And… it’s Mac only.

Mac to the Rescue

Fortunately there is one (and I promise you, only one) piece of software on the market that will do this job.  It’s called QLab, it’s Mac-only, and costs $399 US dollars for a three machine license.  The interface is easy enough to learn but some complex effects and transitions can be achieved.

Interestingly, there’s a burgeoning market for software specifically designed for projection mapping, an exciting new technique where video is projected seamlessly onto objects.  Of these, a few support simultaneous multiple displays (they’re all Mac-only) and none have proper cue lists.

I’ve been pondering why the Windows playout offerings are so poor.  I’m guessing that Quicktime and Core Video are so good that it’s cornered the market, in much the same way that DirectX made Windows the developers’ choice for games for nearly twenty years.

If you’ve come across other options please comment below.  Otherwise look out for my next article where I’ll go over the design of the portable rig.