Behind the Scenes - How to Technically Manage a Joomla!Day
During the last years I got more and more involved in the organisation of two large Joomla! events that are hosted by the German Joomla! Association. Those two events, the Joomla!Day Germany and the international Joomla! conference J&Beyond are held once a year and attended by 200-250 people from all around globe, so it seems to be reasonable to call them "quite big". Since this year, I'm basically "in charge" of all things related to the technical realisation and with this post I want to give you a look behind the scenes, share some lessons that I had to learn, and tell you some best practices that developed over the past few years.
Okay, let's think about what to have in mind when we talk about "technical stuff". As this is a Joomla! event I will mainly talk about three things:
- internet connection - that's quite obvious ;)
- video recording - a great service for all attendees as they can watch sessions that they missed at home
- audio amplification - something that's normally required in your main auditorium
A good working internet connection is critical for every Joomla! event! People want to check their mails, manage their sites, write a comment on Facebook and sometimes you even have some speakers who require an internet connection for their presentation (which they shouldn't, but that's another topic).
NEVER trust the venue about their Wi-FI
I personally guarantee you that in whatever venue your event will take place they will tell you pretty much this sentence "Yeah, of course we have (free) Wi-Fi! Our internet connection is fast so you won't have a problem at all". You know what? That's a lie. And most of the times the venue isn't even aware that they are telling you a lie because they never hosted an event like a Joomla!Day with 200+ attendees who own at least 1 Wi-Fi-capable device each - and so they haven't had a chance to test their Wi-Fi in such an environment. So what happened at almost every event that I attended: as soon as the keynote starts, the Wi-Fi passed away.
Don't use consumer access-points to set up your own Wi-Fi
It requires special, pretty expensive Wi-Fi access points to handle this amount of clients, because most of the times the reason for a crappy Wi-Fi isn't the lack of available bandwidth (during the last #jab13 we didn't have more than 10mbit traffic at any time) but the fact that each connected client requires some CPU and RAM in the access point. Normal consumer access points can hardly handle more than 30 clients simultaneously so please use special equipment made to handle a large number of connections. This is a lesson that I had to learn at #jab13 when I brought some access points with me that failed within minutes.
Use wired connections for all critical usages
Even when your Wi-Fi is working because you have some super cool access points, you shouldn't use it for critical usages. Best example: at #jab13 we used a software to capture the presenter screen and send the output to our recording software. We did this using a special, speaker-only Wi-Fi-connection that worked fine in some cases, but broke down in some other situations. Result: no slides in the video recording. Wi-Fi connections are simply never as stable as wired connections are, so please use a cable whenever something "has to work".
Since JoomlaDay Germany 2013 I use the following setup:
I bought an old 1U rack server on eBay and installed a Linux firewall distribution called IPFire on it. IPFire is set up to manage three different network interfaces:
- "Red" Interface - internet
- "Green" Interface - local, cable based traffic
- "Blue" interface - local, Wi-Fi based traffic
IPFire is the central firewall instance in our setup and routes all traffic from the conference networks to the internet connection provided by the venue. IPfire allows us to control nearly every detail of the network setup, provides several monitoring functionalities and some goodies like an proxy server for Windows Update. The most important reason for choosing IPFire was that it allows me to reserve a specific minimum amount of (internet-)bandwidth for high-priority usages - in our case I use this feature to ensure that the cable based network is always fast enough to allow the livestreaming of our keynotes.
On top of that we bought seven WNDAP660 access points, a 24-port managed switch, four 5-port unmanaged switches and 450 meters of network cable to set up our own, venue-independent Wi-Fi. The access points are configured to create two networks simultaneously: one unprotected, "public" network and a password-protected "speaker and organizer only"-network that is routed to the green interface of IPFire and thereby treated preferentially. We use two access points in the main auditorium, one in the lobby and one in each session room. In each session room, we also provided one network cable for the presenter.
Recording your sessions is a great service for all attendees! It often happens that there are several interesting sessions at the same time and without a recording, you would miss them.
When recording a session, make sure that the slide / screen output of the presenter is large enough to be perfectly readable in the final video. The reason for this might be painful for some presenters but they are still true: most of the times people aren't interested in seeing the face or body of the presenter! The content matters, and especially in live coding sessions a readable screen output is vital as you can't upload a live coding session at slideshare.
Use an external microphone
Most camcorders have a built-in microphone, which is working fine for most usage scenarios. But when you record a crowed and noisy session while sitting in the back of the room, it's pretty likely that the speakers voice isn't loud enough on your record to be used without additional editing.
Therefore, I strongly recommend to use external, wireless microphones that can be directly attached beneath the speakers mouth – this guarantees a strong signal and perfect recording of the speakers lovely voice.
And one more thing: please, don't use cheap microphones from your next-door electronic store. The sound quality is bad, they eat batteries like nothing and you'll get all kinds of problems with losing the connection or having interferences. It's better to rent them at a local company and thereby get some high quality stuff for just a few bucks.
Recruit a team
From my experience, recording a session isn't a "press the button and leave the room" thing. In almost every session something unexpected happens that requires an immediate reaction and therefore, it's important there's somebody from the video team in the room at all times. And as you can't duplicate yourself, you need help. So go and find some volunteers for your video team! Joomla people are very friendly, so you shouldn't have a problem with finding enough volunteers.
While doing some research for possible recording solution for Joomla! World Conference our "gnome on the run" Jeremy Wilken stumbled upon a software called Wirecast. This little piece of software turned out to be absolutely amazing, and tremendously simplified the recording process.
Basically, Wirecast is some sort of "Multi-Input-Recording"-Software. It enables you to capture live input from different (audio and video) sources and either livestream them to an external service (that's how we realized the livestream at #jab13) or merge them to a single, ready-to-upload video file. The goodie: Telestream, the company behind Wirecast, also offers a free-of-charge tool called DesktopPresenter, that can be installed on any Mac or Windows machine and than streams the screen output of this machine via network to a Wirecast instance of your choice. This enabled me to directly capture the screen output without any additional devices, which is pretty amazing.
So, this is what a typical recording setup looks like right now:
- Macbook Pro (i5 or better because the encoding is pretty hard CPU-work) with Wirecast installed, hooked up to our network (see above)
- HD USB Webcam
- External, wireless microphone, hooked up to the audio input of the Macbook
Before we take a closer look on how the recording is happening, it's important to mention how Wirecast works. It has two basic elements, which are the layers and shots. In my setup, I prepare a layer for each session and in each layer, I prepare 3 different shots:
- the "intro-shot": just a nice graphic with the title of the event and the date
- the "session-shot": this is the main shot. Basically it's a split screen shot of the presenters slides (captured with DesktopPresenter) and the presenters face (recorded with the webcam mounted on a tripod) and voice (captured with the mentioned microphone)
- the "credits-shot": a previously created video with the names of the organizers, sponsors and video-team folks
Recording a session is now pretty easy:
- the video team member (let's call him John) enters the room and selects the correct layer for the upcoming session – it's already there because I prepared it at home.
- John fires up DesktopPresenter on the presenter's machine and configures Wirecast to capture its input.
- John checks the audio input with the provided headset – now everything is ready for recording
- John hits the "Record" button and selects the intro shot. After a few seconds he selects the session shot and tells the presenter to start.
- John makes sure that everything is working while enjoying the show
- When the session is over, John selects the credits shot, waits until it is done and stops the recording process
And that's it! Wirecast already created a correctly encoded, ready-to-upload file on the machines desktop, which means that we're done within seconds after the session has ended. No editing, no endless lists of raw material, tapes and SD cards – isn't that cool?
This set up allowed us to have almost all #jab13 videos up in less than a week after the event. The speed record was a completely uploaded video of a session recorded one hour earlier.
Especially in the main auditorium it might be necessary to amplify the speaker's voice. So, you need some sort of audio system. Most venues have those systems "built-in", but during the last year's there we're some things that we stumbled upon and that I would like to share.
Provide a proper input for speaker machines
It seems to be trendy to use all kinds of (more or less) funny videos in presentations. This also means that you have to make sure that the audio system has a ready-to-plug-in audio input for the speakers machine, because otherwise your audience won't be able to hear anything at all. Just a technical hint: make sure that the venue uses a so called DI-box to connect the machine to the audio system, because otherwise you'll get interferences.
Train speakers how to use a microphone
Most of your speakers aren't experienced with using microphones. Therefore, they often hold it too low, too near or they start turning their head without moving the microphone which makes it really hard to amplify their voice loud enough. So it's good to invest a few minutes before the event to tell your speakers how to properly use a microphone.
Use the audio-systems output for your video recording
Don't use an additional external microphone for the video recording when you already have a microphone for the main audio system – instead, you can simply use the audio systems main output as you recording input. Again, make sure to use DI-boxes to avoid interferences.
Well, as I have a small band, I own quite a lot of audio stuff, so I basically bring my own mixing console, microphones, cables and other devices with me – but at most venues that shouldn't be necessary so just make sure to not repeat the things that I mentioned above.
Transport and management
This is something special and only interesting if you / your local Joomla! association/club/whatever owns a lot of own technical stuff: how to transport and handle your devices and cables properly.
I strongly recommend to buy hook and loop cable ties. They are pretty cheap but incredibly useful to make sure that your nicely rolled up cables don't knot themselves into one large cable ball. They also make it a lot easier to clearly identify your cables after the event, because normal cables don't have those.
When transporting your stuff from event to event, you'll most likely will use a car and drive yourself – or even worse: use a postal service. In both cases, it happens quite often that you or the postal guy wants to stack your devices on top of each other to save some space – which means, that you have to use boxes that are solid enough to protect whatever is inside. Please don't use cardboards. We did this for years and regardless how careful we were, we still broke some stuff. And it drove us nuts that we had to use duct tape and knives at every event to open and close all of those boxes properly.
Instead, I recommend using roadcases that might be familiar from the event technology industry. Those are pretty solid, available in all sizes, reusable and they can be opened and closed indefinitely. And the larger cases even have some nice wheels so you don't need to carry all your stuff from the parking place to the venue which is a lot easier.
For Joomla!Day Germany, I ordered these roadcases for pretty much everything we bought during the last years. We have a nice cable trunk with our network and power cables, we have a pre-configured 19-inch rack case with the IPFire server, the 24-port switch, two drawers for the access points and a power distribution (I call it Wi-Fi in a box) and all sorts of larger and smaller cases for our camcorders, headphones, microphones and tools. This massively simplified the transport of the equipment and as most things are pre-configured, we are able to set up our stuff in less than a half day.
If you have any questions regarding the setup or need help, feel free to ask ;)