I write this on Monday whilst sat in the airport in São Paulo awaiting my onward flight back to the UK and the fun of the change of personnel in Downing street that has been something I have fortunately been able to ignore whilst at DebConf. [Edit: and finishing writing the Saturday after getting home after much sleep]
Arriving on the first Sunday of DebCamp meant that I was one of the first people to arrive; however most of the video team were either arriving about the same time or had landed before me. We spent most of our daytime time during DebCamp setting up for the following weeks conference.
Step one was getting a network operational. We had been offered space for our servers in a university machine room, but chose instead to occupy the two ‘green’ rooms below the main auditorium stage, using one as a makeshift V/NOC and the other as our machine room as this enabled us continuous and easy access  to our servers whilst separating us from the fan noise. I ran additional network cable between the back of the stage and our makeshift machine room, routing the cable around the back of the stage and into the ceiling void to just outside the V/NOC was relatively simple. Routing into the V/NOC needed a bit of help to get the cable through a small gap we found where some other cables ran through the ‘fire break’. Getting a cable between the two ‘green rooms’ however was a PITA. Many people, including myself, eventually giving up before I finally returned to the problem and with the aid of a fully extended server rail gaffer taped to a clothing rail to make a 4m long pole I was eventually able to deliver a cable through the 3 floor supports / fire breaks that separated the two rooms (and before someone suggests I should have used a ‘fish’ wire that was what we tried first). The university were providing us with backbone network but it did take a couple of meetings to get our video network in it’s own separate VLAN and get it to pass traffic unmolested between nodes.
The final network setup (for video that is – the conference was piggy-backing on the university WiFi network and there was also a DebConf network in the National Inn) was to make live the fibre links that had been installed prior to our arrival. Two links had been pulled through so that we could join the ‘Video Confrencia’ room and the ‘Front Desk’ to the rest of the university network, however when we came to commission them we discovered that the wrong media converters had been supplied, they should have been for single mode fibre but multi-mode converters had been delivered. Nothing that the university IT department couldn’t solve, indeed they did as soon as we pointed out the mistake. The provided us with replacement media converters capable of driving a signal down *both* single and multi-mode fiber, something I have not seen before.
For the rest of the week Paddatrapper and myself spent most of our time running cables and setting up the three talk rooms that were to be filmed. Phls had been able to provide us with details of the venue’s AV system AND scale plans of the three talk rooms, this along with the photos provided by the local team, & Tumbleweed’s visit to the sight enabled us to plan the cable runs right down to the location of power sockets.
I am going to add scale plans & photos to the things that we request for all future DebConfs. They made planning and setup so much easier and faster. Of cause we still ended up running more cables than we originally expected – we ran Ethernet front to back in all three rooms when we originally intended to only do this in Video Confrencia (the small BoF room), this was because it turned out that the sockets at different ends of the room were on differing packet switches that in turn feed into the university backbone. We were informed that the backbone is 1Gb/s which meant that the video LAN would have consumed the entire bandwidth of the backbone with nothing left over.
We have 200Mb/s streams from between OPSIS frame grabbers and a 2nd 200Mb/s output stream from each room. That equates to exactly 1Gb/s (the video-confrencia BoF room is small enough that we were always going to run a front/back cable) and that is before any backups of recordings to our server. As it turns out that wasn’t true but by then we had already run the cables and got things working…
I won’t blog about the software setup the servers, our back-end CDN or the review process – this is not my area of expertise. You need to thank Olasd, Tumbleweed & Ivo for the on-site system setup and Walter for the review process. Actually I there is also Carlfk, Ubec, Valhalla and I am sure numerous other people that I am too tired to remember, I appologise for forgetting you…
So back to physical setup. The main auditorium was operational. I had re-patched the mixing desk to give a setup as close as possible in all three talk rooms – we are most interested in audio for the stream/recording and so use the main mix output for this, and move the room PA onto a sub group output. Unusually for a DebConf, I found that I needed to ensure that there *was* a ground connection at the desk for all output feeds – It appears that there was NO earth in the entire auditorium; well there was at some point back in time but had been systematically removed either by cutting off the earth pin on power plugs, or unfortunately for us, by cutting and removing cables from any bonding points, behind sockets etc. Done, probably, because RCDs kept tripping and clearly the problem is that there is an earth present to leak into and not that there is a leak in the first place, or just long cable runs into inductive loads that mean that a different ‘trip curve’ needed to be selected <sigh>.
We still had significant mains hum on the PA system (slightly less than was present before I started room setup so nothing I had done). The venue AV team pointed out that they had a magnetic coupler AND an audio DSP unit in front of the PA amplifier stack – telling me that this was to reduce the hum. Fortunately for us the venue had 4 equalisers that I could use, one for each of the mics So I was able to knock out 60Hz, 120Hz and dip higher harmonics, this again made an improvement. Apparently we were getting the best results in living memory of the on-site AV team so at this point I stooped tweaking the setup “It was good enough”, we could live with the remaining hum.
The other two talk rooms were pretty much the same setup, only the rooms are smaller. The exception being that whilst we do have a small portable PA in the Video Conferancia room we only use it for audio from the presenters laptop – the room was so small there was no point in amplifying presenters…
Right I could now move on to ‘lighting’. We were supposed to use the flood ‘work’ lights above the stage, but quite a few of the halogen lamps were blown. This meant that there were far too many ‘dark’ patches along the stage. Additionally the colour temperatures of the different work lights were all over the place, and this would cause havoc with white balance, still we could have lived with this… I asked about getting the lamps replaced. Initially I was told no, but once I pointed out the problem to a more senior member of staff they agreed that the lamps could be replaced and that it would be done the following day. It wasn’t. I offered that we could replace the lamps but was then told that they would now be doing this as part of a service in a few weeks time. I was however told that instead, if I was prepared to rig them myself, that we could use the stage lights on the dimmers. Win! This would have been my preferred option all along and I suspect we were only offered this having started to build a reasonable working relationship with the site AV team. I was able to sign out a bunch of lamps from the stores and rig then as I saw fit. I was given a large wooden step ladder, and shown how to access the catwalk. I could now rig lights where I wanted them.
Two over head floods and two spots were used to light the lectern from different angles. Three overhead floods and three focused cans were used to light the discussion table. I also hung to forward facing spots to illuminate someone stood at the question mic, and finally 4 cans (2 focus cans and a pair of 1kW par cans sharing the same plug) to add some light to the front 5 or 6 rows of the audience. The Venue AV team repaired the DMX cable to the lighting dimmers and we were good to go… well just as soon as I had worked out the DMX addressing / cable patching at the dimmer banks and then there was a short time whilst I read the instructions for the desk – enough to apply ‘soft patches’ so I could allocate a fader to each dimmer channel we were using. I then red the instructions a bit further and came back the following day and programmed appropriate scenes so that the table could be lit using one ‘slider’, the lectern by another and so on. JMW came back later in the week and updated the program again to add a timed fade up or down and we also set a maximum level on the audience lights to stop us from ‘blinding’ people in the first couple of rows (we set the maximum value of that particular scene to be 20% available intensity).
Lighting in the mini auditorium was from simple overhead ‘domestic’ lamps, I still needed to get some bulbs replaced, and then move / adjust them to best light a speaker stood at the lectern or a discussion panel sat at the table. Finally we had no control of lighting in Video Confeencia (about normal for a DebConf).
Later in the week we revisited the hum problem again. We confirmed that the Hum was no longer being emitted out of the desk, so it must have be on the cable run to the stack or in the stack itself. The hum was still annoying and Kyle wanted to confirm that the DSP at the top of the amp stack was correctly setup – could we improve things? It took a little persuasion but eventually we were granted permission, and the password, to access the DSP. The DSP had not been configured properly at all. Kyle applied a 60Hz notch filter, and this made some difference. I suggested a comb filter which Kyle then applied for 60Hz and 5 or 6 orders of harmonics, that did the trick (thanks Kyle – I wouldn’t have had a clue how to drive the DSP). There was no longer any perceivable noise coming out of the left hand speakers, but there was still a noticeable, but much lower, hum from the right. We removed the input cable to the amp stack and yes the hum was still there, so we were picking up noise between the amps and the speaker! a quick confirmation of turning off the lighting dimmers and the noise dropped again. I started chasing the right hand speaker cables – they run up and over the stage along the catwalk, in the same bundle as all the unearthed lighting AND permanent power cables. We were inducing mains noise directly onto the speaker cables. The only fix for this would be to properly screen AND separate the speaker fed cables. Better yet send a balanced audio feed, separated from the power cables, to the right hand side of the stage and move the right hand amplifiers to that side of the stage. Nothing we could do – but something that we could point out to the venue AV team, who strangely, hadn’t considered this before…
 Where continuous access meant “whilst we had access to the site” (the whole campus is closed overnight)