The Skypesaurus Story

Monday, 16 March 2009, 3:08 pm
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We’re still working on incorporating Skypesaurus into the work flow at TWiT Live. For those who haven’t seen the beast, Colleen has combined four independent Windows PCs to run four instances of Skype into one monster beast: The Skypesaurus. Rawr!

We had to do this because Skype only allows one video-caller at a time and some of our shows have as many as four online panelists. We tried software solutions like Oovoo and iChat but they didn’t give us good enough audio and video – Skype really is the king for that.

Here are the specs for each PC (with the Newegg SKU numbers and price):

  • 11-234-020 Case: WINSIS|WI-01 RT $43.99
  • 13-121-359 Motherboard: INTEL BOXD945GCLF2 945GC ATOM330 $79.99
  • 20-145-098 RAM: 1Gx2|CORSAIR VS2GBKIT667D2 R $24.99
  • 22-148-231 Hard Drive: 80G|SEAGATE 7K 8M SATA2 ST380815AS $34.99

That’s about $175 per computer. Add four Acer V173B 17″ LCD monitors for $107 each. and a $285 Ergotron Quad-Monitor desk stand and the total rig cost just under $1500, minus Colleen’s time and miscellaneous cabling.

On shows with multiple hosts (like TWiT, MacBreak Weekly, and the Gillmor Gang) we use Skypesaurus to call as many as four participants and put their audio and video on the air. This requires some hairy routing, and those of you who have tuned in in the past couple of weeks have probably noticed an hour of sweating, crawling under the desk, and general gnashing of teeth before each show. I start by setting up the audio. Each machine’s output has to be routed into our mixer, and a mix-minus has to be sent back to it (that’s the full audio mix minus the audio from the particular Skype we’re feeding it back to, so there’s no echo). Our Mackie Onyx 1620 mixer only has four AUX busses so we have to repatch audio each time we want to use Skypesaurus. Something similar happens with video. The Tricaster Studio switcher we use only has six inputs, all of which are used by cameras now. I disconnect four of those cameras and connect the four Skype boxes each time I want to use Skypesaurus. But we’ve come up with a solution. Today Colleen is installing a new mixer: a $1300 Mackie Onyx 1640. It’s a bit bigger but it has six AUX busses and four sub-mixer channels so we won’t have to repatch audio each time we use Skypesaurus. I wish I had bought this mixer three years ago – it’s a beauty. We’ll keep the 1620 for roadshows, but the 1640 is going to be our day-to-day mixer. For a while.

I say “for a while” because Telos called last week after hearing about our issues with Skypesaurus audio and offered to lend us one of their new Axia IP-mixers which automatically does mix-minus to every channel! An IP mixer uses Ethernet to route audio and is fully digital. There’s really no mixer at all, just two IP head units in a rack and a control surface that only looks like a mixer. All-digital production means we don’t have to do the noisy digital->analog->digital conversion we’re doing for all our Skype audio right now. We’ll just take digital audio from the PCs and pump it directly into the Axia. Putting in this puppy is going to require major reengineering for our entire audio chain. Instead of the Firewire audio we’re passing from the mixer into Audition, for instance, the Axia just sends packets to Audition which uses a custom driver to see all the channels. I think a fully digital production workflow will really improve the overall quality of all our audio, but it’s a big change and might take a while. In the meantime, I’m very happy with the Onyx 1640.

I also want to stop crawling under the desk to switch the video cables, so we’re going to buy an Matrix Video Router. I’m about to order a $1000 Knox Video Technologies 8×8 Matrix Switcher. This takes eight video inputs and switches them to any eight video outputs so I can just push buttons and switch-in the Skype output for a camera (and out again on the fly if I need more shots). In effect this gives us four more cameras. If there are any TV broadcast engineers who have some suggestions here I’d love to hear them. Everything is S-Video so this seems like the best way to do it but we’re babes in the woods when it comes to this stuff.

So there you have it. Problem: how to get four hosts’ audio and video on the air at once via Skype. Solution: Skypesaurus, a $3500 monster designed and built by the amazing Colleen. We’re pretty excited about it – it’s not the CNBC Octobox, but it’s pretty close and for a heck of a lot less money.


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37 Responses to “The Skypesaurus Story”

  1. Nick on March 16th, 2009 8:25 pm

    Simply awe inspiring – great work.
    I've been looking for suggestions for multi-monitor mounts for a while, glad to hear the Ergotron is working well.

  2. klandwehr on March 16th, 2009 8:29 pm

    been watching you over the past couple of weeks, there were times it looked liked you were ready to tear your hair out, but it looks really good.

  3. Gustavo Shad on March 16th, 2009 8:32 pm

    This is so great Leo.. Top gear mate… Keep it up. I am a big fan.

  4. TheBusyBrain on March 16th, 2009 8:34 pm

    That's purty pimp Leo! A super beast indeed!
    You've obviously noticed already, but it should be said again… Colleen is indispensable!

  5. peterh_oz on March 16th, 2009 8:36 pm

    Gday Leo

    I'm wondering the following:

    1. are you using 100% green power electricity (I hope so!)

    2. why not use 4 x E-box PC – would be much smaller and use less power – they're only running skype?

    3. why not use 4 x virtual machines on a single box, again less power = less running costs. 1 box = less setup costs. Again, only running skype?

    4. why windows and not linux? I'm a windows guy so its not a “this is better than that” question, just interested that's all.

    I just wish your time zone was more Aussie-Viewer-friendly :) Tho it'll be better in a couple of weeks when Daylight Savings finishes (and yours has started now). 5am starts are better than 3am starts – especially for the later shows!

    Cheers
    Peter H
    http://www.SeeknBuy.com.au

  6. TechImprovement on March 16th, 2009 8:45 pm

    Who came up with the (incredibly awesome) name?

  7. kaeokepani on March 16th, 2009 8:56 pm

    Its very comforting to see industry professionals using tech that i'm savvy with. That either means I'm right where I should be, or am ahead of the curve. I'm thinking its the former.

    Also, watch out for that 8×8 Knox. That thing is a beast one you get the whole thing wired up. There's a 1 to 2 second blackout and/or vertical sync loss when you're routing the video so don't expect it to be using it to do cuts from one source to the next.

    But other than that, nice solution for a problem I've run into many many times. Awesome job, Colleen and the TWiT crew!

  8. scanmikey on March 16th, 2009 9:22 pm

    Small detail I know but… are you sure about the RAM?

    According to the motherboard specs, it only has one DIMM slot, not two. I found a 2GB stick that is a couple of dollars cheaper than the 2 1gb sticks you listed… I just wanted to point out the discrepancy.

    Awesome build though… good work.

  9. leolaporte on March 16th, 2009 9:23 pm

    Colleen, of course.

  10. leolaporte on March 16th, 2009 9:27 pm

    We're not green, alas. But we have endeavoured to stick with low power solutions when possible. The Mini-ITX case is very low power. Our entire lighting grid uses only 250-watts. Nevertheless, we do use a lot of power to do what we do. I'd love to go all solar, but since we rent the studio I don't think that's likely.

    The Ebox is a good looking solution – Colleen may not have know about them. Our Atoms were cheap, and had s-video out, which was a key part of the solution. They also offer optical audio out which we'll be using soon. We are planning to add DC power bricks to them to eliminate fan noise.

    Virtual machines won't work. You need four discrete audio and video channels – that means four hardware boxes.

    I wanted to make sure we had the latest version of Skype to work with. The Linux versions seem to lag the Windows versions.

    Thanks for watching!

  11. leolaporte on March 16th, 2009 9:29 pm

    It's actually a 2x1GB stick – 2GB in a single stick.

  12. leolaporte on March 16th, 2009 9:36 pm

    We have a ton of bandwidth. Currently the Skypesaurus runs on our Comcast business class cable with 4Mbits up and 30 down. It's working fine, but we've ordered IEEE 802.3ah from Sonic.net which will give us a symmetric 10Mbps (or possibly 12mbits because we're two blocks from the CO). We'll use that for Skypesaurus starting tomorrow or the next day.

    We also have a T1 for video streaming, a business class line for another Skype box (which we use for the single host shows), and ISDN for the radio show. We spend $1200/month for bandwidth and need it.

  13. Daniel Brusilovsky on March 16th, 2009 9:44 pm

    Hope it works!! That's a serious setup.

  14. scanmikey on March 16th, 2009 9:46 pm

    OK thanks Leo. I have seen Skypesaurus in action and I am impressed.

  15. James Bednarz on March 16th, 2009 9:57 pm

    Loving Skypesaurus Leo. The interaction during TWiT on Sunday and Gilmore Gang (sans “the incident”) on Saturday was great. I'm confident once the wrinkles are ironed out, it will add a very nice new dimension to the network. BTW, Colleen is a jewel with tons of potential. Happy to see her Full Time on the staff.

  16. seniormint on March 16th, 2009 11:01 pm

    I am amazed with what can be done with relatively low cost off the shelf tech. Inspired actually! Awesome!

  17. jceeetle on March 16th, 2009 11:47 pm

    Geez Leo, do I need to increase my monthly TWIT contribution now? Who's going to pay for all those toys?

  18. triptrish on March 17th, 2009 12:33 am

    Colleen, your amazing. GREAT Job. Leo and gang are very lucky to have you.

  19. ceejaydp on March 17th, 2009 1:25 am

    i'm thinking “amazing” is a major understatement when you're talking about colleen. her creativity and innovations combined with her superlative skills just overwhelms many of the best in the community we have here. way to go colleen — you rock!

  20. peterh_oz on March 17th, 2009 1:44 am

    Cheers that explains why. Quick follow-up question:

    Don't any electricity companies offer 100% green electricity there? You wouldn't have to install solar, you'd just source your electricity from a “100% green” supply source. It may even be the incumbent, but at a slightly higher price. Eg here it is around $4-$7 per week extra (domestic, tho business is also available) for govt accredited 100% “greenpower”, and ALL providers offer it. The retailer simply buys that portion wholesale from a green source eg wind farm, and its govt controlled and audited so they can't pull a shonky.

    Cheers and thanx for taking time to reply Leo.

  21. Todd Cochrane on March 17th, 2009 4:16 am

    Leo

    I have been banging my head up against the wall to do this very thing for a while now and this is the perfect solution for bringing in callers. My challenge has been the same thing you have had is the re-wiring. I am curious if you are getting any bleed through on the MixMatch because when I have a land line caller patched in via the Telos once in a while I get some cross over or has the isolation been good enough in the mixer.

    Also what resolution are you running the monitors that you are sending out on the S-Video

    Todd Cochrane
    Geek News Central

    BTW I have a Podcast Award trophy for you if you could send me an address to ship it to I will get it out to ya.

  22. Civuck on March 17th, 2009 11:19 pm

    Google “Quad-Split Monitor”. You should be able to find a reasonably priced box that will do that for you. Feed each of the full-screen Skype calls from each PC into the quad split box and then feed the output of that into the Tricaster as a single video source. You may need to do some Svideo-Composite flipping.

  23. Civuck on March 17th, 2009 11:32 pm

    Use Svideo->Composite adapters on the video output of each PC and feed them into this:
    http://www.ambery.com/pivipr.html
    Then feed the output of that into the Tricaster using composite->svideo adapters.

  24. dougwalk on March 18th, 2009 2:32 pm

    Just listened to latest MBW talking about your new setup & boy is that impressive. Great job Coleen. Leo, good on you for giving credit where credit is due & having an environment all geared up for creative solutions.

  25. Keith Barrett on March 19th, 2009 9:53 pm

    Leo – thanks for sharing the details behind your new creation. I do have one question; what OS are you using? You detail everything but that. Please say it's Linux!

    Thanks, Keith
    http://twitter.com/keithbarrett

  26. Stephen Michael Kellat on March 27th, 2009 6:07 pm

    Hmm. Interesting…

  27. Eric Adler on March 29th, 2009 9:14 pm

    Since that router has RS232 control, you may be able to find someone on the NewTek forums (or someone else) willing to write scripts for the Tricaster to have the router automatically switch what you press on an 'extra bus' (either physical interface or virtual interface or both) to a non-live input, wait, then 'take' this extra bus into the preset bus. Also remember, if you can't get the full thing built as a script or plugin for toaster, it runs windows, you can even make an app to handle this entirely in VB and have it background or run always-on-top with 8 buttons (it won't be able to tell what's on air, but you can have it simply swap what it changes next between Tricaster inputs 3 and 4 or somesuch).

  28. Ken Sheppardson on April 2nd, 2009 1:20 pm

    When you mentioned on-air the other day that you were converting the boxes over to fanless units with an external power brick, it occured to me that the units are pretty similar to the Ultra-Small Form Factor (USFF) Dell Optiplex units. These and lots of other Optiplex models are available in bulk… most likely off-lease from call centers, etc.. on eBay for <$200 each. The USFF boxes have the external power brick and everything.

    Yes, you're starting off with used hardware with the associated wear and tear, but if you take into account the value of your time to assemble these sorts of low-end, commodity systems to be used in a cluster, you can often pick up a hot spare or two and still end up saving time and money.

  29. Phil on April 3rd, 2009 3:46 pm

    That's not a great idea – why you combine the Luminance (Y-signal) and Chrominance (C-signal – AKA the 'colour difference') you limit the bandwidth of the colour detail and spoil the finer details in the black & white part of the image. If it's at all possible leave the S-Video alone and get a switcher (Kramer have a few) that switches that standard.

  30. Craig Bowers on April 23rd, 2009 4:38 pm

    Hey Leo,

    Enjoying the setup. If you're going to look at digital boards in the future (Axia), are you including looking at Mackie's TT24? It looks like Axia's products are perhaps more Broadcast tailored than the TT24, but the thing I love with the TT24 is that it's much more analog looking many of the digital boards. Those who have used our board who are used to analog find it very approachable. It might keep the learning curve down for those co-hosts who spend time in your chair. Yet you get all the power to take snapshots of each setup (each show in your case could have a snapshot with tailored fader level, channel name/labels, EQ, compression, effects, AUX). You can have totally different setups if need be for each show, just a button click away. And as you use that customization, it's comforting to be able to backup those settings to PC. Then throw in the PC control and display, and not only are some functions quicker to use via mouse, but 2 people can mix the same or different board functions at the same time. I've even been able to mix monitors up on stage via my iPhone. It's also a lot of channels available in a small form factor with the bank switching of faders and groups. Even without linking 2 boards are you're able to, you can get a full 24 mic plus 8 line input on the analog bank, and another 24 on the digital bank with the digital snake (ethernet tethered). And the new routing options let you mix and match inputs and outputs to where-ever you need them. Certainly more than the average podcaster needs, but then you're not the average podcaster ;-)
    We're really enjoying ours.

    Craig Bowers, Vancouver (“red beetle airport shuttle service”)

  31. Henry B. Tindall, Jr. on May 1st, 2009 7:50 am

    Highly doubtful, Keith, or else they'd be using Jack (or some other open-source software) to do the audio mixing for free, instead of buying a $1500 hardware mixer… Windoze indirectly sucking money out of pockets, again!!!

  32. Mann Moore on June 19th, 2009 1:34 am

    Thanks for this information. Numbers are what I am interested in, costs, etc, and you have provided that and so much more. Thanks for this valuable information. Colleen is the bomb and Leo, you are really a God send.

    I am trying to launch an urban talk show and this information is SO valuable.

  33. Hull Local on December 25th, 2009 10:30 pm

    Looking to set something on the same sort of lines but just 1 to start with for our http://humber.tv (not yet live) doing a lot of testing before hand too. Looking at streaming and free and paid for companies, Ustream and alike do seem an option but not a main method.

    Looking at using Adobe Flash Media Live encoder 3 with striketracker @ highwinds which if you have the upload bandwidth seems to produce great visual quality.

    Rather than having Ads and text overlaying the video were going to have instant text around the video that can be updated and links posted through conversations (no need for the viewer to refresh the page.)

    Once Archived and edited for later stream podcasts we can add overlay in.

  34. Scot Trodick on May 6th, 2010 11:38 pm

    I heard that Skype is coming out with a multi-video chat addon or something that will enable multi video chat.  I want to start holding board meetings for our Orange County Digital Arts Group.  What when and where is this?  I heard mention of it on “TWIG”.

  35. Scot Trodick on May 6th, 2010 11:45 pm

    Wow,….search first, then post.
    Here’s the scoop:
    http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/news.php?id=55390

  36. personalarmament on July 7th, 2010 2:13 pm

    Does the new Skype beta that allows more video callers change anything for you?  Are there still advantages to keeping the skypeasaurus system?

  37. Ofna Racing on August 19th, 2010 6:39 pm

    I have a problem with the configuration of the Skypesaurus.  I understand the Tricaster interface, but what about the returning video out of the Tricaster to the Skypesaurus for the Skype caller.  So, we see the Skype caller video but what does the caller see.  Simply, what video capture card will work with Skype.  I have tried Hauppauge ImpactVCB Card and SIIG USB capture both of which Skype does NOT see as video device (incoming)!  So, what card is being used?

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