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Saving the Music: Miami Video Director and NewTek Dealer Unite to Rescue Acclaimed Jazz Series in the Wake of COVID-19

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Saving the Music: Miami Video Director and NewTek Dealer Unite to Rescue Acclaimed Jazz Series in the Wake of COVID-19
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I am just blown away by the quality of the production," says Alana Perez, Director of Pinecrest Gardens, the lush botanical park that contains Miami’s famed Banyan Bowl. "It’s as good as any concert I’ve seen on television. It’s Broadway. It’s Hollywood."

For the past eleven years, the Banyan Bowl has been home to south Florida’s premier jazz concert series. "It’s the most magical concert venue in the world," Perez says. Taking in the natural splendor of Miami’s Banyan Bowl, with its gently swaying palm trees and tropical sun, it’s hard to argue with her. "It’s absolutely indescribable."

Video producer and director Daniel Sell knows the importance of the annual concerts to the local community and to the jazz world. When he heard that the pandemic was threatening to wipe out this year’s concert slate, Sell was dismayed. 

"The concerts were in danger of being cancelled entirely," Sell says. As a musician who’s performed at the Banyan Bowl, Sell was determined to prevent that from happening. 

PANIC, DISAPPOINTMENT AND SHEER TERROR

"I can't describe the panic, the disappointment, the disillusionment, the sheer terror of living through a pandemic," Perez told me. "I knew our concerts, our park, our recreation programs, our festivals; everything, was going to be affected."

"Two days before Grace Kelly, an exquisite saxophone player, singer, songwriter and performer was scheduled to perform here, I had to call her in Boston and cancel the concert. It was probably the worst day of my life."

A FATEFUL PHONE CALL

"Danny Sell, a long-time friend of Pinecrest Gardens who has performed many times on our stage, came to us and said, ‘I can help pull this together for you," Perez says.

Putting together a package to produce the concert as a virtual, subscription series proved to be more difficult than it seemed, mostly for financial reasons. No one was certain how many jazz lovers would pay to watch the concerts in their living rooms. To draw viewers and keep them throughout the eight-concert series, it was clear that virtual broadcasts would need to maintain high video and audio standards.

"When I originally gave Pinecrest Gardens the budget for doing the productions with all the equipment I thought they should be using, they laughed at me, because they knew it wasn't going to be possible," Sell says.

"Fortunately, I own a TriCaster Mini, so the decision was made to build the equipment compliment around that piece of gear, and suddenly, the numbers started to look better. What really pushed us over the top was when Jesse Miller, General Manager of Midtown Video in Miami, offered us an amazing deal on the rental of PTZ cameras in return for a sponsorship. And that brought the budget down to where I was under my limit, and from there, everything else just fell into place."

Alana Perez agrees. "Thanks to Midtown's generosity, we were able to save the music, she says. "We're forever indebted to them for that."

AN EASY YES

According to Midtown GM, Jesse Miller the decision was an easy one. "The Banyan Bowl is a cherished local monument. As a frequent concert guest there, getting involved in live streaming the jazz series was an easy yes for us. We're a member of the south Florida community, and they clearly needed our help."

As one of the largest resellers of NewTek equipment in the southeast, Miller is more than familiar with the advantages of NewTek products and the TriCaster in particular. He agrees with Sell that it was the perfect tool to produce the concert series live streams.

"TriCaster is the perfect tool to produce any streaming event," Miller says. "When you're fitting your gear into a small footprint for a control space, TriCaster, in its do-everything role, is a solid choice." According to Miller, the fact that the TriCaster allows users to switch multi-camera feeds, record, livestream, incorporate additional cameras, and external computers for graphics and monitors, all in one box is a huge advantage.

"If you need to get all those different components and functions into your productions and you're working with a constrained budget, TriCaster really gets it done for much less than it costs to add all those components individually. TriCaster is great for any production, but particularly multi-camera virtual events. That's where it really shines."

FIVE HOURS TO SHOWTIME

It's three o'clock at the Banyan Bowl, a warm February Saturday afternoon in Miami. The sun darts in and out of view behind a checkerboard of puffy white clouds set against a deep azure sky. In just five hours, trombone legend Wycliffe Gordon will take the stage and members of the sixteen-piece band are beginning to arrive, ready to do a sound check. Inside a makeshift control room that's been set-up in a small room beneath the bleachers, Sell is running his crew through a Fax check and rehearsal.

The sound of sparse chords pounded out on a piano and a saxophone running through lazy scales echoes off the geodesic dome overhead. The band begins settling into their places within the socially-distanced stage configuration. While the band tunes up, Sell's camera operators occupy themselves by checking their tallies and intercoms in preparation for the upcoming rehearsal. A sea of more that 500 empty seats rise up behind them.

This season's concert series has already brought such jazz luminaries as John Secada, Grammy-winning vocalists Dee Dee Bridgewater and Kurt Elling, as well as the Glenn Miller Orchestra to the Banyan Bowl. In less than two months, the final concert of this year's season, featuring The Manhattan Transfer, will wrap up what has been a hugely successful effort to save the music.

In the control room, Sell discusses the upcoming show with his TD, and fiddles with an iPad sitting on the countertop in front of him. "This is the key to the production," he says, holding the display at arm's length.

MAKING THE MOST OF MACROS: A CUSTOM DESIGNED IPAD DISPLAY

In addition to the manned cameras, Sell has a compliment of three BirdDog PTZ cameras at his disposal, supplied courtesy of Midtown Video and Jesse Miller. To facilitate the use of the BirdDog cameras, Sell has configured a shot box for his iPad that allows him to select any one of dozens of pre-designed macros for each show. At the press of a button, Sell can flip the BirdDogs to get a shot of the brass section or the drums, initiate a slow zoom in, re-set all the cameras to home base at the conclusion of each musical number, as well as initiate such functions as rolling the TriCaster's DDR's for record.

"My iPad interface is redesigned for every show," Sell tells me, running his shot box through its paces. "I started the series using a TriCaster Mini with HDMI inputs, so I only had four hardwired inputs. The four manned cameras are all SDI, but I needed more. So when I wanted to add some point-of-view cameras, those had to be incorporated into the TriCaster through NDI."

ADDING THE ULTIMATE IN FLEXIBILITY WITH NDI

So, how do you connect seven cameras into a production switcher with only 4 inputs?  The answer is simple. NDI, (Network Device Interface), NewTek's revolutionary technology that enables video-compatible products to communicate, deliver, and receive high-definition video over a computer network. NDI creates an interconnected production environment where any video device can connect with any other device, opening limitless possibility for live productions.

In Daniel Sell's case, he's using NDI not only to connect additional cameras to his TriCaster, but also to incorporate the output of a computer he uses to create graphics and titling using NewBlue FX Titler 4 software.

"When I look at all the things that are being done as livestream events in the era of COVID, the large-scale productions that are the most polished are all being done with NDI and TriCasters," Sell says. "They're using different cameras and different streaming devices and software, but the guts of those systems all seem to be the same. They're all built around NDI and TriCasters."

A TRICASTER VETERAN

Sell is a long-time NewTek user and his first contact with a TriCaster took place decades ago. “My first TriCaster was a TriCaster Broadcast, which was a standard-definition SDI system," he tells me. “I got used to the interface, then, when Midtown Video had a TriCaster Mini demo for sale, I grabbed it. And once I bought one and started using it and found all the things I could do with it, I became a convert. The biggest thing about the TriCaster for me is the ability to use macros, which is how I do all my pre-programmed camera selections."

As a fully committed TriCaster convert, Sell has also trained others to use the equipment, in educational, corporate and government settings. Not surprisingly, he's found that younger users are the easiest to train. “But anyone who has familiarity with any kind of computer operations can pick up the basics very quickly," he says. “Some of the advanced operations, like the titling and macros take a little bit longer to train, but to set it up, especially if the TriCaster is in a single location, is very simple and fast to teach."

INTRODUCING JAZZAID LIVE TO THE WORLD

The sun begins sinking below the south Florida horizon, filtering through a curtain of palm trees dancing in the gentle breeze. Rehearsal is over and the production crew is ready to head for their dinner break with the livestream and concert just under two hours away. As darkness takes hold, colored lights wink on and begin illuminating the multi-faceted dome that covers the seats and stage, creating a dizzying wave of reflected light. In the makeshift control room, Daniel Sell puts the finishing touches on his preparation for tonight's concert. With the 2021 concert series now over half complete, he takes a moment to reflect on how well the Pinecrest Gardens' concerts have been going to this point.

“Every concert I do, I learn a little bit more about how the BirdDog cameras operate, and I tweak things a little bit," Sell tells me. In fact, the concert livestreams have been so successful that after the 3rd concert, Sell upgraded from a TriCaster Mini to a TriCaster 460, which gave him additional inputs. With the upgraded TriCaster in his production arsenal Sell is now using his TriCaster Mini via NDI to serve as a four-channel DDR.

“I had three months to prepare for the first concert in the series, and that went very well," Sell reflects. “But every time we do this, we adjust the lighting, we adjust the audio, we adjust the camera shading. The last concert we did looked the best, and we're hoping that tonight's concert looks even better than that."

According to Perez, after initially being unsure if anyone would be willing to pay to watch live streaming concerts, the response to this year's series has been overwhelming. “We have a 500-seat theater and we used to fill those seats for every concert. Our base is very loyal. But my litmus test for the success of the livestream was the additional single tickets that seem to be coming in. We're getting more and more with every show. We have zip codes in California, in New England, in Canada. We've had viewers in Europe. We've had Italy, we've had Germany, we've had England, we've had Portugal. We're down in Brazil. It's the Banyan Bowl's roll-out to the world. I can't be more excited about anything than having people beyond our next-door neighbors knowing who we are. It's been our coming-out party."

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