In this age of "one device does everything," Roland-a name more associated with audio gear than video-has been producing some quite capable video mixers, recorders, and players. The company's latest mixer, the VR-5, features multiple video inputs, an internal media player, computer input and conversion, a built-in audio mixer, two integrated LCD monitors to see video inputs, output and various device settings, and the ability to internally record your program output while also sending your program to a laptop for streaming-all for an MSRP of $4,995. Sound too good to be true? Well, after working with the VR-5 I can tell you that they pull off nearly all of it with aplomb.
Powering on the VR-5 treats the user to a light show (all the LEDs flash in turn in a wave) and a system bootup that takes about 30 seconds. If you have saved parameters, they should load automatically. If you rent the mixer, you can save your personal parameters to the SD card and load them in after you boot the unit up.
The VR-5 is two inches shy of a standard rack width (you could mount it on a rack on a shelf and have room on the side) and all the jacks are on the back, except for the USB out, which is on top; the headphone jack, which is on the front; and the SD card slot, which is also on the front. On the back there's a phantom power switch for the microphone inputs. Aside from that, plus the headphone volume on the front next to the headphone jack, all the controls are on the top surface. This simplifies operation in that you don't have to go hunting down a control for a feature you need to access quickly during a live event.
Moreover, the two LCD screens are actually touchscreens. To the left of the left preview screen, there are buttons that call up the Setup Menus, Exit, and Enter, as well as a dial to select from different items. The dial knob also presses down, but this feature is not used to enter. In fact, we've all become so accustomed to small touchscreens on our cell phones, that we may find ourselves using the touchscreen almost exclusively; once I started using the touchscreen to navigate the VR-5 menus, I never touched the other setup buttons. The menu layout is pretty intuitive and I found that I could adjust different parameters fast.
Touchscreen menu control on the VR-5
There's also an Audio Setup menu button below the Preview monitor that takes you directly to the audio parameters-a handy short cut. But, given as it takes you only one touch further than the Main Menu button, and given how fast the menu system is, I think Roland could change the Audio Setup into the Main Menu button and get rid of the three other buttons and the knob in the Setup section of the mixer. There's really no need for the redundancy, or the hardware.
The menu system (download the VR-5 manual at RolandSystemsGroup.com for details) gives you access to a plethora of parameters for video, audio, computer input, recording, and more. I was quite pleased with the VR-5's customizability as I was tweaking the width, height, and position of the computer input's image by tapping the VR-5's touch screen.
The right Output Monitor screen, while seemingly not needing "touch" capability, has a usefulness all its own. When you put up a Picture in Picture (PiP), you can touch the Output screen and position the PiP wherever you'd like on the screen. I was quite surprised by this very tactile functionality. The VR-5 will remember this position through a reboot but, as I said, you can also save your parameters to the SD card and take them with you.
You can drag the image across the screen while it mixes foreground and background video, but the movement is not smooth and not something I'd use during a live show. You can change the position of the PIP during a live show, but keep it off the program output, by changing the position parameters in the menu system. However, I'd suggest that you find the position visually and write down the numbers before your program begins.
PiP and Wipe controls on the VR-5
The VR-5 plays back standard-definition MP4 video clips recorded onto the SD card. Roland has published specifications and is making a video utility to facilitate making MP4 clips compliant with what the VR-5 needs to see. The quality of the video playback of SD material at 6Mbps is quite good with minimal, nearly invisible artifacting.
At the time of this writing, Roland's software was not finished. The instructions they had available for using third-party tools to make files the VR-5 would handle did not work for me. The playback hardware is very specific in what it wants to see. So I heartily look forward to dedicated software to do this as the hardware in the VR-5 has a narrow range of what it can handle.
There's a section of the VR-5 dedicated to markers in your video and audio. These are handy if the video clips you have to play are all smushed into one long file, but you need a way to quickly jump through them. There are transport controls immediately below the Marker section to let you change clips, and speed your way forward or backward through a clip. You can mark on the fly as a clip plays. These marks are stored on in an .mrk file in the same place as the video file on the SD card. The VR-5 jumps between marks almost instantly.
The VR-5's Marker and video transport controls
You can cue up the clips manually by file, or visually on the Preview screen. Then you can set the VR-5 to automatically play them when you select the Player input. This is a nice feature. But even more useful is the VR-5's ability to have the video player file menu up on its preview LCD and still have the quad-split visible on the preview video output. This way you can directly access as many as 9 files with a touch (and a 3-second lag) and know what you are selecting with the thumbnail.
The quad-split screen
The Output Monitor has an Info button below it. Hitting this brings up a horizontal stripe across the Output Monitor screen (over the video on the LCD, but not the actual Program Out) that displays the file you are playing, time, and the status (play/pause). Hitting the Info button a second time adds a visual progress indicator across the bottom of this stripe that tells you at a glance where you are in the clip-just like playing any video file on a computer. I find this handy enough to leave up all the time. Unfortunately, the progress indicator disappears when fastforwarding or rewinding clips.
Video playback is not without its idiosyncrasies. You can set a clip up to be cued, but if you want to preview it on the quad-split Preview, and with the audio slider down (an audio "Solo" button would be useful here) you have a challenge cuing it up again. If you hit pause, and then hit the "|<<" button to go back to the head of the clip, the VR-5 plays about a half second of the clip and then it pauses. When you select the Player for Program Out and expect the clip to autoplay, it doesn't. You now have to tell it to play manually. If you hit Stop while previewing the clip, the Player preview will go dark. Now, selecting the Player for Program Out will properly autoplay the clip. Either way, the horizontal Info stripe on the Output Monitor accurately tells you what's going on.
I think re-cuing the clip to the beginning (the first option described above) should sit on the first frame, in pause, and properly autoplay when the Player is selected. A firmware update should fix this.
The VR-5 offers both luma and chroma keying on one simple dial. As with most simple keyers, you have little control over the resulting image. While I was able to very quickly get a key, it's not the sort of polished alpha key you'd get with dedicated keying hardware.
When I tried keying the Windows XP logo over black from the computer over video, the edges were a bit ragged. You can tweak many of the parameters of the key in the menu, and I was able to clean it up a bit, but the keyer lacks the ability to add a border or "shadow" as you can with the built in PiP settings.
Immediately, I started using the USB port to try and record and was surprised when the VR-5 would not use it as a destination for recording. You can use it for loading images-say, from a client's USB stick-and load them on to the SD card for playback, or to copy the final recorded program from the SD card and onto a client's USB stick. But you can't record the program to the USB. Go in the menu and set the USB port from Storage to Video Out and you're ready to stream.
When it comes to streaming, you'll really need the included USB cable because the VR-5 has the same flat USB "A" jack as a computer, not the square "B" jack as a hard drive or printer or other USB peripheral. The VR-5 comes with a USBM-A-to-USBM-A cable, but these are not as common as USBM-A-to-USBM-B cables. Best to make double sure you have the right cable if you intend on streaming an event, or order a backup cable, just in case.
I connected the VR-5 to an XP netbook and opened up Skype. Settng the USB on the VR-5 to Video Out instantly gave me the familiar tones on the Windows laptop and within a few moments I could select the VR-5 feed from the source menu. Interestingly, at first Skype showed a much smaller active area than the LCD screens on the VR-5. When I reset everything tried it again, the video in to Skype was perfect. I did not find any settings in the VR-5's menus to adjust the size of the USB Video Out.
Streaming via UStream with the video stretched to widescreen
Other streaming services offer downloadable applications that feature input settings to stretch and pull the video to fill the frame-also useful if you're using the 4:3-based VR-5 to produce 16:9 video. Just stretch it on input to your streaming service. The web interfaces of Livestream and UStream could not see the Roland VR-5, only the internal camera of the laptop. But when I downloaded the standalone application, the PC saw the VR-5 just fine and I was able to set it to take the square SD feed and stretch it to 16:9, no problem.
The VR-5 records standard definition material to the internal SD card (Class 4 or higher) at a user-selectable 2, 4, or 6 Mbps. I tested all three settings and found that the 6 Mbps looked nearly pristine. 4 Mbps is okay, and 2 Mbps shows clear visible compression artifacts. If your recording is destined for web distribution, however, recording at 2 Mbps gives you a file that's nearly ready to distribute on the web. I highly recommend using the 6 Mbps setting for anything that you might need to edit or distribute via another method, like DVD.
It's very important to properly set the date and time in the VR-5's menu system because the VR-5 automatically names your recordings as year-month-day-time.
While recording, you can't accidentally push the power button and turn the unit off—I tried. An alert comes up on the Output monitor—"Now Recording!"—so that's a nice safety feature.
There is one significant caveat to the video recording feature: You can't play back from the SD card at the same time. I was surprised by this because a Class 4 SD card is capable of reading and writing simultaneously at 6 Mbps. In fact, the specifications for Class 4 cards are 4 Megabytes per second. This translates 32 Mbps read and write, more than 5 times the speed we're attempting. So there is plenty of headroom to both read and write to the card, but the VR-5 is just not designed to do it simultaneously. When I spoke to a Roland engineer about this, he confirmed that it is a hardware limitation. A codec chip can compress video or decompress video, he said, but not do both at the same time.
I would have loved, absolutely loved, to have the ability to do both. That would have simplified portable usage of the VR-5 by having everything in one box. The way it is now, if you record internally, you have to bring along an external media player, and use up one of the three video inputs. I would highly recommend against trying to use the streaming laptop as your media player, as tempting as that may be. It always leads to potential mistakes and problems in the heat of live production.
The multicamera-switched programs I recorded onto the SD card played back in the VR-5 without issue. Trying to play them back on a computer resulted in an error about "Invalid Data." However, the free VLC Player played those files just fine on the Mac and a PC. This is most likely a "wrapper" issue with the files and not with the media they hold. The forthcoming software utility from Roland will also rewrap the files recorded in the VR-5 into a more easily playable format.
The VR-5 has a feature called Audio Follow. Audio Follow is a simple concept: Whatever video is on screen, you hear the companion audio. On the VR-5, however, it is a bit more complex. First, you have three other audio inputs that are not controlled by Audio Follow. There are two microphone/line inputs that are separate from the Audio Follow system. The PC audio is a dial, not a slider, and the entire PC input section is in a separate area of the VR-5. In fact, when you call the PC input up on screen, you still hear the audio from the video input you were last using. This is accurately reflected by the fact that the red indicator for the video input stays lit.
I believe this is primarily because the PC input is intended to be used as an overlay or key. While you can have a PowerPoint full screen, and the audio from the PowerPoint will always come through the VR-5 if the PC audio dial is turned up, you should not consider the PC input to be just like the other inputs on the VR-5.
A potential bug/or feature, depending on your viewpoint, is how Picture In Picture (PiP) ignores Audio Follow. If you want to have a feed from a person speaking-a talking head-appear over a fullscreen background, the audio from the PIP will not turn itself on when you activate the PIP and the video appears on the screen, despite Audio Follow being activated. Nor can you turn it up manually when Audio Follow is engaged. You have to turn off Audio Follow to hear the audio for that second source. Of course, turning Audio Follow off means you will instantly hear the audio for whatever sliders are "up" for all four of the video inputs. As convenient as it to have an Audio Follow feature available, I suggest keeping the audio on manual to avoid any surprises during a live event.
Also, take note of the separateness of the PC input from the other sources. You cannot do a PiP of a person speaking over a PowerPoint. The VR-5 is designed to put one video source over the others, and then overlay the PC input over everything. You can change video overlay and background sources during the PiP with just the touch of a button. But nothing can layer over the PC input.
Despite the simple-looking audio controls, the audio in the VR-5 has lots of features in the menu. There are filters and EQ settings for each of the mic inputs. The stereo audio inputs (with the video sources) can also be internally bridged to mono. They can even be broken away from the Audio Follow to avoid the PiP issue I noted. But I find it still better to operate the entire audio mixer in manual, as opposed to partially automated, partially not. There are even some mastering filters you can apply to the output.
I found the sliders long enough to offer good control, and they had good resistance to them during actual use. There's also a master Audio Out Level knob to raise and lower the level of the entire mix-very useful for feeding streaming computers and the like. The VR-5 even puts the Audio Out Level knob right next to the Video Out knob so you can execute a master fade-everything-to-black by turning both dials counterclockwise at the same time. That's a thoughtful design touch.
The meter is a bit short, with only 6 LEDs between -48 db and 0 db clipping. I would have liked more, but this meter works well and has a bit of a peak hold that makes it easier to catch the peaks in your audio.
When I fed the audio out of the VR-5 to the UStream application, the level UStream saw was considerably lower than the VR-5's meters. The VR-5 offers the ability to really crank up the output past "unity" and the streaming app offered the ability to crank up the input gain as well. Best to always check your levels on the laptop to make sure you're not clipping and distorting the audio at some point in the chain.
Using the VR-5
I found the VR-5 easy to set up and use. It has only composite and "S" video in and out so there's not a lot of unused connectors on the back when you're all hooked up and ready to go. The buttons are big and very tactile. You can easily feel your way around and punch a show on the mixer while looking at notes or the preview monitor. My hand rested easily over the big buttons to punch the sources, and my fingers were ready to manually adjust the audio as needed. For kicks, I gave my 3-year-old daughter a shot at TD'ing a show and she was able to take my directing and punch the show with the VR-5, no problem.
The VR-5 is so intuitive, even a 3-year-old can punch a show on it. Photo my Maria Rothe
I didn't see any technical glitches in the output. This is the nicest feature of dedicated hardware. It does what it does. Nothing more, but certainly nothing less. There's a growing dependence on computers to perform the work of dedicated hardware. I'm one of those that prefers a dedicated piece of hardware gear over dealing with computer OS issues, on top of potential software and hardware issues.
Getting fluent with the VR-5 doesn't take long and it's clearly designed for the single operator as everything is easy to manage and the jacks on the back are even labeled on top of the unit for someone who has to reach and peer over the top to quickly adjust something. It's clear that Roland is rolling convenient user design into each new product they make.
The VR-5 features MIDI in and loop through. While initially conceived for keyboards and used for audio gear (and thus something Roland is abundantly familiar with), the command set for MIDI has been expanded to also control video hardware. The implementation on the VR-5 is called V-Link. I didn't have anything to test the functionality of the V-Link on the VR-5, but it is a feature worth looking into if you have the capability.
Things I Learned
A few more random notes on the VR-5 that I discovered in my testing:
• You can hit Video Rec to put the VR-5 into record-standby. But hitting Video Rec again does not initiate record. You have to hit the Play button to execute recording on the VR-5.
• Because the VR-5 cannot play a clip and record at the same time, if you are using Audio Follow and recording in the VR-5, selecting the internal Player as a source fades out the video and audio (from inputs 1-3, not the PC or mics) as it tries to select a non-existent source. This could be a one-button pseudo-FTB.
• While playing or recording, you can't get into the System or File Utility menu. An alert pops up on the screen: "Now Playing and Recording." (The VR-5 can't actually do both simultaneously.) So you can't already be in a show, recording it, and then try to change the function of the USB port from Storage to Video Out. You have to do that before the show begins. You can't get into those menus by design. Those menus can affect things such as formatting the SD card, file management, and other foundational systems things that could mess you up while playing or recording.
• The current brochure and the website show the Roland logo keyed over full-screen video on the program monitor. When you get the VR-5, the Roland logo is saved into the User Logo button, but you can save any image you want onto that button. However, do not let the promotional image lead you to believe that you can key the User Logo over video. You can't. It's a fullscreen cut in and out. It doesn't even fade like most everything else does. Best to use this for a pre- or post-event static graphic slide.
• The Preview functionality actually is more powerful than you'd expect. While I was in the menus tweaking the parameters of the video wipes, I wished I could still see the quad-split of the video sources. I connected a monitor to the Preview output on the back of the VR-5 and, voila! I had the menu on the VR-5's preview screen, but the Preview out was still the quad-split showing the sources.
• The Output Monitor is where you manually toggle between seeing Program Out and a preview of the PC input. There's no surprise here, but when I was recording inside the VR-5, the fourth square of the Preview quad-split was permanently empty because the VR-5 can't record and play back at the same time. I would have liked the option to put the PC preview in that fourth square in the quad-split.
• As widescreen video has become more the norm these days, you could do 16:9 video in the VR-5 by feeding it squeezed widescreen video and watching everything squeezed on the built-in LCD monitors. If you feed the squeezed quad-split to a widescreen monitor, it would actually display your sources stretched appropriately. As I mentioned, your streaming software may offer settings to stretch the 4:3 feed from the VR-5. This would be a nice feature for a firmware upgrade so internal recordings can also be 16:9.
• The VR-5 has a VGA input for computers, but not a VGA output for computer projectors. I thought this was a glaring omission, as the HDMI they did include is not pervasive in the installed base of projectors already out there. VGA will be the default interconnect for quite some time to come. On the VR-5, there's a little panel opening next to the HDMI out. Maybe there will be a VGA option in the future.
I really like the VR-5. Its inability to both play back and record inside the mixer at the same time was a bit of a surprise, but the VR-5 still has a lot going for it. When I spoke with the engineers, they were still in the process of rolling out this brand new mixer and I was one of the earliest hands-on users, so they were very interested in my findings so they could offer firmware updates.
It looks like Roland is serious about making the VR-5 better as time passes by ironing out the bugs and tweaking the feature set to do what its users desire, such as 16:9. With this sort of dedication, I can only hope for a future VR- model that does internal playback and recording at the same time, and, hopefully, an HD mixer that finally brings an affordable solution to small multicam productions.
Anthony Burokas (VidPro at ieba.com) of IEBA Communications has shot award-winning corporate video internationally and recorded events since the days of 3/4" tape. He is currently technical director for the PBS series Flavors of America and resides just outside of Dallas.