Streaming Q & A With Woodmen Valley Chapel
Mark Shrimplin, Technical Director, and Mark Steel, Video Technical Coordinator, at Woodmen Valley Chapel, have been a part of our customer family since January of 2016. Throughout our time getting to know both Marks, we have enjoyed hearing their rich multisite history. Among the pioneers of multisite video streaming since 2002, they were one of the first to make it happen over the public internet, so of course, that makes us natural fans of them.
Question & Answer
Before we talk about Living As One, can you walk us through Woodmen Valley Chapel’s setup?
Shrimplin: We currently have one Saturday night and two Sunday morning services at all three of our campuses. Our main campus was founded in 1981 and has a 1,100-seat auditorium. We started a second campus in 2002 at a school that has since transitioned to permanent land with a multipurpose building 8 miles east. Because we own the property, we installed a direct network connection to it. Our third campus started in 2015 and meets in an elementary school 12 miles north. We have to set up and tear down every week and have a typical business class DSL connection there. We use Living As One’s Multisite Platform, complete with both hardware and software, to stream the service at each of our campuses.
How did you get started with Living As One?
Shrimplin: We were certainly early adopters. We’ve been doing multisite since 2002, but just two campuses. When we started a third campus in 2015, it was in a remote school that only had a DSL line, so we had to come up with a better solution. I started researching and found you guys on the internet, started discussions with Paul, and decided to go for it.
One of the problems we had with the previous streaming product was that it didn’t buffer locally down on the machine. It relied on the cloud buffering, and with a DSL line there wasn’t a solid enough transmission, so it crashed more than it stayed up. Needless to say, that was stressful. We decided to put a Multisite Decoder on the exact same network and it just worked without any problems. I think a lot of the benefit is being able to buffer down on the local machine with the error checking algorithms, especially running on a DSL line.
Before Living As One we were actually pre-recording a backup on Friday. Our pastor was doing it every week to an empty room because we had such an unsuccessful experience with another product. We approached it cautiously, so the first few months running with your product we were still recording that backup every week.
We don’t have to do that anymore. We’ve felt comfortable enough with your product, there’s no use in making our pastor do that, even though he jokes that it made him prepare in time.
That must have been stressful knowing the solution might crash. You guys have been streaming with us well over a year now; how has the experience gone?
Shrimplin: I have total peace of mind with Living As One’s Multisite Platform, it’s definitely proven to be reliable. Which is a very big deal considering it’s such an important part of the service. What we appreciate besides the reliability, is that Living As One is familiar with how it needs to be used in churches. For example, the ability to set cues so remote campuses don’t have to keep hunting around trying to figure out where the sermon is. They just press the cue and are ready to go. It allows the remote sites to stay focused on taking care of their own services elements and not worry so much about the stream.
Living As One Multisite Platform is so easy for volunteers, we’re actually using one less tech volunteer. Previously, we had to have a dedicated volunteer attempting to monitor the crazy stream and problem solve. Now, it’s so user-friendly anyone can figure it out, so we just tell volunteers to point and click.
How has Living As One affected your overall strategy?
Steel: It’s so scalable. Our lead pastor came to us late last year, “Okay, we’ve gotten to three campuses and we have those up and running smoothly. What is it going to take to get to seven? Not four. Seven.” We’re looking at a new campus probably in the next year, but also trying to make it easier to replicate for more campuses, and this product allows us to be more scalable than before.
Shrimplin: Everything’s already in place. It’s just a matter of popping out a decoder wherever we go and getting the connection. It’s going to be really easy to scale at this point.
Does Living As One’s Multisite Platform open you up to areas you may not have thought of before?
Shrimplin: Oh, yeah, there’s no way we would’ve even thought of going into this school without a solution like Living As One’s. Luckily it’s business-class DSL at our school campus. There’s no fiber into the building, but knowing we’re just short-term at the school, we decided not to pay thousands of dollars to run fiber into the building, which is what we would have had to do with our previous product.
When it comes to multisite, churches have many streaming solutions to choose between. You guys are the experts on this and have been doing it for many years, what can we learn from your product selection knowledge?
Shrimplin: A value here at our church is to pick what is the best bang for the buck. I know there are always solutions we could pay a whole lot more money for, but we always try to see what is the best value. We don’t go out and just buy the Mercedes without thinking about what is best for the church. We buy what’s going to do a really great job, what’s a good product that’s going to be extremely reliable.
We’ve found that Living As One is the best bang for our buck. It fits in with our philosophy as a great, reliable product. We’ve looked. Because we’ve been doing multisite for so many years we’ve researched all the other options and looked at everything that’s available, and Living As One was the best in that regard.
We are also saving money from our point to point solution we moved away from. When we had the two campuses connected by fiber, we deployed a high-end QOS product that was a lot of money. We had to pay for that QOS service and quite a bit of bandwidth that we’re not having to pay any more.
Anything else that’s been useful to you?
Shrimplin: I appreciate how Living As One is always working a step ahead. For example, the fact that you’ve already looked at H.265 (HEVC) and are releasing that soon. You’re trying to stay ahead with what’s happening. The ability to stream 4K UHD is quite cool, I don’t even know of anything else out there right now that’s coming close to comparison with what you guys are doing. It’s cool that with no extra cost all these features get added. It’s also great being a part of the church community you’ve created.
We appreciate that you are not just happy and content with where you are but you’re always improving the product. You’re listening to the customers that are using it. I don’t know any other company that does that much. It’s pretty much, “This is the product we have and we’ll try to make it work for you.” But with Living As One, the customers are a part of your team.
Steel: It’s been a very good product. Your support team is really responsive when we have issues or are working stuff out. You guys work when we work. Other companies were off on weekends, so getting support when we needed it was nearly impossible.
Were any of the features we released particularly useful?
Shrimplin: There are so many new features. Every time you come out with a feature we’re using it. It’s not anything that we think, “Hey, who thought of that? That’s not useful for us.” Everything is useful to us and I think we’re using almost every feature that’s available on the product right now.
Specifically LAN mode. We shared with the Living As One guys early on, “Hey, we’ve got another campus that’s just sitting there on a connected network that wouldn’t have to go through the cloud.” I don’t know if that planted a thought in you guys, because the next thing I knew, all of a sudden LAN mode was out which allows our directly connected campus to get its content from the encoder, and we can failover to the cloud if something ever goes wrong with the direct line. That has been a great feature for us.
You have always included unique production elements, but can you tell us about your pastor speaking from alternate locations?
Shrimplin: Our pastor alternates preaching at our second permanent campus about once a month. We have a second encoder we just turn on when he’s over there. You make it very easy to do, it’s just a matter of turning it on.
We see both encoders in our web browser. We just pick which encoder we want to fire up, even from my phone. I don’t have to go to that campus to start the encoder or set cues. It’s very nice to be able to set cues from any campus.
I’d love to transition and spend some time talking about your multisite history. You were some of the first, especially to do it over the internet. Can you walk us through some of that history?
Shrimplin: Sure. Let’s see. We were landlocked here at the main campus, and we were looking at, well, how do we grow? We didn’t want to just buy land and relocate because the church is located as sort of a beacon in the main area of the city.
So we decided to try out multisite and started in a high school in 2002. Back then technology was really tough so we started with a pair of VBrick encoder/decoders and four bonded T1 lines to connect them to create a bi-direction stream. That was just a MPEG-2 stream over four T1 lines. We were at the school for two years while we were looking for land. Then when we got our permanent second campus, we just moved all the technology there.
Up until about a year ago, we actually did a connected live service. We were doing shared elements from each campus back and forth, a two-way stream. It was in real time, everything from worship and teaching was in sync.
It was a little tough back with VBricks because they had about a half a second latency. We would maybe do a greeting from one campus and while there was clapping we’d switch the stream and go to the other campus. In 2010 we moved to HD video and the processors had 70 milliseconds latency, so we actually started sharing the two bands, and the two campuses were all locked together with click-track. The music was the same, at the same time, and we showed different shots back and forth between the bands.
We decided to stay live so the other campus felt like they were still a part of the main campus. It was a vision that worked really well for many years here, but when we started looking at doing a third and fourth campus we knew simultaneous worship wasn’t realistic. That’s not sustainable for us.
We knew we couldn’t keep doing that model so that’s when we decided to do more of what’s becoming popular with your product, sending the service one way and letting live bands be at each campus.
Is there anything you would like to share about your future strategy?
Shrimplin: We’re not going to build any other mega campuses so we’re capping at around 800 max seating for buildings we put up. So first we get it to 800, then more services, then we say it’s time to spring out to another campus
We run at least 5 minutes behind live at the DSL campus by adding extra elements upfront. At our second permanent campus, we’re able to run LAN mode with a 2-minute delay, which is huge because it doesn’t have to go to the cloud for that campus. For future campuses, we’ll just plan on cloud through Living As One, as we’ve had pretty good success with five minutes.
Thank you, Mark Shrimplin and Mark Steel for your time and hearts to serve the church!
It’s so scalable. Our lead pastor came to us late last year, “Okay, we’ve gotten to three campuses and we have those up and running smoothly. What is it going to take to get to seven? Not four. Seven.” We’re looking at a new campus probably in the next year, but also trying to make it easier to replicate for more campuses, and this product allows us to be more scalable than before.Mark Shrimplin