HBO sitcom Silicon Valley may poke fun at internet broadcasting with its character Russ Hanneman (famous for putting this thing called “The Radio” on “The Internet”), but getting a reliable live stream of video, or audio, that can reach thousands of people around the world is trickier than it seems.
Luckily 2015 has seemingly been a year of huge advances in the world of live online video streaming. Google’s YouTube Live platform has finally come of age and is now open, for free, to everyone with an account. Livestream.com (a personal favourite of mine) has been focusing on its hardware offerings, having nailed down its online platform last year. ISPs and mobile network operators have upped their game in the UK and launched superfast 4G mobile coverage and increased their fibre upload speeds.
At the risk of making myself obsolete, here’s a guide on how I approach live streaming a conference or an event when a client asks me to spec one out.
CHOOSE A PLATFORM
Some clients will let my pick the online streaming platform, or at least make a suggestion, others will come to me with a ready-made decision, usually due to a sponsorship tie in. Where a client asks me for my input, I take a few details about what they’re looking for and come up with a recommendation.
There are plenty of offerings out there, you could even run your own, but I tend to stick with the two giants; YouTube and Livestream.
Livestream is the best platform to use for big commercial projects, or events covering multiple stages and tracks. Its player is optimised for ranging between HD playback and mobile quality on the fly, without the viewer having to do anything. It offers a fully customisable profile page and event live blog and photo posting tools, to keep your content fresh and viewers engaged. On the more premium options white labelling and restricted content is also allowed, along with embedding on Facebook pages and your own website. Livestream also has the added benefit of working natively with most Blackmagic encoding equipment out of the box, meaning that you can use a fairly off the shelf laptop to host your stream. Livestream offers a free desktop encoder that works incredibly well with its platform, meaning that you don’t have to resort to Adobe’s monstrosity of Flash Live Media Encoder.
YouTube’s live platform has been around for a while but only within the past year has it been available for all users to be able to use. It has two options, the first is to use Google+’s Hangout option, which is great for web conferencing and cheap streaming on the fly. The other is to use the custom encoder settings to input video from more professional equipment, which gives you the freedom to produce your live stream how you want. The downside to YouTube live streaming is that custom encoders require a lot of power and dedicated hardware. It’s slightly trickier to get a reliable stream with YouTube without investing in expensive extra kit. Upsides are that it’s free for all events, big or small, and that the ability to embed the stream to your own web page is also included free as standard. YouTube also doesn’t offer the same live blogging features that platforms like Livestream offer and branding is much more restricted.
There are a lot of different hardware configurations you could use for your live stream, but I’m going to focus on some more affordable solutions to get the best quality broadcast on a budget.
If you’re working with multiple cameras, there are two routes you can go down in terms of live switching between cameras. Either you can build your own PC with a bunch of capture cards, or you could buy a ready-made vision mixer.
Personally I’m a fan of Blackmagic’s switchers. My first was the ATEM Television Studio, but now I carry around the much more capable ATEM 1 M/E Production Studio 4K in my kit bag. Both of these switchers come with HDSDI and HDMI ins and outs for your cameras, but one of their benefits is that they also come with built in H.264 encoders, meaning that you don’t need a separate big bulky desktop to do the heavy lifting for you. Unfortunately, Adobe’s FLME doesn’t recognise the ATEM as a USB capture device, but Livestream’s native desktop software works perfectly for it. You can effectively deliver a multicamera live event, complete with graphics, idents and lower thirds, with an ATEM switcher and a MacBook Pro (Retina). Anything lower spec on the laptop front won’t cut it and you’ll find your processors going into overdrive and crashing.
I have attempted to use Thunderbolt and USB 3 capture devices to get around the YouTube/FLME issues, I’ve even played about with Wirecast, but unfortunately they require a lot more power than a laptop can provide. If you’re doing a small event with a limited budget and crew this can be a problem.
The most recent addition to my kit bag, which enables me to stream live to YouTube on the fly is Teradek’s VidiU. This little neat box is a wallet sized H2.64 encoder that natively streams to YouTube, Livestream and a whole host of other platforms, as well as your own RTMP server. It features an HDMI port for video input and connects to the internet via WiFi, Ethernet, or perhaps more excitingly, by a USB 3G/4G modem. It’s incredibly simple to set up, doesn’t cost the earth and so far *touching wood* I haven’t had any issues. VidiU’s portability means it’s possible to pick up a camera and live stream straight to the web from almost anywhere, thanks to its small footprint and long battery life.
Livestream actually offer their own hardware solutions too. They range from their simple portable H.264 encoder, the Broadcaster (which is a rebadged VidiU locked to Livestream’s platform) all the way up to their Studio all-in-one production switcher, recorder & encoder options. It’s important to note that their Studio software, which drives their all-in-one machines is available to buy separately and doesn’t lock you in to just using their platform. It’s an incredibly powerful system but comes at a price, however it is nice not to have to lug around a thousand different boxes.
Finding a way to monetise content online has always been tricky. Many conferences give away their content for free after the event is over, or stream it live to attendees who can’t make it for various reasons including cost and travel, however there are an increasing amount of events who charge for virtual tickets. These enable an attendee who can’t make the event physically to pay to watch the content live online, typically as a paywall with a username and password.
I wrote over a year ago that making money from content online was tricky. YouTube have been experimenting with a few options and Vimeo have their tip jar and allow people to buy access to videos, but this is for on demand content not live. If you wanted to have your content behind a premium paywall you had to pretty much build your own custom solution.
Live streaming is tricky and can be a nightmare to get right. There are a few things you can do to make your life easier though.
Speak to the venue’s AV and tech team. Make sure that they have enough bandwidth to be able to handle your content (HD video typically requires around 10Mbps up) and that any ports you need are open.
Test, test, test and test. If you can get access to the venue in advance to make sure everything works in a foreign environment, do it.
Connect via Ethernet and not WiFi. WiFi at events is notoriously bad, usually due to the number of devices connecting to an ill-equipped network. Always get a wired line when possible and make sure that your network connection and upload speed is segregated from the event’s public access.
Bring a 4G USB modem as backup. If everything goes to pot but luckily you’ve somehow got a decent mobile network signal, have a 4G modem handy to take over, this tip has certainly saved my bacon in the past.
If in doubt, hire someone to do it for you, or at least consult.
It’s a technical nightmare and usually anything that can go wrong will go wrong, but there’s nothing like the thrill of working on a live broadcast, no matter the size of the event. As always if you have any questions, some advice to share, or if you want to work with me on your next live stream please do get in touch!