When producing a live streaming event most of the emphasis is on the content, and rightfully so. It is critical to have a well thought out program that captivates your online audience. Many good articles have been written with tips on how to get the most from your live event. However, the technical aspect of live streaming is equally important. If something goes wrong with the live stream your online audience will be rudely distracted from your program. It is safe to say that the live streaming process should be transparent. No one should think about it if it’s working properly. So as the event producer it is your job to make sure that your live streaming team is not only well versed in good production skills but is also prepared to handle all contingencies. Live streaming reliability is essential to prevent the embarrassment and reputational damage that occurs when the live stream looks bad or simply stops working.
I’m not suggesting that you need to become a techno-geek about this but having an appreciation for the underlying technology and network architecture will help you vet the webcasting team that you entrust with your project. Below is a diagram that we just put together that shows how a typical live stream webcast works:
The three main phases of a live stream are Acquisition, Transmission, and Distribution. The Acquisition phase involves the audio & video team who produce the broadcast at the venue and send the signal to the Transmission engineer. This person is responsible for converting the broadcast video into an internet data stream using a device called an encoder. From there they have to get the signal to the internet using a router with a solid high speed internet connection. At this point the signal has gone up into the cloud for distribution using a streaming server, web server, Content Distribution Network, then finally passing the signal to the end user’s local Internet Service Provider.
Hopefully the diagram provides an intuitive understanding of the many processes necessary to get the job done. Obviously we are glossing over the details which are important as well. The goal here is to identify all of the working components in order to understand what happens if something malfunctions. How do we reduce the risk? How do we quickly recover? We have a more indepth article about this entitled, “The Live Streaming Process – What Can Go Wrong?.” You should check it out if you want to dive a little deeper into the subject of live streaming reliability.
Let’s take a look at some of the typical failure points:
It’s beyond the scope of this article to specify solutions for each risk individually but suffice it to say that it is possible to be prepared in advance to handle all of these contingencies. At Webcast & Beyond we have developed a four point failsafe strategy to address all of these issues. They are:
1. Internet back-up
2. Network redundancy
3. Hardware redundancy
4. Onsite engineering support.
Each area incorporates additional equipment and specific procedures to mitigate the problems as they arise. The takeaway here is to have the right mindset. If you have an internal webcast team make sure they develop a failsafe plan of their own, otherwise the day will come when your live stream goes down at a critical moment and you won’t have the means to recover.
What we have discussed so far is that portion of the live streaming process where we have some measure of control. We select the equipment, the crew, the internet uplink, and the streaming service. We also set up the landing page and program the encoder. But what we can’t really control is what happens when we hand off the stream to the end user. This begins when our stream hits the end user’s ISP and continues on through their local network finally arriving at their viewing device. For this we have a self-help troubleshooting guide which you can view here: How to Fix Video Streaming Problems.
Streaming video is pervasive in everyday life. We use the technology to watch Netflix, YouTube, Facebook, video-on-demand from the cable company, Skype, Face Time, webinars and various live special events. Depending on the application, the technology varies with respect to the devices and types of connections used. In this tutorial we will focus on live streaming (also known as “webcasting”).
According to Wikipedia …
“A webcast is a media presentation distributed over the Internet using streaming media technology to distribute a single content source to many simultaneous listeners/viewers. A webcast may either be distributed live or on demand. Essentially, webcasting is “broadcasting” over the Internet.”
This is what Webcast & Beyond does. We go to an event with our production team and equipment and broadcast the experience live to a global audience. We also provide a platform where the audience can “tune-in” to watch. Typically the platform takes the single feed from the event and distributes it to a web page with a video player embedded. This way the web page address acts like a TV channel to “tune-in” to a particular webcast.
Access to the viewing web page can be public or private, and may be free, require registration, involve a fee, or a combination of these. To watch a public webcast all you need to know is the web address (usually in the form of a link that was sent to you in an email or posted on a website) and the broadcast time. Be careful to note the time zone in which the broadcast is originating from. Unlike television stations, internet broadcasters usually don’t time shift the broadcast to the viewers local time, so you will need to determine the correct time adjustment for your geographical location. Private webcasts require a password and sometimes a username as well in order to access the viewing web page. Passwords are issued by the hosting organization or automated through a registration system. If a fee is required the password is issued after online payment is completed.
In addition to the video player, which is the window there the video is played, there are other features and controls that are sometimes included on the viewing page:
Some live players have this feature and it is truly fantastic! You can literally go back in time by dragging the slider bar at the bottom to the left. This is common in recorded video but less so when the event is live.
The online audience can participate in a group chat environment using a chat box which is often displayed on the side or below the video player. People use this to communicate with the onsite participants, usually to pose questions during a Q & A session as well as to interact amongst themselves.
Public webcasts often include widgets (tools) to share the experience with your friends. You will find icons for Face Book, Twitter, email and others that will post notices or send the web link to your friends and followers.
There are many devices capable of presenting a live stream broadcast. These include:
Generally a desktop computer is best as it can support a hard-wired internet connection, has a bigger screen, and often has sufficient processing power to playback the highest quality stream. Older computers with older operating systems are not the best choice. If your PC can smoothly run Windows 7 or later you should be good to go. If you are on a MAC it is recommended that you have an intel processor (not the older Motorola models) with OSX software. You will need a browser which supports live streaming. On the PC we recommend the latest version of Chrome. On a MAC we recommend the latest version of Safari.
Tablets and Smartphones are a popular choice due to their mobility but require either a Wi-Fi or cellular data connection for streaming video. Wi-Fi is preferred in most cases because cellular data is expensive and often not fast enough. If you are using cellular then make sure your connection is 4G(LTE) for the best experience. When it comes to best performance on a mobile device, the Apple iOS iPhones and iPads are preferred over Androids (generally) because streaming platforms are set up to be compatible with Apple products. The minimum requirement is to be running iOS version 3.0 or later.
Hopefully this article has helped you get oriented with the process of live streaming video. If any of this seems too technical don’t worry. You can run a simple test to get an idea whether your set-up is up the task. We have embedded a video from our portfolio to try out. Try playing this on the same device, with the same internet connection you plan to use for watching live streaming. If it works well then your equipment and internet connection are in good shape. Keep in mind that this test is using a recorded video which is a little different than a live video stream. Nonetheless, if this video is working chances are you will be able to watch live streams as well.
Many of the larger events that we handle for live streaming or recording involves capturing the audio from the venue’s sound system. Crisp, clear audio is vitally important to the success of any event so it is imperative that the techniques used to interconnect with the house sound system be thoroughly understood. To do this, we use balanced XLR mic cable to run between the sound board and our video equipment. We bring various adapters to handle the different possible connection types including, XLR, 1/4-inch TRS, and RCA. Typically we request the program mix output at line level and bring it in to our own sub-mixer where can can fine tune the levels from our position as well as add in an ambient mic to capture the natural sound in the room (also good as an emergency mic in case there is a problem from the house system). Then we adjust the gain structure from our sub-mixer to our encoder for unity gain.
The final step is to listen to the noise floor of our audio feed. If there is a hum or buzz present we will have to eliminate the ground loop which is causing it. This is a rather complex subject but suffice to say that a ground loop occurs when two or more electronic devices share a common signal cable (such as an audio XLR cable) and are plugged in to different electrical outlets. The result is a noticeable hum/buzz at the receiving end (camera input). This phenomenon exists because there is a slight difference in the voltage levels of the grounding pins of each device. The audio cable has a shield that directly connects the sound board chassis to the receiving device (camera or remote mixer) and thus a circuit is created (a loop) which carries the buzz and hum signal.
Our webcast team uses these techniques to ensure that your event audio sounds clean, clear, and professional.
Authored by Gregg Hall, owner/operator Webcast & Beyond
One of the big advantages of live streaming today is the ability to affordably broadcast all kinds of events to specific target audiences. The availability of low-cost broadcast equipment and online streaming services has opened the door to practically any organization wishing to produce live content. In the quest to minimize production budgets whilst maintaining production quality I will discuss one approach to webcasting an event wherein one person wears the hats of many; namely 2 (or more) cameramen, the technical director, the sound engineer, and the encoding engineer. Mind you, this approach does not work for every situation but there are many events where this is totally feasible and opens the door to more business opportunities by keeping production costs to a minimum.
Let’s start by specifying the design requirements for this one-man webcasting system. First, it must be high definition. These days it is easy to acquire affordable cameras that shoot at 1080i and output either an HDMI or HD-SDI signal. I can’t overstate the importance of shooting in Hi-Def even when you are streaming at standard definition bit rates. The fact is HD sources look far superior to SD sources when encoded at lower bit rates. Secondly, it must be portable. By that I mean one person can transport the whole system by themselves when travelling by plane. Thirdly, the layout must be ergonomically efficient to allow one person access to all of the controls.
Here then is a list of the basic components needed:
Shown here is one of our portable systems deployed at a trade show. I was the one-man crew controlling the 2 cameras, switcher, audio mixer, and encoder. In this configuration 2 cameras are connected to a Black-Magic Design ATEM Television Studio Switcher. The switcher is very compact and affordable with a list price of only $1000. To use it, a laptop is employed as an external control surface, and a field HD television is used as a multi-view monitor. The ATEM has 6 inputs, a real-time H.264 output for recording an archive of the program stream and HDMI / HD-SDI outputs. The HDMI program out is routed to a Matrox O2 Mini external video capture device connected to a second laptop which acts as the encoder. A Mackie 1202 mixer receives a feed from the house PA system. The output then goes to a Behringer DEQ2496 processor which delays the audio 2 frames then converts it to a digital AES/EDU signal for input to the ATEM switcher. Also part of this system is a Matrox DVI convert which transcodes the screen of the host’s computer into an HD video signal that we can switch to as a video source. A pair of studio headphones monitors the audio from the Mackie mixer and also the encoder laptop. The encoder laptop also serves to monitor the webcast.