Our entire team here at Stretch is, if nothing else, ambitious. We have a tendency to go all out—just ask the group of elementary school kids we took to task on a recent company laser-tag outing. Let’s just say there were more than a few “No mercy!” rally cries from our overzealous bunch. That’s why it seemed perfectly reasonable to go all out on our blog, too, which is how we ended up with this “everything you could ever possibly want or need to know about live streaming” (aka ultimate) post.
So have a look around, skip to the parts you’re most interested in, and then, hopefully, you’ll have some new bits of knowledge you can put into action. And if you still have questions about anything you’ve read here—including questions about your own streaming setup or our live streaming platform—give us a shout. Our ultimate ambition with this post (see how we did that?) is to help all of you live streamers out there reach your goals. Good luck!
Live web streaming exists thanks to several early innovations, starting with George Squier’s work on signal transmission in the early 1920s. Squier came up with a way to transmit audio signals over electrical lines and received several patents for his work. His original intent was to deliver music directly into homes, but when radio caught on, he made a change of course. Instead, his company, called Muzak (sounds like a modern day startup, doesn’t it?), sold and delivered prepackaged “elevator music” to stores, offices, elevators, and factories.
In the decades following, another foundational element of live streaming, the internet, slowly evolved. This worldwide network of computers would eventually make it possible to share continuous streams of data with people around the world. The first live stream actually took place on June 24, 1993, when a California band called Severe Tire Damage broadcasted a live performance to the world from outside the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. The stream utilized new technology, called the Mbone, that made audiovisual broadcasting possible; up until that point, it had mainly been used for academic purposes.
By the mid-1990s, however, the primary focus was on audio-only streaming. In 1995, a company called Progressive Networks introduced RealAudio, a compressed audio format that allowed people to listen to music as it was being downloaded. Once audio streaming paved the way, it wasn’t long before live video streaming came to fruition.
Live event streaming has come extraordinarily far in 20-plus years. Today’s technology is developing faster than ever, with new and exciting developments year after year that are progressively making live streaming more accessible to everyone—even giraffes.
For all its technological advances, live streaming is still pretty simple if you want it to be. The equipment you choose to use depends on your level of experience, your budget, and your goals. Over time, your organization will likely evolve in all three of these areas, which will affect the live streaming technology you use. The basic equipment needs are the same across the board, but because most people vary in their current situations, we’ve found that there are two different categories of live streaming equipment: basic live streaming equipment and advanced live streaming equipment.
If you’re still considering live video streaming or if your organization is about to experiment with it for the first time, we can guarantee you’ll find success if you keep it simple. Trying to do too much right out of the gate not only opens the door to added technical challenges (there’s enough of those to go around at every level of experience), it will also be mildly to monstrously frustrating for all those involved. Live event streaming should be fun! If you follow the guidelines below, you’ll end up with a good-quality broadcast—and your hair still intact.
Here’s what you’ll need to get going.
A Video Source (Aka A Camera)
You might be tempted to spend thousands of dollars in this area, but there’s really no need—$400-$500 will get you a fully functional camcorder that can handle the job. Any consumer camera that’s less than five years old will have what you need to start streaming.
That said, your live stream may have certain requirements that will be better met with a more expensive camera. For instance, if you know you’ll be shooting from far away and need to zoom in quite a bit to really capture the action, it’s advisable to buy a camera with high-quality zoom capabilities. So consider how you plan to use the camera before making a purchase.
A one-camera production is best to start, because it’s the simplest option. As you gain more experience with live streaming, you may want to add additional cameras (and check out the advanced live streaming technology list below).
It’s also possible to use an iPhone or an iPad as your camera. In that case, the only things you’ll need as far as live streaming equipment are the device itself and a mobile live streaming app. While there are several app options, we always recommend GoCoder from Wowza, which works with a variety of live streaming platforms, including ours. This handy app delivers your video and audio content to any device and it’s very easy to use. Your streaming provider may also have its own application for streaming live video from a mobile device, so be sure to check on that first. Or, if you’re using Ustream, Livestream, YouTube, or a social network to stream, there’s no need for an app—you simply stream directly from their mobile applications.
A word of caution, however, that there are some drawbacks to using an iPhone or an iPad for live streaming: The picture quality on mobile devices doesn’t stack up to what you’d get with a traditional video camera, and the lack of optical zoom means you’ll need to stay fairly close to the subject you’re focusing on. Also, you’ll likely want someone manning the device, whereas with a traditional video camera, you can set it up and walk away. Lastly—but maybe most importantly—beware of data charges if you’re not connected to a Wi-Fi network!
That being said, if your mobile device is all you have to start, it’s a good temporary solution. In fact, it’s a great way to test if your live stream is a viable product in the first place, before traveling too far down the live streaming road. It’s also a good secondary live stream setup if you’re trying to stream two events simultaneously, or if you’re streaming an event without a physical location.
It might sound like an “extra” piece of equipment, but having a tripod eliminates the slight shake that always accompanies a hand-held camera. (We know you think you’re holding steady, but trust us, you’re not.) The professionalism it will add to your broadcast will make it money well spent.
You probably already have one of these—either a Mac or a PC—and most likely whatever you currently have will get the job done, as long as it has either a Thunderbolt port (Macs) or a USB 3.0 port (PCs). To check on your computer, look for the following:
- USB 3.0—Depending on the computer manufacturer, one of two symbols will designate the USB port: Either the inside of the port itself will be blue, or the port will be labeled “SS” (which stands for “Super Speed”).
- Thunderbolt—most often found on Apple computers, this port will be labeled with a lightning bolt symbol.
An Encoding Device
Video encoding is the key to streaming live—it’s the process of converting your video input into a digital format so it can be played back on a computer and then sending it to either a content delivery network (CDN) for distribution on the internet, or a live streaming provider (like Stretch). The process of encoding helps make large video files smaller so they can be moved more easily over the internet. It is absolutely essential for live web streaming.
There are two types of live stream encoder devices:
- A hardware encoder is a separate device dedicated to video streaming.
- A software encoder runs on your laptop or desktop computer.
Plenty of people spend time debating the merits of hardware vs. software encoders. Why? Because both options are good, but they also both have advantages and disadvantages depending on the situation.
Since hardware encoders are built solely for encoding, some people claim they’re more reliable. They also remove added strain from a computer that’s already running a number of other processes, which could help avoid problems related to speed and function. Software encoders, on the other hand, are easy to reconfigure, making them more flexible than hardware encoders. They’re also very simple to use and make for fewer things to lug around when you’re bringing live streaming equipment on the road.
For people just getting started with live streaming, we usually recommend Flash Media Live Encoder (FMLE) from Adobe, a free software encoder. You can download it to any computer (Mac or PC) in less than 10 minutes. It’s perfect for a basic, single-camera production (it doesn’t support multiple cameras, unless you have a video mixer that you are feeding into your computer). Wirecast software is another good bet; you can use it to add production-quality effects to your broadcast, like lower-third graphics, scoreboards for sporting events, and multiple camera shots. Wirecast runs anywhere from $495 for the studio version to $995 for the professional version.
Important note: If you plan on using a software encoder, you’ll also need an additional piece of equipment for your live stream setup: acapture device. Computers aren’t necessarily made for receiving video and audio from other sources, so you need a way to convert those signals into something the computer can recognize. A capture device does just that—converts the video output into a digital format that your computer can understand. (With most hardware encoders, you will not need a capture device unless you have a mismatch of signal output/input on the camera/encoder respectively.)
Your capture device should be compatible with the type of computer you’re using, either a PC or a Mac. It plugs into the Thunderbolt port on a Mac or the USB 3.0 port on a PC. The Blackmagic Design UltraStudio Mini Recorder is a good choice for the Mac; for PCs, we recommend one from Magewell’s USB Capture Family. Both devices are economical and perform well.
Even if you’re just starting out, it pays to think long term when it comes to software encoders. If your goal is to build your live streaming program into a sophisticated multi-camera production over time, we strongly suggest selecting a software option that can grow with you. It will not only save you money in the long run, it’ll also save you from having to relearn another system later on down the line.
With that in mind, take a look through this list of critical features that a software encoder needs, along with a few things that are simply nice to have.
Critical features your software live stream encoder should have:
- The ability to stream and record simultaneously (just in case!).
- The ability to switch between video sources (for enhancing your broadcast later).
- The ability to send to multiple destinations (for maximum reach).
- A built-in graphics editing system (even the most basic graphics system will save time and improve your broadcast).
Ideal (but not necessary) features for your software live stream encoder:
- A built-in audio mixer (for better sound and making volume adjustments).
- Social media integration (so fans can interact with you and each other during the live stream).
- The ability to replay in real time (especially handy for sports).
- The ability to color-correct your video source (if you don’t have time for white-balancing).
When it comes to hardware encoders, the Teradek VidiU is a good choice for a simple camera production without graphics. It’s an affordable solution that Teradek promotes as being “perfect for novices.” Plus, its compact size makes the VidiU perfect if you tend to live stream from a variety of venues.
Another hardware encoder we like to recommend is the Matrox Monarch HDX—a good fit for studio live streaming. The Monarch also works well if you already have a fully produced feed “ready to go” from another production environment, like a television truck on location. The Monarch takes that feed, encodes it, and sends it to your streaming provider.
All-In-One Production Platforms
Beyond hardware or software encoders, there’s one more option to consider: an all-in-one production unit like the Tricaster or Wirecast Gear. These production platforms are dedicated hardware solutions that both produce and encode the live stream, allowing you to change cameras, add graphics, pull in video or images, and more. This option works for both studio installations and portable setups (although you do need computer monitors, a keyboard, a mouse, etc). They’re also easy to use—just plug in your cameras and start streaming.
A High-Speed Internet Connection
Because it’s live web streaming, download and upload speeds are vital. Download speed is more important to your viewers that are trying to “pull” down your live feed, but a robust upload speed is critical for your ability to “push” a live stream out successfully.
If your upload speeds aren’t up to snuff, your viewers will almost certainly experience heavy buffering (the spinning wheel of doom!). To test it, make sure you’re connected to the network you plan to stream from and go to speedtest.net; once you run the test, you’ll get your upload speed in seconds. A high-definition (HD) live stream requires a speed of 3-4 MBPS; standard definition (SD) requires 1-2 MBPS. A slow upload speed is a non-starter for your ambitions of live streaming glory.
Whatever location you’re filming from, you’ll need internet access in one of three ways:
- Ethernet (hardwired internet)—recommended for reliability.
- Mi-Fi (provided through cellular carriers like Verizon and AT&T).
Locations vary widely when it comes to internet access, which can make this element one of the most challenging aspects of your live stream setup.
If you’re an experienced live streamer you already have the basic live streaming equipment. Here, we’ll mention a few add-ons that will improve and enhance your production.
Single-camera productions are fine, but if you want to truly boost the quality level of your production, it’s time to introduce multiple cameras. Having more than one camera allows you to shoot from a variety of angles, giving viewers the feeling of actually being there.
For more detailed information on this topic, check out this article. To sum it up quickly, you have two good options for a small-scale multi-camera production setup:
Want more information about live streaming equipment? This extensive live streaming checklist includes lists of necessary and optional equipment, as well as preparation checklists.
- The least expensive option is to use Telestream’s Wirecast and a Mac. BlackMagic’s UltraStudio Mini Recorder (or something similar) can bring the HDMI signals from two cameras into your computer via its two Thunderbolt ports. If you have three cameras, you’ll need a USB-based capture device like the Magewell USB Capture HDMI Plus or a Magewell SDI Plus for the third one.
- A PC setup requires one or more PCI Express cards (however many you need) to bring in the video. You’ll also need one of the following: the DeckLink Mini Recorder (similar to the UltraStudio Mini Recorder) that accommodates one HDMI or SDI input at a time, the DeckLink Quad 2, which has eight channels that can be assigned as you like, or the Pro Capture Quad SDI, which lets you bring four inputs into your desktop tower computer.
Besides the setup, one of the challenges of working with multiple cameras is covering the distance between their placement and the control room (or the main camera). Unless you’re using wireless cameras, you’ll need plenty of cables to bridge the gap. Speaking of cables…
The basic live streaming setup uses relatively cheap HDMI cables. The longer they get, the weaker the signal gets, which is why we recommend keeping them under 10 feet. If your camera placement requires spanning more than 10 feet, you’ll need an HDMI-to-SDI converter.
Rather than extending your HDMI cabling, a better alternative is SDI. With SDI you can go very long distances—up to 300 feet—without amplification. You can even run SDI cabling farther if you like—up to 2,700 feet—using signal boosters every 300 feet. You’ll find this a lot easier to use when trying to add additional cameras to your live stream setup.
The Blackmagic UltraStudio Mini Recorder includes both HDMI and SDI connections. And if your camera doesn’t have SDI natively, you can pick up an HDMI-to-SDI converter for less than $100; the benefits you’ll get will be well worth the price.
Wireless Tech For Live Web Streaming
If you’re managing multiple cameras, the next step is to shed the cables. Depending on where your cameras are situated, you might end up laying hundreds of feet of cable all told, which is time-consuming and, for some locations, a downright difficult proposition.
What if, instead of running that 300-foot cable, you could have 300 feet of wireless capability? Being able to take your cameras wherever you want to go—even right up to the edge of the action—makes for an exciting broadcast that will be appreciated by your viewers. It also lets you be a bit more creative with your camera angles, because cabling can be restrictive.
If you’re thinking of giving it a go, we usually recommend Teradek’s Bolt wireless system. Not dependent on Wi-Fi or 4G internet, it creates its own wireless local area network to talk to a receiver and a transmitter. But you will need batteries to power both the camera and the transmitter.
Good-quality sound is part of a professional-quality live stream. Incorporating an audio mixer allows you to include one or more broadcasters and play prerecorded commercials or interviews. It also gives you more precise control over your audio levels. Some encoders come with a built-in audio mixer that allows you to adjust the volume on each source individually as they’re brought into the live video. Wireless transmitters and receivers can also be valuable if your audio setup is not geographically close to the production location.
If you’re looking for a fairly simple yet noticeable way to improve your broadcast, consider investing in some graphical tools. Not just for sports, graphics can enhance any kind of live event streaming—you can to attach titles to speakers, provide information about materials being discussed or used (like hymns or scripture references), or conduct live polls. For sports in particular, graphics tools allow you to share information directly from a scoreboard controller, or statistical information and headshots. There are lots of ways in which graphics can enhance a broadcast; just think about what your viewers might want to see, and you can most likely make it happen.
For those of you using Wirecast, NewBlue Titler (made by NewBlue) runs alongside it, letting you render graphics and integrate them quickly into the Wirecast workflow. It can run on the same computer as your encoding software.
There won’t likely ever be one definitive list of live streaming equipment—live streaming technology continues to evolve due to the growing popularity of live video streaming and the fast pace of technological innovation. At the moment, these three trends will be shaping the immediate future of live streaming:
- Wireless camera technology is seeing a dramatic price reduction thanks to recent advancements. Soon it may be an attainable option for many more broadcasters, a development that could have a significant impact on the production process.
- NewTek’s Network Device Interface (NDI) continues to grow as an industry standard. NDI uses a venue’s existing network to enable communication among several video sources, eliminating the need for cables or wireless equipment. NDI is already transforming production workflows and will continue to do so, especially with the arrival of new, related products—including one that converts a camera signal directly into NDI.
- Thunderbolt 3 video devices, including capture devices, are beginning to hit the market for the latest version of Apple’s MacBook Pro. That’s great news—it streamlines the connection between capture device and computer (no more Thunderbolt 2 to Thunderbolt 3 adapters!).
Like many others in the industry, we are anxious to see how the continued evolution of virtual reality (VR), and even augmented reality (AR), impact the live streaming product as a whole. As new developments and opportunities present themselves, we’ll keep looking for exciting ways to integrate with our existing platform.
You’ve gotten your equipment—great! But what’s next? You’re almost ready to go…
Before you can start live streaming, you need to decide how you plan to broadcast—in other words, what platform will you use to share your live stream with the world? There are two kinds of live streaming platforms:
- Social media networks like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook.
- Live streaming platform providers (Stretch is a platform provider; there are many other providers to choose from as well).
We feel it’s important to note that this isn’t necessarily an “either/or” choice. Many organizations utilize both options, as they both have different strengths. Having a good live streaming strategy that encompasses both methods can be a good way to reach your live streaming goals. Some organizations also utilize more than one social media network, as they have different audiences and different features. (This article has a good breakdown of your choices and the features associated with each.)
To state it simply, social media networks are great for “Johnny on the spot” streaming—for filming impromptu, short clips that you want to share with the world. These types of video streaming services allow you to reach your entire subscriber base as soon as you go live.
Platform providers have their strengths, too. You can give your live stream a more professional look with a portal custom-designed for your organization, which helps to build your brand. And a good platform provider will also act as your live streaming partner, which means they’ll be there to provide technical support, offer guidance on live production techniques, and help you build out a long-term live streaming strategy.
A platform provider can dramatically improve the quality of your live stream—if you choose the right one. Find out what live streaming services you should expect from a streaming provider.
Do your research before choosing any of the above options. (And, if you’re thinking about setting up your live stream so it can be viewed on your organization’s website, read this first.) Then it’s time to dive in!
If you hope to pull off a live stream successfully, you can’t show up an hour before the event, set up your cameras and computer, and roll. It’s a good idea to put some thought into preparing for your broadcast, even up to a week in advance of the event. Testing your equipment and checking out the venue beforehand will go a long way toward minimizing problems—and stress!—on the actual day.
Here are a few things to take care of well in advance:
- Check your connection to the venue’s network.
- Check the speed of the network you plan to use.
- Do a streaming test to check video, audio, and transmission speeds.
- Make sure you have a way to record your stream locally.
- Make sure your streaming software is up to date.
- Secure backup cables and equipment if possible. (The more backups you have, the better!)
Download this extensive live streaming checklist for more detailed guidance on live stream setup and preparation.
On the day of the event, set up your equipment as early as possible. The length of your cables will help determine placement. In general, the longer the cable, the more chance there is for something to go wrong or a signal to get lost. (Also, remember that HDMI cables more than 10 feet long may require an amplifier.) And if you’re setting up outside, keep the computer out of direct sunlight; none of the equipment should ever be hot to the touch.
Once you have everything in place, connect all the necessary cables—with camera or cameras turned off—and ensure that all the connections are tight. Then turn the camera(s) on and open your streaming program.
Tip: If you’re setting up the day before an event, shut down the computer overnight rather than putting it in sleep mode. Even in low-power mode, your computer still consumes energy and its CPU percentage will be higher as a result. Keep the computer off the night before to start fresh on the day of the event.
We recommend starting your live stream 15 minutes ahead of the event’s scheduled start time. Starting a few minutes early gives you time to catch any last-minute problems and adjust basic things like audio, graphics, or camera focus. It also gives viewers something to see as they settle in before the program and a bit of time to sort things out if the stream appears not to be working.
It’s smart to check your feed by watching it the same way your viewers do. If you’re working with a live streaming platform provider, they should handle this check for you (and you can always contact them for confirmation); otherwise, you can pull up the feed on a device on your own. Sometimes everything looks like it’s working properly in the streaming program, but it isn’t coming through on the viewers’ end. That could be caused by any number of things, but testing can solve these problems before the event starts.
Once the stream is started, check on it occasionally (make sure you use a different network than the one you’re streaming from). Streaming is unpredictable at times—even a small dip in the network can knock you off the air. Ideally you’d head off any problems at the streaming computer before they made it through to your viewers, but if that isn’t realistic, simply check the feed in the viewers’ interface on another device several times throughout. You should also be able to depend on your live streaming platform provider to monitor the feed and communicate with you about problems.
Keep it going! The more you do it, the better you’ll get—and the easier it’ll get. To develop a consistent and reliable production process right from the start, download our extensive live streaming checklist. It outlines the necessary tasks at every stage of production, starting a week before the event, so you can pull off a smooth live stream every time.
If you’re looking for some helpful advice about your live stream setup, process, equipment, or anything else, schedule a free 30-minute consultation call with Stretch. We’ll evaluate what you already have in place and make recommendations on how you can improve.
Good luck with your future live streaming!