The Technology of Streaming

Last time, we talked about asking some relevant questions before launching into the live stream pool (or is it a…stream?). Today, let’s consider some of the technical things you’ll need to think through before pointing that fire hose of data to the world.

Video Acquisition

The first step, of course, is to have a video stream to…ah…stream. This can be a single camera (though that might get boring after a while), or multiple cameras. It may include embedded graphics (lyrics, sermon notes or Scripture). And you’ll need to have audio on that stream (which we’ll get to in a moment). This of course means cameras and camera operators; a switcher and a switcher operator. It also may mean a director, a shader and producer. You could take the IMAG feed and stream it, or do a separate switch for broadcast. Think through the implications of both scenarios. 

Now, to stream it, you’re going to be taking what is known as baseband video (either HD or SD, uncompressed) and compressing it down for distribution on the web. Some suggest that quality is not that important because it’s going to be compressed heavily anyway. But that’s not really true. In fact, the best looking streams on the web start with the best looking video. Avoid lots of small, detailed objects; light it well; minimize dissolves; keep the gain low so the video noise floor is low. These steps will mean a smaller data payload that looks better at low bitrates.

Some churches want to run to BestBuy and pick up a cheap camera, point it at the stage and stream it to the world. That will look just as bad as it sounds like it will. People won’t watch a stream like that for long, except perhaps to make fun of it. Do it well, or don’t bother.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Audio is almost as critical as the video, especially if you are streaming the musical portion (which also means you have all your licenses lined up, right?). At the very least, you’ll want a pretty well balanced matrix or aux fed mix going to video. Ideally, you’ll have a separate mix that is made up from the actual inputs from the stage (or at least stems). 

That means another operator, in another room with decent audio monitors. Also, don’t forget to keep in mind the dynamic range differences. Music can easily be 30+ dB louder than speaking. That works OK live, but can be a real pain on a 13” MacBook Air. Make sure you know how to deliver an optimized audio stream.

Big Pipes

Streaming live requires many things, but perhaps none is as important as a big, empty pipe to get the data out there. How big? Well, if you want to do HD (and who doesn’t?) you should plan on at least a 20 Mbs line; and that’s upload speed (continuous, not burst). You can get by with less if you do an SD feed, which might be OK, especially if you are thinking mobile devices. 

You need to know if your IT department can help you configure the network properly so you get this continuously wide open pipe during the entire service (even when you have 200 iPhones and iPads connected to your guest network) every single week.

This is not impossible (it’s not even that hard, really), but it can get expensive quickly depending on where you live. Don’t have an IT department (or even a guy)? Then be careful before you dive into streaming. I can’t tell you how many tweets I’ve seen on Sunday morning that go something like this, “Uh oh. The live stream is down. Again.” 

Who’s Your Partner

It would be almost impossible to stream the service live to the world from your building. You’ll need a partner, often known as a CDN (Content Delivery Network). There are a ton of them cropping up all over, some specialize in the HOW market, others will stream anything. Choose your partner carefully. Find out if they have tech support available on Sunday. Watch their streams. Make sure they can deliver a good user experience without making you pull your hair out.

Often, the CDN will supply hardware for encoding and getting the stream to their servers. Other times, they can recommend vendors to help with that. Either way, it’s important to make sure your stream is encoded and formatted properly for distribution by their network. Again, it’s not necessarily hard, but it has to be right.

Do or Do Not Do, There is No Try

If you want to live stream the service, by all means go for it (assuming you read my last post and have a good ministry rationale for doing so). But please, do it well. Yes, you can buy a $49 FireWire encoder and send your service to uStream for free. But that stream will be ad-supported and you have no control over the ads. And some of the ads might not be content you particularly want for your church service.

Putting poorly lit, poorly shot, poorly mixed streams of poorly programmed church services does not help “get our message out there.” Unless our message is that we don’t care enough about what we do to do it well. 

This whole series may sound like I’m against streaming; but I’m really not. Some churches are doing it well, and using it effectively. But like I said on Thursday, not every church needs to do it. And if you don’t need to, please don’t. We’ll all be better off.

Today's post is brought to you by Heil Sound. Established in 1966, Heil Sound Ltd. has developed many professional audio innovations over the years, and is currently a world leader in the design and manufacture of large diaphragm dynamic, professional grade microphones for live sound, broadcast and recording.