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One to Many: Streaming Live Video to Multiple Platforms
If you're delivering a live video stream, you likely want to publish it on as many platforms as possible. Here's the best hardware and software to pull it off.
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As recently as two or three years ago, most live streams were distributed by a single service provider like Livestream or Ustream, whether on a page on their websites, via an embedded player on your website, or both. With the rise of YouTube Live, Periscope, and particularly Facebook Live, the focus has changed from publishing to a single platform to getting your video on every platform possible. As with all things streaming video related, there are multiple ways to get this done. This article will cover the most prominent alternatives.

One great thing about most alternatives is that you don’t have to be a technology guru to use them. Understand a few key concepts that I’ll cover at the start, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a multiple-platform streaming maven.

Before we jump in, note that the companies discussed below are meant to be a representative sampling, not an exhaustive list. As you’ll see, many of the products and services are ones I’ve reviewed or discussed in the past. If you feel like your product or service should have been included, feel free to add it via comment below.

Technology Backgrounder

The first point to understand is that from an encoder interface perspective, there are two ways to connect to services like Facebook Live and YouTube Live: via platform-specific presets or via generic configurable destinations. With most of the products or services that we’ll discuss, if you’re using a platform-specific preset, you choose the preset, log in to the service, and your encoding tool and platform shake hands and exchange all required information.

If you’re using a generic destination or preset, you’ll have to provide the same information manually, which I show how to do in Figure 1. On the right is the server URL and stream key information provided by Facebook Live; on the left are the corresponding input fields from a generic destination provided by livestreaming service provider Livestream. By way of background, real-time messaging protocol (RTMP), originally developed by Adobe, is the common language spoken by all live-streaming encoding tools and live-streaming services. If you must create a custom preset, you’ll have to dig around in your streaming service to find these parameters, then copy and paste them into the encoder setup screen. Easy-peasy.

Copying the URL and stream key from Facebook Live to Livestream

Why will you almost certainly have to use generic destinations? Because the 600-pound gorilla, Facebook’s Platform Policy Live API, states, “Don’t build apps that enable publishers to simultaneously stream to Facebook and other online streaming services.” So, if a product or service offers presets for Facebook Live and YouTube Live, it can’t let you use both simultaneously.

What’s the workaround? Stream to Facebook Live via the Facebook Live preset and to YouTube Live via a generic RTMP preset (or vice versa), which all products and services enable.

Now that you know how the plumbing works, let’s begin our look at on-premises hardware and software programs.

On-Premises Hardware and Software

These are devices or programs that you run from the source of your live stream, whether on-premises or at your live event. In general, the advantages of these products are:

  • Cost—You pay for it once, and that’s it.
  • Ease of use—There’s one product to learn, as compared to an encoder and web service.
  • Security—There’s one less service you’re bouncing your videos through, which may be important to some networks and businesses.
  • Lower latency—Web services that redirect your streams add some latency between the live event and the video seen by your viewers.
  • Captioning—This is available in many on-premises encoders but in few web services.

The primary disadvantage of products in this class is outbound bandwidth, particularly for those producing live, off-site events at conferences or stadiums where outbound bandwidth costs are prohibitive. That is, with a web service, you send one stream out to the cloud which is then redirected to multiple web destinations. With on-premises encoders, you’re sending multiple separate streams to the various web destinations, which all require their own bandwidth. The other primary disadvantage is CapEx, at least for several of the alternatives discussed below.

On-Site Hardware and Software

The least expensive hardware alternative is the Matrox Monarch HDX, a two-channel, hardcover, book-sized appliance that costs $1,995. The unit can input one or two separate HD-SDI or HDMI inputs, and can store or stream either channel independently. You can send one stream to Facebook Live or YouTube Live for public distribution, and a higher quality stream to an internal server for internal distribution inside the firewall. Or you can stream live using one channel and record a high-quality version for video-on-demand (VOD) upload or editing, or stream live to two destinations from a single input.

Prominent features include captioning support and a file-consolidation utility that progressively stores your broadcast to an SD card or USB drive to protect against data loss if the power goes out. The unit also has an SDI bypass that routes the SDI signal through the unit in case of power loss, so you won’t lose preview or other downstream functionality.

Producers who require more than two connections should consider the Teradek T-Rax, a rack-mounted (2RU) device that can accept up to eight encoders, which all can point to different services (Figure 2). This makes it ideal for broadcasters, government agencies, and large businesses that need to directly support multiple services. High density is obviously a strength of the product, as is caption and protocol support, which includes RTMP for livestreaming, and MPEG-TS, Teradek Streaming (TDS) and RTSP/RTP (real-time streaming protocol/real-time transport protocol) for point-to-point transmissions. The unit can also accept decoder cards to decode streams from other compatible encoders, making it a production source for remote cameras. The base system with controller costs $1,990, with encoders priced at $1,590, and decoders at $1,490.

The modular rack-mounted Teradek T-Rax encoder 

If you already own a multi-channel, hardware-based, livestreaming encoder, you can probably use that to stream to multiple services, although the cost per channel will be much higher than either other alternative. For example, the Telestream Lightspeed Live Stream encoder is a four-channel encoder that costs $49,950. For the price, however, you get a host of additional features like HEVC output, full packaging in either DASH or HLS adaptive bitrate formats with caption and DRM support, automated workf lows, and the ability to stream and capture live on the same device.

The system can input four HD-SDI 1080p signals individually, or you can combine the inputs for 4K capture, and can insert stills, animations, and video clips into the live stream. This makes it a great option for conferences and other events with intermissions, where you’ll need to insert slates and other content into the stream, though you can accomplish this at much less cost with a video mixer and a less expensive encoder. Still, if you have a multi-channel encoder like the Lightspeed Live around, you may not need to buy any additional gear at all.

Desktop Production Software

Desktop production programs can input signals from one or more cameras; add transitions, titles, picture-in-picture, and other special effects; record a master; and stream to an online service. Some programs, like Telestream Wirecast, can stream to multiple locations simultaneously, though not all desktop programs support this.

These software mixers add lots of value to a production at little cost; Wirecast starts at $500 for a software-only version, with turnkey systems starting at $4,995. Wirecast is the only desktop mixer that runs on both the Mac and Windows, and has very deep integrations with most premium services. This means simple operation and features like the ability to see the number of viewers and comments while streaming to Facebook Live.

vMix is a popular Windows-only desktop mixer that can also support multiple outputs, although you’ll need the 4K version ($700) to do so. vMix just released vMix Call, a simple way to input remote webcam video, making it a natural for producers seeking an affordable way to produce interviews with remote participants.

Online Options

With online options, you encode one live stream and send it to the service in the cloud. From there, the service redirects the stream to multiple outputs, which process it just like they would an original stream produced by an onsite encoder. The first benefit of this approach is that it saves bandwidth; so long as you have about 5–10Mbps of outbound bandwidth to reach a single service, you can distribute via as many live services as you would like. The second is CapEx, as again, you can support multiple live services with a single encoder.

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