Going Pro with Remote Production
Getting good audio is the next critical aspect of remote production, and it might be even more important than the video side. As producers, we tend to get hung up on making sure the picture looks pretty, but if the audio is noisy, distorted, or hard to hear, it doesn’t matter what the picture looks like. Conversely, I’ve had guests who had great audio—usually from a headset with a boom mic—and it didn’t matter if the video glitched or their connection was a rough one. As long as we could hear them cleanly, the audience proved willing to overlook video issues.
Using a USB headset for audio is a great way to make sure your remote guests sound awesome and can hear the show well. But many people don’t like over-the-head headsets (amzn.to/37UTCUp) despite the great sound they deliver to both the user and the show, and they refuse to wear them. That always results in the worst audio. I like the Jabra Evolve headset (Figure 4, below) because of the long USB cable that allows me to stand or sit. Plus, the headset is very lightweight and does not enclose my ears, which helps my ears to remain cool even if I have to use the headset for hours.
Figure 4. Jabra’s Evolve 20 UC wired headset ($38.58; amzn.to/3suxesQ)
Much like built-in webcams, your laptop’s built-in mic is most likely of poorer quality than you should be using for live shows. Built-in mics tend to pick up the whole room, and they’re prone to echo, reverb, etc., making it harder to hear your remote guest. This is made worse when the guest is also using the computer’s built-in speakers to hear, because the microphone is picking up the output of the computer’s speakers as well as the person speaking. The software then has to cancel out the computer audio from the microphone audio—and invariably that makes the remote guest’s audio sound worse.
If you can get the guest to use even basic earbuds, like the $12 Sony set we include in some of the remote kits we send out to guests (amzn.to/3uCOga9), your production quality will improve because then, the microphone only has to hear the person speaking. This is especially important when you have a panel or multiple people speaking, as the software canceling out the people speaking will always make your remote guest’s dialogue sound garbled. If the microphones hear nothing but your guest, then you can ensure their audio can come through. We use these earbuds because they specifically do not have a microphone. And, if the guest will be standing and maybe positioning themselves a little further from the computer, we include an extension cable (amzn.to/3pZHXtL) so they can put the headphone wire behind their back, making it less visible—just as you might do with a wired lav in an on-location interview.
Bluetooth headsets work too, and there’s no visible cord, but they also add a tiny bit more delay, and there’s usually already a tiny bit of delay with any remote connection. Adding more throws off the normal timing of conversation, and it can create instances in which people start speaking at the same time.
If you add a lavaliere mic, it can really help get quality audio. There are USB models (amzn.to/3b177nC) and even models that can plug right into tablets or phones, if you decide to go that route (amzn.to/2NDc9Op).
The remote guest’s location has a huge effect on sound as well. People love tile rooms and hardwood floors because they look nice, but they pose real impediments to getting clean audio. A big, empty room sounds like a big, empty room. If your remote guest has a room with carpet and some cloth furniture in it, that room will sound a lot quieter than a big, open, wood-floored office. Find a clean wall or even a wall with one nice picture behind the remote guest, and you’ll have pretty video and cleaner audio. I did one show in which the host used an ironing board in her bedroom as a laptop stand. She arranged it so there was wall and a bit of a painting behind her, and it looked and sounded great. We kept the ironing board and bed out of the frame, so no one was the wiser as to the location. Your only concern (visually) is what looks good in front of the camera.
Another thing to consider with audio is extraneous sounds. Does your guest have dogs that bark at every person who walks by the house? Is the house in a busy traffic area? Will there be big trucks driving by? Will your audience be able to hear a fire truck or ambulance passing? Will someone be mowing the lawn right when you need to bring your guest into your show? Are there doors that can be closed so kids and other activity in the house can be shut out for your guests’ time on screen? Ask your guest these questions when you do the tech check. Knowing about potential noise issues beforehand helps you put together a strategy to deal with them before they become a problem for your show.
Most of the time, your remote guest will not be tech-savvy, so going over tech-specific aspects of the show is an essential part of your tech check. For example, how will the guest connect to your show? I use vMix (vmix.com), and it has a very easy-to-use web interface for remote connections (Figure 5, below). I find it even easier than Zoom and other videoconferencing apps.
Figure 5. Multi-source remote production with vMix
vMix is Windows-only, but fortunately, it’s just one of many multicamera live-switching and streaming apps. OBS (obsproject.com) is available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. There’s also the very similar Streamlabs OBS (streamlabs.com), which touts easier setup than OBS, as well as connection with its widgets and Streamlabs offerings. Vimeo Livestream Studio 6 (livestream.com/studio) and Telestream’s Wirecast (telestream.net/wirecast/overview.htm) are available for Windows and Mac.
Mac-only solutions include CamTwist Studio (camtwiststudio.com), Boinx Software’s mimoLive (boinx.com/mimolive), and Ecamm Live (ecamm.com/mac/ecammlive). ManyCam (manycam.com) is a Windows/Mac tool, while VidBlaster (vidblasterx.com) is Windows-only.
NewTek TriCaster (newtek.com/tricaster), which is familiar to most Streaming Media readers, provides an alternate approach as a software/hardware combination. But if you are new to multicamera live-switching and need to buy hardware, it’s a well-established broadcast solution that must be included in any discussion of multicamera live-switching solutions. I’m sure there are several others I have not come across yet.
For iOS, I’ve written about the three main apps for multicamera live-switched production (go2sm.com/7rules): Cinamaker, Switcher Studio, and Teradek’s Airmix. Switcher Studio (switcherstudio.com) has the ability to bring remote guests right into the Switcher Studio app with its Video Chat feature. How many you can bring in depends on the level of your subscription. That’s a pretty cool feature for an app that runs on an iPad.
Video Production vs. Videoconferencing/Business Chat
There is a big difference between video production apps and business chat apps. Sometimes, I get a bit of pushback from remote guests as to why I insist that they connect to “my” system and why they can’t just connect to a business-oriented videoconferencing app like Webex, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or Google Meet. Those apps are not designed to enable producers to get isolated audio (abbreviated as ISO by video producers) and video from each person separately. The business chat apps mix everything together in the cloud. Video production apps are designed so we can adjust audio levels, gain, and equalization for each person individually. We can color-correct and reposition each person/camera feed as we need for our show.
Now, if there’s some overarching reason why a person cannot or will not connect directly to the video production app, you can use the business chat app and then use some tricks to try to get that person’s individual feed from the business chat app. For instance, you can dedicate a laptop to each person you need an ISO from. Then, you “pin” (or “highlight” or “spotlight” or whatever each app calls it) that one person on that one device. Next, you can use free software like NDI Scan Converter (ndi.tv/tools) to grab that ISO feed/screen and bring it into your video production software of choice over the local area network (LAN).
On one production, I had an issue in which a guest could not connect to my vMix directly. The specific way it failed led me to believe that the guest was at work, behind a firewall, and that the needed ports were blocked by her IT department. This is the case in “locked down” corporate environments. It’s very common, actually. So, I asked her to connect through Zoom. Still, it would not work. She asked us to use Teams because, she said, that application “works better” than the ones we were using. In reality, Teams works only because her IT department integrated it into the infrastructure and opened the specific ports to enable it to work properly. So, I loaded Teams on my PC and connected it with my switching software so we could get this guest into our show.
Interestingly, Teams even offers multiple NDI outs directly from the app, so you can have three remote guests appear as three NDI sources. It can take a little bit of tweaking to get it to work right. And keep an eye on your network bandwidth because each virtual camera you add is a good chunk of bandwidth. (See Shawn Lam’s How to Simplify Complex Remote Productions With NDI, Microsoft Teams, and vMix.)
I have seen others use remote streaming for just recording. In fact, I’ve been tasked to do this as well. The recording will be edited for later use, so it wasn’t a live-streaming thing, but our tech was used for the recording. Check out Camflare (camflare.io) and Riverside.fm (riverside.fm), which are specifically designed to provide high-quality remote recording and then get that recording to you as quickly as possible in an automated, “I don’t have to think about it” kind of way.
If you’re moving video back and forth between apps on one machine, you’ll also need to move audio back and forth between apps. This is actually harder than you might expect, as different apps inside one computer are all designed to play audio out to you, the person in front of the computer. They are not designed to send the audio back and forth between them—especially not specific inputs and outputs. So, you’re going to need some virtual audio cables.
If you order from VB-Audio (vb-audio.com/Cable), you can get one cable for free and then pick your price for additional cables. If you were willing to pay $10 for a mic cable that sat in a drawer all through 2020, then pay a few bucks for virtual audio cables that are just as useful for remote production as your physical mic cables are when you’re on location. On the Mac side, check out Rogue Amoeba’s Loopback (rogueamoeba.com/loopback). This allows you to grab the audio of various apps and re-route it.
To monitor the audio, sometimes you want to hear one app, but not the other. That’s not how computers are designed. They want you to hear any sound from any app, all the time. So, if you’re trying to monitor the streaming destination as opposed to the streaming source, you need a way to change the audio level of the computer on a per-app basis. For Mac users, there’s SoundSource, also from Rogue Amoeba
(rogueamoeba.com/soundsource). For Windows, you don’t need a separate app; you just right-click on the speaker icon to open the Volume Mixer, and you get a volume control for each app—even individual webpages.
Who Needs Remote Control?
Sometimes, you need to help the remote guest. It’s hard to explain how to fix a web browser’s permissions to allow a video camera if they previously denied webcam permission. It’s much easier if you can just do it yourself. To take remote control of certain elements of your guest’s setup, you have several tools to choose from, including AnyDesk (anydesk.com), TeamViewer (teamviewer.com), Parsec (parsec.app), or Google’s Chrome Remote Desktop (remotedesktop.google.com). Windows has its Remote Desktop capability, with connectivity for Mac, PC, Android, and iOS.
I’ve been successfully using AnyDesk to control the remote kits we send out with our remote camera kits. We have AnyDesk pre-
installed on those machines and set up to automatically accept our incoming request—with the right password, of course. This enables us to remotely adjust audio and video settings. There’s even a very handy, free tool that enables you to manually grab control of any Windows webcam with a simple control panel (github.com/jpalbert/webcam-settings-dialog-windows). With this tool, you can lock white balance and exposure so they don’t keep changing every time your remote guest moves around.
And this brings up a good point: You can rely on what the end user may have available, or you can build and ship out your own kits. It could be as simple as just sending a good iPad or as complex as sending a whole setup with lights, stands, microphones, etc.
Of course, the more complex the kit, the more effort it takes on the remote end to get it all integrated. This is why we use a briefcase kit (Figure 6, below) that’s as integrated as we can make it: computer, camera, directional microphone, earbuds, built-in light, and an LTE connection so we can remotely connect into the kit and take full control as soon as it’s plugged in and the computer is turned on. This greatly simplifies things for the remote guest and ensures that we can stop the webcam from auto-anything.
Figure 6. This compact briefcase kit allows Stream4.us to equip remote guests with easy-to-set-up pro gear that can also be controlled from Stream4.us headquarters.
You can even find hardware like the Kiloview E2 (amzn.to/3dQBKhr). This product is designed to connect remote sources with your production using robust, error-correcting protocols such as SRT, which can deliver a higher-quality signal than WebRTC. But the better durability of the SRT signal to overcome internet issues occurs at the expense of latency. The more latency you program into the SRT, the fewer dropouts or glitches you’ll see. But if you have multiple guests interacting with each other, then SRT may not be the right tool to use.
Other hardware solutions, such as EnDeCo (endeco.xyz/products), Larix Broadcaster (softvelum.com/larix), and, at the upper edge, the Matrox Monarch Edge (matrox.com/edge), are designed to reliably get those remote cameras into your show from nearly anywhere. Again, this is just a sampling, and there are always more products and solutions out there and more being introduced every week.
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