10 Best Practices for Live Streaming Production
Even when all the content, talent, cameras, lighting, and audio are worked out, live streaming event production is far from over. The workflow to get the signal from the camera to the viewing audience can make or break the production.
There’s no single solution that fits all budgets and types of events. But in this article I will review some of the best practices and tips to make sure your live event streams go off without a hitch. I’ll cover some information that should be useful to beginners but hopefully more advanced producers will learn something new as well.
These tips come from interviews with industry experts, discussions from panels I’ve moderated at Streaming Media conferences, and my own experiences.
1. There’s More Than One Way to Do It
First off, a warning. There is not just one way to do it. There are literally hundreds. The perfect solution for one event might not make any sense for another.
“Don’t limit yourself to a single workflow,” says Dylan Armajani, who works in digital workflow technologies at Viacom, “and get to know the tools and technology that’s at your fingertips.”
With all the encoding and transmission options now available, Armajani says “you really can stream live from just about anywhere in the world on just about any budget and at least have your content show up online. The challenge really becomes weighing the cost vs. quality vs. possible points of failure and determining what workflow is optimal for your show.”
2. Use a Video Switcher
Let’s start with the signal coming out of the camera. The best practice is to use multiple cameras and a video switcher to create a visually interesting, dynamic show.
When selecting a switcher, don’t underestimate the number of inputs you will need. Even though you might only use two or three cameras, you may need many additional inputs, such as graphics from the stage presentation, animated backgrounds, extra GoPro camera positions, and video playback sources.
Because there are so many switcher options available and diverse viewpoints, it’s beyond the scope of this article to make individual recommendations. The best switcher for any project is the one that offers the features you need within your budget. Perhaps more importantly, it’s the one you are most comfortable using.
Video switchers can be divided into two basic types: hardware-based switchers that run on dedicated boxes with their own control surfaces and software-based switchers that run on a desktop or laptop computer with video capture cards or converters.
Software switchers cost less and can deliver a flawless production. Yet many producers, including Adam Drescher, co-founder of the video production company Suite Spot, prefer hardware switchers.
“There is something great about directing or TD’ing a live event and feeling the buttons and responsiveness of a hardware switcher,” he says. “Also, there’s no chance of a software crash interrupting the event.”
Drescher used a NewTek Tricaster to produce this year’s Westminister Kennel Club Dog Show, switching between a camera at each of the 12 different rings to create a single program output. The camera at each ring was also hooked up to an encoder to generate 12 single camera feeds, giving viewers the ability to become their own technical director.
Suite Spot’s Adam Drescher uses a NewTek Tricaster to switch among 12 camera feeds at this year’s Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
3. Hardware or Software Encoding
At some point you need to encode the video into a streaming format. While this usually happens at the event venue, we’ll see some examples later of how it can be done offsite. Just as with switchers, there is a large range of hardware and software encoders, as well as some switchers that also do software encoding.
On one end, there are free software encoders, such as Adobe’s Flash Media Live Encoder, that run on a PC or Mac. Livestream, Ustream, and YouTube also offer free encoding software to stream to their own services.
Next up are software encoders such as Telestream’s Wirecast Pro or CombiTech’s VidBlaster, which can also be used as switchers and sell for less than $1,000. With software encoding, just as with software switchers, you need capture cards built in to the computer or external converter boxes to get the video signal into the computer.
With hardware encoders, you just plug your video signal in. At the top of the line are hardware encoders made by Elemental, Cisco, Haivision, Niagara, and Digital Rapids, which can cost between $10,000 and $50,000.
With 15 years of experience delivering live video on a global scale, Chris Mangum, senior digital media manager at Yahoo, recommends hardware encoders like the Elemental Live. He says “software-based encoders are inherently less dependable than hardware encoders.” Another benefit is “the ability to push more streams out of a more powerful box.”
All of these encoders are capable of delivering a flawless webcast, but none is perfect. “Every single product in the market fails at some point or other, even the most expensive encoder,” says Alden Fertig, director of customer success at Ustream. “I’ve been on the phone with people when their $40,000 encoder doesn’t look good, or they can’t figure out how to operate it, or it requires a re-start. The best system is the one that you know, the one that you have tested extensively, and is stable in that environment with those inputs. For some that’s a hardware encoder, for others it’s a software encoder.”
4. How Many Streams to Encode and Distribute
Life would be simpler for live event streamers if there were one universal format and bitrate to encode and distribute in. That’s the goal of MPEG-DASH and technologies like it, but we are not there yet. For now, many streams are needed to reach viewers with different connection speeds and different screens.
At the venue, one option is to encode at a single high bitrate stream that gets transcoded to many renditions in the cloud.
Mangum says if you are going with the single stream approach, “a 1280x720 frame size feed encoded at 4Mbps would be a good starting point.” For the audio portion, he recommends 160Kbps for a music event, but “if you are encoding a talking head, you can drop audio down to 96Kbps and it will still sound good.”
This single stream would typically use the RTMP Flash Streaming protocol, the H.264 video codec, AAC audio codec, and progressive frames.
Streaming services can take this single stream and transcode it in the cloud to support RTMP, HTTP and HLS streaming, so it can be viewed on computers, mobile devices, tablets, and set-top boxes. Streams are typically rendered in the cloud into four bitrates and frame sizes ranging from HD quality to a lower mobile setting.
Another option is to generate multiple streams onsite. This requires those more expensive encoders and a lot of bandwidth. But, as Livestream co-founder and CEO Max Haot says, “the upside is the quality is higher since you don’t re-encode.”
Elemental Live encoders in action at the X-Men: Days of Future Past red carpet event in New York, May 2014. Courtesy Natália Tanus
5. Getting the Video Out
One of the most important and potentially challenging decisions you need to make is how to backhaul or get the video signal from the live event venue to a remote streaming server. Using the public internet bandwidth is the most common and cheapest approach, but other options include using a satellite, fiber, or cellular technology.
“We generally stress that success for a live event is based on both solid bandwidth and rehearsals,” Drescher says.
If you use an internet connection, use a wired connection rather than rely on Wi-Fi. Test the bandwidth using a website such as speedtest.net. But a pre-event test can be misleading if you’ll be sharing bandwidth with an audience that hasn’t arrived yet.
“The biggest challenge for preparation is testing the internet in advance, making sure it’s dedicated so that attendees at the event don’t use all the bandwidth,” Haot says.
Bandwidth for the live stream can and should be dedicated and separate from any bandwidth used for the audience and the stage production. Requesting and confirming this with the on-site IT staff is a must.
So, how much bandwidth do you need? A good rule of thumb is two times the target bitrate for all the encoded streams you’ll be generating. Most encoders use variable bitrate encoding, which spikes over the target bitrate.
“10Mbps upload for HD, but even with less than 1Mbps up you can get a great stream out if you choose the right quality and test,” Haot says.
“If you have a 1 or 2Mbps up connection, you can still do streaming, but I would be looking at doing an 800K, 640 x 360 stream and don’t try to push HD content out a weak connection,” Fertig says. While HD quality is a great goal, there is no point to pushing a choppy HD stream if your bandwidth only supports 1 frame per second.
When no internet bandwidth is available, another option is to use cellular bandwidth. Teradek and LiveU are among the companies that make portable hardware to transmit an encoded stream over wireless cellular networks such as 3G/4G LTE and WiMAX. For increased reliability, these systems use multiple modems on different networks. Testing can be tricky because the bandwidth available before the event will be different when the audience arrives.
Another backhaul option, usually the most expensive, is to use a satellite truck or video fiber. This is the way TV broadcasters usually transmit remote feeds, but it’s being adopted more and more by live webcasters for high-profile events. Using this approach, video is encoded for the web at the satellite downlink facility or on the receive end of the fiber connection, not at the venue. While these transmission methods are extremely reliable, they too can fail.
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