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Streaming the North Texas Irish Festival: A Cloud Production Case Study

In interviews with two fellow producers on the all-virtual 2021 North Texas Irish Festival, a multichannel event combining six concurrent live feeds, produced in the cloud using vMix and AWS, Anthony Burokas provides a look inside a complex cloud production, including challenges and lessons learned.

In this interview-based article we'll discuss how to transform a music and cultural festival into a live virtual event. The event we'll be looking at is the North Texas Irish Festival, which, due to social distancing requirements and restrictions on live events during the pandemic, was delivered online this year. The live virtual event featured six channels streaming six virtual soundstages.

I'll be talking with the festival's executive producer Tim Kennedy, and also with Michelle MacGregor, who, like me, was one of the producers on this event. With these discussions, we hope to enlighten you on what things worked for us and what things didn't work as well.

Anthony Burokas: I'm here with Tim Kennedy, who is the mastermind behind the North Texas Irish Festival's multichannel livestream event. And I have to say, Tim, it was an audacious undertaking. The North Texas Irish Festival is an in-person event that didn't happen this year because of COVID. How did you conceptualize it as a virtual event?

Tim Kennedy: This was going to be a major anniversary for the festival the 40th anniversary, and the intention was to do something pretty bold to celebrate. And then, of course COVID got in the way of that. They still wanted to make a splash out of it, and the festival's organizers asked me to come up with some ideas. I'd been noodling around on the idea of multi-stage, multistream events for a while, and it really seemed well suited to the Irish Festival because they typically have around 10 or 12 stages and people hop all around to go to a variety of different shows. It became clear to me that we could replicate that experience right with the right web front end, having multiple live-stream channels going at the same time and an easy ability to jump around and see the programs on all of the various stages.

I pitched it to them and they were crazy enough to go for it. So that was the foundation of it--trying to replicate the event itself and do something special. I'm also a pretty big advocate of the idea that streaming can not only be a good substitute, but in many ways can help create events that are superior to events done in person. And so I really wanted to help show that that could really be the case.

Anthony: I appreciate that you wrote down some of the things that you put together. And just the amount of different services and little pieces that needed to come together seems almost daunting--we had capture and mixing and hosting and chat. Can you just go through some of these services?

So, the whole concept was to create a web front-end that hosted six streaming platforms in it. We used Boxcast as our CDN. They were the ones willing to provide us six at one time for a reasonable price. And we built a mobile-friendly front end in a website builder called Bandzoogle, which is probably not well-known to your viewers, but it's very well known in the music community as being really well-suited to selling music and supporting music live streams (Figure 1, below). That was the foundation of it. We decided we wanted to have chat capabilities on each of the stages, so people could interact with each other.

Figure 1. One of the North Texas Irish Festival's live channels/virtual stages

We ended up bringing in Arena.im for that, mainly because we could have six of them and we could have chat moderators. They did AI-based profanity-filtering, which oddly got kicked in more often than I would have hoped. People like their Irish music and sharing on their bands. So that was the technical side.

We assembled a team of six people running the streams and we used Unity for comms to keep everybody connected. We used Discord as a way of handling check communications and chat rooms. So, just just a lot of different technology. One of the most important decisions was choosing vMix as our switching platform (Figure 2, below).

Figure 2. Using vMix for switching the live show

We had five instances of vMix loaded and running in AWS. We decided to put as much of this in the cloud as we could. That was a new thing for us. For those of you who weren't in Texas and didn't experience the five-day power outage, an ice storm, and zero degree temperatures, we were just a little bit nervous since the festival was just two weeks after the power came back on. So we made a fairly late decision to move to AWS to run the various vMix machines as well.

Anthony: Thank you, Michelle, for also joining us. You had a very unusual role in this, in that you weren't just a producer, you were also tasked with diving headfirst into AWS. How did that work?

Michelle MacGregor: Yes, I was. And I had never seen it or touched it before, other than what I've seen on the forums. So I really didn't know what I was getting into, but luckily there are some good videos out there on YouTube that you can follow. And that's what I did. I managed to set up four of them, but I had to do that twice, so eight of them in all. It was a great learning experience. It's definitely very doable, and I'm really glad that I did that, but if you have to do this know that there's learning curve going into it. Now that I've done it, I'm going to use it from here on out.

Anthony: Specifically, what learning points did you have? You get in there, and--in case anyone doesn't know, I also only learned by doing this with our show--with AWS, you set up an account and you get a free instance. It's a very lightweight little thing, but you're able to get in there and play and try it. If you're a producer and you want to use external control surfaces, they don't naturally come with your Amazon wireless connection. You could use Parsec, or a Microsoft remote desktop, or AnyDesk--you can use any control app to get in there and be your remote fingers. But the only thing those apps give you is your keyboard and mouse. So if you want something else you, what do you need?

Michelle: You can use Companion with the the emulator that they have in Companion with Stream Deck. I never did get my Stream Deck going, but I had to switch back and forth between my studio setup and that cloud instance. There are ways, though. You can use your external Stream Decks or whatever controller you have.

Anthony: Right. I was delving into USB Anywhere or something like that, and I came across a piece of software that basically acts like a USB tunnel to take everything connected to your USB locally and channel it into the remote instance. So if you have a Stream Deck or a MIDI control surface or something like that, those are supposed to connect and talk to each other. So I was working on that, but I never fully got it running before I actually started to get into the show. And, as Tim has said, the ice storm threw the whole timeline off. All this extra time we were supposed to have to get in there and do a trial run of the show, really didn't come about because we're all busy worrying about like water pipes and stuff like that.

Michelle: I think that was probably the biggest problem because we didn't have time to test it properly and we didn't have the content to test it because everything got delayed in getting it together. So, it was a problem. We learned a whole bunch from that. My biggest take-away from that in regards to instances is, "Go big." I built the first one based on my home setup. I figured, "Well, if I have 16 gigabytes of RAM and I have this and I have that, it should be just fine." The same in the server. Wrong! For whatever reason, it did not work that way. So my recommendation is to go with the 4 large.

Anthony: So for, for those who haven't yet delved into it, Amazon has their own nomenclature for the resources they give you. So, what were we, what were we using? On most instances, I should say, the way Michelle built it, mine actually worked, because I didn't have multiple remote people connecting into me. I was supposed to have Ireland coming to me over SRT, but their SRT sand--we could get it, but it would have a glitch every couple seconds or every half-second. So we tried vMix Call from their computer and it looked beautiful and we said, "OK, let's go with this." But at the same time, we were using OBS and we said, "Send it to YouTube." I gave them a RTMP codes for YouTube. And at the same time, they were sending vMix Call into my AWS. They were also sending to a YouTube account, which I had on my laptop dialed in, ready to go. So should anything happen, I could just start sending from my laptop. We all had backups. So I think your backup became a primary, right?

Michelle: My backup became the primary. Definitely. So in my show, for every hour, I had five callers call in (Figure 3, below). In between those times were prerecorded media that I would play back. And the instance that I was running--which was the same build as you had--it got overloaded. The stream was choppy and it was awful. So I bailed back to my home studio. When I tested it, it tested fine. So I don't know why on the day of the show, it didn't do so well.

Figure 3. Mapping the multichannel production by time, stage, livestream op, and call-ins