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What to Look for in Modern Streaming Hardware

Video streaming hardware has evolved significantly in recent years. With so much on the market, aimed at such a wide variety of applications, it can be difficult to determine which products and features are best suited to your particular needs. This session helps you make sense of it all by explaining each key feature and providing examples. Expect to leave knowing how and when each streaming hardware feature provides good bang for the buck.

[This sponsored article is based on a presentation delivered at Streaming Media East 2015.]

In this article and the accompanying video, we’ll look at some of the key developments in hardware and software for encoding and streaming over the last few years, and the trend of integrating functionality that once required multiple devices into a single unit that can handle many of the tasks required for delivering live streams. We’ll also look at some of the key considerations you should take into account when purchasing streaming hardware, depending on the requirements of your production.

Number of Inputs and Outputs

The first and most obvious consideration to take into account when purchasing a device that will take in video that you will use for live streaming is how many inputs your production requires. While some productions are single input-single output, many streamed events require mixing multiple camera feeds to produce a single stream, and others involve sending out multiple independent streams. More and more, we’re starting to see end users want to select which stream they’re seeing rather than the broadcast or the person who's producing the content.

Most streaming producers will need to consider, at minimum, the number and type of inputs required, depending on what input sources they’re using and how many. In today’s streaming productions it’s not just cameras--we see signals from people who want to capture and stream video from iPads or from laptops. Working with a laptop as a source might mean pulling input from a VGA display port or HDMI. Working with non-camera sources in particular means being prepared to handle a wide range of resolutions, aspect ratios, and actual input signals. With cameras, those considerations typically come down to composite, SDI, or HDMI. There are a number of platforms out there that will take in many of these different signals at the same time and allow you to plug in a VGA cable for one source, plug in HDMI for something else, and bring in SDI for another. That's a fairly easy thing to accommodate on a modern platform.

The other type of source to consider is network sources. Often, encoders are very focused on being able to encode and stream out directly one to one. In many cases, the source that you want to combine with other inputs may be located somewhere completely different.
You want to be able to encode that source and then stream it to a more centralized server which can then process that video and do, say, a picture-in-picture, add labeling or timecoding and then stream it out. Fortunately, some current platforms support this application.

Streaming and Recording

Many of today’s live productions require encoding a feed for streaming and recording the same program feed or another isolated (ISO) feed, perhaps without titles or graphics, perhaps encoded at a higher bitrate, for archiving, editing, or repurposing at a later date. These applications used to require one device for recording the streaming feed and another for encoding and recording the archived feed. More and more, we’re starting to see single boxes that can handle both tasks simultaneously.

If you’re streaming an event for a client who wants not just the live stream but the original source files so that later on they can cut them up and use them for, say, marketing materials or promotional purposes, you’ll want to look for an encoding device that can record as well.

Live Switching

Of course, live switching is another key element of live production, for the ability to bring in multiple feeds, whether multiple camera angles, slides, or both. In the most basic switching scenario, where your two sources are the presenter on camera and her slides, sometimes you want to show just the presenter, sometimes just the slides. You want to be able to live switch between those sources. Of course, there's lots of live production equipment that can handle live switching, but much of it is scaled for much larger productions.

Today we’re seeing encoding boxes that also offer not just recording functionality but switching as well. You can bring in multiple sources and switch them live. A simple box can do almost a full production without having to integrate and manage multiple devices. Of course, there are lots of factors to consider here, the most pressing of which is scaling and processing different types of signals so your resolutions and aspect ratios match. The video that accompanies this article explores this in more detail.

If you’re looking into encoding devices that also offer switching, in the hope of being able to deliver a complete program from a single device, you should look at the device’s features for adding overlay graphics, such as titles, lower-thirds, logos, or even timestamps. The accompanying video gets into these topics in more depth as well.

Audio Resampling

Another issue--and a critical feature of state-of-the-art encoders--that we’ll explore in depth in the video below is audio resampling. This can be a big concern if you’re working with multiple audio sources, and your sources don’t match one another or the format you want to output. You also want to be able to provide consistency among different programs if you’re producing a library of streams.

If your encoder can automatically resample, say, 48kHz audio to 44kHz, then you can dictate what the output format is and accommodate whatever input format you're getting. When you connect your camera you don't need to worry about matching the settings from your source to your encoder to make sure everything flow smoothly. You can just instruct your encoder to take that data and resample it out at 48 kHz or 44 kHz or whatever it is you needed to be. That’s an important feature that a lot of people overlook.

Streaming at Multiple Bitrates

Another critical factor to keep in mind when choosing encoding/streaming hardware is the flexibility to create multiple streams at different bitrates. It’s important to have the flexibility not just to select a couple of bitrates, but to have the flexibility to attune you’re stream to the network you’re seeing at the event you’re producing. This type of flexibility is increasingly common in today’s encoders, as well as the ability to preconfigure your encoder so you’re not having to set everything on site. As with the other topics mentioned here, we’ll discuss this in more depth in the video below.