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7 Rules for Mobile Multicam Success

As mobile devices have become more powerful and deliver higher-quality stills and video, it was inevitable that companies would emerge that leveraged these new technologies to produce multicam live-switched media production. So let's establish some ground rules for mobile multicam media production success.

Rule #3: Backups

What do you do if a smartphone fails, a battery dies, something (or someone) interferes with your wireless, your audio mixer has issues, or you find you’re missing a needed adapter? Knowing your gear well enough to work around problems is key. Having enough gear in your kit so that you can swap it out with your first-line device and keep going is critical.

This is essentially why big productions have a truckful of gear. There is usually quite a bit of redundant equipment. Thankfully, when you’re shooting with smartphones, a second or third camera takes up very little additional space.

Do you ever shoot and stream outdoor events in the sun? Even cordless phones can overheat when running the camera and compressing video for long periods of time. Having additional devices that you keep cool and can swap out as needed can save the day. But you have to plan ahead for possible failure and have the resources on hand to recover.

What about a laptop to check your feed? I was all set to do a Facebook Live stream, but the “preview” window wouldn’t show the video in iOS or Android. I added a Windows laptop to my arsenal, and now I can reliably access sites and administer back-end controls and do them with full-fledged desktop apps, not mobile versions (Figure 4, below).

Figure 4. Monitoring a tablet-driven Facebook Live stream on a windows laptop

Rule #4: Test Everything

How did I know I needed a Windows laptop to test my feed? Because I was testing the entire process—hardware in, mixing app, titles, overlays— to a cloud service for backup streams and redundancy and out to both YouTube and Facebook. It was there I discovered that mobile tablets wouldn’t display the preview window properly. This gave me a week to find a solution that would fit nicely in my kit.

There will always be a new piece of gear, a new bracket, a new Wi-Fi router, a new hotspot, a different cloud re-streaming service. Everything evolves, and it’s best to find the “gotchas” when you have time to work around them.

This is also where you figure out which pieces of the puzzle you don’t yet have. Are you going to use house audio? What if they give you an XLR? With line-level audio? What if it’s balanced 1/4"? Mic-level? What if it’s unbalanced audio? And if there’s a hum when you plug it into your mixer? What if it’s an RCA jack in the wall? You need to be prepared to convert all of these sources to what your mixer expects.

Rule #5: Site Survey

The best way to minimize problems is with a site survey. You need to see where the cameras can and can’t be placed. What wide-angle or telephoto lenses might you need to use, depending on camera placement, to get the shots you need? Where can you plug in? How many batteries will you need to bring? Where does the audio come from and with what connection?

Is there an IT person you can talk to? Can they give you a dedicated line? What upload speeds can you get? Are those speeds guaranteed? Have they apportioned the proper QoS for your feed? Where does the feed come in? Where do you get to set up?

Wireless Wi-Fi assessment is easier on Android with various Wi-Fi analyzer apps that show the Wi- Fi spectrum and the WAPs already on it, in both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. But they don’t show non-Wi-Fi radio frequences (RF). There are RF spectrum analyzers out there that cover the Wi-Fi bands. If this will be a regular thing, it can be a wise investment to know everything in the air on the frequencies you need.

You might even do a dry run—an on-location test—if budget and time permit. This may reveal issues that might not become apparent otherwise—for instance, that the house cordless phones are actually a 5-GHz VoIP system that causes all sorts of glitches when someone is nearby and on the phone.

Rule #6: Dedicated Devices

As much as you may not have the resources for a bunch of new gear and find it convenient to use the handset you already own, having text messages, updates, notifications, or calls come in while you’re trying to use your phone or tablet to produce a live stream is just not a good way to do things. Turning off notifications and putting the device into a do-not-disturb mode can help a bit, but keep in mind that the device will still be handling these tasks—checking mail, running chat apps, checking for updates, even receiving calls. It’s just not telling you anymore.

The best solution is to use dedicated devices for production. You can find refurbished gear at various online sites. Sometimes, you can even get them directly from the manufacturer, with a warranty. While the latest handset goes for over $1,000 per unit, you can get five units of an older phone for the same price if you look around. Having five different camera views is better than one.

Find a friend who might have a model you’re interested in, and ask to test it (see Rule #4). If it looks good, then get one for yourself. You might be surprised how much you can get if you look past the latest model. Keep in mind that the differences between video from this year’s model and one released 2 years ago will most likely not be visible to users on the receiving end of your live stream.

Rule #7: Reboot and Update (With Caution)

Before going live, you should always reboot your devices, especially if they’ve been on for a few days. Every app builds up data. There may be something running in the background with a “memory leak” that you can clear up with a reboot. Sometimes, it’s an OS bug or a background task that slows down operations after a few days. Before every event, reboot. Load the OS and apps fresh.

Also, make sure you have background updating off, both for the apps and the OS. As they say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If all of your devices are working smoothly and reliably time and again, make sure the OS isn’t going to automatically update itself overnight. Make sure the apps you’re using in your production won’t do that either. Turn all of that scheduled maintenance off.

Let others check any app or OS update first. If the update is generally well-received with no reported problems, then you can test it. Pick a device or two to try it out on. Push it to the limit. Make sure it can still do everything you need it to do without fail. When it proves itself to you, then you can deploy it further across your devices.

You don’t want to be surprised at an event if the OS has changed and now doesn’t like something else you were using or has a conflict or if the app was updated and what you used to do fine now works differently or not at all. This circles back to Rule #4, but when you do encounter a problem, be sure all the items being used have the same version—all updated—and reboot them. With computing devices, sometimes a reboot fixes the problem. It’s always been like that and probably always will be.

If you haven’t read my iOS Broadcaster article, much of it still applies today. There are more apps, more capabilities, and more features, and new OS updates give additional capabilities. Follow these mobile multicam streaming rules, and you’ll be on your way to live-streaming success.

The Apps

In alphabetical order, Cinamaker, Switcher Studio (Figure 5, below), and Teradek Live:Air Action are the key apps to consider for your mobile multicam production. Each has certain strengths and weaknesses. When determining which one will fit your productions best, write down a list of exactly what you need. Then prioritize the list, with the most important features at the top. For example, for sports producers, scoreboards are more important than green screen. The comparison chart makes it easy to see which app does what and which features an app may not have at all.

Figure 5. Switcher Studio in Use

A new entrant in this field is Panasonic’s LiveCTRL app, which enables the video producer to leverage the high image quality, long lens, and memory positions of a Panasonic pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) camcorder. These PTZ cameras are not cheap, but as I said in my three-way image quality comparison article (go2sm.com/iapps), the best way to improve your deliverable is to start with the best cameras you can. Panasonic’s LiveCTRL is based on Cinamaker, so it can also use handsets, and other than the PTZ control and memories, it operates just like Cinamaker.

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