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How to Put Together a Cost-Effective Portable Streaming Kit (UPDATED)

Looking for practical, hands-on advice on to how to create a cost-effective, portable, multi-camera streaming system that you can use even when on location with limited internet and power options? Here, Mobeon's Mark Alamares describes a range of solutions that can bring greater agility and portability to your live streaming kit at a manageable cost.

Choosing a Compact Camera

Most of us want to have the flexibility to travel light and function as a one-man (or woman) band if necessary. One piece of gear that can make your kit much more portable is a compact camera. There are a variety of cameras in various price ranges that will help you travel light but still meet your needs as a professional producer of live-switched, streamed events.

There are some circumstances in which a GoPro will work, and some higher-end consumer cameras such as the Sony PJ790 Handycam (roughly $1,500), the Canon Vixia HFD30, and the Panasonic HC-X920 ($800) can capture great images.

The downside of consumer cameras is that they offer poor control of the image. On many location shoots, you need full control of the iris, color adjustments, focus, and so forth that consumer cameras won't give you. I highly recommend using professional cameras, even though they take up more space.

Cameras with HD-SDI outputs and switchers that take HD-SDI will give you much more confidence in a live streaming situation where a consistent, strong signal is paramount, especially over long cable runs. If your cameras are HDMI-only, Blackmagic Design and AJA offer HDMI-to-HD-SDI converters that will make up some of the difference.

HD-SDI-capable cameras used to be cost-prohibitive, but some new, compact cameras not only capture great video, but also feature professional-level image control and connectivity as well as portability. At $2,499, the Canon XA25 (Figure 4, below) is one of the lower-cost cameras that offer HD-SDI output.

Figure 4. The $2,600, SDI-capable Canon XA25.

Sony's HXR-NX5U and Panasonic's AG-AC160A feature HD-SDI and sell for a streat price of roughly $3,500.

The new version of the Sony EX1R, the PMW-200 ($6,299, shown in Figure 5, below), offers HD-SDI connectiveity and records MPEG HD422 to SxS cards at 50Mbps. If you're trying to work within a budget, I’d recommend purchasing a used Sony EX1 or EX3. The pricing on those is roughly $3,000-$5,000, depending on what type of kit is offered with it. If you’re thinking of upping your game, I recommend those cameras because they’re workhorses; they’re quite stable; and you can get the quality that you need without spending a lot of money.

Figure 5. The Sony PMW-200.

Portable Production

My ultimate goal is to be able to produce content with as little gear as possible. Eventually, we’re going to get there; at some point in the future we’ll be doing professional multi-camera productions with our iPads or equivalent. But until that time comes, I recommend some other workflows based on laptop switchers.

My Wirecast Pro-Retina system (Figure 6, below), which fits in a large backpack, allows me to show up at a site or venue, set it up quickly, and put a full show together. The portable setup shown in Figure 6 is the Canon XA25s running SDI cables to the Blackmagic UltraStudio Mini Recorders, and from that out via Thunderbolt into the MacBook Pro 15" Retina system. I recommend the latest MacBook system because it has great processing power and it can handle 3 simultaneous streams that you can switch between. Because there are only the 2 Thunderbolt connections, you’d need a Blackmagic UltraStudio Intensity Shuttle 3.0 adapter. That allows you to bring in another camera input via the USB 3.0 port so you can use as many cameras as possible.

Figure 6. My recommended Wirecast Pro-Retina portable switching and streaming system. Click the image to see it at full size.

When you’re using a laptop, I don't recommend recording a line cut directly to the laptop hard drive, because that takes a lot of extra processing power and resources. It's a good rule of thumb not to record to your boot drive. I recommend using the Blackmagic UltraStudio SDI and outputting it via SDI to a Blackmagic Hyperdeck Shuttle or an Atomos Samurai recorder, and then also using a SanDisk Extreme (or other) SSD. Finally, you'll need to add a USB-to-Ethernet adapter ($29) to give you access to to the Internet so you can webcast.

Ultimately, I want to automate the full production process and not have to incur additional costs by hiring a crew. In the long run, you might find it cost-effective to use robotic cameras, such as the Panasonic AW-HE120s that we used (along with multiple operated cameras) in the keynote rooms at Streaming Media West 2013. They’re fantastic because they allow you to go on location, and position these compact cameras strategically around the room and then operate them remotely. I can operate three remote cameras all at one time. At $8,500 per camera, they're not cheap, but compare that to the cost of hiring 3 camera operators for 1 to 3 days at every event you do.