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We have entered a new era where live streaming from home will shape our futures. Most non-technical laymen don’t do it well. But those who look and sound better on video can turn this chaos into opportunity. Frank Beacham will help you do that.


Streaming in the Age of Coronavirus

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Photo by Wes Hicks

Musicians throughout the world — locked out of public performances — are streaming their music to fans over the internet. 

In the early days of the pandemic, these productions were charming and opened an interesting window into the artist's home. Who can forget Neil Young in front of his fireplace singing into an iPhone? As time has moved on and streaming has become more of a way of life, musicians have to become more sophisticated in their production value. They can't get away with the crude homemade iPhone effects of streaming. Audiences will demand better production value.

Most musicians already have the right tools for better streaming at home. The equipment used for recording audio works equally well for streaming. A well lit, interesting background with good audio goes a long way in making your live stream look better. And sufficient bandwidth is needed to avoid breakup in your music.

Here are a few things to remember when streaming:

— Begin by prepping the show. Have your set list in advance. Be organized and know what you are going to say once the camera rolls. This will make it less stressful for you and the audience. The idea is cheer people up who are stuck at home during the pandemic. Know how you are going to do this before the camera is turned on.

–– Make sure adequate bandwidth available for your feed. If your internet connection is spotty or interrupted, the file can skip or quit playing altogether. A broken, lagging feed with bad audio helps no one and makes you look bad. Test your upload speed in advance to make sure the speed of your connection can handle the live stream.

This may be too technical for some, but Epiphan Video, a specialist in streaming, recommends always having about 1.5x your stream’s bit rate available to account for these possible network fluctuations. 

For example, if your live stream has a bit rate of 5 Mb/s, then ensure you have at least 7.5 Mb/s total upload bandwidth available to ensure a reliable live stream.

— Test your stream before going live. Nothing looks more unprofessional than repeatedly asking “is this is working” while on live. Have someone you trust monitor the live stream to make sure it is going well.

— For god’s sake, use a good audio system, not a smartphone mic. If you have a home studio with good acoustical treatment, do the stream from there. A high quality microphone and basic recording set-up sounds far better than the sound over an phone. 

Use multiple mics, if needed, and headphones to mix levels. Treat the stream as you would any professional recording you make from your home studio. 

— If using a smartphone for the video, make sure it is in the horizontal, not virtual, mode. It looks more professional that way. Most musicians will use either a smartphone or DSL camera from home. Plug your audio system into the video camera and make sure the levels are correct and it sounds good before starting. In the case of music, sound is always more important than the video.

— Make the scene look good and be sure it is well lit. Pay attention to the background in the scene. Start off with one good key light and some fill lighting, which will make you look dramatically better. A simple ring light is better than no lighting at all. Good lighting is essential to live streaming 

If no external light fixtures are available, sit beside a window or do the program outside. Don’t just shoot it with no light, as many do. It brings down the production value of the entire program.

There is no “one size fits all” configuration for good streaming. Be creative and think different. This may be a new skill many musicians need to learn. But it is very important to your long term success.

Good production values, even in emergency situations, is essential to protecting your musical reputation. Think before you turn on the camera.


Streaming Media 101

One-zone-studio-YuDfKYBG_ug-unsplashFrom One Zone Studio

The term “streaming media” is used in many ways and can range from simple home-style media production to huge motion picture and television services like Netflix. For the purposes of this blog, we will focus on media production for non-technical users who are forced to work from home due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is important to look and sound as well as possible from your home computer, whether it is for music performances, business meetings, casting calls, job interviews or appearing on broadcast television.

In a simplistic form, your media — live or pre-recorded — is sent from a computer to some type of provider for distribution. These can range from video calls to small groups over Zoom, Facetime or Skype to more sophisticated broadcasts over Facebook or Youtube. Beyond this, users can broadcast higher quality programming from Vimeo or other premium carriers.

Live streaming is the delivery of content in real-time over the internet. It is viewed using a media application on the viewer’s computer. This is much like live television broadcasts over the airwaves viewed over a TV set.

In many cases today, video from home computers is being broadcast on networks. This intermittent quality of such home broadcasts demonstrate a wide range of quality levels.

Live internet streaming requires several key items. These include a video camera, a microphone, an encoder to digitize the content, a media publisher and sufficient bandwidth on the internet connection.

With modern computers (including smartphones), the camera, microphone and much of the needed software is built-in to the device. An off-the-shelf computer or smartphone can be used for streaming, though the sound and picture quality can be improved with a few extras.

Doing better quality streaming than others during this pandemic, gives the smart user the advantage of looking and sounding better than most of the competition. It is very easy and low in cost to do right. This blog will deal with tips and products to help achieve that extra quality.

In these posts, we will deal with camera and microphone quality for good picture and sound, lighting to make you look your best, simple backgrounds to hide household clutter and even small teleprompter options for keeping perfect eye contact during online presentations.


Audio Is More Important Than Video

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Audio quality is always more important than video quality. That’s right, sound always trumps picture. Remember this as a hard rule in streaming. 

It has long been proven that audiences from one to many will put up with poor video, but the sound must be of high enough quality to be clearly understood. Otherwise, the viewer or listener will quickly tune out.

We’ve all experienced this when musicians try to perform over the internal microphone in an iPhone. At first is was charming, but not for long. If it sounds bad, we often turn the video off. You can also see this phenomenon with many webinars. Voices become hard to listen to.

When creating any video or audio podcast for streaming, there are a slew of amateur mistakes that can hamper the sound quality. Most of these snafus occur because there is no skilled engineer behind the scenes. With a minimal of knowledge, the sound can be dramatically improved. 

AKG_Lyra_LIfestyle_image_podcast_home-2The AKG Lyra

One of the most basic errors in amateur streaming or podcasts is poor mic technique or using the wrong kind of microphone. In homes or other spaces that are not acoustically treated, high-quality studio condenser microphones are usually the wrong choice.

There are many types of microphones with different pickup patterns. All mics are not the same. Each colors the sound in a different way. Mics can be dynamic, condenser or ribbon. Pickup patterns range from very directional (shotgun and hyper cardioid) to omni and bi-directional. These patterns can make a huge different in the sound. When going mic shopping, it is important to pick the right microphone for the job.

For the audio pickup of a single voice in a home studio, the choice of a microphone is fairly easy. The simplest way to go is to purchase a USB microphone. These mics have a USB connection that goes directly from the microphone to the computer. Such mics are always much better than the cheaper mics used in computers or smartphones.

The best of these USB mics offer excellent sound quality and are plug and play for the user. With a USB mic, one simply plugs the mic into the computer and selects it as the main microphone. It can be used for all streaming calls or for podcasts rather than the internal mic of the computer or smartphone. 

USB mics come in a range of models, prices and features. Among the best models we recommend are Apogee’s MICPlus; Shure’s MOTIV MV51; Blue’s Yeti X; AKG’s Lyra; Audio-Technica’a 2020USB; Rode’s NT-USB and Sennheiser’s MK 4 digital. Most USB mics have a directional pickup pattern. Some of these models offer multiple capsules for picking up music or voice and offer internal audio processing to enhance the sound.

A tiny lavaliere alternative that can plug directly into an iPhone, iPad or personal computer is the Sennheiser-Apogee ClipMic digital. It weighs almost nothing and sounds great. It brings presence to the human voice.

ClipMic-digital-837x550Sennheiser/Apogee ClipMic digital

For home podcasts or for streaming sessions where you want to sound your absolute best, use a large diaphragm dynamic microphone like those used in broadcast studios. These mics are not USB and require an interface to connect directly to the computer or smartphone.

Shure_sm7b_3Shure SM7B

Dynamic mics — rather than studio condensers — are classic mics for this purpose. These include the Shure SM7B, Electro-Voice RE20 or Sennheiser MD-421II, all microphones that have remained popular after many years. These mics not only sound great on the human voice, but they help mask bad room acoustics — the kind found in many homes. Unless you are working in a professional studio with proper acoustical treatment, these mics are the way to go.

With any of these mics, speak within an inch or two of the front of the microphone. The resulting proximity effect (the phenomenon that leads to an increase in low frequency response as you move closer to the mic) will minimize thinness and give the voice a nice low-end boost. In radio, this is called “the voice of God” effect.

Also, when using a dynamic (not a USB mic), it might be wise to add an inline level boost activator to give a 12 to 20dB elevation to the level of the microphone’s signal. These activators are widely used with dynamic mics and are available from several manufacturers. The most popular are Cloud’s Cloudlifter, Radial’s McBoost, Royer’s dBooster or the TritonAudio FETHead.

Cloudlifter

Cloudlifter

It’s important not to speak too far away from any microphone in an untreated space. That is perhaps the major reason for poor sound during online meetings. It is the reason sitting far away from a computer’s mic results in hollow sound.

One way to make close speaking easier is to use an articulating boom to bring the microphone as close as possible to the mouth. These booms are easy to adjust to fit speaker's position. Available arms are Rode’s PSA1 and O.C. White’s broadcast-grade Ultima SMS system.


Choosing a Webcam

Streaming

A webcam is a tiny video camera that streams a video image in real time through a computer to the internet. Webcams are typically small cameras that are built into a personal computer — including smartphones and tablets. Standalone webcams can be separated to mount on a tripod or clipped to a computer’s monitor. They hook up to the computer through a USB cable.

Webcams handle video chat sessions involving two or more people, with conversations that include live audio and video. They are also used for remote live broadcasting to distribution sites such as Facebook or YouTube. Communications software including Zoom, Skype and Facetime enable users to do video conferencing with others.

Webcams vary in resolution. More modern webcams have a resolution of 720P, 1080P and even 4K. To use higher resolution, however, the internet connection requires significant extra bandwidth. This is often more than the average home user has available.

Though webcams use compressed formats, the maximum resolution of a webcam is lower than most handheld video cameras. Higher resolutions are usually reduced in image quality due to compression during transmission.

The term "webcam" is also used to describe any video camera connected to the web continuously for an indefinite time. These can include larger-sized professional quality video cameras for professional internet streaming studios. We’ll get into those more elaborate cameras in a later post.

Since the pandemic began, there has been a major global expansion of streaming technology, especially from home offices. With this, most of us have experienced poor video, sound and lighting during online sessions. Lighting is often not optimized for being on camera.

Many users in home environments look down at their laptops to read notes, loosing eye contact with the camera and leaving a poor impression on screen. They also tend to use the camera’s internal microphone, which results in poor audio. And the quality of lighting and home backgrounds are all over the place. There are basic rules for correcting all these problems and we will deal with them in this blog.

When using a later model smartphone, tablet or computer, the internal built-in camera is normally adequate for video conversations. Regardless of the device used, an external microphone should always be used. Sound quality is always more important than picture quality.

For higher quality video quality, we recommend Logitech’s line of webcams, which also have built-in microphones. The highest quality models are the Logitech Brio, a 4K model, or the C920 and the Streamcam, both 1080p models. The most expensive of these is about $200.00.

Brio

Logitech Brio 4K Webcam

When using a webcam, raise your camera’s lens to eye level, rather than have the lens looking up or pointing down at your face. Up and down camera angles are not the most flattering. Direct eye level always looks best.

To place an laptop at eye level, put it on an adjustable stand or a stack of books at the right height. A separate webcam can also be mounted on a tripod or on top of an external monitor. iPhones can be mounted on brackets inside ring lights. Just get the camera lens level with your eyes and you’ll be OK.

Ringlight

Ringlight with holder for iPhone

For better eye contact with the camera, consider using a teleprompter when having to read or refer to written material. Though hardware type prompters can be expensive, a low-cost software prompter can save the day with smartphones and tablets. The copy can be viewed on the same screen as your face while streaming. Your eyes never have to leave the screen.

Prompter

Video Teleprompter

For example, the Video Teleprompter costs $16.99 and allows copy to be placed on-screen while live streaming on an iPhone or iPad. The PromptSmart Pro, at $19.99, is another option. Both are on Apple’s App store.

For the Macintosh and Windows, there are many prompter apps available. Most have automatic scrolling times and many can remote controlled by another iOS device. Several are at Apple’s App store. Experiment and find the one that is right for you.

Keep in mind that high resolution webcams need enough bandwidth to stream big chunks of data on a non-stop basis. The higher the resolution of your camera, the more bandwidth needed. How much bandwidth depends on the type of compression used on your video. It can get a bit complicated.

Also, avoid using WiFi for streaming if possible. It is best to use a direct Ethernet connection to your router. WiFi is more prone to glitches in video and audio dropout as opposed to a wired Ethernet connection.

A single webcam is usually no problem on a personal computer and two will often work if the resolution is kept low enough. But three or more webcams can be troublesome on many home internet connections. USB ports, where webcams are connected, can be easily overloaded. If this happens, it is best to experiment with the USB plug-ins to see which works best in your installation.

Also, be aware that USB cables are designed to be short. If the cable is too long between the camera and computer it will often loose its signal. Most USB devices, including webcams, don't have a cable length beyond six feet. An additional six foot extension is “usually” stable, but avoid anything longer. The connection can get very flaky.

Speaking of glitches, always check your home internet connection before doing important live streaming. Too much simultaneous internet usage of your home WiFi system, a poor router or other factors can adversely affect your upload speed. Use Ookla’s free Speedtest before a video feed to check to see that your internet connection is fast enough.

Speedtest

Speedtest

Here are the specified upload speeds needed for streaming. Take these numbers and double them for the necessary headroom. At least 1.5 mbps (megabits per second) is needed for 480p, at least 3 mbps for 720p and at least 5 mbps for 1080p. At least another 128 kbps is needed for audio. For many people, that rules out using 4K over a standard home internet connection.

Also, remember the home viewer watching your video has bandwidth limitations as well. While internet speeds do continue to improve globally, there are still many homes that are unable to download high-resolution, high-frame-rate content.

This is the reason to ensure you’re providing adaptive streaming, a technology designed to deliver video to the user in the most efficient way possible and in the highest usable quality for each specific user.

Don’t assume 4K screening is best. It’s important to consider your equipment, content, internet capabilities, the features of your streaming service and your audience when deciding whether or not to provide higher resolution video content for streaming.

As we move on through this series, we’ll look more closely at lighting, sound treatment, hardware encoders, multi-camera switchers, software and services to make streaming easier.


Simple Lighting for Home Streaming

Ring Light with iPad

For home video streaming, the illumination of choice is a small LED ring light. These lamps create an almost shadowless lighting effect without making everything else in the scene look dull and lifeless. They are tailor made for video streaming where the subject wants to look good.

Shaped like a hula hoop of light, most ring lights for home use have a mounting bracket for a camera, smartphone or tablet in the open center.

The illumination from a ring light falls on the subject from every direction and eliminates the shadows. These lights have other purposes as well, such as effectively applying make up.

Ring lights for streaming video are normally used for close-ups or distance images of people. They don’t work well for long distances. Using the light for a medium head and shoulders view causes a gentle shadow effect. Up close, there is no shadow.

Ring lights, which typically come in kits with stands and all necessary accessories, are simple to use. It is best to get a model with variable color temperature and dimming, which makes set up easier for your webcam. Some models come with remote controls.

Ring light with woman

Recommended models are the Neewer 18-inch LED Ring Light Kit; the Inkeltech 18-inch LED Ring Light; the 18-inch Ikan Oryon LED Bi-Color Ring Light with an eight-foot Impact Air-Cushioned Light Stand or the 14-inch Neewer LED Ring Light. For smaller sized ring light fixtures, the UBeesize eight-inch ring light and the Auxiwa Clip on Selfie Right Light are good choices. These lights start at $23 and go up to about $135. All achieve the same goal — only the size varies.

If your video production requires directional shadows and contrast on the subjects, more tradition lighting techniques may be needed. For this, learn basic three-light interview techniques for how to achieve this classic interview look. We’ll look at this in a later post.

If you don’t have or want to purchase a ring light, there are other ways to solve lighting problems. First, place the back of the camera in front of a window to illuminate the scene. This way the subject can be nicely lit by fill light from the sun. If the sunlight is too bright, a sheer curtain over the window can be used to soften the light.

If no window is available nearby, a standard light fixture can be used. Even a simple gooseneck lamp is adequate. Avoid overhead lighting, however, which does not make people look flattering.

Though lighting set-ups can be jury-rigged in many ways, for most novices I highly recommend a ring light. It simplifies set-up and looks dramatically better than no light at all. If a standard-sized ring light is out of your budget or too large for your space, smaller, less expensive models can work just about anywhere.

If all else fails, pick a cheap light fixture. Swap the standard light bulb for a Daylight balanced LED Bulb. The nine-watt Great Eagle A19 LED Light Bulb has a Daylight color temperature of 5000K. Traditional lightbulbs are 2700K, which are very warm and will cast a yellow tint over the subject’s face. Daylight temperature bulbs look far more natural on human skin.

BulbsLighting can be far more sophisticated in small studios, but in this post we are focusing on options for home streaming installations. We will discuss more advanced lighting later in this series.


The Background of Your Streaming Video Image

Green Screen Hero

Anyone that watches streaming video interviews done from the home tends to focus on the background behind the subject.

For well known people, the video offers a glimpse into details about their home and private lives. Book titles are often placed in the scene for professional effect. For lesser known streamers, the background may just reflect the clutter in the room. Most people don’t even think of removing these distracting items when doing streaming video calls. In any case, background matters.

Professional streamers pay attend to the background. Well arranged rooms in home environments reflect the image of the person on camera. The most clutter-free backgrounds are neutral and focus on the person doing the interview. If not against a painted plain wall, use of blue or green screen seamless paper make the best backgrounds.

When doing a scripted on-camera video, the background can also have a major impact on how a story is told. Every element of the image is important to the viewer and can have an impact. There are dozens of ways to set-up a background, including using video software to blur it beyond recognition.

Seamless photo paper and fabric backgrounds are available from many vendors. They come in a range of colors and can be stand mounted or hung on a wall. Using a portable background setup will allow video from virtually anywhere without background clutter.To mount the paper, use two light stands and a crossbar. Another option is to cut and tape the paper or fabric directly to the wall.

It is best to avoid bright colored backgrounds like yellow, orange or red for home video streaming. These can cause color reflections and can be unflattering to the subject. Outside of chromakey green or blue, muted tones like gray and other darker fabrics often look best.

One of the benefits of using a green screen is one can use chromakey to create images. Using video effects technology, a home user can superimpose his or herself onto a virtual background or animated digital backdrop. Services like Zoom offer chromakey backgrounds that work against green screens.

We will get into the using of chromakey green (and blue) screens in a later post, but it is a good option to move the imagery outside of a fixed space to an office, a theatre or anywhere else..


Chair
Wearound Portable 56-inch Webcam green screen

For video streaming done in small spaces at homes, there are more compact solutions that are less bulky and take less room. One green screen clips to the back of a single office chair. A good example is the Webaround Portable Webcam 56-inch green screen. It’s $79.

Foldup sceenFovitec 5 x 6.5-foot Double-Sided Pop-Up Background & Stand Kit

Another compact option is the spring-loaded fold-out screen. It can be hung from a wall or hung from a single light stand. At good example is the Fancierstudio Chromakey Green and Blue collapsible screen at $69.99. It’s available in chroma blue and green for $74.95. Another is LimoStudio's line of green chroma-key backdrops at a range of prices.

There are dozens of backgrounds at a wide range of prices. With home streaming coming into play for professional level productions, a rear screen of some kind is almost essential.

Wardrobe choices are also important in conjunction with the colored background. If the goal of the video is to engage your audience, wardrobe coupled with the right background screen and good eye contact can help to achieve that goal.

Knowing how to choose a background for your video will give the content a more professional look and help the audience focus on the message being delivered. It matters, from picking the perfect hue to mounting your backdrop successfully.

With at home streaming, always keep in mind:

— Place the camera at your eyeline and about an arm’s length away from your face

— Place your lighting source in front of you, not behind you

— Use a good microphone, not the built-in mic on your computer, iPhone or streaming webcam

— Pick a good background and wear the right clothing


Looking Your Best While Streaming Video From Home

Clothing

To look your best from a home video streaming set-up, not only is good lighting necessary and a clean background, but the clothes you wear.

If the purpose of your video is for business or professional use, be aware that video cameras see color, patterns and contrast differently than the human eye.

Avoid clothing with plaids, stripes, small checks or gingham. These can play havoc with video cameras. Also abstain from plain black or white clothing, or jewelry with anything shiny that can catch light.

Don’t wear any clothing that could be considered distracting. For example, avoid brightly colored jackets or sweaters with anything embroidered on it. And mute the bright lipstick on camera.

On the recommended side, wear medium range, solid colors. Don’t wear green if you are in front of a green screen. The same about blue clothing if you are in front of a blue screen. Otherwise, maroon, wine, dark gray or purple normally look good on camera.

Hair color is not that important. Light colored hair looks best on camera, while medium black hair can be handled as well with good lighting.