A reprint of an article published in the Sept/Oct Issue of Canadian Musician Magazine.
“What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word, and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down,” says George in Frank Capra’s bittersweet comedy. Yes, It’s a Wonderful Life here in the virtual world, where an artist can instantly connect and engage with fans worldwide – from Alaska to Vietnam, with minimal tech skills and quite impressive results.
All you need is an Internet connection, a few tech gadgets and an alarming amount of stamina and persistence.
The good news is that many high-tech gadgets that were once out of reach for the average musician are now available and remarkably affordable. The number of pixels your two-year old smartphone can record is simply staggering. Did you know that your iPhone can record in 4k Ultra HD resolution? “Preposterous!” You say? Read on!
The bad news is that the audio quality on most modern gadgets is still quite mediocre and not suitable for capturing the many subtle nuances of a classical music performance. Before Covid-19, I was happy to place my smartphone next to the piano keys and stream a short passage onto Facebook live. It was a pleasant way of sharing a unique, musical idea or concept and then engaging with viewers from all over the world. Audio quality was not a priority in that scenario.
The challenges and potential roadblocks of livestreaming an entire music performance go up exponentially with every upgrade to your system setup. For example, a step-up in resolution from 720p to 1080p, requires twice the number of pixels and therefore, double the upload bandwidth capacity.
That’s why I highly recommend taking things a step at a time. Try to enjoy the learning process with its many quirks and frustrations. Don’t attempt to livestream at full 1080p HD resolution with robotic cameras or invest thousands of dollars in expensive audio gear and acoustical padding, until you truly know what you’re doing or have a professional audio engineer who can assist you in setting everything up.
Here are seven steps to help turn your home into a mini-broadcast studio:
1) Always use a hard-wired ethernet connection. Wifi is simply too unstable and can result in many lost data packets, which are critical to ensure your audience gets a smooth viewing experience. You can get an inexpensive ethernet cable online and will most likely require an additional adapter if you are using a Mac.
2) Upgrade your internet connection. Your ISP (Internet Service Provider) should support the highest upload speed you can afford. Read reviews and shop around to find the most reliable and stable connection in town. Remember that most internet connections are shared among tens of thousands of other customers, so reliability is of key importance when livestreaming. Give your ISP a call and let them help you optimize your router and system configurations.
3) Upgrade your gear in increments. Remember that professional devices require a host of new accessories, which can substantially drive up the costs. Map out a plan that includes your maximum budget and realistic expectations for the project.
4) Let’s begin with audio. Most monophonic instruments such as the flute or sax sound quite well on entry-level condenser microphones, such as the Zoom H5, Zoom IQ6, Shure MV88 or Rode NT1. Many of these microphones can even plug directly into your iPhone, making them easy to take with you on future tours.
For more challenging instruments with a wider range of frequencies and dynamics, such as the acoustic piano, you’ll have to invest in professional XLR mics in order to capture the natural sound of the instrument. For example, a pair of Neumann KM 184s or AKG C314s multi-pattern condenser mics.
Mind you, a top-tier solution will also require an audio interface, digital audio workstation, plugins, cables, and lots of planning and testing. Entire books have been written about microphone placement alone, which is an art unto itself and more important than the quality of the microphones themselves.
5) Great video begins with great lighting. In terms of video quality, most smartphones can do a decent job, especially in brightly lit environments. Consider getting adjustable LED lamps or rings so that your talent shines in the best possible light. Also, invest in a few good tripods, so that you have more control over the positioning of your camera and lighting gear.
Note: If you own a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you’ll most likely need an adapter such as the Elgato Cam Link and a fast computer (minimum 2.3 GHz and 8GM RAM) in order to livestream.
6) Choose the right encoder for the job. To connect your high-end gadgets to the virtual world, you’ll need an encoder. This can be software or hardware-based. If you have a decent computer with at least 8GB RAM, you can get your feet wet with a free software encoder such as OBS Studio, which comes with a host of amazing, professional features once you get to know it. OBS Studio also serves as a switcher to easily transition between multiple camera angles. Hardware encoders and switchers can get quite pricey, but relieve your computer of this CPU-intensive task.
7) Choose an ideal platform. There are free platforms and paid platforms, each with their own set of advantages and disadvantages. Free platforms such as YouTube, Twitch and Facebook Live are generally the easiest to get started on and can help your livestreams gain instant exposure to a wide audience. Paid platforms, such as Vimeo, offer far more control over your final output and have fewer issues with false copyright claims and many of the annoyances found in free platforms. However, paid platforms generally require several months of payment in advance, which can drive up your costs significantly.
So, you have just transformed your entire home into a mini-broadcast studio. Congratulations! Provided you haven’t tripped flat on your face over any wire or pulled out (whatever is left of) your hair after a computer freeze, you’re now ready to take your livestreams to the next level.
Don’t make the mistake I did during my first-ever, full-performance livestream. After weeks of getting the positioning of microphones just right, I began speaking – and to my horror, the real-time comments started coming back in caps: “We Can’t HEAR YOU!” The mics were positioned so far away from me at the piano that I forgot to mic my own voice.
A few final words of advice from your virtual sage: “Get a lapel mic if you’ve made it this far!”