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Beginner’s Guide to Live-Streaming Video

Entering the world of live video streaming can present a bewildering array of hardware, software, and terminology to those unfamiliar with the technology.  In this article, we will break down many of the live streaming requirements and options into understandable segments for the uninitiated.

As many people are aware, most of  the smart phones we carry in our pockets are capable of streaming live video to services like Facebook, but we’re not going to cover that technology since hand-held, pocket-sized phones are really not practical for streaming worship services, meetings, and sporting events for long durations.

Phones often lack the good mounting, zooming, image stabilizing, and audio options we desire as the basis of a good video stream and they also rely on cellular upload speeds which can vary and can also provide spotty service and limited quality.

 Rather, we’re going to look at using actual video camera/camcorder sources and how to get them online over a wired internet connection for better quality and reliability from a fixed location.

The three main requirements for live streaming are:

  • Video Camera -to capture the images we wish to share
  • Video Encoder – hardware or software used  to create the streaming signal
  • Streaming Provider – to distribute our streaming signal to online viewers

Now that we have a general idea of the 3 main ingredients for live streaming, let’s dive into the details.

Camera

You may already have a suitable camcorder available as a source for your live video stream, which would eliminate that expense. Any HD camcorder made in the last several years, and having an HDMI video output connection, should work for this application.

If you are on a very tight budget and need a camera, there are entry-level consumer video camcorders available at local retailers or online for $200-300. Think Sony, Panasonic, or Canon for example. Make sure that any video camera includes an HDMI video output connection as we need to get the video out of the camera first so we can feed that signal into the streaming encoder.

Sports and action cameras like GoPro are not recommended for live streaming applications as they may not have a proper HDMI signal output and provide just a fixed video image with no zoom or other user controls and are just not very suitable for this purpose.

Most camcorders today feature 1080p resolution, which creates an HD image at 1920×1080 pixels. For reference, unless you have recently purchased a new 4K display, the flat panel TV in your home is most likely an HD display and most TV programming today is also broadcast as 1080p HD.

Some newer camcorders now offer 4K resolution, which is 4x that of HD! However, you will not want to stream at 4K which is overkill and would require tremendous amount of bandwidth on the network. Consider that many viewers today are using mobile devices, so we don’t need a lot of resolution to look great on the smaller screens and HD video of course looks perfect on the big screens as well.

1080p streaming is an excellent quality and even the smaller 720p HD signal can look fantastic and reduce bandwidth on the network. If you do end up using a 4K camera, that’s okay as it will offer an option to output the smaller HD signal for streaming needs and you will not be forced to output 4K video.

Of course, you get what you pay for. A cheap camera will have a cheap image, meaning it might look “ok” in great lighting, but in darker lighting situations typically encountered indoors, the picture can very quickly degrade. If the budget allows, look to spend between $1200-2500 for a prosumer/professional grade HD camera. Besides the better image quality, the camera will have more features you may want like headphone and microphone ports, and manual controls on the camera body (versus fiddling with tiny touch-screen menus to get anything done on the budget camera).

We do offer a variety of new cameras from PTZ Optics, AIDA, AJA, Lumens, Marshall, and BlackMagic Design. Models include PTZ (Pan-Tilt-Zoom) remote-controlled units, which are great for house of worship and meetings where you might mount the camera on a wall or ceiling due to space constraints and/or to make the camera less conspicuous.

Stationary “box camera” models are also available, again being ideal for tight spots or getting angles not available to a camera on a tripod, such as an overhead view. The benefits of these kinds of cameras, besides placement, is that you don’t need to purchase a tripod or have an operator married to the camera all of the time.

Most of the PTZ and box cameras we offer will feature HDMI and/or SDI video outputs. SDI is a coax cable solution found on professional video gear, but SDI can be easily converted to an HDMI connection if need be to connect to other devices like encoders.  These cameras often also have an ethernet connection on the back, and may feature built-in IP streaming, which would allow you to connect the camera to your local network and in turn pass that video signal to the internet. Cameras with IP streaming built-in do not require an external streaming encoder. Which brings us to our next subject…

Streaming Encoders / Capture Hardware

The video signal from the HDMI or SDI output connection on your camera is basically meant to go directly to a TV display or projector. If you wish to stream that video over the internet to people across town or around the world, that video signal must first be converted to a compatible streaming format.

With the exception of the aforementioned cameras with built-in IP streaming, this means we need to run your HDMI or SDI cable from the camera source into a streaming encoder. There are two types of encoders we can work with.

Hardware streaming encoders are small, stand-alone boxes or “streaming appliances” that have basically one function, which is to convert a camera output/video source to a streaming output. These encoders are pretty basic usually, consisting of a small metal box with a power connection, an HDMI or SDI input, and an ethernet output. Basically, you have the HDMI in and the Ethernet out  – along with HDMI pass-thru output.

Pricing typically range from about $300 to $995 depending on the capabilities and features. Some of these units will optionally offer recording of a standard .mp4 file to an SD card or USB-connected storage and that can be very useful as you may want a copy of the streamed event video for posting online, backup/archiving, etc. We offer hardware encoders from Matrox, DataVideo, KiloView, and others.

As the units usually only have buttons for POWER and STREAM (and maybe RECORD), setup for the streaming quality and destination is done via web browser interface, such as on a computer on the same network, and sometimes mobile devices like phones may also be used to program the encoder. Once set up, the user need only press the STREAM button to initiate the stream, making it easy for volunteers and technophobes to operate after initial setup is complete.

Unless you are connecting multiple cameras to a video switcher, and then running the switcher output into the encoder, the camera-to-encoder workflow provides only very basic results for the viewer, looking at a single camera angle for the duration of the event, and without any titles or graphics.

Software encoding is the other option, and offers a lot more flexibility. Software encoding uses your PC or Mac computer to encode the video signal for streaming. Of course, you need a way to get the video from the camera into the computer first, since the HDMI port you may have on your computer is only for output to a display, and does not accept any video input.

Various video capture options are available for Mac and PC from BlackMagic, Magewell, AJA, Osprey, and Yuan. Some devices are external, which is ideal for laptop use. The capture unit will have an HDMI or SDI input port, and can interface to the computer using USB 3.0 or Thunderbolt or Thunderbolt 3. Specialized streaming software in the computer can then use your camera output as the video source via the capture device. The computer is connected to the internet via local network and can then stream the video from your camera.

For desktop PCs which typically have PCI-e expansion slots available internally, we have a variety of capture cards from multiple vendors. These range from having a single HDMI or SDI input, to up to 4 HDMI or 8 SDI inputs on a single card! The latter options open up the possibility of doing more complex, multi-camera productions with the streaming software.

Video streaming software varies greatly in cost and features, from free to over $1000. On the free end of things, check out VidBlaster or OBS Studio for starters. These will accept video from most any capture card, and can then output a stream to the web.

For more advanced streaming productions, we offer professional software streaming solutions for your computer, such as vMix and  WireCast. With packages like these, you gain a ton of features than can really allow you to create professional-looking productions that engage the viewer and keep them from tuning out.

Switch between two or more camera sources, including features like Picture-in-Picture (PIP) or split-screens. Add static or animated text, graphics, and logos. Play back pre-recorded videos and images. Pull in computer feeds such as PowerPoint slides or song lyrics and bible verses to share with viewers. Feature live remote guests, offer instant-replay, record your productions, and so much more!

So what’s this all going to cost me, you ask? If you already have a camera, you can pick up a hardware streaming encoder such as Magewell UltraStream for under $360, and stream to Facebook or YouTube for free, so the only expense there is the encoder.

If you choose to use your existing camera and computer to do the encoding, perhaps with free encoding software, capture cards like the BlackMagic Mini Recorder start around $150 to get a single HDMI source input, so that’s really the most cost-effective way to get started if you can do it.

If you want enhanced production options in your software, vMix for instance starts at under $150 and has several upgrade versions that add addition features, so you could start small and grow into a more advanced version with additional features as you gain experience in creating your live stream videos.

Safe Harbor designs and builds custom PC workstations ideally suited for streaming. While a basic PC you might own may work fine for simple streaming, if you want to use multiple HD, or even 4K camera sources, and do complex productions, you may wish to spec a high-performance workstation from us. We can configure it with the capture and playback cards, software, and storage for professional results.

At the higher end of the spectrum, we also offer all-in-one production hardware solutions such as WireCast Gear and Newtek TriCaster. These professional units combine multi-camera switching, video playback, titling and graphics, recording, live-streaming and more into a single integrated appliance, starting at under $5k.

NDI

No discussion of video production is complete without mentioning NDI, which stands for Network Device Interface. NDI is a video-over-IP protocol developed by Newtek. NDI allows you to move high-quality video all around the existing local network in your facility without any special cabling.

NDI-enabled devices, such as certain PTZ and box cameras, can send video over the network which means there is no need to run special video cabling through ceiling and walls – you use your existing network. NDI also eliminates the need to purchase capture cards, so when using software-based video switching and encoding in your computer, all NDI video sources simply come into the computer over the network. No long HDMI or SDI cable runs, no expensive capture cards!

You might place a couple of NDI-enabled PTZ cameras on the walls or ceiling of your space. A single Cat-5 cable to each camera can provide power and control of motion to the camera, and will return video and sound to the switcher or encoding software. This reduces expense and labor with installations, especially when there is no AC power near the camera location.

Note that NDI signals are meant to work only across the local network inside your building and do not go out to the internet. NDI replaces the HDMI cabling to get video TO the switcher/encoding hardware or software, which then handles converting the NDI source/sources to streaming video just as it would for HDMI sources. 

Free NDI software tools also allow Mac and PC computers to output their screens as NDI signals, so the PowerPoint and song lyrics I mentioned earlier can be incorporated into Wirecast and vMix and TriCaster productions over the network easily, no need to run HDMI cabling from the laptop to the switcher or software encoder.

Streaming Providers

The very last piece of the puzzle is the streaming host or provider that the viewer will tune into to see your live video stream. You can’t directly stream from your location to more than a few viewers at a time. For mass distribution to many viewers at once, many streamers enjoy the convenience and free pricing of streaming to Facebook or YouTube.

However, some users run into copyright issues with places like YouTube, which can automatically sense if a song in your stream might be copyrighted and could mute the audio or stop your stream entirely. This can happen when you least expect it, and you can no control over it.

Many users will opt to get a paid subscription with a hosting service which will not have such restrictions on the content. Viewers might watch the live stream at a dedicated page address provided by the streaming host for your account, but many providers will offer the option for you to embed the live stream into your own website! They can provide a few lines of HTML code that you or your website provider can paste into your web template that will then display your stream at that location.

Pricing will vary, typically paid as a monthly subscription with different pricing tiers based on bandwidth used. Bandwidth basically means how much traffic viewers create watching your streams. The basic math is Viewers x Bitrate x Hours. Do you expect 5 viewers or 500 or 5000? What data rate is your streaming encoder set to, and how long do you expect viewers to watch your event stream? This is something you will need to figure out and get an appropriate package for that fits your budget.

We hope this simple guide provides a good overview to get you thinking about your live video streaming options, but we always invite you to contact our experienced staff to discuss solutions to best suit your specific needs and budget. Safe Harbor offers the best hardware, software, and experienced staff to get you started on your live streaming adventure!

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Beginner’s Guide to Live-Streaming Video