The world is changing. Whether you’re in broadcast, event, wedding, sports, house of worship, education or corporate - we’re all seeing a shift. We’re here to help you level up your game with tools and knowledge. A lot of people have suddenly found themselves needing live-streaming video options amidst the COVID-19 quarantine. What better way to continue pushing your message, or begin reaching your audience in new and real ways? Unfortunately, the recent increase in demand for solutions for this has left many people waiting in line for hot products with unknown or far off dates of new stock on the horizon. Instead of merely providing alternatives to those who call, we’d like to highlight a few of these popular, hard-to-find products and show a couple of solid options if you don’t want to wait. Whether you’re looking to stream video game gameplay to Twitch, a daily vlog to Facebook, or your band wants to stream performances to keep your audience engaged while locked-down, we’ve got some ideas for you!
The basic things to know if you’re new to streaming video; you need a few components to make it happen, and it’s become so much easier in recent years. Here’s the workflow: You need a way to capture video and audio, and a way to encode it for live video online. You should already be setup to do this using a mobile device, and there are ways to improve mobile streaming. This article will be focusing on solutions that include using a camera. This means you need a way to either get the camera signal into your computer, or into a hardware encoder for the stream. What are the options for this?
Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini / Roland V-1HD / vMix / Sling Studio
This is number 1 with a bullet. The ATEM Mini has been making huge waves since it was announced at IBC in 2019, with an incredibly low price point ($295) and vast capabilities including 4 HDMI inputs with scalers, a fantastic built in keyer, USB video output for streaming and more. That’s a lot to pack into such a small, inexpensive hardware switcher, and that value has been reflected by the complete inability for any Blackmagic resellers in the US to keep stock on the shelves, even before the pandemic began. Luckily, there are some fantastic alternatives! The Roland V-1HD is the next logical choice. For one thing, it can do everything the Mini can do and then some. The ATEM Mini had to sacrifice at least one huge feature most switchers include to keep the price low, and that’s multi-view / preview. This is something you get back with the V-1HD, and when you look at any possible way of cobbling together a makeshift multi-view for the Mini, the cost would add up fast. The V-1HD gives you that, allows you to still use 4 inputs, USB control and video output, chroma-keyer and PnP functions. It also gives you a program / preview source button configuration, meaning you can easily queue up the next shot and take the preview source simply, like you can with higher-end switchers. These features do bring the price point up, ($995 as of this writing) but as I previously mentioned, this difference in price would be roughly the same (if not cheaper) than trying to rig together these features on the Mini.
There’s a hybrid solution out there now that many people might find interesting as well, and that’s the SlingStudio. You purchase a hardware “hub”, and it allows you to combine wireless video signals from wireless cameras (they also offer wireless transmitters to attach to cameras) or iOS devices over Wifi. A great option if you don’t want to or haven’t already invested in expensive camera gear!
Then, there’s the software option. Software switchers have come such a long way in the last 5 years or so. Back in 2015, the hot new tech was Wirecast (make no mistake, that was a fantastic solution), and it seemed like you needed a hot-rod computer specially designed for streaming. Now, you can easily grab a copy of many different software switching solutions, and using a simple external or PCIe video capture device with a computer you already own, you’re all set. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to focus on the one I’ve been working with a lot lately: vMix.
vMix is fantastic, and extremely powerful. Not only can you switch live video feeds, do PnP, chroma key, and basically all the functions of a hardware switcher, but you can also record directly to your computer, stream live (simultaneous with record even!), and one of the absolute best features: vMix Call. This software has it’s own version of Skype essentially, though in my experience it’s far superior. It combines fantastic audio capabilities with great video quality, and it’s all built into the switching platform so you don’t need any other tech to achieve it. The downside is that you’re going to need some way to capture video in your computer, which leads us to a new comparison category: I/O options for your computer.
Blackmagic Design Mini Recorder / AJA uTap / PCIe Capture
Let’s start with PCIe, which is definitely the best option if you have a desktop tower computer. One card, such as the Blackmagic Decklink Quad HDMI (or SDI) is all you’d need. Installation is very simple (though can be a little daunting at first if you’ve never added a card to your tower before), but just one Decklink Quad gives you 4 video inputs, just like the switchers mentioned previously. This would give your vMix computer all the same capabilities of the hardware switchers with all the benefits of a software solution. There are also PCIe options for single-camera input, if you’re not trying to stream multiple cameras at the same time. If you’re not looking to go with a switcher at all, that’s ok too. You might be perfectly happy streaming a single camera, or even just adding the ability to use a better camera with your computer for Zoom / Skype meetings. That’s where these options come in.
The Blackmagic Mini Recorder to convert SDI or HDMI (depending on your choice) to Thunderbolt, which gives you great quality but in general limits it’s use to Apple computer owners. They also produce the Blackmagic Intensity Shuttle, a great I/O option that gives you HDMI, Component, Composite and S-Video inputs that are output over USB 3.0. Jumping up a step in price would be the AJA uTap. This is a pretty straight forward converter, built well by a company who has been known for quality in the I/O device market for many years now. It’s price point isn’t as light as the Blackmagic offerings, but you would be able to feel very confident in it’s capabilities and reliability. The stand-alone options, like the Blackmagic Mini Recorder and AJA uTap, are what’s required if you want to stream using a laptop, as you don’t have the ability to build in a PCIe converter.
LiveU Solo / Wowza Clearcaster
Wrapping up, let’s take a look at a few options for hardware encoding. These options have a slightly higher learning curve at first, as well as somewhat substantial prices, but can pay huge dividends later if you’re looking to put out a professional looking stream. Both do roughly the same thing, with a few differences. First, the LiveU is a fantastic and relatively inexpensive solution (compared to, say, the Wowza Clearcaster). You do have to do some initial setup, pointing it to your broadcast destination and using a stream key to connect it to a live stream. Once you get somewhat familiar with this process, it’s not only easy, but gives you some huge benefits. For one, you’re no longer dependent on a computer to encode your video for streaming, which can be very taxing on your CPU and other resources, and that can occasionally lead to breaks in the feed or failed broadcasts. A hardware encoder completely takes that away. The LiveU also gives you the ability to connect USB modems (provided by cell carriers such as Verizon and AT&T) which provide the internet connection needed to broadcast, meaning you’re completely portable with this option. It’s also worth noting that feeding video into a hardware encoder over HDMI or SDI will give much higher video quality than the USB signal you’ll get with a switcher like the ATEM Mini, which has to compress the signal to pass it over USB.
The Wowza Clearcaster is pretty much the Cadillac of hardware encoders, and as of this writing is the only devices that allows for full 1080p streaming over Facebook Live, and allows some other incredible compatibility with services (mostly designed around Facebook Live) that give the ability to visually include live chats during the stream and more. This isn’t likely going to be what many new streamers need or want, but if you really want to be able to output a great quality stream with interactive features, it’s absolutely worth the investment..
If you’re looking to get into it, looking for ways to improve programming you’re already outputting, or just trying to find a new way to get some income during this incredibly difficult time, you really can’t go wrong. As always, if you have questions about any of these or want to know more, you can always reach out to me Jesse Pepin at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (360) 653-7063. I'll point you in the right direction for your needs and budget!