Synth and Software’s guide to the latest options for creating music livestreams over the Internet
Ever since the first COVID lockdowns, bands have increasingly turned toward live streaming to get their music out there. Skipping the necessity of travel and venue hire for many, the idea was boosted by the rise to prominence of Zoom and other multi-channel “virtual meeting” services. YouTube, Facebook, and other platforms offered their own streaming options too, while software packages like OBS – which is presented like a virtual TV studio – have suddenly become familiar to many musicians.
Now the hardware manufacturers have followed up with a new generation of devices to make streaming possible on a very affordable level. Rode, Black Magic Design, Arturia, and others offer devices that handle audio, video, or both with varying numbers of channels and methods of control.
A basic device to handle podcast creation will offer audio channels so you can mix sources including microphones and playback devices, and then stream the result live (usually from a USB port) or for recording and later replay. If you are indeed going to pre-record, even Garageband on the Mac has long offered a Podcast setup, so you may already have everything you need to produce your original podcast creations.
Streaming video is a different kettle of fish. Musicians making their first attempts at streaming through Facebook or YouTube often fall foul of variations in local internet service. Even today, livestreams that seem to be going perfectly well can get comments from viewers that they have sound but no picture, or a very jumpy picture, or no stream at all.
There’s not much to be done about that, but at least you can ensure the stream is strong and stable at your end.
Many first-timers for streaming use the free package OBS (Open Broadcaster Software). This acts like a miniature TV studio, offering a bank of possible sources, including cameras and video clip playback, plus a similar set of audio controls for microphones and sound clips.
Sitting at the OBS controls is quite an impressive experience. You can select camera inputs with the mouse, fire off a video clip – such as a pre-recorded concert video or promo clip – and keep an eye on the audio input. If you don’t have sophisticated cameras, a webcam will do, and usually you can send two (and no more) down the USB bus, and OBS can still handle them separately.
One thing OBS will not do (at the time of writing – it’s being updated all the time) is crossfade automatically from one vision input to another, in case you don’t have enough hands free to do that manually. But if you schedule a live stream on YouTube and enter the stream’s code number into OBS, the software will almost instantly be ready to broadcast.
If you want additional camera angles – and let’s face it, in a concert video you may want three or four – you’d have to look at getting an external vision mixer like Roland’s V4EX, at around $1500/£1500. This will offer all sorts of crossfades and image processing, though the simpler V-1HD at a third of the price will at least offer basic cutting from one video source to another.
Why can’t you do that with a simple HDMI selector switchbox? Because your various video inputs aren’t time synchronisedk, and will cause a jump when you select them. Having said that, I played a concert recently, switching for projections from computer graphic videos on a MacBook Air to a live video camera, using just a $10 HDMI selector switch – and what with lights, lasers and smoke going on, the 1- or 2-second jump between images was quite acceptable.
For more sophisticated vision mixing, either live on stage or for streaming, Panasonic has a long history of affordable semi-pro vision mixers with some basic audio handling. Over the years I’ve used their AVE5, MX50, and other models, and these are now on the second user market at very affordable prices.
These devices offer some great vision mixing, crossfading, visual effects, and other settings. The problem with these earlier machines is that they only handle and output composite video. You’d need another device to convert that to an HDMI, USB2, or other output for streaming, but the company does offer affordable more current vision switcher/mixer models, including the HS50.
Arturia, which has a long history with audio interfaces, produces a whole package for audio recording or livestream production. The MiniFuse Recording Pack (£259 in the UK) includes a MiniFuse 2 2-channel audio interface, a CM1 microphone, and a set of headphones.
As well as accepting microphone inputs, the package handles guitar and other instrument inputs, and comes with a huge package of software including Ableton Live Lite, Guitar Rig for guitar effects, Analog Lab Intro for synth sounds, and various software delay and reverb effects. So you could for example sit around a table, with a presenter talking and singer with a keyboard or guitar accompaniment.
RODE adds video in a very simple way with the Streamer X. This little device combines an audio interface and video capture card. There’s a pair of USB-C ports, so you can connect two computers, an HDMI input port, and thru port. Built-in Aphex DSP offers audio effects, and the Streamer X enables you to trigger intros, jingles, and other sounds with ease. Price is around $300/£300
Moving up to more sophisticated video handling, a very notable recent innovation comes from Black Magic Design. The company works mainly in the area of upmarket fully professional video equipment, but recently introduced ATEM Mini Pro, which is very affordable at around $400/£400.
Mini Pro offers four video inputs on HDMI sockets, so you have a free choice of camera or other playback sources. Although it doesn’t have the big toggle controller you’d usually associate with vision mixers, it does in fact offer all sorts of crossfade and wipe options.
On the rear panel are four HDMI inputs, and for microphones just two minijack inputs. For applications where you want to mix a whole band together, you’d simply feed these from a conventional audio mixer. The company offers a software package that expands the capabilities of the ATEM for more sophisticated broadcast options.
ATEM Mini Pro is probably the fastest way into affordable but flexible vision mixing and streaming at the moment. But while economic and other conditions around the world continue to make live-streaming an attractive alternative to touring, inevitably there’ll be many more affordable hardware and software options appearing.