6. Production: Hardware & Software
By Simon Baker, Technical Director and Digital Producer at Wise Children
This is a guide to how you can capture your event ready for streaming. It's hard to separate the creative process from the technical process, but I'll try and focus on tech as much as I can. Note that this guide is very much with the small to middle-scale event/theatre company/venue in mind.
Here, the end goal is to show you the steps, the equipment, and the thought process to get your live event through a camera and microphone, and onto the TicketCo servers, ready for broadcasting into people's homes.
Capturing the Picture
You need to capture your image, so you need a camera, and my favourite is the BlackMagic Design Pocket Cinema Pro (either 4K or 6K). These 4K cameras have all the features required for a live stream. Crucially, it has features found on high-end cinema cameras, including a clean output (the last thing you want is the battery icon popping up mid-stream)! The downside is that the output is HDMI*, although it does have a full-sized connector.
HDMI signal can only really travel over 20M before the signal starts to fail in unpredictable ways. You could boost it, but a better solution is to convert from HDMI to SDI - assuming your vision switcher/mixer can cope with an SDI input. (Black Magic make an SDI to HDMI adapter).
*HDMI is the connector found on most TVs and SDI looks like a BNC-style connector you used to see on old monitors and antennas. SDI stands for Serial Digital Interface, and HDMI stands for High Def Multimedia Interface - in case you ever get asked in a pub quiz.
Whilst the Black Magic cameras themselves are relativity inexpensive, you need a few accessories. I've often added SmallRig cages, HDMI and power locking kits, and the SSD Drive mount kits. All are easy to find on Amazon.
Lenses: Budget wise, this will cost around the same as a camera, and you need a decent one. The Black Magic 4K uses an MFT mount lens made mainly by Olympus. Our experience was that for shooting from the front edge of a stage, we needed a 12mm-100mm lens. My favourite is Olympus ED12-100mm f/4 Pro.
Tripods: A decent tripod is vital as it is one of those things that will give you a much more "pro" look. Look for tripods with Fluid Heads. Manfrotto does an ever-changing range and is an excellent place to start. You need something that's going to be stable and robust.
Hard drives: It is not essential, but I keep Samsung T5 SSD drives permanently running on each camera just so that if we want to do an offline edit, we can.
Cable: 20M HDMI cable is readily available but don't buy any longer - best to keep everything short. If you are converting to SDI, you can get to 50M without much problem, although SDI cable is costly.
Alternate camera types
You can go up and down significantly here based on budget...
- Second-hand REDs probably start at £3000 but quickly rise, and ARRI Alexas start at around £20K.
- Going down in price, any DSLR with an HDMI output will work. Many YouTube streams are produced using the Canon EOS DSLRs, and you could use prosumer camcorders. Note that DSLRs tend to overheat, or have features like auto shut-off which can't be disabled easily, so it's best to check you have all the features you need before committing.
- Go Pros are another favourite of mine as they are reasonably cheap and small enough to hide on set. They can give you a wide variety of shots, but you may have to play around with the settings to reduce the latency. Note that the new GoPros don't have an HDMI port built-in, and you need to buy some add-ons which may push the price up.
- PTZ or Pan Tilt Zoom cameras are another favourite, and the mainstay of reality TV shows. There are dozens on the market, so consider what type of control you might need and what kind of picture quality you need. There is a whole new range of cameras that make use of the NDI platform (this is a method of sending video straight over IP using a regular Cat5 infrastructure). This can be handy in venues that have this network infrastructure already installed.
Note that mixing and matching cameras can get you into some tricky technical issues!
Capturing the Audio
There are broadly two things to consider when it comes the audio:
Close mic-ing is where you place a microphone close to, or on, the subject you are trying to record. It gives you a close-up sound, rather like putting your ear to the sound source, but this on its own is unnatural. If you were listening to a band play or a choir sing you couldn't have your ear on all those sound sources simultaneously, so you need a way to glue those sounds together. This is where you have to balance all those sources and place them in the stereo field.
Ambient mic-ing is the opposite, and is almost like what you hear naturally. It is best used to enhance a close mic set up. It can add depth and resonance to a sound; it can help define a room's shape. Above all, it can cement the audio to the picture. It's also a handy way to capture audience noise.
Sound is 50% of the experience of a film so best to spend time on it.
At this stage, you should consider how "loud" should your stream be. There are a myriad of answers and every streaming site will have a different answer. Ultimately, you should aim for an average of -23LUFS. As most sound consoles are still marked in dB, it may be hard to measure this (LUFS is a loudness measurement and dB a peak measurement), although outputting some pink noise at -14dB and that will give you around -23LUFS. This is a very basic and broad idea, but it's not a bad start. Aim for -14dB as an average, or, even better, use a LUFS monitor over the system.
From source to computer
We need a way of getting from raw camera footage and sound recordings to the final mixed stream which TicketCo can then send out to peoples homes. Again, there are many solutions, both software and hardware, and some of these solutions are a combination of both. Switchers can be used to stream directly to the internet, and some software can act as switchers.
The most straightforward way of getting a camera into a computer is with a capture card. This is something that will convert your HDMI or SDI signal and turn it into something you can plug into your computer. There are lots available, and the price ranges considerably. A good solid and simple one is the BlackMagic 3G Ultra Studio. You plug your camera in at one end, and your computer at the other, and everything is good to go.
Next, consider the software that capture card is feeding. My preference is to use Open Broadcast Software otherwise known as OBS Studio. This is both the most basic, but also most customisable, broadcast software I've worked with. There are many variants that all do very similar jobs, with varying features, but if you want a simple program with lots of control, OBS is a good place to start. We will look at OBS in more detail in part 8.
Mixing your stream
If your production has multiple cameras, some stills, maybe some film footage, a 2-track/stereo mix, and playback audio, you need some way of crossfading or dissolving between them all. This can be achieved via software or hardware.
With software, you will have to have all your sources being captured by the computer, meaning a capture device for each source. You'll quickly realise that you run out of USB ports rapidly by using USB capture devices. You could use multiple device capture cards such as Blackmagic Designs Decklink Duos. These are PCIe cards and, depending on which ones you buy, they can simultaneously accommodate either 4 or 8 sources.
However, you need a computer with a graphics card and CPU that can handle such a high amount of data. Software like OBS is highly configurable and allows the cameras' screen layout to be far more creative than should be needed - split screens, multiple screens, fake zoom calls etc. are all possible live.
I'm a fan of the hardware solution, which tends to be simpler to achieve, but less flexible. This type of vision mixer is mostly known as an A/B switcher. You select a camera and then activate it to make it live, and you might be able to add a crossfade or dissolve. Switchers come in many shapes and sizes:
- At entry-level, there is the ATEM Mini Pro which has 4 HDMI inputs on the back, a multi-view output and a USB C connection to your computer. Matched with Black Magics control software, this is a great and simple solution for a four-camera shoot - you can take the output of this straight to OBS, and you're off!
- A step up from that is the Black Magic Design Studio range - the HD and the 4K. Both are great, although if you want something more robust and more flexible, then I'd go for the BMD Ultra Studio 4K Mini.
- Roland also makes a range of A/B switchers which start from the basic through to the complex. The V-60HD and V600UHD look like greats bit of kit, but it may be worth seeing who can lend you one as a demo unit.
All hardware switchers have some kind of sound input aside from the camera audio. Some have handy features that you'll need, like gentle compressors and time correction. Most also tend to have dedicated multi-view outputs. Some switchers can get straight into broadcast software because they have an output that behaves as a webcam output might.
Monitors and colour
You may want lots of screens so everyone working on the event can see what's happening. This doesn't have to mean everyone watching on a high-quality broadcast monitor. Recently, I've been using relatively cheap computer monitors for both multi-view and program feeds. The main drawback of using computers monitors is the colour correction, as it differs from what the camera is seeing. There are ways of calibrating videos monitors so that everything will be displaying the same colours, but I prefer using a hardware monitor calibration tool. This is very useful when working with a mix of monitors and TV screens.
This is a creative choice, but lighting for cameras needs to be brighter than generally required for the stage, and this can take some time to grips with. So it is worth getting to work with the camera as soon as possible, and there needs to be a lot of collaboration here.
On the last few shows, I've experimented with adding Look Up Tables (LUTs), which are essentially bespoke camera filters. LUTs can be helpful in general when trying to achieve a specific look. It's very much creative choice and something worth experimenting with.
One last thing…
There's a lot of kit to consider, and new technology to think through, as well as new skills to be learnt.
My advice is to look around at your organisation and see what skills you have in-house for free - you may be surprised!