Originally written for the Abbey Road Red Blog.
Performing live online is intimidating! On the recent One World: Together at Home stream, even Elton John, Lizzo and Paul McCartney pre-recorded their contributions. For independent artists, the honesty and authenticity of live streaming is our advantage.
So how can you succeed and grow in this unprecedented global lockdown? Here's my introduction to live streaming your music event from home.
Camera and Audio
Up there alongside the shortages of toilet paper and flour, is the shortage of webcams. Before you go auctioning off the good silver to buy a camera, try working with what you've got. Resourcefulness helps here. Most artists have everything they need to stream live from home already.
The most advanced setups I've worked with involve multiple DSLR cameras, a visual mixer and a 16 channel audio desk running through an effects chain to make the live-stream sound "live". That set up is definitely possible at home but requires lots of kit and experience. The same can be achieved with your laptop webcam, an Amp or PA, a microphone and a USB audio capture card. Set up your PA/speakers at one end of the best sounding room in your house, set up your best microphone on the other end, and use the live sound of the room to capture the vibe.
When it comes down to capturing the best audio from your performance your headset microphones won't cut it either. So let's get specific. There are three common ways you can get a crisp and clear audio signal into your computer for live streaming.
The first, which is especially simple and easy for solo vocalists, is a direct usb microphone. As the name suggests these are microphones which, instead of using an XLR or jack cables, plug right into your computer. Some examples of these would be the Blue Snowball or the Rode NT-USB. They are a good way to get started but beware, a lot of these are targeted at podcasters so, while much better than a headset mic, you can still find better sound for a similar price elsewhere.
If you've already got a microphone for performing with, then you can use it with your computer using a magic box called a capture card. The most common one I've seen artists using is the Focusrite Scarlett series, but there are many, many, of these out there. Before you buy, make sure that the card has the right inputs (XLR or jack) for your microphone. You might see Thunderbolt capture cards out there for Macs but they aren't necessary, USB works well on all computers today.
Finally if you're mixing in multiple vocals, microphones and electronic instruments you'll want to use a mixing desk. If you have one already it's time to dust it off and take a look around the back for a USB port. A lot of modern mixing desks include a capture card, so it's worth looking before you buy new kit. If you are buying new, Behringer make incredible value desks in their Xenyx series from 5-22 inputs and if you want to go up market Allen and Heath desks have a fantastic sound and come with that handy USB port right on the back. The benefit of the mixing desk is you can adjust the gain of each input until you're happy, some also allow you to add effects like reverb which will help enhance that live sound if you're streaming from the basement.
Whichever set up you use, practice, practice, practice. The great thing about modern live-streaming software is that you can record a show without ever going live. Use that feature! Rehearse the stream multiple times, end to end and listen back to your recordings. How can you use your position in the room, the position of mics and other live instruments to physically mix the sound?
The go-to live-streaming tool is (Open Broadcaster Software (known as OBS for short))[https://obsproject.com/]. There are few others out there, but for the price (free) and the features (exhaustive), OBS is hard to beat. The downside of the advanced feature-set is that it's somewhat tricky to use. I'd suggest plugging some key search terms into YouTube like "How to get started with OBS" to get a run through beyond the scope of this paragraph. In short, when you open the app, you are met with a black rectangle taking up most of the screen. This is your canvas, on which you'll add your video sources, images and graphics from the panels at the bottom of the screen. Add your webcam and audio interface and arrange them by clicking, dragging and scaling on the screen until you're happy with how it looks.
[Image of OBS]
Then when you're ready to go live, you hit "Start Streaming". But wait! Where are you streaming to?
The big-three of live streaming right now are Facebook Live, YouTube Live and Twitch. Spend some time on each website, watching streams and joining in on the chat to figure out what kind of content fits each platform, and where you fit too.
Key things to consider when choosing a platform are:
How many followers/subscribers do you have on the platform already?
Will you hit any limits or restrictions - YouTube and Facebook will often take down streams that feature recorded music so aren't suitable for DJs (take a look at the fledgeling Mixcloud Live product if you want to stream mixes).
Do they have social features like chat/comments where users can interact with you during the event?
I'd be remised if I didn't mention my company StreamOn at this point. It's a tool for those who want it all! StreamOn takes one feed from OBS and forwards automatically to Facebook Live, Twitch and Youtube, maximising the reach of your event while saving your laptops CPU.
Why Can't I Just Use Zoom?
In short, audio quality. If you've ever sat on hold listening to Pachelbel's Canon crunch across the phone line, that's voice optimised, ultra compressed audio. That compression is what allows you to chat in real-time to multiple colleagues around the world, but for music, it's a no go. These broadcast live stream platforms add a delay of several seconds which means they can stream super high-quality audio and video to hundreds and thousands of viewers at once. Perfect.
We've all done it. Spent so much time planning the event, we forget to invite anybody. Promotion is equally, if more important when performing online. How do people know where to find you, and when? I could write a book on ways to promote a stream, but to get started here are three ideas:
- Keep a schedule - Setting a reliable schedule is vital if you want a long term audience that comes back week on week. It doesn't all have to be the weekend slots too. How about "Beat Monday with the Blues", "Jazz for Lunch" or "Wake Up Acoustic" hour. If you find time in your fans day to help them at home in this tough time, you're on your way to their hearts.
- Go where your fans live - Unless you have a social media team (outside your family) you'll need to focus on what's really working. Find your fans online and post, post, post. You'll at least want to post one week, one day and one hour before going live but the more, the better...
- No such thing as oversharing - If you were on Twitter back in 2008 you remember being able to read all your friends' Tweets in a few minutes and get back to life. Today everyone is inundated with hundreds of posts each hour. To rise in the torrent, the more you post about your event, the more people will watch.
Why leave it there? OBS was initially built to capture and broadcast computer games, so screen capture is a core part of the app. Why not stream a live session in Logic or Ableton as you produce your next album, or walk through a track, stem by stem. You can go further, create videos or live graphics or use VJ software to tell a story with your audio performance as the backdrop and you'll really stand out.
Finally, take a look at the OBS plugins page for some interesting add-ons for OBS and sign up to the StreamOn newsletter - we're working on a few new tools in the coming months to help you to go-live quicker and promote and monetise your events.
Live streaming gives you the unique opportunity to bring your audience right into your front room, take a local event global and event create new forms of visual performance art. So take charge of this moment, plugin, tune-up and be the one to spread hope from home. The world needs you.
Ben Bowler comes from a decade of live-streaming experience. He's producing live-streamed events from small bars to international festivals and even built his very own live streaming platform. Today he's running StreamOn - a suite of tools to help artists to perform online, grow their audience and make money.