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Covid-19 Concerts: Stepping Up the Stream

Steve Savanyu • FeaturesMay 2020 • May 8, 2020

The “FOH” view of the home venue before performance; the glass of merlot is optional.

When my gig calendar evaporated in March due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I started looking at alternatives for doing live events. Many musician friends were streaming living room concerts to keep in front of their fans and make some bread with a virtual tip jar. Using technology ranging from smartphones and tablets to laptop webcams (and using built-in microphones) the audio and video quality for these gigs left a lot to be desired.

A close friend wanted to do a weekly jazz series with different vocalists singing jazz standards while he accompanied them on piano. His first attempt used the built-in laptop camera with a decent USB microphone. To get him and the vocalist in the shot, he had to locate the laptop across the room. Thus, mic placement was not ideal due to USB cable limits and the large windows behind the piano made the video image look like dark silhouettes. Even though the event was successful, he felt it could be better.

So, we decided to step it up!

‡‡         Video

For this most recent performance, in late April, 2020, we used a professional video camera with XLR audio inputs. Mounted on a tripod, the camera could be placed far enough back and high enough to get a pleasing shot. As we had a mixture of daylight and incandescent light, I set the camera’s white balance control to auto. I also turned off auto-focus, opting instead to manually lock the focus on the vocalist. The camera had an HDMI output that carried video and audio (from the camera’s XLR inputs), which kept everything in sync.

I looped the HDMI output through a 7” LED monitor so I could frame the shot and monitor the video.

‡‡         Lighting and Set Décor

Next, we focused on image quality. Even with a good video camera, having enough added light can make all the difference in how performers look on screen. We complemented the natural room light with some inexpensive battery-powered LED video lights. I set them up as a key light on the vocalist and a fill light on the piano player. LED shop lights or inexpensive clamp-on reflectors with LED spot bulbs can also do the job. (The same technique is being used for the at-home episodes of American Idol.) The goal is to put light where you want it — without excessive spill.

We also “decorated” the set by adding a large planter behind the vocalist and the ubiquitous tip jar on the piano. I purposely framed the shot to minimize distractions from the cluttered bookshelf while keeping a living room vibe.

‡‡         Audio

You can have excellent lighting and terrific video, but bad audio will ruin the production. To keep my rig compact, I used a portable mixer-recorder with a USB outboard control surface — a Sound Devices Mix-Pre 10 and Novation Launch Pad controller. This 8-input device enabled me to multi-track record the concert while providing a left/right mix feeding the video camera’s XLR inputs.

The vocalist brought her own mic (touched only by her) and stand. Her microphone fed a mic splitter box (Switchcraft RMAS1) with one output going to my mixer and the other feeding a powered monitor speaker with a mic input (QSC K8.2). This enabled me to have independent control of her level without affecting the setting on her monitor.

For the piano, I used a side address stereo mic (Audio-Technica AT4050ST) set for its wide X-Y pattern. The single 5-pin output cable fan-out fed two inputs on my mixer.

I clipped a miniature condenser lavalier mic to the pianist’s lapel to capture between tunes patter. (He did not want a vocal mic.) Between tunes, I simply opened his lav mic in the mix. I used my trusty M50x headphones to monitor the mixer audio.

Fig. 1: A setup screen within OBS Studio allows for fast, simple entry of production parameters

‡‡         The Stream

I fed the HDMI (audio and video) signal from the camera to a Black Magic Design Intensity capture device. The Intensity’s thunderbolt output connected to my MacBook PRO laptop. I used OBS Studio 25.0 (Open Broadcaster Software) streaming software. This open source application runs on Mac, PC or Linux, is a free download from obsproject.com and provides real-time audio/video capture and streaming to all the common streaming platforms including Twitch, YouTube and Facebook Live. In OBS, I created a preset (see setup screen in Fig. 1) for my Intensity with the required video frame rate and image size. OBS’s confidence monitor screen and audio meters verify image and sound. Clicking “start streaming” sends the stream to the host platform.

We used Facebook Live as the streaming platform, which allowed us to embed the stream on the vocalist’s Facebook page. Additionally, the pianist and I “shared” the stream to connect with more viewers.

Unlike simply clicking “go live” from a smart phone, sending an OBS stream to Facebook requires you to copy the streaming Key from Facebook into OBS. Once the key is copied and pasted, Facebook provides a software confidence monitor to confirm the stream.

In Facebook, I gave the stream a title and some descriptive information about the event, such as where to send money to the virtual tip jar. When we were ready to stream, I simply hit the “Go Live” button in Facebook and we were on the air.

I also monitored the stream from my smart phone so I can read the viewer comments and pass them on to the artist. Because of latency in the transmission process, I muted the smart phone audio.

We streamed using the pianist’s home Wi-Fi connection. To maximize bandwidth, I made certain that no other computers in the house were running.

Compact gear makes for a fast, pain-free load in/out

‡‡         It’s a Wrap!

This performance was a fairly simple setup, yet yielded pro results, and our one-hour concert ran with no technical issues. Obviously, from these basics, it would have been fairly easy to expand the production with other perks, such as video-switching with a second (or third) camera, or adding one or more additional musicians or incorporating in-ear monitoring, etc. However, there is much to be said about keeping it simple, and this basic approach could easily be adapted to other situations, such as church services, live theater, industrials or political rallies.

Best of all, at the end of the night, all my gear packed into three small bags (plus the QSC K8.2 and a few stands). A day later, I checked the view count — about a thousand views!

Happy streaming…

Steve Savanyu operates Buford T. Hedgehog Productions in Hudson/Macedonia, OH.

 

About the Gig

Steve Savanyu supported the audio needs of Rock Wehrmann on piano as he performed with Harry James Orchestra jazz singer Barbara Rosene. The performance was recorded on April 25, 2020 in Rock Wehrmann’s living room in Ohio. (To view a recording of the gig, go to www.plsn.me/FOH-Streaming.)

The Gear List

  • Sony FS5 video camera with tripod
  • Small Devices 7” LED monitor
  • Black Magic Design Intensity capture device
  • (2) LED video lights (DC-powered) with stands
  • Sound Devices Mix-Pre 10
  • Novation Launchpad control surface
  • Apple MacBook Pro
  • ATH-M50x Headphones
  • Mics: Audio-Technica Pro41 (vocals), AT4050ST (piano), AT899 (lavalier)
  • Switchcraft RMAS1 passive mic splitter
  • QSC K8.2 powered speaker (vocal monitor)
  • Assorted mic stands, XLR and HDMI cables, AC quad box cable
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