Introduction

If your computer and internet connection are underpowered, streaming will work badly or not at all.  Besides computer and internet, there are a couple other things you’ll need.  Here’s our guide to finding out if you have what it takes to run a streaming performance we can all enjoy — because, y’know, if you take the time and set it up right, we’ll be able to see and hear it just as you intend it to be seen and heard.

Believe us when we tell you that your life will be a lot more pain- and anxiety-free if you work through this list and through ALL of our setup instructions patiently and thoroughly.  ALLOW PLENTY OF TIME.  This is not the year to start working on your set — or your setup — 3 days before your show. Three weeks would be better.

First cut

You will need:

  • A desktop or laptop computer that meets the criteria described in the next section.
  • An internet connection fast and capable enough to support video and audio streaming.
  • A hardwired Ethernet connection between your computer and your internet router, even if your housemates complain about that Ethernet cable that keeps them from closing the bathroom door.
  • An audio interface, to take audio from your rig and feed it to your computer
  • One or more cameras.  Phones and tablets do not  make good cameras, and built-in cameras on laptops are generally too inflexible to allow you to set up good shots of your performance.
  • Very likely some lighting gear — but the good news is the most effective methods involve stuff you can get at Home Depot.  We describe that elsewhere ###link ###
  • A voice microphone to use during the “talkback” portion of your performance.  This can be run through your regular performing rig, or separately into whatever audio interface you’re using.  You will also need a cable for it, and most likely a stand as well.
  • A Twitch account  and a Twitch stream key  (or another streaming account, say with YouTube) for your own private testing purposes.  Performances will be via Vimeo, but we think Twitch is easier to test with.

How do I know if my computer is up to it?

  • It needs to have at least two USB ports, one for a camera, and one for an audio interface. It is always a very bad idea to run either camera or audio interface through an outboard USB hub, so you’ll need two ports.
  • It needs to have a fairly modern operating system, and an I5 or better processor.  The more capable the processor, the better.  Most machines made since 2015 should do just fine.  As to the operating system:
    • For Windows, it should be Windows 7 and above
    • For Macs, it should be Mac OS 10.10 or higher.
      • You find this out by choosing the Apple menu at the upper left corner of your screen, then clicking on “About this Mac”.  The OS and its version number appears in the dialog box.
    • For a Linux machine, any reasonably recent version will do.  We recommend Ubuntu Studio; a few of us use it and know it better than other distributions.
  • It needs to have a capable graphics processing card
    • For Windows, it should be a DirectX 10.1 compatible GPU.
    • For Macs, it should be an OpenGL 3.2 compatible GPU
    • For a Linux machine, it should be an OpenGL 3.2 compatible GPU
      • You find that out by running 
        • sudo apt-get install mesa-utils 
        • glxinfo | grep “OpenGL version”

What’s an audio interface? Which one should I get?

Any device that will take a stereo audio feed from your rig and turn it into USB audio that can be consumed by your computer will do just fine for NEEMFest streaming. Generally, feeding an audio signal from your rig directly into a laptop’s microphone jack does NOT work well, either in terms of audio quality, or in terms of control over your levels as you perform. 

As to which interface to get — well, opinions vary, but as usual with audio gear the higher the quality you want, the more you pay.  You can spend as much or as little as you like on an audio interface, and which you choose to do is entirely up to you.  If you’re just doing live streams, and not using the interface for professional recording, you can use something very inexpensive.  If you intend to use the same interface in your semi-pro recording studio, you’ll want to spend more, maybe much more.

Let’s start with the cheapest available solution. Simple class-compliant USB audio interfaces come at a variety of price points (and levels of quality).  I’ve used a Behringer UCA-202 that costs under 30 bucks (a couple bucks more if you need RCA adapter cables; for some reason it uses RCA connectors on the inputs).   Steve Mokris uses the Nady UIC80-PP, which seems to be out of stock everywhere I look, but is equally simple to set up and use and costs around $70 if you can find one.  Both are completely straightforward to use — you literally have no choice in how you configure these, so there’s very little that can go wrong.  If you’re a novice, this will save you a lot of time and trouble.

The next step up is a simple audio interface like the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, the Zoom U24, or the Presonus AudioBox .  These run about $100 or so (actually the Zoom is about $150). Often you can find them on Craigslist, laying among the shattered dreams of would-be singer-songwriters who did not turn out to be Tracy Chapman or gawd-help-us Suzanne Vega.   Seriously, one or another of these turns up weekly on Craigslist in Ithaca, usually in great condition and at a substantial discount, and the same is probably true wherever you live.

Finally, there are more complicated interfaces like the Scarlett 18i20, which is at the heart of my road rig, or any of the products made by MOTU or iConnectivity.   They’re all good, but considerably more complex to learn and use (and if you get the iConnectivity, definitely go all the way and get the iConnectMIDI4+).  Most of these more complex units have built-in software mixers and routing software, which can be helpful for doing fancy stuff, but which also add a layer of complexity that can be poorly-documented and frustrating.

Honestly, if it’s your first time around with this, I’d just get the $30 Behringer.  The Kool Kidz may point and laugh, but it’ll get the job done with minimal brain overhead, and you can buy something better later.  There is a hell of a lot to be said for simplicity, especially in a live show.  And remember: whatever you buy, you’re going to need cables and possibly adapters to feed signal to it, so plan ahead.

What about lighting?

Now, you might wonder why we’re bringing up lighting before we talk about webcams.  That’s because the worst 90% of the worst of the worst of bad visuals in bad livestreams is caused by bad lighting, not by bad webcams (at least according to the National Institute of Badness Assessment, T. Bruce, proprietor).   The other 10% comes from livestreaming using phones or built-in laptop cameras, about which we have many derogatory things to say that I removed because they added 7 pages to this document.

Bottom line: you really need to pay attention to lighting. Because bad lighting is just bad.   We’ve devised a cheap and dirty guide to cheap and dirty lighting, and we recommend that you look at it carefully.  It will make all the difference in the world.

What about a webcam?

Whatever you do, don’t use a phone.  Also, don’t use a built-in cam on a laptop held by your 10-year-old child and periodically aimed at the ceiling or the family dog.   Seriously, you can’t set up a decent shot using a laptop camera.

That said, I asked our Real Video People (™) what they thought would work well.  Their top picks are below.  Because the pandemic has created huge demand for streaming cameras, and supply chains from Asia have been disrupted, some of the more desirable ones (meaning the ones that perform way above their price point) can be quite hard to come by.

If you already own a video camera or camcorder with an HDMI output, your best high-quality alternative would be to buy an inexpensive capture device that will convert the HDMI signal into a USB signal that your computer can digest. These start at around $40 for a medium-quality device; a high-quality, easy-to-use capture device is the El Gato HD60s at $180

Here are some other suggestions:

HDMI cameras also require a capture device to get their signal into your computer via USB.  Those range in cost from around $40 up to $150 or more (see above) 

You MUST also choose an HDMI camera that is “clean” — that is, that sends an HDMI image that does not include the shooting display information from the viewfinder. 

How should I set up my voice mic?

If you don’t have a voice microphone already, we recommend the $25 GLS Audio ES-58S, a knockoff of the Shure SM-58 that incorporates a switch (some rather expert people swear it outperforms the Shure — we think it’s close to a draw).   You’ll need an XLR cable for it, and something to hold it in place for you.  We like the very inexpensive Innogear spring arm, which can double as an instrument for your next noise concert.

You can either run (and control) it through whatever mixer you use as part of your performance rig, or dedicate a separate channel on the audio interface if you have a spare channel available.   It probably doesn’t make much difference which way you do it, unless you’re part of a JamKazam collaboration.  If you are using JK, we strongly recommend using a separate channel on the interface and setting it up as a vocal mic; I explain this in another piece on JamKazam setups.

How can I test using Twitch?  And why do I need to?

Testing with Twitch is like taking a practice exam before the final in the course (yes, the NEEM meanies are going to make you test your gear successfully a couple of weeks before you perform).  Twitch is a simple service to configure in OBS — and you really DO need to run a successful end to end test with an actual streaming service.  There are many potential problems with running a live stream that you can’t detect without doing that, because they’re the result of accumulated small problems with resources the live stream needs — computer CPU speed, USB bandwidth, audio buffers, network bandwidth, and all of the different aspects of streaming that can turn bad if they’re starved for some resource or other, or a little bit starved for different ones all at once.  These resource-starvation problems are the hardest to find and solve, and so best to get a good start on it.

Setting up to test on Twitch is a two stage process:

OK, I’ve got the stuff, where do I start?

With our setup guide

 

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