Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) and IceCast may be the best way to stream concerts and music performances online. These two open source applications are trending up rapidly and for good reason. Together, they create a platform unmatched in serving artists with control over content, quality and value; items missing in most offers today.
Currently, at the onset of Corona-geddon, bars and clubs are closed; parks and public venues are closed; entire multi-million dollar tours have been cancelled. Musical artists are using Facebook, YouTube, Skype, Acapella, Twitch and more to get their work into the eyes and ears of their audience. However, these platforms were not made with music in mind; i.e., most musicians and artists we know would not agree that sound quality and artistic expression is fairly served.
The problem is two-fold…
Everyone has witnessed buffering and drop-offs when listening to their favorite band play on their laptop, phone or TV app. That indicates a lack of bandwidth; how much information can be shoved down a single pipe to your device. Understandably, paid services (including free ones supported by ads) will offer the least they can get away with to increase their profits. The app providers aren’t thinking “Gee, how can I make these guys sound their best?” and please…don’t quote their marketing literature to us!
Artistic content also takes a whack. If you don’t know someone who has been kicked off Facebook or YouTube for their content then you are a space alien, recently landed or recovering from a 20 year coma. Artists constantly wrestle with content issues. Elements that upset corporate interests are often the parts that bring content to the top. It must be horribly frustrating to create something that will change the world only to have it taken off the air. Arguably, this content stifling behavior negatively affects songwriting at the outset.
The Solution: FREE STUFF!
Open source software derives it’s value simply because it is volunteer fed. The people that build these things love them. Importantly, open source Apache software drives the majority of servers on the internet. Also, Apache projects are thoroughly embedded in the modern big data revolution. EVERYONE is using open source software whether they know it or not. The main reason open source works is because the people that built it don’t disappear in a puff of smoke once they have your money. The love continues. Bugs are fixed and new features are implemented with the driving force of innovation and engineering ethics.
Which brings us to our featured performers…
OBS is widely used by podcasters, gamers, online DJ’s and others to record and live stream their material. The app is easy to get started on and loaded with features. Anyone who has edited music or movies on their computer will have little problem owning this system. Otherwise, there is a wide array of forums and YouTube tutorials to guide you. An added attraction is the ability to modify the software according to your own needs.
IceCast is basically some lines of code that sit on a cloud server and tell it what to do with the information it gets from the OBS. This is where you control the quality of your signal and other features. Once again, if you can imagine it then it can probably be done. Interestingly, IceCast’s license allows you to sell new features or apps based on their product.
How it works…
Most likely, every band uses some sort of sound reinforcement gear. The audio output of the front of house (FOH) mixer gets plugged into the mic input on the laptop or PC. It seems simple but this is an important interface. Pay particular attention to output levels from the board and the quality of the audio card in the computer. Searching the internet, you will find a huge margin in price, features and quality. Crucially, the audio card is the part that changes your sound from analog (yay!) to digital (boo!). If you go shopping, make it a good one!
If you are a single performer or a small acoustic group, we recommend a good condenser mic and USB mixer. We recently launched an online radio channel by kit-bashing cheap Asian mics with high-grade capsules for about $200 altogether (some DIY skills needed). Sound levels are determined by distance from the mic. This process is well displayed in recording and performance scenes from the movie “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?”
The video channel is a different animal. Obviously, a webcam will work fine for small groups and singles. Large bands and theater performances will need a bigger stick. You can still keep it relatively cheap by using a two channel video mixer such as Roland’s V-02HD and those cameras you have in a drawer because of smartphones. For roughly the same price, you can install a Hollywood ready video card in your PC and use the OBS to run it. At this point, you have a stream from camera to audience as good as it gets.
Once you have all this stuff hooked up be sure to test in a live environment. Professional musicians know to keep their fingers off the dials and widgets during a performance and let crew handle the levels. Transient spikes that cause a little distortion will ZAP the stream. Pushing the red-line in a digital environment is a no-no. Remember, digital logic is yes or no. there is no maybe. However, you will eventually get used to the way all these elements work together.
And here is the best part…
The reason we use the cloud server is scale. When everything is working, a giant rush of tickets sold can be easily handled. Re-configuring the IceCast server takes just a few minutes to stream to 1000, 10,000 or 100,000 people. The quality of the musical experience is not diluted with more people viewing. Do you ever wish that all the tickets could be front row? Now they can! Furthermore, no one will complain the sound is too loud, the bathrooms are too far or the security is mean.
We can see there may be drawbacks. Lack of audience feedback is one. Creating a payment platform with secure features is something the record labels will likely be interested in. These can all be worked out. The important part is that we have a way for artists to deliver their content honestly, reliably and with great audio-visual quality. It’s a good start!