Improving Your Church Livestream

Chris Reed, CTS   -  

As large gatherings are cancelled due to the current pandemic, worship communities are increasingly uniting in virtual space. Church streaming has been a “thing” for a while, but for smaller congregations, it has gone from optional novelty to mission-critical necessity overnight. (No, really… literally… overnight… between last Friday and Saturday here in the Raleigh/Durham area.)

I don’t want to spend too much time laboring over the wording here as we just need to get the technical knowledge out there for church leaders and volunteers who are scrambling right now in reaction to last Sunday and preparation for the coming weekend. So without much editing, here’s a brief CRASH COURSE:

You need to accomplish three basic things:

Video capture

Audio capture

Encoding your stream

The simplest solution is streaming from a mobile device, which combines all 3 of those needs in one piece of equipment. Breaking one or all of those 3 tasks out across separate components gives you greater flexibility and options for improving quality.

Separate component solutions could include sending a mixed audio feed (such as from your audio console) into a camera that encodes the video and audio together and streams it for you via a proprietary app, or capturing audio and video separately (using one or multiple cameras sent through a video switcher) and routing them to a piece of hardware that encodes them and streams them directly for you. You might also be able to use a video switcher to combine your audio and video and then present that to a computer and have the computer do the encoding.

The hardest nut for most churches to crack is audio quality. Most churches already have the ability to capture and mix audio from various sources, so a foundation is probably already in place for handling the audio component. There are a number of ways to improve audio quality, depending on your setup.

Here are 4 starting points for improving the audio quality of your stream:

  1. Mixing AMBIENT MICS into the audio stream can make viewers feel like they are in the room and remove some of the otherwise “sterile” broadcast feel;
  2. Similarly, a small amount of REVERB on vocals and instruments (if you are streaming live music) can be helpful;
  3. Apply COMPRESSION to your outbound audio stream. Set it appropriately so that people at home don’t have to crank the volume for soft spoken word and then crank it back down when the band is playing or the preacher gets animated;
  4. Ensure that the IMPEDANCE is correct between your audio device (i.e. mixing console) and encoder or video switcher – some equipment will be looking for a mic level input, and some will want line level. Sending the wrong impedance can result in distorted audio even at lower volumes.

Lots of options are available for cameras these days – you can even use a DSLR to capture video and send it out over an HDMI cable in many cases – so getting a good image isn’t difficult. For now, we won’t dive any deeper into video capture.

The question we’re hearing from a lot of churches right now is “how do I combine my audio feed with a camera image and get that to my streaming service (i.e Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, etc.)?” This is the encoding component, and I wanted to share a few basics about that today.

In general, there are two basic approaches to encoding:

  1. Hardware devices that take your video and audio input, merge them together, encode them and send them out to your streaming service over the internet via an onboard ethernet port without you needing a computer;
  2. Hardware devices that take your video and audio input, merge them together, and send them out a USB port to your computer, which sees the feed as an external webcam. Your computer then encodes the stream and sends it out to your streaming service.

You’ll note that the main difference is where the encoding is happening. The first approach takes care of that for you. As you might expect, it tends to cost more than the second approach. But if you have a computer that is up to the task (encoding is a bit processor-intensive), then the second approach can offer more flexibility in what you do with the video stream.

Cost for these pieces of hardware can vary greatly. Bearing the small church market in mind, an appropriate encoder for approach #1 might cost $700 – $1300 while a basic encoder for approach #2 might cost $500 – $600. More expensive options exist in category 2 that include the ability to switch multiple video and audio sources or apply effects like picture-in-picture or downstream keying (overlaying text or graphics).

Reach out to us if we can help you put together a solution that will help your church maintain community during this season of social distancing.

That the gospel might be more clearly proclaimed,