While some churches have been live streaming their worship services for many years, restrictions on in-person gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic have taken streaming to a whole new level of importance. Once offered as a secondary alternative for worshippers unable to physically attend services because of illness, travel, or mobility limitations, live streaming quickly became the only way for many churches to bring their message to their followers and keep their congregation engaged.
This has led many churches to want to start live streaming for the first time, or to upgrade their existing streaming capabilities. In this Q&A with Technology for Worship Magazine's James Careless, Magewell CEO and CTO Nick Ma offers advice and best practices for churches looking to start streaming. Portions of this interview also appear in the May 2021 issue of TFWM.
The first and most important part is to define your goal in terms of the stream you're trying to create. If all you want to do is stream a single camera feed, you could use a standalone encoder like our Ultra Stream connected directly to the camera, or a capture device like our USB Capture to bring the signal into a software encoder such as OBS or our free Capture Express. If you want to create a multi-camera streaming production that mixes in graphics or pre-recorded video, you'll either need to combine a hardware switcher with an encoder like Ultra Stream, or to use a capture device to bring your camera signal into software-based production tools such as vMix or Wirecast.
Ease of use should be your next consideration. Obviously, you want to be able to set up your stream – not only the initial configuration, but also subsequent sessions – with minimal effort. Streaming solutions that can be controlled with a single button or an intuitive app are ideal, as are capture devices that are plug-and-play so you don't need to manually configure them.
The two main approaches, both of which we offer solutions for, are standalone, hardware-based streaming encoders that take the output directly from a camera or hardware switcher; or capture hardware that brings AV signals into a computer for software-based streaming.
Software-based streaming offers the greatest production flexibility. For example, our USB Capture devices can be used with third-party software to combine the video and audio with pre-recorded clips, graphics, and effects.
On the flip side, some people may find using a standalone hardware encoder to be much simpler. Even if you have a hardware switcher feeding the encoder to enable production effects, some users – particularly those who didn't grow up in the software generation – are more comfortable using the knobs and buttons of a hardware switcher than using production software. And if you're simply streaming the output of a single camera, then a standalone encoder significantly reduces your equipment requirements – all you need is the camera and encoder, with no computer or switcher required.
We have tools for a few different streaming approaches. For those who want to simply encode the video and audio feed from a camera, or are using a hardware-based switcher to create their final output, we offer our Ultra Stream standalone hardware encoders. Designed to make streaming and recording exceptionally easy even for non-technical users, they take an AV signal (HDMI or SDI, depending on the model) from the camera or switcher as an input, encode it, and stream it to popular distribution services – all with a single click.
For those who prefer to use software-based streaming tools, we offer capture devices for bringing an HDMI or SDI signal into software running on a Windows, Mac, Linux or ChromeOS computer. Our most popular capture devices are our USB Capture family, which are plug-and-play for maximum ease of use and let users capture signals through a standard USB 3.0 port. They can be used with third-party software for sophisticated streaming productions including multiple camera angles and graphics.
For churches using the NDI AV-over-IP technology to distribute their source signals instead of HDMI or SDI, some streaming software can directly take an NDI input. For these workflows, our Pro Convert encoders can be used to connect HDMI or SDI cameras into the NDI media network.
The most important "must-have" is that your streaming solution is compatible with the target platform you are streaming to – for example, Facebook Live, YouTube Live, or your chosen streaming delivery provider. Fortunately, practically all streaming encoders and platforms today support the H.264 compression format and RTMP or RTMPS delivery protocol, so incompatibilities are rare. But if your target destination requires specific streaming parameters, make sure your streaming solution can handle it.
As mentioned earlier, ease of use is also critical. Many churches rely almost entirely on volunteers for their video operations, and a lot of them will not have had any previous streaming experience. That's where a solution like our Ultra Stream encoder, which was designed to be quickly usable even for first-time streamers, is ideal.
Finally, but certainly not least, it's crucial that your streaming equipment is reliable – the last thing you want is for your stream to stop working in the middle of a live presentation. "Live" means no second chances!
As far as "nice-to-haves" – a lot of that comes down to the production capabilities (multi-camera switching, graphics, etc.) of your overall streaming workflow. Visually sophisticated productions can be very engaging for your online audience – but of course, that's not as important as making sure your viewers can see and hear your worship leader's core messages.
Again, one of the biggest reasons is reliability. Professional products are designed and rigorously tested to ensure they'll perform as expected when it matters most. Professional products are also typically tested and optimized to work seamlessly with the other tools you'll use in your complete streaming workflow – cameras, switchers, mixers, etc. – and to maintain optimal quality throughout the streaming chain.
Even with the easiest streaming tools, there are still multiple components in any streaming setup, from the camera, to any intermediate production tools, and ultimately the destination streaming service that will deliver your streams to your audience. While there are many resources that can help church staff and volunteers learn the technology and nuances themselves, working with an experienced systems integrator or reseller will help ensure a smooth implementation. Of course, if you have experienced volunteers in your congregation, you should leverage their expertise – but they may not be able to dedicate the same amount of time to the project and training that an integrator could.
This question could be an entire article series unto itself, but at the highest level, be sure to start with the end goal – your online viewers – in mind. Decide what you want their live stream viewing experience to be like and work backwards from there. Don't try to get overly sophisticated with the production style (effects, etc.) if it's your first production effort – [during the pandemic], your main priority is keeping your congregation's connection strong when everyone can't be together in the same physical space.
At a more technical level, it may sound obvious, but make sure your church's internet connectivity is up to the task. Internet links that are perfectly adequate for email, web browsing, and even for downloading content might not have the consistently reliable upload bandwidth you need for the highest-resolution streams, so adjust your encoding settings if necessary to work within those constraints. And be sure nobody else is using that internet connection for any heavy traffic – such as transferring large files or watching videos – at the same time you're streaming.
Finally, don't undervalue the importance of using high-quality cameras and good lighting in your streaming workflow. Lower-quality sources and insufficient lighting often lead to visible "noise" in the video, and even with the best encoding tools, such issues can be significantly magnified by the compression inherent in all streaming technologies.