Live Video Streaming Guide – Part 2 : HardwareStephen Chin | March 6, 2010
This is the second installation of my Live Streaming Guide, which will go over all the hardware you need to get setup. While you can spend tens of thousands of dollars on professional gear, it is possible to put together a high quality setup for a fraction of that cost. You may also be able to reuse some of your existing hardware, further reducing the cost.
This setup is targeted at streaming a live presentation over the internet that includes a speaker and possibly some slides or a demo. Not all of this hardware is required to get started, so I will present it in order of how critical it is to the quality of the presentation.
If you are just interested in knowing what I recommend and how much it will run you, skip to the Buying Guide.
Choosing a Camcorder
The first thing you will need is a camcorder to stream the video. The reason to go with a camcorder rather than a webcam is that you will have more options for lenses and zooming, and will be able to get a much higher resolution (as high as 1920×1080 for HD). HD camcorders are pretty common and fairly inexpensive; a good one can be bought new for around $600. Also, chances are that you or someone you know already has one that you can take advantage of.
One important consideration for camcorders is the computer interface. If the camcorder supports Firewire (IEEE 1394), you are in pretty good shape. This means it will probably support DV or HDV streaming to a laptop that has Firewire, and video streaming software will automatically pick it up as an input device. A popular model for doing video streaming is the Canon Vixia HV40 which can be purchased for around $650 new:
What if I Have an AVCHD Camcorder? (skip this section if you are buying new)
A lot of the more recent camcorder models, particularly any that support Advanced Video Coding High Definition (AVCHD), do not have Firewire support. The advantage of these new AVCHD cameras is that they are lighter, and can capture video to a memory stick for easy transfer. However, they lack the DV circuitry needed to stream over Firewire. This is the case with the Canon Vixia HF20 camcorder I have been using.
Fortunately, you have some options with AVCHD cameras. Many of them support HDMI out, which is actually higher quality than HDV as long as you have a capture card you can use to record it. The card I have been using is the BlackMagic Intensity Pro, which works on both Mac and PC systems and is relatively inexpensive (about $185):
The big disadvantage of this is that it is a PCI Express card, so you need a computer with an expansion slot available. This makes a truly portable setup impossible since no laptops come with PCI slots.
Another option that is more attractive for a portable setup is to use a Matrox MX02 Mini breakout box. This supports both PCI and ExpressCard (EC) adapters, the latter of which can be found standard on many laptops. I actually bought a Matrox MX02 from the folks at DVEStore and tested it out, but it wouldn’t work for my setup. The problem is that I have a PC laptop with an EC slot, but the Matrox PC drivers don’t have full DirectShow support and only support capture to a limited set of applications such as Adobe Premiere. On the other hand, their Mac drivers are much better, allowing capture to any application that supports QuickTime video capture. The showstopper here was that Apple recently stopped shipping EC slots on all models smaller than 17″, so my 15″ Mac was useless (and I couldn’t justify buying a new laptop just for this purpose).
The upshot is that if you have a Mac with an ExpressCard Slot the MX02 Mini is a great, portable option to go with your AVCHD camcorder:
Capturing Presenter Audio
Now that you have high definition video, you need crystal clear audio to match. The problem is that most camcorder microphones will pick up ambient sound, so they are useless for recording the speaker at an event.
The best option is to pick up a lavalier mic that will capture the presenter audio directly. A good option that Aleksandar Gargenta (Sasa) uses for his San Francisco JUG meetups is the Audio Technica Pro 88W. It is relatively inexpensive and has excellent audio quality for the price. The disadvantages are that it operates over VHF frequencies, so it is subject to more interference and less range than UHF, and it has no battery meter so you are left guessing when to switch them out so you don’t lose power in the middle of a presentation.
Sennheiser makes some much higher end models that will give you better audio, longer range, and an array of features like battery life monitoring and configurable channels. If you can afford the price (roughly $600), it is well worth it to invest in something like the Sennheiser EW112P G3:
In addition to a lapel mic, you may also want to consider getting a shotgun mic. This will not give you as clear audio as you will get from the presenter, but can be useful to pick up questions from the audience. The way a shotgun mic works is that it is directional, so wherever you point the camera is where it will record the sound from. The audio pick-up is roughly canonical in shape, so the farther you are away from the speaker the more background noise you are likely to pick up. An excellent choice for a shotgun mic is the Rode VideoMic 2 which has professional sound quality, but only costs $150 (remember to check for accessory shoe compatibility with your camcorder… you may need an adapter):
Picking a Tripod
The last bit of essential equipment is getting a good tripod for your setup. If you have a standard camera tripod you can make due, but getting a specialized video tripod is ideal. Even though a tripod will be the largest item in your rig, it doesn’t have to be the most expensive item, especially if you shop around. Some things you should consider when looking for a tripod are:
- Weight – If you will be recording on the run, choose a tripod that is lightweight and easy to setup.
- Control – You want to be able to easily pan and tilt the camera independently to follow the presenter, so get one with a good fluid drag mechanism.
- Quality – Your tripod stands to take a fair amount of abuse as you move your setup around, so make sure it is of sturdy construction.
I ended up going with the Ravelli AVT Video Tripod and have been pretty impressed with what you get for $77. It has a fluid balance for leveling the camera, switchable plates for quickly changing the mounted camcorder, and comes with two solid metal arms for controlling the camera angle. The only downside is that it is a little heavy (9 pounds), but the construction of the entire tripod is extremely rugged.
If you have the rest of the setup mentioned above, you are doing pretty good. However, for typical technical presentations with a slide deck or demos you will have trouble getting a good shot of both the presenter and the presentation. A much better option is to separately record and stream the presenter’s laptop so you can superimpose the presenter’s picture on top of the slides.
There are a variety of software options you can use to do this, but I am not going to even bother covering these for the simple reason that they are impractical. In most cases your presenter will use their own laptop, so it is not an option to setup the recording in advance. Even if it was, you still run the risk of having screen recording issues that would require interrupting the presenter to diagnose (this happened to me during my talk at the SD Forum and was extremely embarrassing even though we figured it out on the fly).
A much better option is to record the presenter’s laptop by intercepting and capturing the VGA signal. There are several VGA to USB converters on the market, but the most reasonable ones are sold by a company called Epiphan based out of Canada. Their entry level VGA2USB model is only $300, will allow capture of VGA signals at up to 2048×1536 resolution, and is about the size of a pack of cigarettes.
The downside of the entry level model is that the frame rate drops off steeply as the resolution goes up, and it is interlaced, which means your attendees will see tearing in the picture. They also sell much more expensive models that can handle everything from Dual-head DVI to direct internet streaming, but the best option is probably the VGA2USB LR, which captures at much higher frame rates with zero interlacing for $800:
In addition to the VGA to USB converter, you will also need a VGA splitter. It comes with a passive one, but if you want to maintain a high quality signal over a relatively long VGA cable (ours is 50′) you should probably invest in an active splitter. Radio Shack sells a very convenient VGA Splitter that will power itself off the computer’s USB slot, which is worth it for saving the hassle of carting yet another power supply:
After all that detail on the products and options, it is easy to lose track of the essentials. This section will give you just the line items and cost for my recommended setup.
Category Hardware Cost
Camcorder Canon Vixia HV40 $650
Microphone Audio Technica Pro 88W $124
Tripod Ravelli AVT Video Tripod $77
VGA Converter Epiphan VGA2USB $300
VGA Splitter Gigaware USB-Powered VGA Splitter $33
Important: Remember to buy a Firewire cable to hook this up to your computer, and a long (50′) VGA cable for the VGA2USB dongle.
I hope this hardware guide has been helpful. I have no vested interested in any of the companies or products mentioned, and welcome suggestions about good alternatives in the comments section.
Make sure to follow my blog so you catch the next installment of this series where I will go into detail on how to use this hardware to stream live from your event!