Sharing your church services online is more affordable than ever. I believe that more churches should be taking advantage of this technology to reach the mission field and to continue the development of discipleship among a more mobile and immobile population. I wrote in depth about this in my post, Technology and Pastoral Care, Part III.
From talking to churches, I believe there are two main barriers keeping churches on the fence: perceived cost and not knowing where to start. In this post, I hope to offer a better understanding of the costs involved and some ideas of how to get started.
The easiest way to begin live streaming is to start fresh since, as you will see, all of the pieces need to work together. In a best-case scenario, you could make all of these decisions together to make sure your hardware and software and provider all play well together. This is rarely the case. Most churches I talk to already have some pieces of the puzzle when they start thinking about live streaming. Maybe the church already owns a camera, a computer, maybe even a capture device.
There are a lot of creative ways to make everything work together. It is best to start by understanding all the pieces.
Things You Need to Get Started
A Broadband Internet Connection
If this isn’t possible due to budget or location, live streaming just isn’t going to work for your church. You may still have some options to get video online, but it isn’t going to be in real time.
Honestly, the faster, the better.
- Actual speed from the provider – Just because your internet advertises a certain speed doesn’t mean you are getting that speed.
- Time of day – Depending on your provider, Internet speeds may vary during the day depending on demand in your area.
- How your network is wired – Unless your computer is connected directly to your internet modem, your wired ethernet network setup or your wifi network may affect your actual speed.
- Other people using the internet connection – If you are on a network with other computers, you will be pulling from the same pool of bandwidth. If there is heavy use from other computers, you could see dramatic decreases in speed.
Ultimately, from experience, it is best to have more bandwidth than you need. The more bandwidth you have, the higher resolution stream you can send. Also, more bandwidth means more wiggle room should student ministry decide to upload an HD video during your worship service.
A Capture Device
I couldn’t decide whether to write about computers first or capture devices. The kind of computer you need will be dictated by which input box you use. However, the kind of capture device you need might depend on the computer you already have.
What Is a Capture Device?
This term covers a variety of cards, boxes, and appliances. In layman’s terms, this is the device that gets the signal from your camera and microphone and gets it ready to be sent upstream on the internet.
Capturing and Encoding
Two things need to happen to get your images and sounds ready for the internet. They need to be captured, and they need to be encoded. How and where this happens depends on your equipment. How you capture may dictate how you encode. There are two main types of devices:
Computer Capture Cards and Boxes
The video from your camera and the audio from your microphone need to be captured before they are encoded. There are a number of devices that will do that and feed the data via USB, Thunderbolt, Firewire, etc. In this situation, the computer will do the encoding. We will talk more about the software that does that later.
These devices capture audio and video and encode it directly onboard. This means that a computer is not needed to do the encoding. In some cases, the device can send the encoded stream directly to your streaming host. In those cases, a computer is not needed at all for streaming. In other setups, a computer may be part of the workflow. However, it doesn’t need to be as powerful as it would need to be if it were handling encoding.
No matter what the setup, you are going to need a computer if you are going to have live stream. Even if you use a stand-alone encoder, you will need a way to set up and schedule your live stream and likely, view it. Because the requirements of encoding, when using a capture card or box, you will need to have adequate computer power. Having a computer that is too slow, has too little memory, is running an older operating system, could cause your stream to drop frames or even fail altogether.
With computers and church budgets, the question is often: what is the least I can get away with? I totally understand. If you are looking for bare minimums, you may need to wait until you select your software and live stream provider. There are a lot of factors in play. For live streaming, I highly recommend getting the most amount of computer power you can afford, unless you are using a stand-alone encoder.
How Big? How New? How Fast?
As I look at the minimum requirements for capture devices and encoding software, it would be safe to say you are going to need, at least, a quad-core processor, an i3 at minimum. That is true whether it is a Mac or PC. And that is minimum and will likely work if you are running a lower resolution stream. However, if you want to run anything in High Definition or multiple streams (a topic for later), you will need a little more power, an i5 or i7. The i7 processor is currently recommended for many setups running HD. The machine will need at least 1GB of ram (the more, the better). As far as hard drive space, that depends if you want to do any recording on the computer. Without recording space, you could probably want at least 200MB of space on your drive. If you want to record to the computer you will need a lot more. If you are purchasing a new computer, remember that it might be helpful to buy a little more than you need. Software updates are frequent and they often require more power.
One way or another, if you want to live stream video, you will need a camera. What kind of a camera depends on things including your budget, your capture device, the size and layout of the room and how good you want it to look. Putting all those things together makes choosing a camera a little complicated.
The single most important thing is finding a camera that will work with your capture device. So do you get a camera that works with your capture device or a capture device that works with your camera? Yes. You may be starting to see that you need to think this all the way through before buying anything.
Three Basic Types of Cameras
It may make it a little simpler to think of cameras in these categories. It oversimplifies it a bit, but it is a place to start.
Probably the fastest and easiest way to get video online. In some cases, with a USB camera, you don’t even need to use an encoder. They are inexpensive and require virtually no setup. The flipside is that they have some limitations. First, not all encoding software works with all webcams. Second, these little cameras lack much in the way of zoom, manual focus, and white balance meaning the image quality is going to suffer.
Consumer and ProSumer HDMI Cameras
There are many affordable HD cameras on the market that capture High Definition video and can feed the signal through an HDMI output. Many capture cards and boxes will accept HDMI. If your card or box accepts HDMI, this is a great choice. These cameras range in price from around $300 to thousands of dollars. You can likely find a camera with the quality and features you need in the right budget range. The biggest drawback won’t affect most users. That is the fact that there is a limited length of cable runs with HDMI. This will affect you if you are installing a multi-camera setup in a large facility. In that case, you may want to look at a professional camera with an SDI output. You also have the option of converting the HDMI signal to SDI.
If you have the budget, the possibilities are endless once you get to the professional camera range. I am not going to go in depth in this post about professional camera options because that is not where most Rio Texas churches are. If you have a large facility, the need for interchangeable lenses, a desire to run multiple cameras, a need to operate a camera remotely, you will find what you are looking for in these higher end cameras
Component or composite (analog) output cameras
If you are really on a tight budget or already have a camera, you can get by with an older analog camera. Many capture devices will accept analog inputs such as component or composite video. A number of churches already have analog camcorders and, if not, they are inexpensive to buy. The biggest drawback is that, on most units, you will be limited to standard definition.
An Audio Source
Don’t forget that you will likely want people to hear. I have watched some beautiful video streams that were very difficult to watch because of poor audio. The complexity of this is going to depend a lot on the size and setup of the room where worship is held. For a small room, with really great acoustics, you may be able to plug a microphone right into your camera. If you are considering live streaming, there is a pretty good chance your church has a soundboard. The simplest setup is to plug an output from your soundboard into your capture device. In many cases, that will be all you need to do. However, there are many cases where problems arise.
Mixing For the Room
All this time, your soundboard and your board operator have been working hard to make the service sound good in the room. That means that they have been turning some things up and some things down. In very large sanctuaries and worship spaces people may hear everything through the PA. However, in most spaces, people are hearing a mix of the PA and the naturally occurring sound. In come cases, the choir might not be amplified at all but the pastor speaks through a microphone. Or maybe there is some reinforcement of sections of the choir but not of others. Pipe organs rarely need any amplification and some electronic organs have their own amplification and speakers. Here is what this means for your live stream: If you are taking a signal straight from the board and not everything is mixed and amplified, there may be times in your stream of pure silence. For instance, if your choir is singing and the choir is not amplified and your only audio signal is coming from the mixing board, there will be no sound.
So, How Do We Fix That?
Fixing this might be simple or complicated. Start by talking to whoever controls the sound. Many modern soundboards have the ability to create a separate mix. If that is the case, it may be possible to add a room microphone to this auxiliary mix to pick up the sounds that are not otherwise amplified. It may be feasible to capture sound directly from the room, bypassing the soundboard entirely and feeding that signal directly into your capture device. It is also possible to add another small mixer and blend the sound from the soundboard with a room microphone before feeding the capture device. Every situation is different so you might need to experiment or ask for help.
There is a great post from Church Production, “Improving Sound For Your Live Stream,” that looks at this issue in some more depth.
I have put this second to last because the software you use is going to depend a lot on all the other decisions you make. That includes the last item on the list, the streaming service provider.
It is really important to consider software in tandem with your streaming provider. Some providers offer free software; others sell software specific to their service. One that I know of offers steep discounts on software that works well with their service. Your software choice may also depend a lot on your budget. Prices range from free to around $1000. There are also more expensive options, but they are likely more powerful than a church would need.
Software has two main functions, encoding, and switching. If you have a stand-alone encoder, you won’t need the encoding part. If you are using a capture device, the software will encode it into the right format to send to your streaming provider.
The software can also take care of switching. This is useful even if you don’t have multiple cameras. You may want to switch to a graphic when there is nothing to look at on the camera. You may want to insert slides during the announcements. One software program allows you to pull a feed from another computer, meaning that if you are running song lyrics or other slides, they can be fed into your broadcast.
Streaming Service Provider
The video and audio are captured on camera and fed into your standalone encoder or capture device, maybe the signals go into your computer and through your software for encoding and then upstream through the internet to your streaming service provider. The service provider then “broadcasts” the stream over the web for everyone to see and hear. There are many providers out there, some that specialize in churches and others who handle all kinds of live streams. In a future post, I am going to compare some of the major players. For now, here are some of the things you might look at when comparing options.
Price – Most providers charge monthly or yearly with prices ranging from free to several hundred dollars a month. Most reliable services with enough options, power, and bandwidth for average churches are in the range of $50-$200.
Bandwidth/Viewers – When shopping price, be sure to understand whether you are looking at an unlimited plan or whether there are additional costs, limits or overages. An unlimited plan will offer a flat rate no matter how many services you stream, how many people watch and how often they watch. Other plans may base their fees on the bandwidth used and/or the number of viewers. Smaller churches may be happy with a less expensive plan with bandwidth and user limits but will need to watch carefully as viewership grows.
Free/Discounted Software – While there are some free software options for encoding and switching, you may be looking for something more robust. Check out what, if any, software the provider offers free or at a discount. Not only can it save you money, it will guarantee that the software works seamlessly with the streaming provider.
Embedding – Does the service allow you to embed the video directly on your website or do you need to direct viewers to another website to watch the feed? Embedded viewers provide a more seamless experience.
Ads – There are less expensive options out there that may sell banner ads in your stream.
Archiving – One of the nice features of live streaming is the ability to make your services available on-demand after they air live. Some churches have more people view their services during the week than on Sunday morning. Some providers will do this recording automatically.
Roku/Apple TV channels – More and more viewers are purchasing Roku and Apple TV streaming devices. A couple platforms will help you set up a channel for these devices so that people can watch live or pre-recorded services easily on their television.
Analytics – If you are going to invest the money, time and energy into live streaming, you will want to know how many people are watching, where they are watching from and how long they are watching. A service with good analytics will make this much easier.
Mobile? – If people are going to watch, some are going to want to watch on smartphones and tablets. Be sure the provider offers a viewer that works on mobile.
Adaptive Bitrate – Most services allow you to send them two or more streams in different “bitrates.” The provider then automatically sends the best stream for the device viewing the stream. For instance, someone watching on their computer with a high-speed broadband connection will receive a higher quality, higher bitrate stream than someone watching on a slow connection on their smartphone. This requires having the right software, a powerful enough computer, and enough bandwidth.
Support – As you can probably tell by now, there are a lot of moving parts to live streaming. Things can go much more smoothly if you can pick up the phone and call someone for help. Different providers have different levels of customer support and sometimes the support level varies by the package you purchase.
These are just some of the factors that need to be considered. I will cover them in more depth and compare how some different companies stack up in my next post.
If you have questions about live streaming, feel free to ask in the comments below. Rio Texas churches, if you are considering live streaming or need help getting your system up and running, feel free to contact me directly at the Rio Texas Media Center.
Church Broadcasting on a Budget [PDF] – A great intro from the folks who make WireCast live streaming software.
Choosing Between Live Steaming Cameras – A nice post from DaCast, a live streaming service provider.
Recommended cameras for streaming on Ustream – This post is somewhat specific to what works with Ustream, a live streaming service provider, but it has a lot of great information.
6 Church Live Streaming Best Practices – I wish I had read this article from Church Tech Today before I started live streaming.