A Musician's Guide to Live Streams That Look and Sound Awesome
Live Streams are Exploding Right Now
Maybe you’ve been wanting to try live streaming for a long time. Maybe you thought you’d never pick up a phone and hit that LIVE button. Whatever you thought of live streaming at the start of 2020, it has quickly become the ONLY way a musician can perform live while we are all self-isolating to “flatten the curve” of the COVID-19 virus.
So here we are. Another new skill to learn. I’d like to help you do this well.
I’m a local musician who has been experimenting with live streaming for at least the past few years. By now I’ve done dozens, if not hundreds, of live shows – mostly on Facebook Live. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and adjustments since I started, so please learn from those rather than repeating them!
My Live Stream Set Up
Before we get in the weeds about what Live Streaming is and how it works, you might just want to know how I do it. So here’s my setup.
Streaming platform: Facebook Live (from my artist page, not my personal profile)
Computer/Phone: Macbook Pro Laptop (2014 13”)
Streaming Software: eCamm Live
Audio: Aston Spirit condenser microphone and guitars ran through Soundcraft 12 MTK USB Mixer and Interface
Video: Canon T6i DSLR and 2 Neewer LED Video lights
That’s what I’m using. I’ll get into how all of that works together below.
As simply as we can, let’s walk through what your options are for going live, and what’s needed to produce a livestream that actually sounds, and looks, like a professional show (we’ll get to whether or not that even matters, too).
Live Stream Platforms
There are so many “venues” you can play with your livestream. Most of them are not ticketed – like playing a show with no cover, except in this case there is also no guarantee from the venue. These are entirely ‘pass the hat’ gigs.
There are websites that allow you to pre-sell tickets to an exclusive livestream. My opinion is that ticketed live streams could work well for established artists, but not so well for smaller artists like myself. In these uncertain times when people are motivated to support local artists, we may see more success with this model, but I’m doubtful because people just aren’t used to paying for live streamed concerts online and it’s an uphill battle to convince them.
I recommend streaming to viewers where they already are, in places like Facebook or Youtube or Instagram or Twitch. Most people are spending hours there already, so our live streams will be easy to find and easy to watch. Anyone who has ever watched a video on Facebook, Youtube or Instagram can watch live video just as easily (and share it with others).
That said, here are the top platforms I’m currently aware of for live streaming concerts.
StageIt has been around for years and hosted shows by major artists like Bonnie Raitt, Common, Jason Mraz and Jon Bon Jovi. From their website, “Stageit is an online venue where artists perform live, interactive, monetized shows for their fans directly from a laptop, offering fans unique experiences that are never archived.”
Exclusivity is the sell here and if you want to try paywalled live streaming, StageIt is the established name.
This site was built just this week, specifically to address those housebound by the COVID-19 health crisis. Again, I’m not sure how well paid shows will go over with fans, but if you choose to go this route, you should give HouseBand.ca a try as it’s built right in Alberta where I’m from.
Where you choose to stream should depend on where your people are.
Don’t expect fans to come to you – go to them.
In addition to different demographics, each platform has its technical pros and cons that I’ll cover here.
Finally, there is a way to stream to multiple platforms at once, called multi-streaming. There’s extra costs associaated with multi-streaming and we’ll get more into that later in this guide.
Facebook Live is my own platform of choice, for a few reasons.
First, so many people are on Facebook that’s it’s about as close as we get to a universal platform (like it or not).
Second, my music appeals largely to people in their late twenties to mid-forties, and to people 55+. I know this in part because Facebook tells me so in my Page “Insights” These people are on Facebook in large numbers.
Finally, Facebook Live streams are easy to set up and use with streaming software, which enables me to use a high quality audio and video feed for my streams.
The biggest downside of Facebook Live is there is no integrated way to tip artists. You can share a link to a service like Paypal.me to collect tips, but that’s not nearly as smooth as it could and should be. I hope Facebook is working on something here.
Facebook Live also doesn’t provide any easy way to link an event to a live stream. This sucks, because you can invite people to an event or event promote an event with ads. For this reason, I’ll sometimes create an event to get the word out about a future stream, but there’s not direct link between the two, which is confusion for viewers.
Promotion of live streams is just bad in general, but thankfully most platforms prioritize live content and let people know when you are live if they are connected with your page or profile in a meaningful way.
I’d really like to experiment with Instagram live streams, but unfortunately Instagram Live does not allow third-party tools to connect with their live streaming platform. This means you have to stream from your phone and that makes your quality options more limited.
There are a lot of people on Instagram, and Instagram Lives are popular and easy to interact with.
Instagram’s demographic skews younger than Facebook’s, and I believe more people will be notified when you’ve gone live on Instagram than on Facebook, so it may be worth the loss in quality for you.
I should point out here that you CAN get a good sounding mic that plugs into your phone, or use a mixer like the Roland Go Mixer or the iRig Stream to run any mic you already have into your phone. Your video still won’t be as good as possible, but with with good lighting today’s best camera phones can do a great job.
There is just no official, supported way to stream to Instagram Live outside of your mobile device through the Instagram app. This means you lose out on a lot of nice features of the streaming software we’ll talk about below. It also means you cannot multi-stream (stream to more than one network at once) when Instagram is in the mix. You would have to run two streams at the same time manually, using your laptop AND your phone, which would cause me some worries about internet bandwidth.
Like Facebook Live, Instagram Live (made by Facebook) doesn’t offer any built in way to support artists. To make things worse, sharing a link is even harder here, since you can’t click links in most places on Instagram.
I have not tried YouTube Live yet, but obviously there are millions and millions of eyeballs on YouTube everyday, and a large community of music lovers. I’ve heard YouTube is actually the world’s top music site. I plan to add YouTube to my streams using Multi-Streaming soon, and then I’ll have more to say about the pros and cons here.
YouTube is easy to set up with any of the streaming software I’ve seen. Generally you just log into your YouTube account and you are good to go.
I’ve heard that YouTube does offer options for people to tip the artists they are watching, which would be an awesome feature. I’m not sure how this works at this point, or if it’s only open to top-tier channels like a lot of YouTube’s features.
You may not have a YouTube creator account, which you’ll need to go live. Not a big deal, just one more thing to do and one more login to remember. Ah well.
Your viewers may not be on YouTube as much as they are on Facebook or Instagram either, since it’s not really a social network. This means more promotion on your end to pull fans over to YouTube to watch.
Hours and hours and hours of content are streamed on Twitch every day, but mostly in the gaming world. I feel even less familiar with twitch than Youtube Live, so I haven’t used it yet and I cannot say much about the pros and cons.
I can report that most streaming software I’ve seen connects with Twitch and that Twitch does have built in tipping features. Both big in the Good column.
People in the know keep telling us to watch out for Twitch so … you know … watch out for Twitch.
There are dozens of other options for live streaming. Some are bigger like Periscope and many are very small. I don’t consider any of them that viable for music streaming, especially if I want to connect with new fans easily. Your mileage may vary, and I’ve definitely heard of success stories on Periscope, where you can also get financial support from your fans, which is awesome.
Streaming Software vs. Streaming Directly
All of the platforms above will allow you to use the camera and mic on your device (phone, tablet or laptop, depending) and click a couple of buttons to go live. This makes it very easy to create a live stream, but your video and audio may suffer. That’s where streaming software comes in.
Streaming software takes an audio feed and video feed you send it, often combines them with graphics, text or effects, and sends a stream to live streaming platforms like Facebook or YouTube.
There is software you can download and install and there are web-based options that work in your web browser (the Chrome browser is usually required). Some are free and some will cost you. All of these enable you to create a great live stream with audio or video from any source you have set up on your computer.
I won’t cover every option here – only the options I’d recommend based on my own use or research. This landscape is changing all the time, by the way, so be sure to look to Google for recent ‘streaming software’ search results before you lay down any cash.
Software You Download
This is what I’ve used for live streaming for a couple of years now.
eCamm Live is Mac-only, so that may be a deal-breaker for you. If you do have a Mac, you won’t find a better mix of ‘easy’, professional, feature-packed and affordable than this.
eCamm can stream from your computer to Facebook Live (personal feed, pages, groups, etc.), YouTube Live, Twitch or Periscope. The software is like a TV broadcast studio that also records your stream to your hard drive at the same time. This means you can take your live concert and cut it up into individual songs later to repost anywhere you like. Work smarter not harder by repurposing your content!
With eCamm, you can select your video and audio source from pretty much anything your computer can see. This is where eCamm has the edge over browser-based streaming software, where using certain cameras gets very complicated if it works at all.
You can plug an audio interface into your computer to get a feed from your mic.
For video, you can use your computer’s webcam, a different USB webcam or even a compatible Canon DSLR (many are). eCamm Live is the only way I know to use a DSLR to stream without extra equipment or a lot of setup headaches.
eCamm allows you to add text and images to your stream, and even use a green screen effect to swap out the background. You can also see comments roll in while you stream without having to open up your stream on Facebook or Youtube in a separate window (a big deal if you have a lil’ laptop like me).
eCamm is subscription-based, which is unfortunate because I bought it when it was a one-time purchase, so it was much more affordable over time then than it is now. Still, the pricing is affordable at under $20 a month to start. Just don’t use the free trial to stream because your stream will be cut off after just 10 minutes! I have a long story about how I learned that the hard way.
Here’s a video introduction to the software.
Streamlabs OBS (Open Broadcaster Software)
If you’ve done any research into live streaming software, you’ve heard about OBS. It is open source – which means FREE to use. You can get it to do most if not all of what eCamm Live will do (and more) and it runs on Windows AND Mac, rather than just Mac.
If you are on Windows and looking for streaming software that is free or even affordable, you’ll be using OBS.
I’m not a fan of OBS personally. I find it bloated and confusing, especially for new users. Like a lot of open source software, the functionality is there but the design and ease-of-use is lacking. All of this is just my opinion and a lot of people love OBS. It is really powerful. You can do everything I mentioned above with eCamm Live, except you’ll have some serious gymnastics ahead – or another piece of paid software or hardware – if you want to use your DSLR as your video source.
It won’t cost you a dollar to try OBS out, and you may take to it more than I did. If you can figure out how to use it, OBS will serve you well.
Stream Yard offers a compelling alternative to the downloadable software above. Being web-based, you don’t need to download anything to use Stream Yard (other than the Chrome browser if you don’t already have it.) Once you create a Stream Yard account, you can easily connect the service to your Facebook profile, pages or groups or your Youtube, LinkedIn, Periscope or Twitch accounts. Once you’ve connected an account, it’s very simple to go live to that account with Stream Yard’s broadcast studio. You’ll find a lot of the same features I mentioned in eCamm Live – the ability to use different audio and video sources, share your computer’s screen, add overlays and text and more. It’s very easy to add guests to your stream, too. You simply share a URL and when they click on it, so long as they have a camera and microphone and are using a supported web browser, they can join you live.
I just recently learned about Stream Yard (the first version of this guide didn’t even mention the service) and tried it for the first time this past weekend. It worked flawlessly and comments from facebook came in better than they do with eCamm. I could also see who was watching – something I don’t think I can do with eCamm Live. Add the fact that Stream Yard enables multi-streaming without any additional service (like Restream) and this may have just become my new tool of choice.
Stream Yard starts with a generous free plan that allows you to stream for 20 hours a month. You only get to have one guest on the free plan, you can’t add any overlays and you can’t get rid of Stream Yard’s ‘duck’ logo in the top right corner. Otherwise their free option is totally usable. $25 USD/month gets you more guests, more features and the ability to stream to two places at once, which is the best all-in-one deal I’ve found.
If you’ve never done a live stream before, Stream Yards is a great way to get started.
Click here to start your account.
This is my referral link, so if you choose to sign up, you’ll get $10 in credit, and once you’ve spent $25, I’ll get $25 in credit for the referral. I’d recommend this service anyways, but this is a nice win-win.
Belive.TV is very easy to use and very slick. In many ways it is a feature-for-feature competitor to Stream Yard, and Belive.tv has been around longer. Like Stream Yard, you can select your video and audio source with this tool, so you’ll be able to get good quality audio and video. Depending on your camera, the video part may be easier said than done, but selecting your audio is usually pretty simple once you have an interface plugged in.
Personally, I find Stream Yards a bit cleaner in design and a bit easier to use. It feels snappier to me.
Belive.TV is more expensive than Stream Yards at the time of this writing (though marginally) and does not offer multi-streaming, thought it is ‘coming soon’.
Belive.TV is subscription based, but they also offer a free tier that lets you stream three times a month so it costs you nothing to try the service.
I used Lightstream before I settled on eCamm Live. At the time it was very new and if I remember correclty, totally free to use. Not so much now.
Lightstream works on both Mac and Windows and is more powerful and customizable than either Stream Yard or Belive.tv. I know I was able to get it to recognize my audio and if I remember correctly, my DSLR camera too. With all of its features, I still found Lightstream easy to use.
Since I used it last, Lightstream has a very cool feature that allows you to control your stream with your phone so you don’t have to keep doing stuff on your computer while you are live.
They offer a free plan that lets you stream for 4 hours a month on services that include Facebook Live, Youtube Live and Twitch.
Getting Good Sound
While live streams have exploded, most of them do not have good sound. This can be fine if it’s just one person and guitar or acoustic piano. Once you add in more instruments, electric instruments or multiple vocalists, poor sound becomes a real problem. People tend to put up with poor video quality more than poor sound quality, so if you can invest in one area of your live stream, make it your sound.
Make it your goal to make every instrument and voice come through clearly and balanced. You don’t need to worry about it sounding like a record, or even a professional live concert – simply make sure people can hear what you are doing clearly and you’ll be ahead of the game.
Built In Microphones
If I could give you just one tip, it would be this. DO NOT USE YOUR LAPTOP’S BUILT IN MIC. It makes you sound like you are playing your music underwater. Except the water is syrup. And your guitar has been ruined by syrup. Just don’t do it.
Your phone microphone can be surprisingly good and get a decent balance so long as you are playing solo, on an acoustic instrument and the phone is set up nearby and at a good angle to your sound source. This can be tricky because the best place to capture sounds is often not the best place to capture video. Your phone might be way too close, for instance, and you can’t see your instrument in the stream at all.
Audio Interfaces and Professional Microphones
So let’s assume we want to use a mic (or a couple of mics). This is where an audio interface comes in. An interface lets you plug a standard microphone and/or guitar or keyboard cable into a box that then sends that audio to your computer over a USB cable.
If you are using just one microphone – say a condenser mic that picks up everything happening in the room – you’ll be fine with pretty much any USB interface. You just plug your mic into the interface, then plug the interface into your computer, then select your Interface from the Audio Source section of your streaming software and boom – you’re in business. The works with both downloaded and web-based software.
Now let’s say you need more than one channel at a time. Maybe you want to plug in your guitar so you hear subtle picking, and you want to sing into your microphone at the same time. Maybe you have a keyboard with no speaker. Your interface probably has two or more inputs, but most USB audio interfaces send out each input channel as a separate output channel. The problem with this for our purposes is that when we want to select our Audio Source, we’ll have to select Channel One (say, the mic) OR Channel Two (say, the guitar) – but not both.
If you are using more than one input on your interface, you need it to send a master stereo output to your computer that combines all inputs.
One caveat here. I believe eCamm Live now lets you select multiple audio sources to mix together, so that should work to solve the problem. OBS likely allows for this too. This still wouldn’t be my ideal choice though.
Your simplest bet is to use a USB mixer. A mixer will send not the individual channels (though some can do that too) over USB, but the master stereo mix of everything. This is perfect for live streaming. You just select your mixer’s output as your Streaming software’s Audio Source, then whatever you are running through your mixer will go into your live stream. It works really well, and some mixers even have effects so you can add a bit of reverb to your singing live, without any delay (or ‘latency’) messing things up. If you don’t already have a mixer with USB output you can get one for as little as a hundred bucks or so, with the bonus of having a handy little mixer you can bring to gigs that don’t have one (maybe they have a BOSE L1 with just two inputs, for instance). A mixer has a lot of uses beyond live streaming.
Getting Good Video
Video is the hardest part to get right. Thankfully, it may also be the least important.
Social media content is held to a different standard than a show on Netflix or a DVD recap of an arena show. We are all used to live video on social media looking kind of crappy, and it’s been said that this poor quality actually contributes to your content feeling more intimate and authentic to viewers.
Whatever camera you use – even it it’s the webcam built into your laptop – don’t overlook lighting. Our eyes pick up a LOT more light than a camera lens, and the cheaper the camera the worse it is in low light situations. The easiest solution here is to sit near a window out of direct sunlight. You’ll get a bright, evenly lit scene with no effort.
My studio is in my basement and I’ve got very poor lighting down there. I use two LED lights on stands to control the lighting – otherwise it would not look good down there no matter what camera I use.
My lights cost less than $200, but on the cheap you can use well placed work lamps or even regular lamps with bright bulbs if you place them properly. Youtube has a lot of lighting videos to help.
Canon DSLR Cameras
Perhaps you want some nice ‘depth of field’ (where you are in focus while the background blurs out a bit). You’ll really need a DSLR camera for this. I recommend Canon because they seem to play nicer with streaming software. I have the T6i, which is a couple of years old now, and it is literally ‘plug and play’ with eCamm Live on my Mac. It works very well, and looks very good.
I was also able to get my T6i to work as a video source in Stream Yard, using a combination of Camera Live and CamTwist Studio – both free downloads for my mac. I believe SparkoCam may do the same thing for you on Windows. These aren’t the easiest set ups but they can work if you really care about that DSLR look and want to use web-based streaming software.
Multi-Streaming to Many Platforms
Once you’ve invested in getting a great live stream set up, you want it to go out to as many people as possible. Multi-streaming lets you broadcast to more than one platform at the same time, using a third-party website to serve your stream to the platforms you choose simultaneously, and often bringing all of your community’s comments into one place for you to read and respond to.
For instance, I can stream from eCamm Live to Restream.io, and Restream will send that broadcast out to my Facebook profile, my Facebook Page, My YouTube channel and Twitch – all at the same time.
I have not found any free Multi-streaming options, so weigh out if this extra expense is worth another $20 or more for your each month.
The best options I’ve found that are built just for multi-streaming are Restream.io, Castr.io and Splitstream.io (though I have yet to try any of them).
Stream Yard also offers multi-streaming right from their broadcast studio with all of their paid plans, which is awesome. Less cost and less headaches. If I decide to multi-stream, I’ll be trying Stream Yard first.
Remember Your ‘Why’
Why do you want to live stream in the first place?
If you are like me, you might want to connect with new fans in locations you cannot visit. Or, during our current pandemic, connect with fans in one of the only way possible ways. Either way, live streaming is about connection, not perfection. It’s about relationship as much as performance, so don’t trade in interaction for high production values.
Remember that content is king online, no matter how good it looks or sounds. Some huge stars have gone live this week with less than stellar quality. I’ve been watching Colbert episodes he filmed at home on his iPad in self-isolation, and I’m loving them. They feel more intimate than regular TV and that builds connection.
Your fans just want to hear you play – and if they can see you and hear clearly, consider that good enough and focus on delivering the same great shows you’ve always given.
I’ve surely left something out. Ask away and I’ll try and respond.