Music Streaming on the Net: A Primer and Best Practices
By: John May, Dwarf Star Studios
With the advent of high-quality audio in nearly every electronic communication device we use, as well as Internet connections being more robust than ever, providing streaming music performances online has become a reality for many of us.
Now that we are dealing with the COVID-19 epidemic, this is additionally becoming a lifeline for musicians’ livelihoods. I hope to provide some rudimentary information and best practices for first timers, as well as some suggestions that even seasoned experts can use.
Find the platform and software that works best for you
Streaming performances are a great way to engage your audience, letting them hear and see you without needing to attend a physical show, and hopefully put some tip money in your pocket. By far, the most popular platforms to stream on include Facebook Live, Instagram and YouTube. There are other options as well, such as “meta streaming” sites like Restream and YouNow that will broadcast to multiple services simultaneously, Stageit that helps monetize your performance, and Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) that allows you to run it all from your computer. I won’t get into the details of the specific usage of each, as plenty of info can be found in the services’ documentation and on the web.
Content is King
When planning for your show, remember that content is king. Make a set list and practice your performance, just like a gig. I have seen way too many streams that don’t follow this advice, and serve only to dilute the performer’s brand and make them look unprofessional. If you don’t engage your audience with a well-planned and rehearsed performance, they’re going to go elsewhere.
Next up, prepare your environment. You should primarily consider your sound before thinking about the video. Some options to consider regarding sound include:
Good, Better, & Best Audio Setups
Good: Use your phone or computer with the built-in camera and microphone. Be aware that mics on phones and computers aren’t all that great, and particularly have troubles picking up bass sounds. Place your device close to you, not across the room but about a foot away, to pick up sound the best – and align it so that it is picking up equal amounts of each instrument and vocal. Err on the side of mic positioning vs. video positioning.
Better: While the built-in mic on your device is OK, an external mic will make a big difference in sound quality for your listeners. There are lots of options here depending on what type of device you are using, including mics that will plug into the USB port on your computer, the lightning port on your iPhone or the 1/8” headphone/mic jack. If you choose a mic with a cable, you gain an added advantage of being able to position your phone/laptop’s camera separately from your microphone.
Best: For a truly professional setup, using an external audio interface is the best. An audio interface allows you to connect multiple microphones and inputs to your streaming device for the cleanest sound, and allows you to control the mix of what your listeners are hearing. Once again, choices abound that start with two channels of audio, with some providing 8 or even 16 inputs, and connect via USB or lightning ports. Most audio interfaces include some sort of mixer software that controls the input levels (more about that below), output mix, etc., as well as headphone jacks to let you hear what it all sounds like before sending it out. Many also allow you to add effects to your vocals and instruments as well.
Video considerations should be secondary to the above, but are still important to consider. Be aware that digital cameras are not good at filming in low light, so be sure you are in a well lit environment with lighting coming from behind the camera, not behind you. If you have a choice, use the rear camera on your phone instead of the front facing one, as it will be of higher quality and resolution. Use your phone in landscape (horizontal) orientation, unless you are streaming to Instagram then use it in portrait (vertically), and employ a stand if you can to keep it where you put it. Finally, be sure to consider your look, and have fun with it!
Now that you’re technically prepared, you’ll want to do some fine tuning. First off, be sure your sound levels are loud enough yet not distorting. Whatever device or software you use, you’ll want your input meter to show your level close to the top, but not going into the red which can cause clipping (distortion). If you’re using an external audio interface, use its mixer software to view the meters and adjust the input levels accordingly. If you’re using a computer, the system sound control panel has an input meter and level adjustment. Some streaming sites and software have adjustments within the software itself. If none of this is an option, many simple audio recording apps on phones have input level meters – noting that you’ll need to reposition your phone to change the level coming in since any input level setting in the app won’t carry over to Instagram, etc. Whatever you do, take the time to set your levels as this will make the difference between your audio sounding horrible or great.
So, performance plan: check, audio: check, video: check. My final tip, before streaming to the public, is to do a test stream to another device. Hook up some decent headphones or speakers to the receiving device. Start your stream and execute your performance to see how the sound and video are, and use this opportunity to make any adjustments. Move your mic around if you need to balance things better or if your audio levels sound too loud or soft. Move the camera to get a better view – you can even use a wide-angle lens if you have one.
Build the Hype
You’ve made it this far - now you’re ready to actually put on that performance! Think about how to announce to your followers – whether it be a Facebook event, social media postings, email lists, etc. Facebook and Instagram will show your followers when you’re live, and that’s great, but taking the time to schedule your events will result in a larger audience. Leverage the resources that have been cropping up as well to make your announcements, such as Facebook groups and various Instagram and Facebook pages devoted to such.
Finally, as for the performance itself, do your setup beforehand. Tune your guitar, get comfortable, *then* start your stream. Nobody wants to watch you straighten your hair, talk about what you had for lunch, etc. Remember to put out a virtual tip jar so your fans can help you out – Venmo and PayPal work great. And above all – have fun!