Shooting & Directing live music exclusively with iOS, Switcher Studio & Jukebox the Ghost.
My experience with directing live productions isn’t exhaustive, but I enjoy doing it whenever I get a chance. From high school in 2004 all the way through working on Coachella’s livestream this summer, the workflow has always been very similar: a director with a big bank of screens & buttons guides a crew of camera operators and picks his or her favorite shots out of the bunch. For as long as I can remember, these shoots have been very expensive and have demanded a lot of gear.
A month ago, I was contacted by my friends at Jukebox the Ghost. They were looking for a live streaming solution for their upcoming halloween shows. I gave them quotes for a full-fledged live show ($20,000+), and a laptop with a built-in camera running a YouTube feed ($0). Neither of these options worked for anybody. We needed good sound and at least a couple camera options to keep the feed engaging. After a rejection of the $20,000 option, I came across a solution that wouldn’t break the bank.
Switcher Studio Pro is a live production switcher and recorder for iOS. The software’s killer feature is the way it can painlessly add and remove iPhones and iPads as cameras. All that’s needed is a shared wifi network and a free software download on each camera. This is a huge gamechanger. iPhones & iPod Touches are small, and there are plenty of mounting options on the market to accommodate them. Unlike a setup with broadcast cameras, the show doesn’t require a full crew of people to run cables and keep them safe from dancing crowds. With these advantages over, it seemed as if Switcher Studio Pro had arrived to make this production possible.
On the software side, SSP is young but still very powerful. It easily handles streaming into a wide swath of services and is capable of recording its program output. Up to four live sources appear in the bottom left corner of the director’s device, with a preview monitor, program monitor occupying the top half of the screen. The remaining quadrant gives the director access to camera settings, stream settings, transitions and audio meters. Unlike a traditional control room, Switcher Studio is difficult to break. Tap to preview camera, tap again to make it live, repeat. I felt very at home when it came to switching cameras—I just needed a reliable way to get those iOS sources rolling.
My initial $20k budget to get the stream rolling was reduced by approximately 90%. This money was used to figure out my camera mounts, power, and live audio.
iOS devices are pretty easy to come by in my household. To keep the picture quality at iPhone 5+ levels, I wound up using the following:
- iPad Air 2 (director and wide shot)
- iPhone 6S plus (front-row camera)
- Retina iPad mini (stage right/guitar camera)
- iPhone 6 (drums)
All of these devices had at least 64GB of storage, and all but the 6S plus (my personal phone) had only Apple’s built-in apps and Switcher Studio Pro installed. Before going live, I put each device on a strict do-not-disturb, turned off cellular data for anything with an active SIM card, and made sure that automatic software update was shut off. My goal was to have as much free space as possible and minimize the chance of the phone being disturbed with notifications during the shoot. In the case of a slightly higher-budget production, I would use a collection of iPod Touches dedicated to the cause.
Broadcasting good audio for the stream was a top priority, and Switcher’s website has an easy tutorial for getting clean audio with the iRig Pro. The device is about $20 and allowed me to dump an XLR feed into my iPad’s headphone jack. After a couple emails with the front-of-house sound mixer, I was set to get a mix of board audio and a house mic for the crowd. It was almost too easy.
The iPhones’ internal batteries can’t be trusted to blast Wifi and keeping the camera turned on for multiple sets. Thanks to my company’s dabbling with 360º GoPro videos, we have a large armory of USB batteries. Our battery of choice is the 15,000 mAh Viivant power bank. By running lightning cables from the mounted phones onto batteries on the ground, we would be guaranteed enough power to last through the show and probably into the next day. Our lightning cables varied from six feet to ten feet long, so I could easily stash the batteries out of the way onstage.
Without any camera operators, mounting the devices in good spots was critical. Luckily for the shoot, Jukebox the Ghost consists of only three members: a drummer, guitarist and keyboardist. All of them do vocals, with the keyboardist splitting his time between the keys and center stage for some vocal parts. To my disadvantage, I had no access to their kit until sound-check on the day of the show, and had to make my best guesses when ordering my mounting options. Here’s what I wound up with:
- Shoulderpod S1 ($35) tripod mount and grip
- RetiCAM standard & RetiCAM XL tripod mounts ($25)
- Pedco UltraClamp with 1/4" mount ($21)
- X Suction Cup Mount ($5)
- Vastar Universal Tablet Holder with 1/4" mount ($8)
My initial plan was to use a suction cup on the keyboards, a clamp on the drum kits, and figure something out for the guitarist. For my A-camera, the master iPad would be grabbing a wide shot from a tripod at Front of House. I had enough 1/4“ tripod adapters to cover every device, and two Gorillapod Focus tripods to bail me out of bad mounting situations.
I wound up clamping an iPhone (with an Olloclip fisheye lens) to a spare mic stand to get a clean shot of the drummer. The mic stand gave me freedom in my camera placement and saved it from any vibrations that a direct mount to the kit would have resulted in.
The suction cup sucked beautifully on the metal keyboards, but raised the phone up too high to get a good shot of Ben playing and singing. I scrapped it in favor of a Gorillapod on a stage monitor (and eventually in the hands of an operator in the crowd). Guitarist Tommy’s camera was an iPad mini sitting on the other Gorillapod on another monitor. This angle was dangerously close clashing with Ben’s camera, but the cut worked.
Sitting on a desk at front of house was my iPad Air 2 on a Benro Travel Angel tripod. Running double-duty as the camera switcher and the primary camera was far from ideal, but did the job. To mount securely on the tripod, the iPad was snapped into an iOgrapher Mobile Media case with a 1.5x telephoto lens adapter to frame the stage more cleanly.
My only use of a full-featured computer was keeping track of the Ustream chat during the show, and having access to iMessage while my phone was out on the stage. Having a direct line with the chat and a couple friends watching from home proved to be hugely valuable, as I was able to adjust bandwidth issues in near real-time. The show’s opening band was The Secret Someones, and doing a single-camera stream of their set let me dial everything in. It also set up the expectation that the show’s stream would take place entirely with one wide shot.
Switcher Studio Pro allowed me to put up a customized graphic with schedule info in between sets. This let us keep the stream alive, and keep viewers up to speed on what was happening. When Jukebox the Ghost came on for their first set and I made the first camera switch, it was hugely satisfying to see the comments roll in about the alternate angles.
As a long-time fan of Jukebox the Ghost, I knew the songs in their set very well. This was a big help in picking my angles, and in timing my cuts. Jesse’s drummer camera was a hit with the stream, and Tommy’s rockstar angle worked well. My stationary Gorillapod camera behind Ben wasn’t what I needed to see him sing, but it captured his interaction with the keyboard perfectly.
A friend of the band offered to run the Ben camera when the band came back onstage as Queen. This was an important adjustment to keep up with the singer as he moved from the piano to center stage throughout the set. Direct light shooting into the iPhone’s slightly beat up lens had a beautifully appropriate look when it shot up from the front row, giving guitar solos and big vocal moments a perfect “1980's live production” feel. I don’t know if I would have gotten away with it in a different context, but I’m thankful it happened for Halloqueen.
Leading up to the show, I made a lot of disclaimers to the band and their label. This was my first time really using Switcher Studio Pro, and the odds of everything falling apart seemed high. To my surprise, all of the iPads, phones, battery and wifi connection managed to get through the whole night without melting, crashing, or otherwise falling apart. The only adjustment I had to make during the set was re-seating the Olloclip on Jesse’s drum-cam. At the end of the night,Getting access to full quality video recordings from each of the stage-cameras was no problem. Overall, the stability of the software and iOS was better than I could have expected.
When I began exploring iOS-exclusive options for this stream, I thought it was primarily for the novelty. I enjoy looking at workflows for the iPad as Apple’s big bet on the “post-PC era”. As it turns out, Switcher Studio was the best option to overcome our budget and time constraints. With more traditional approaches, I would have either needed to invest a ton of money, or run USB webcams into a computer for a much less satisfying look.
Switcher Studio was great with my four devices, but a fifth would have made an important difference. In hindsight, Combining the wide camera with the director’s interface was not the best move. Vibrations can be seen whenever I (enthusiastically) switched sources to the wide shot. Those vibrations were invisible to me in the preview but are pretty clear in the final program.
Using the Master iPad as a wide camera also left me unable to record a full quality video file from my wide shot. This is something I would have realized with just a little bit more research into SSP’s director mode. With the master iPad handling only the cuts and the stream, I could have walked away with a much higher quality recording. Instead, I have HD versions of my stage cameras and a very low-quality file for my A-camera, and the line-cut. Next time, director mode is a must.
Using iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch with Switcher Studio Pro has the potential to open up live multicam streams to an enormous number of artists who can’t afford Tricasters, TV trucks and crews of people hauling around $50,000 cameras. I’ve lost track of livestreams that I’ve budgeted out of existence, and that’s no fun for anybody. With the addition of robotic pan/tilt mounts, and some kind of solution for longer lenses on iOS (no, that disaster of an SLR lens adapter does not count), this is going to open up a lot of doors for bands and organizations that are ready to upgrade from Periscope.
As a professional in broadcasting, this development really excites me. Big gigs are not going to throw away Steadicams & Zoom lenses for iOS devices and iPhone broadcasts are not going to cannibalize the market for large-scale professional shows. Instead, smaller live acts broadcasting more shows with Switcher Studio is going to create a demand for more live content, foster more widespread exposure to the acts and build audiences that see the value in seeing high quality live streams more often. Just look at what happened to prerecorded video shooting and editing in the past decade—accessible software and hardware is a huge deal.
I can’t thank CherryTree and Jukebox the Ghost enough for the opportunity to do this experiment at one of their shows. The people at SilverSunn also deserve a ton of credit for building Switcher Studio Pro and diving into a segment of the live production market that has been stuck in purgatory since the advent of live television. I can’t wait to see what happens next.