At Chatterbug, in order to help people get together in person and practice their language skills in a friendly environment with fellow learners, we have been hosting events called “Chatternachts” every month in multiple cities in Germany (Berlin, Munich, Hamburg, Nuremberg). People get together for a beer and play games, practicing their German in a fun environment.
With the recent call to limit in-person gatherings of this nature in order to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), we were faced with having to cancel these events. Of course, this lets down not only the people who attend every month, but everyone who works so hard planning them and the venues we frequented for the events.
As an alternative, we decided to try moving the event online. Since it worked out pretty well, we decided to do it every day for the next few weeks as Chatterbug Live, so now I’ve become a bit of an accidental streaming expert.
Since there was a good amount of trial and error involved and we’ve come to a solution that seems to work relatively well, I thought it might be a good idea to share what I’ve learned and what we landed on to produce a series of live streamed community events to replace our in-person events for the time being.
There are a ton of options these days for streaming an event live and getting feedback from your audience. Thanks to the incredible popularity of streaming video games and live vlogging and the like, there are places to watch and comment on videos like Twitch, Mixer, YouTube Live, Facebook Live, etc.
Along with that comes supporting and broadcasting tools like Xsplit, OBS, Streamlabs, LiveStream Studio, Wirecast, Stage Ten, Switcher Studio and more. These are just some of the ones that I seriously evaluated. Here is my review of these for my use case, in the event that you’re trying to do something similar and I can save you some time.
Our Use Case
So what is our use case, exactly? We want to bring a bunch of people online, have a host and show for them to watch and actually be able to include them in a live event.
This means that I wanted to not only interact with people over chat and broadcast something, but importantly for our tooling choice, I wanted to be able to bring in audience members into the live video feed to interact with. It turns out, this makes things massively more difficult.
So, a few of our options.
OBS and Company
I have used OBS before, which is a really nice open source broadcasting studio solution. I’ve used it to record and stream live conferences, which it’s great for. You can setup custom scenes and set a wide variety of inputs, record to disk and broadcast at the same time, etc. A little unintuitive, but free and very powerful.
The downside is that unfortunately it doesn’t have support for bringing in remote guests live.
A very nice spinoff of that project is Streamlabs OBS, which if I wasn’t doing the guest part, is probably the streaming solution I would have ended up with. It seems great, it’s free, it has tons of plugins, etc. I do believe that it’s Windows-only though, whereas OBS works on Linux, Mac, Windows, etc.
Xsplit is also a popular streaming studio, one that I’ve used before for streaming my daughter playing in VR, but it is more focused on gaming and also does not have a guest invite option that I could find.
Since the live guest option was very important to me, I came down to four options, all of them being paid solutions and each one being the one I thought I was going to go with at some point in my journey.
LiveStream Studio is a product that I’ve actually used a fair amount back in my GitHub days to stream internal presentations to remote employees. It was at some point acquired by Vimeo and integrated into their live stuff, which all seems pretty slick, actually.
It’s a very nice, very powerful tool and it does have a live guest option but it’s incredibly unintuitive and difficult to use. It’s difficult to set up scenes with guests, you have to add them as inputs as each one comes in. You can’t drag and drop anything in this tool, nor can you use it very effectively on large or multiple screens — everything just gets bigger, nothing gets more dense, which is insanely frustrating.
You can’t, for instance, pop out the guest tab and have it always visible if you have more space, you constantly have to switch back and forth between the tabs. Also, and this is a little stupid, but the UI looks horrible on dense pixel screens. It looks like the whole app was made in Flash a decade ago and never updated for modern computers.
What I want to do is have a list of possible guests and be able to drag them into a preconfigured box on the preview screen and then set them live and it’s not at all possible, you have to add them as media inputs and reconfigure screens as you go, which is really slow and frustrating for the harried nature of a live performance.
Wirecast was very nearly my choice. I even shelled out the $800 for the Pro version, I was so certain this would work so well for what I wanted to do. The components pop out, so I can set up my screen however I want.
It integrates with controllers, so I can use an Akai APC mini to switch scenes quickly. It has a remote guest feature called Rendevous which promised to do what I wanted, gives me a URL to share where people can connect over WebRTC and I can pull them into the feed. It has a really nice layering feature (though inexplicably limited to exactly 5 for some reason) that would work for the scenes I wanted to switch between. Perfect.
Except that on my live trial with only two guests, everything immediately fell apart. People stopped being able to hear each other. I could see them but they could no longer see me. There was a constant buzz from one input in my ear that did not end up in the mix. Nearly everything I tried to do with Rendevous was a disaster and immediately so. It is, as far as I can tell, a completely useless technology within an otherwise pretty amazing product.
This was a dealbreaker.
My next hopes were pinned on Switcher Studio, a really amazing iOS only product that was very nearly everything I was hoping for. It runs on iPad only, which is interesting, but it had remote guests, everything was touch UI, it was intuitive, fast and simple.
The only problem was that there was almost zero layout control. I want to set up scenes where two or three people can be seen along with an image, and there is no preset layout that was anywhere close to that and no way to edit or upload any layout. If you can work with what they include, and you have an iPad, this is a truly amazing solution. If not, there is nothing you can do.
Also, the guest access feature is incredibly expensive.
Finally, we landed on Stage Ten. Stage Ten is a completely web-based solution, which is it’s biggest downside due to performance issues. I’m not sure that there has been an episode we’ve done that did not have serious performance issues of some sort.
For one, it won’t run very well on my brand new 2019 MacBook Pro 16" powerhouse of a laptop. The fan pegs to it’s highest level almost immediately after opening the website and stays pegged the entire time, which is difficult to filter out noise-wise. On my Razer Blade 15 gaming laptop, it’s better, but it’s insane that the MacBook struggles with this.
One time I hit the “Go Live” button and got a series of errors where it simply would not go live. It took me 15 minutes of trying different browsers and computers until I finally got it to work. At one point I didn’t properly “log out” of one of my computers and it wouldn’t let me log in on the other. The fun part being that there is no “log out” button on the website.
Another few times the ingress was so slow to YouTube that the video started buffering for the whole audience, once for around 10 minutes, losing most of our audience.
You need to add all of your assets every single time you load the screen. As in, if you reload the page, none of your assets are there anymore, you need to reload them all from disk again. Which cannot be done via drag-and-drop, but you have to choose them all with a file selector. This isn’t horrible as long as you keep everything you want to use in a single folder in preparation for this UI downside, but it’s still annoying.
However, all of those downsides aside, it’s what we’re currently using to stream our events. It’s very easy to use when it works. You can drag and drop stuff into the preview screen and set it live with a click. You can line up a dozen people and drag them in and out of the shot very easily. You can preview everyone’s audio before they’re live visually to see if they’re too loud or will cause feedback.
The layouts are not editable unfortunately, but there are a lot of them and they’re fine if you make sure your assets fit to them beforehand.
Their customer service is also incredibly responsive. It’s unfortunate that I’ve had to contact them about serious problems a half dozen times, but they’re on it within minutes and give good feedback and at one point seemingly even rolled out a fix for a technical problem.
Finally, they’re pretty affordable at $20/mo.
Unfortunately I can’t really highly recommend any one thing due to it being highly possible your needs are different than mine, but I hope some of this saves you some of the hours of work testing all of this that I did, including trying to go live with different tools.
If you don’t want live audience members and want something free and run Windows, probably Streamlabs or OBS would work well. If you have a good computer and can deal with some hiccups occasionally and want a live audience, Stage Ten is what we landed on. If you have an iPad and want something super simple and use iOS stuff as your cameras (even multiple at a time), Switcher Studio is pretty amazing.