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Buyers' Guide to Live Encoders 2018
While nearly any encoder can connect to any streaming service, some encoders make it easier than others. Here's how to choose the right tool for the job.

For simple productions, the free OBS (Open Broadcaster Software), which runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux, can get the job done, with vMix (Windows only) and Telestream Wirecast (Windows and Mac) being the best-known, for-fee alternatives. OBS is all you need if you’re simply inputting and streaming, but the two other programs are simpler to use and much more functional.

This category is great if you want to add niceties like titles for your speakers or information slates (“Back in 15 Minutes”) during breaks. You’ll need a fairly robust computer for running these programs and more physical space. Also, computers are more prone to crashing than encoding appliances. So if you’ll be streaming frequently, lobby for a dedicated computer for the task, and consider buying a pre-built streaming system from Telestream (Wirecast Gear) or third parties like 1 Beyond, Core Microsystems, or Puget Systems.

Understand that once you insert software into the mix, you’re also ratcheting up the expertise necessary to successfully stream the event. Most encoding appliances can be configured in the lab and operated via one or two buttons, providing a level of simplicity that can’t be matched with any software product.

Wi-Fi/Power/Multiple Cameras

If you’re planning a multi-camera shoot, you’ll need a video switcher. These tools come in three flavors—computer-based video switchers, standalone switcher appliances, and a streaming appliance with support for multiple inputs. The first and third should be able to stream directly to any service, but you may need help with a standalone switcher.

To explain, virtually all computer-based appliances, like the NewTek TriCaster, can stream directly to a service, as can computer systems running Wirecast and vMix, as you just learned. So you should be set if you’re switching with one of these systems.

Streaming appliances are standalone devices with multiple inputs that are often called lecture capture stations. Typically, these can mix incoming streams like a traditional video switcher, so you can insert a talking head over PowerPoint slides coming in from a notebook computer. For example, Epiphan’s Pearl-2 (right) has six inputs that can support up to 4K video, with onboard recording and the ability to set up a local display. You can mix the streams into picture-in-picture shots, or simply switch between them. As with virtually all of these units, Pearl 2 can also stream to Facebook Live, YouTube, and the other usual suspects, so you won’t need a separate encoder.

Standalone switching appliances resemble the old-fashioned analogue switchers from yesteryear, and while they are certainly computers under the hood, they’re not running Windows or any OS you can access. If these units can’t stream directly to a service, they can output either HDMI or HD-SDI for input into devices in either the consumer or industrial-strength encoder categories above. Some switchers, most notably Roland switchers like the VR-4HD, output a USB 3.0 stream that you can input into a computer. This looks like a capture device to software like OBS, vMix, or Wirecast, making it easy to stream as discussed above.

No Ethernet/No Power

Working without Ethernet or power means that you’ll need a battery-powered encoder and a transmitter that can access a 4G network. Many of the on-camera devices mentioned above have batteries, but some are internal, which means that you can’t switch them out. So make sure whatever unit you buy can support the average length of your video shoots.

For connectivity, note that some cameras and on-camera encoders have USB ports for a single 4G modem. This sounds great, but single-modem connections can be problematic. There might not be a cell tower nearby for that service, or capacity could be constrained by others using that service. So you’d want a device that can combine multiple 4G signals from disparate services, preferably one that offers advanced codec support to further reduce the outbound bandwidth requirements.

INDUSTRIAL-STRENGTH PORTABLE ENCODERS/TRANSMITTERS

Fortunately, there’s an industrial-strength class of portable encoders that include large internal or swappable batteries, multiple 4G modems, HEVC encoding, advanced error-correcting protocols, and other desirable features like antennas to enhance signal strength. Interestingly, these products often route their signals through their own cloud infrastructures before connecting to the actual service that you’re targeting.

For example, although Facebook Live doesn’t accept an HEVC signal today, you can stream HEVC-encoded video from LiveU’s LU600 portable encoder (right) into the LiveU’s cloud management system with an optional encoder card, minimizing the bandwidth requirements for your outbound stream. Within the cloud system, LiveU will transcode the video to H.264 that Facebook Live can accept, automatically and behind the scenes. You just sign into your Facebook Live account and LiveU does the rest. Streambox uses the same schema to deploy its proprietary ACT-L3 AP Codec (Advanced Compression Technology–Level 3 Advanced Profile Codec) in its encoders, like the compact AVENIR Micro.

Similarly, all industrial-strength products deploy special security protocols like the Secure Reliable Transport (SRT) protocol to optimize video transport and minimize the effect of packet loss and other interruptions, and to encrypt the stream for greater security. For example, Teradek deploys SRT with its Cube encoder and other products, while Mushroom Networks has a similar technology called a Video Armor tunnel. To deliver to services that don’t support the protocol, the encoder routes the signal through each company’s cloud network for delivery to your target service.

When choosing an industrial-strength system, figure out the battery and power situation first, then the number of available modem slots. For 720p streaming, two should be sufficient, but for 1080p, four is the minimum, and more is always better, albeit more expensive.

Then think form factor. The aforementioned Bond offers one of the smallest form factors and can even be deployed atop a camcorder. LiveU’s LU600 comes in a backpack with an integral battery capable of 3–4 hours of transmission and an LCD confidence monitor for viewing the encoded stream.

Although advanced codecs may feel like an extravagance, if you cut the outbound stream by 30 to 50 percent, you’re cutting the number of modems you need to transport securely, so a little extra CapEx up front could save OpEx for the useful life of the unit. If you’ll be streaming through a company’s cloud infrastructure, check costs, since this is free for some providers, but not for all. As with all encoders, make sure the unit you buy can connect to your camcorder, and check maximum output resolution and data rate.

Prepare for the Weakest Link

While these units may sound like overkill for many live events, connectivity is always the weakest link in the live event workflow, particularly with 4G. If your live event is mission-critical, you’ll want to spend more to optimize reliability.

[This article appears in the Spring 2018 issue of Streaming Media European Edition.]

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