A webcam

Library Live - High Tech, Low Budget

Note: There are a lot of links to Amazon in this post but none of them are affiliate links. I can't even be arsed to set up such a thing, ya know? So purchase freely!

I received an interesting question on Twitter today about what it takes to do online library programming, by which I mean things like performing and presenting online story times, virtual classes and events, and so on. I admit, I'm not huge into the world of live broadcasting on the Internet, but goddess knows I've done a few live and online things here and there. While most of my online work revolves around audio, I could quickly whip together almost everything I'd need to get up and running with a live video broadcast. Indeed, I have everything I need to do it right now.

But Patrick was also asking what I would need and, while I wouldn't need much more than I already have, there are some bits of kit that would be helpful if I could lay hands on them. So, to answer the question from multiple vectors, I put together a list of what I think you need at a minimum, along with a list of what I've got ,and what I'd need to do something a tad better.

The Basics

Do you need to stream something right now? Like get on-camera or put someone else on camera and get it on the Internet with a minimum of fuss, effort, and toil?

Got a decent smartphone?

iPhone promotional images
My glassy pal who's fun to be with.

That's really all you need. Want to stream on Twitch, Facebook, or YouTube? You can do it from iOS or Android. Get the app, create the account, sign in, go live. Yeah, you're not going to be putting out video like a professional streamer or a cable broadcaster but you need to keep one thing in mind: you're not a pro streamer or broadcaster. You're a librarian trying to get something up and online. Make it look as best you can with what you have and, if all you have a smartphone? That's cool.

Now along with your phone you may want:

  • Tripod mount
  • Tripod
  • Some lamps to handle lighting
  • External microphone
  • Headphones
  • A computer with some editing software

Still, you can do a lot with an iPhone or a decent Android phone. But if we want to dive into some additional tools for more flexibility for online streaming:

What I Have Right Now - Hardware

If I were looking to go live and online in, say, the next hour, I could do it. It wouldn't look very professional, it'd be a bit jank, it would look like I threw everything together in an hour. But I could do it. Yet I want to approach this from a slightly different angle. Let's say I'm not going live, but I'm creating content that'll go up as an on-demand thing, like a YouTube video. The equipment is the same, it's the workflow that changes. That in mind, here's what I'm working with that many libraries might already have lying around in some form or another.

iPhone Xs Max

If I were going to live on anything right now it would probably be my iPhone, simply because of the rearward camera. That thing can do 4K video so it's ever so much better than my webcam. The onboard mic is... functional, but you're not going to get spectacular quality out of it. But I think libraries need to keep in mind, we are libraries streaming on the web, not major networks broadcasting on TV. If you're looking to stream to Twitch, YouTube, or Facebook; you can do all of that from an iPhone.

Inexpensive alternative: Used iPhones going back to the 6S have 4k video so you don't need a brand new device. Also, many Android phones are cheaper than an iPhone while still retaining decent cameras.

Universal Phone Tripod Mount

Put your iPhone in this thing, screw it to your tripod, and you're set! Speaking of tripods...

The cover for Day of the Tripods by John Chistopher
Wait, this is the wrong jpg.

Tripod

I have an inexpensive tripod that I'm pretty sure I picked up at Big Lots or something. I'm not exactly a pro video guy, so I don't really need a pro level tripod. Neither do most libraries.

iPad Pro

I use the 12.9 inch model, but any semi-modern iPad will do everything that the iPhone does. It's just bigger, and that can be good or bad depending on various factors. For instance, I've got a tripod mount for my phone, but not for my iPad. I do, however, have a couple of stands for it, and I can set it up on a stack of books and achieve much the same results as I could with the iPhone. The great thing about an iPad though? Teleprompter apps. Why remember lines when you can read them?

Inexpensive alternative: You actually don't need an iPad or a tablet device. It's nice, but it certainly isn't required.

MacBook Pro

My daily deck is a 15 inch 2015 MacBook Pro named Angelique and I love this machine. Like the Millennium Falcon she may not look like much but she's got it where it counts. She's running macOS Catalina on a 2.2 GHz Quad Core i7 with 16 GB of RAM and a 250 GB SSD. While I'd do most of the streaming from my iPhone, I'd do almost all of the prep work here. Now then, if I were going to a pre-produced show that's not going up live, but is going up as a video on YouTube? I'd use this for all the pre and post production tasks like creating and managing video, audio, and image assets; audiovisual editing, scripting, and so on.

Inexpensive alternative: Just because I'm a good little Apple consumer puppy doesn't mean your library should be. You can do a lot with a semi-decent Windows computer and you can work wonders with a Linux machine. Check out the upcoming software list for ways to keep things affordable.

Blue Yeti Microphone

This beast of a microphone is mounted on a swivel arm with a deadcat cover and pop filter. While I'd need some adaptors to make this work with an iPhone, it'd be pretty good for a live cast or pre-produced content. Especially if you need to utilise its selections for cardioid, stereo, omnidirectional or bidirectional mode. Those come in handy when you need to record a single person today, and then a couple of people tomorrow, and then four or five the next day.

Inexpensive alternative: For US$40 you can get something like this, a fairly inexpensive USB mic with a pop filter and mount. I recommend sticking with USB mics and avoiding anything with the old 3.5mm audio jack. They just don't sound as good. I mean, you can go hardcore and get yourself a USB audio mixer with XLR mics, but then you're looking at a pretty hefty investment.

Sennheiser HD 4.50BTNC headphones
Literally wearing these as I caption this image.

Headphones

Now, this all depends on what's lying around and what you're doing. After all, if you're shooting yourself doing a yoga programme, then headphones may not be a big deal. But if you're sitting and speaking to camera? Then yeah, the stock Apple earbuds are pretty decent and they have a microphone that's better than the iPhone's internal. But if you're doing post-production work in an editing suite? Then yeah, a set of headphones is almost essential. I use the stock wired Apple earbuds along with Phillips SHB8750NC and Sennheiser HD 4.50BTNC for various things.

Lights

You'd be surprised what you can do with some table lamps but you'd probably notice that table lamps aren't exactly prosumer level lighting solutions. They are, however, better than nothing. Unless you're doing a scary story to tell in the dark, maybe light things up around yourself and your location so people can see you.

What I Have Right Now - Software

Video editing: Final Cut Pro X

Surprise! The guy with a lot of Apple hardware does most of his video editing in Final Cut Pro. Mostly because I don't feel like making Adobe any richer than it already is. And since I'm not trying to make the next Oscar winning documentary, FCPX does more than everything I need with the right amount of speed.

Inexpensive alternatives: Working on a Mac? iMovie is free. Got a fairly decent Linux deck? Kdenlive is your jam. Or hey, check out these other alternatives to Final Cut Pro.

Screencasting: ActivePresenter

Looking for a screencasting solution to record your desktop that allows for captioning, callouts, animations, and pan & zoom? Whoo boy this thing is awesome, and you can use the free version to get everything you want. I've been using this software for just over a year and it replaced Camtasia Studio, while still doing everything I was needed. Not only does this work on macOS, but there's a version for Windows.

Inexpensive alternatives: Well, I mean... this has a free tier. But, if you're working on Linux, you'll want to check out SimpleScreenRecorder or VokoScreenNG. Check out these other alternatives as well.

A professional audio mixing board.
I need to level up my podcasting game.

Audio editing: It's complicated

When I record a podcast, I use GarageBand, which is free but macOS only. When I'm editing audio, I use Audacity which is free and works everywhere. I used to use Audacity for recording podcasts and there's nothing wrong with that. I just prefer GarageBand's workflow for that kind of thing. However, Audacity is a kung fu kick ass DAW and editing solution. But am I making music for this content? Because if I am, I'm working in Logic Pro X, which is totally not free, but is the best there is for the kind of music I make.

Inexpensive alternatives: Seriously, you can use Audacity for almost everything and you'll be top shelf set to go. However when it comes to music, you may find yourself at loose ends. Depending on what you're into, you might be able to get up and running with Ardour or LMMS. Check out other alternatives to Logic Pro X and see if there's something that suits your system.

Image editing: Affinity Photo and Pixelmator Pro

Did I mention that I don't want to shove anymore money in Adobe's general direction? Affinity Photo and Pixelmator Pro are like Coke and Pepsi, assuming you like both Coke and Pepsi. As it happens, I do like Coke and Pepsi and will drink either. Affinity Photo is, in my opinion, a little more powerful than Pixelmator Pro, and the workflow makes more sense to Photoshop converts, but there's not a thing wrong with Pixelmator Pro. When it comes to image editing, I can do anything I need with these two apps.

Inexpensive alternatives: If Affinity Photo is Coke and Pixelmator Pro is Pepsi, then GIMP is Dr. Pepper. It's not for everyone and some people don't like it, but it has its fans and it will totally get the job done, albeit with a little faffing about sometimes. Not into GIMP, then check out some alternatives to GIMP, Affinity Photo, and Pixelmator Pro.

Broadcasting: OBS

Look, if you're going to try and get into this stuff, get yourself a deck that can run OBS and try to make it work for you. Open Broadcaster Software has a learning curve, for sure, but the price is right (free and open source) and it can do so much! If you watch the pro streamers on Twitch and the like? Chances are you're looking at OBS in action. But keep in mind, you may not need this thing at all. Have a look and see if it's something that scratches your itch.

Inexpensive alternatives: Well, OBS is free, so that's about as inexpensive as you can get. There are few other apps that do what it does but if you want to spend some money, XSplit Broadcaster is kind of the very opposite of an inexpensive alternative.

What I'd Like

If I had a couple of weeks to prepare and a budget to order a few things, well... here's a shopping list:

Turn up the lights

At the very least I'd get a ring light for face shots and speaking to camera. If I could snag some LED studio lights, that wouldn't suck either. Amazon has a ring light for US$55 as I write this. You can also pick up a couple smaller LED lights (table lamp size) for US$52. Or you can go bigger for around US$106.

Decent camera, better workflow

Just because you can stream at 4K doesn't mean you should or that you even need to. And while you can jolly well do everything using a smartphone, there's a lot to be said about getting a decent webcam, hooking it to a laptop, and shooting from that. There's just one problem... with everyone suddenly finding themselves working at home, taking video conferences on Zoom and Microsoft Teams, it's really freakin' hard to get your hands on a webcam right now.

But you may have a better chance of acquiring a video camcorder with a USB interface. Many of these will also work as webcams, with a bit of fiddling! And they're about the same price as a comparable webcam!

A little lavalier wouldn't hurt

If you're going to be on camera, but want better audio for speaking? A wireless lavalier (lapel) mic isn't a bad investment. You don't have to buy the expensive ones if you don't want to, as you can pick up one for around US$56 or so.

Set a scene with a screen that is green

Green screens are kinda the rage right now with some of these chat apps that offer you the ability to drop in a custom background. You can look like you're at your office, or the beach, or the Sydney Opera House, or Gallifrey. But there is a draw back that you need to know about: To get a green screen to work you must light it properly. You're looking for the flattest green you can get with no major highlights and no shadows. That can take some work on its own. Then, after all that, you'll have to figure out how chromakey works in your video editor or chat app of choice.

It's not an insurmountable obstacle. But you really should know that it's not as simple as just throwing up a green backdrop and pressing a button.

Some Final Goodies

Some libraries are streaming and recording at the same time, so they can offer the programme later on, or on-demand. Great idea! I love it!

Back it up.

Get some kind of external storage device, be it a USB flash drive, an external hard drive, an external SSD, or even some other computer.

Back. It. Up.

Copy that file somewhere else and, if possible, put it in some kind of cloud drive solution like Dropbox, or OneDrive, or ownCloud, or Google Drive, or whatever. Have two copies of that thing and notice what I said there; "two copies." That means you have three of these files: the original, a copy, and another copy. Drives fail, devices die, things happen. It pays to back up.

Before you start streaming or recording anything, reboot everything. Are you streaming on your phone? Great, reboot it. Are you plugging into a laptop? Fine, reboot it. Sending out your audio over an Icecast server? Reboot your Icecast server and reboot your broadcasting deck. Reboot everything. It handles a world of problems and heads off more than a few that always seem to pop up at the worst times.

And finally, for those going live on a streaming session - wires are your friends. Sure sure sure, you can do everything through WiFi these days and you know, that's okay. But you know what's better than okay?

Cables.

If you can plug your systems into a router, or a jack, or whatever -- if you can send your signals over Cat 6 Ethernet? Yeah, that's not only faster than WiFi it's more reliable and you're not as likely to have your stream go down in the middle of the programme because the WiFi went sideways.