Streaming Live Music Concerts

From Campfire S’mores, To The Vegas Strip

Article by Paul Konikowski, CTS-D

The idea of holding a concert for a small local audience and broadcasting it to a larger audience is not new.  The Grand Ole Opry and Austin City Limits have been broadcasting live to radio for years.  Shows like American Bandstand, MTV Unplugged, and VH1 Storytellers would often record the shows and broadcast them later on TV. Movies like The Last Dance, Rattle and Hum, Pulse, or The Woodstock Movie have given us a front row seat to some amazing concert footage, and a candid view backstage, albeit in 24 frames per second.  Nowadays, teen stars like Justin Bieber and Katy Perry are releasing movies in 3D, including concert footage.  You can also watch live opera performances in movie theaters, or simulcast to large baseball parks.

The internet has created a new kind of live concert, where “concert go-ers” can stream the shows live to their laptops, smart phones or tablets.  But who wants to watch a rock concert sitting in front of a tiny computer screen, listening to tiny computer speakers?  Well, with a HDMI cable (and maybe an adapter), anyone can easily hook up their laptop to their big-screen HDTV, and crank up their living room speakers as loud as their neighbors will allow.

Webcams have been around a while, but live online concert streaming in full HD is still relatively new, and many bands are reluctant to jump on the bandwagon, because they are also trying to preserve what’s left of the dying live concert industry.  If a band plays a live concert on iTunes, Facebook, or Google+, are they sellouts, or simply adapting to a changing market ?

Here are four very different examples of online concerts I have seen recently:

Livephish.com –  “Live Phish Downloads offers high quality, unedited soundboard recordings of select shows in standard MP3 and CD-quality FLAC files and select video tracks via a state-of-the-art delivery system. All downloads are compatible with Windows, Mac and Unix, allowing for maximum flexibility and ease of use. Once downloaded, audio and video can be burned to disc, transferred to portable players, or played through your computer.”

Notice the website says “select video tracks”.  The band realizes that an internet broadcast will not (and should not) take the place of seeing an entire Phish tour, but if the shows are sold out, why not let a few more people enjoy them online?  Using a mix of experienced cameramen and video-conference style PTZ cameras, the  720p video stream and audio mix are as good as live, with only one or two digital glitches throughout the entire 3 hour+ concert.  Each concert cost between $14.99 and $19.99, with 3-day packages available for $24.99-$39.99.  Not exactly free, but much cheaper than a $60 ticket, a tank of gas, a cramped hotel room, and an out-of-state DUI.  I encourage you to go to livephish.com, watch some sample videos in full screen, and judge the quality for yourself.

Lukas Nelson & Promise of The Real
Lukas Nelson & Promise of The Real performing a live at TRI Studios in San Rafael, CA

TRI Studios –  TRI (Tamalpais Research Institute) was recently opened by Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead as a purpose-built audio/video studio designed specifically for an online concert.  There is a live studio audience of a hundred or so people at each TRI performance, which helps the bands feel like they are still performing at a concert, rather than for a broadcast.  I was fortunate enough to attend a concert at TRI by Lukas Nelson’s band Promise Of The Real, where I was one of the studio audience members.  First off, the local room mix sounded ‘Stella’, thanks to the Meyer Sound Constellation system installed in the ceiling, which allows variable reverberation times.  The online mix is handled by a different engineering group in another room altogether. Since the studio is made for these online concerts, the video and audio quality is scary good, but the HD stream tends to lock up more than the other online concerts I have “attended”. Here is are some highlights from a recent Jerry Garcia memorial show at TRI Studios.  The TRI concerts are free to watch on Yahoo Music, the cost is paid for through 30 second advertising slots before each show.  Just like TV.

I Heart Radio – Like Pandora, or Spotify, but with “real” radio stations, and ads.  Some of my readers may have heard Billie Joe of Green Day recently smashed his guitar (NSFW) in disgust when they told him he had one minute left in his I Heart Radio set.  I don’t blame him, really; the “festival” I watched the following night was just plain weird.  The lineup included Linkin Park, Deadmau5 (pronounced ‘dead mouse’), Aerosmith, and Pitbull.   The crowd was just not into it, and their lack of enthusiasm translated to the cameras.  No one was dancing when Deadmau5 was spinning except a few random females that the camera guys could not get enough of.  The best part of the Deadmau5 set was the new Professional Griefers track, with special guest Girard Way from My Chemical Romance singing his own live vocals (read: no lip sync, thank you very much Girard for keeping it real!)

The Yahoo Music video stream and audio quality were both good when I could actually get it working, but the stream kept dropping out, despite my business class internet connection.  After Aerosmith, I could not get it to work at all.  The concerts are free, but only if you sign up for a login to iheart.com; the costs are covered by annoying advertisements.

Daria Musk  – About a year ago, this Connecticut teenage singer/songwriter started using Google’s free multi-point video conferencing service (called Hangouts) as a way to play live concerts online.  Her dedicated fan base (which she calls G+niuses) has now exceed 2 million people worldwide, and she has been featured everywhere from TED Talks to Rolling Stone Magazine.  Google Hangouts allows nine lucky fans to have a virtual front-row seat to Daria’s concerts, talking to her between songs, talking to each other, and basically hanging out.  Google recently added a Studio Mode  button, which dedicates more bandwidth and different AEC algorithm better suited for live musical performances.  Hangouts can now be simultaneously streamed to YouTube (note: Google owns YouTube).  These Hangouts On Air allow an unlimited online audience to enjoy the concert.

For her latest online music event, Daria Musk and her bassist RAM decided to do a “campfire concert”, streaming live from Daria’s backyard in CT while rain clouds loomed overhead.  Her younger brother stoked the fire and monitored online comments, while Daria entertained the rotating crowd with her songs, stories, and S’mores lessons.  (Since her audience is global, many of them had no idea what a S’more was, and/or had no access to the three simple ingredients.)

Daria invited certain friends to play their own songs (using their own studio mode button), and other audience members followed suit by teaching folk songs from their local heritage.  Each time she would start a new song, Daria would ask the online audience to mute their microphones, a trick she learned early on in Google Hangouts to avoid echo and background noise.

What is most amazing to me about the Daria Musk campfire concert is her ability to really connect with the online audience using minimal technology.  Daria gets personal with each fan in the Hangout, welcoming them when they arrive, and saying a heartfelt goodbye when they “rotate” out of their “seats” to let other people join.   There is no cost,  no advertisements, no cameramen, no studio, no engineering, no broadcast truck; just Daria, RAM the bassist, and her brother, and millions of online fans.  If you don’t have time to watch the entire concert, you should at least watch the first five minutes, and the last-minute when it starts raining, it’s really cute.

What is your experience with streaming or watching live music events online?  Please comment below, or email pkav.info@gmail.com.

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Microphone Etiquette 101

“Is This Thing On?”

By Paul Konikowski, CTS-D
Lectern With Podium Microphones And Confidence Monitor
How many times have you heard these four words spoken into a podium microphone at a live event?  Or at the beginning of a televised speech? Or in a similar scene portrayed in a movie? (The last case usually followed by a cinematic squeal of feedback that magically fades.)  Or maybe the public speaker tapped the microphone a few times, or worse, decided to forcefully blow directly into the microphone, embedding his or her germs deep into the windscreen.

Unfortunately, our society has taught these awful habits to us through film, plays and TV shows, so much that we when we find that we are the ones doing the public speaking, we actually think it’s what we are supposed to do when we approach the podium.  Well, I am here to tell you its not what you are supposed to do; and to teach you some proper microphone etiquette for public speaking.

First, lets list two big “Don’ts” when using microphones for public speaking:

  • Don’t blow into the microphone, any microphone, ever.  (Unless blowing or pink noise is the native language of your audience).  Blowing into a microphone only creates an awful experience for the audience and may actually damage the diaphragm in the mic capsule.
  • Don’t tap on the microphone, or the mic stand, or the lectern if you are using one.  In fact, don’t touch the microphone at all, unless it looks like the microphone is way too low or way too high.  If that is the case, carefully and gently adjust the microphone height (using two hands) so that the mic capsule (the end) is roughly on the same “level” as your mouth, aiming directly into your mouth or nose. There are exceptions, but in most cases, you should keep your hands off the microphone and mic stand.

Exceptional example: I once worked an outdoor event at Yale University where the main speaker was former President of the United States, Bill Clinton.  Preceeding President Clinton was a number of “Yalees” giving short speeches and getting the crowd pumped up.  The last of these speakers, who finally introduced Mr. Clinton, was much shorter in height than the previous speakers, and pulled the two microphones way down when they spoke, then bent them way back up when Mr. Clinton took the stage.  The podium microphones were the flexible gooseneck type, with the heads taped together.  By the time President Clinton got to the lectern, the goosenecks were “bent to hell”, with the two mic capsules aiming in different directions, and neither mic aimed correctly.  If it were any other gig, I would have quickly run out on the stage and fixed the goosenecks myself.  But anyone who has ever worked a “White House gig” knows you NEVER make any sudden moves, or you might get tackled by the Secret Services, or worse, shot by a sniper.  (Yes, there were snipers on the nearby rooftops.)  Luckily, Mr. Clinton recognized the microphone pretzel, and carefully adjusted the mics so they were properly aimed before he started talking.  I was impressed, along the entire production staff.  Disaster averted.

So, if you are not supposed to blow, tap, or say “Is this thing on?”, how should a person approach a microphone?  Well, the best practice is a combination of a) assuming the mic is working perfectly, while b) simultaneously being ready for the mic to not be working at all:

  • First, approach the microphone slowly, and confidently.
  • Place your notes on the lectern in such a way that you can easily read them without turning pages.  Mark the order of your notes in advance using large numbers in the four corners of each page.
  • If you brought bottled water or another beverage, open it, take a sip, and place it somewhere where it’s easily accessible, but out of sight from the audience or cameras.  Put your drink somewhere you can’t accidentally knock it over.  If you can, use a separate dedicated shelf, or table, for drinks.  Don’t bend or squat to put your drink on the floor, it just looks awkward.
  • If a sound guy (or sound girl) is running the PA system, try to make eye contact with them.  They will nod or point at you if they are ready, or hold up their hand telling you to halt if they are not ready.
  • Smile, and say something simple, short, and positive to test the microphone.  My personal favorites are “hello”, “good morning”, “good afternoon”, or “good evening, ladies and gentlemen”. Speak directly into the microphone, and listen for feedback. If you hear feedback, or if it seems too loud, back off the mic a few inches.  If there is a sound crew, wait a few seconds, and continue. They will address the feedback or volume issues, but they will need you to keep talking to adjust the microphone(s) properly.
  • Instead of saying, “Is this thing on?” or “can everyone hear me okay?” (the answers to which will never tell you if a mic is not working properly), try something like this instead: “Before I begin my presentation, I want to make sure everyone here can hear me, loudly and clearly.  So please do me a favor, and raise your hand if you clearly understood everything I just said”.  If you don’t see hands raised from the front to the very back of the room, check to see if the microphone is switched off, then move closer to the microphone, and repeat the question until you see enough hands raised.
  • If you don’t have a sound crew, and need to raise or lower the volume yourself, do it in very tiny increments, repeating the previous step until you are convinced the entire audience can hear you.
  • Before you start your actual speech, thank the audience, the previous presenters, and any volunteers or sponsors of the event. This gives the sound engineer a few seconds to fine tune the mic to your voice.
  • If you are using a wired or wireless handheld microphone, try to hold it very close to your mouth, at such an angle that it aims into your mouth.  Do not pretend you are a reporter on the local TV news, holding the mic near your chest or stomach.  Those TV reporters and sportscasters use special microphones that allow that sort of thing, and they are trained to aim them directly at their mouths, or the mouths of the people they are interviewing.
  • If you need to cough, or sneeze, turn away from the microphone and the audience.  It’s much better to pause and regain your composure, than to subject your audience (and possibly your recording) to these very natural, but very nasty, noises.
  • If your audience laughs, sighs, or applauds during your speech, pause a few extra seconds until they are done.  Don’t rush to start talking again.  Instead, pretend you are giving the State Of The Union Address, or a stand-up comic.  It’s all about timing.
  • When you have finished your presentation, thank the audience again, smile, collect your notes, take a bow, or wave as you slowly “exit stage left”. Do not turn off the microphone or adjust anything.  If you accidentally exit the wrong way, or leave something behind, don’t turn back.

If you take my advice and follow the above tips, you will be an effective public speaker, and any fear you have of microphones will fade away.  If you have any other tips to share with my readers, or any microphone horror stories, please add them to the comments section below, or email me at pkav.info@gmail.com.

Thank you for listening to me speak to you today.  I hope you learned something valuable.  Good night, and good luck.