Just over a year ago, live streaming worship services on the internet was so uncommon that when the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic got fast and furious and lockdowns with no impending end in sight were enforced, churches scrambled to reorganise and took up crash courses on streaming solutions to keep their congregation connected. I had my fair share of phone calls and emails from churches seeking advice and assistance on this. Fast forward a year and practically every church today live streams their weekly worship service via the internet.
With most churches onboard, many are now seeking ways to enhance the audio and visuals to be more immersive and engaging to church members following the weekly services on their mobile devices, to emulate an experience of a sanctuary within the smaller confines of their homes. So, what does it take and what exactly is involved? As always, there will be the need for both tech and art components. Let’s start with the tech.
Computer And Network
Most would expect the first attention to be on the AV system, but the fact is without a proper network and computer system, it will not stream properly regardless of how good your AV is.
First and foremost, there needs to be a good and stable internet connection with adequate speed and bandwidth for the intended video quality. Always avoid using Wi-Fi when streaming and stick to a wired network connection. The streaming computer will require a fast processor, sufficient onboard memory, dedicated graphics hardware with a big and fast cache, and a streaming software such as Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) or VMix, etc.
The most basic approach is to feed the stream directly from the FOH main mix. However, the downside is that a live sound mix’s overall balance and tone tend to be unsuitable for broadcast. It also lacks the “live” feel. A better approach would be to take a separate feed from a Mix or Aux bus instead where balance can be independently and better managed. However, it still has limited control on dedicated channel equalization, effects and other forms of signal processing. Ideally, a broadcast mix should be carried out on a second mixer (digital preferred), which would also require an isolated control room equipped with at least a pair of reference studio monitors and headphones. Personal devices like a laptop, mobile phone or TV set for monitoring the stream in real time would be very helpful.
Devices for shooting video can range from a simple mobile phone, to a DSLR, PTZ camera, camcorder or a professional video camera, where more can be added to produce different viewing angles. With multiple sources, an I/O management device like a video mixer-switcher (or software-based solutions like NDI) is required. A worship service may also be pre-recorded and streamed later. Recording and playback systems, and possibly video editing software will also be required to support delayed streaming. Lastly, before a video can be streamed, a device known as a video capture card is required to convert video signals to digital data that can be uploaded on the internet.
Having a good video set up will still require ample even illumination on subjects to get you the desired results. Whether it is in a small room or in the church sanctuary itself, there are some simple guidelines to follow.
“Don’ts” – Relying solely on ceiling down lights should always be avoided. And unless there is very good illumination from the front, having a bright source behind the subjects should also be avoided.
“Dos” – Light fixtures (preferably dimmable and colour temperature controlled) elevated to around 45 degrees to illuminate from the front, left and right will help achieve a natural look without blinding the subjects. Elevated lighting from the rear can also help accentuate the subject’s body outline and prevent blending with the background.
The most ignored consideration is probably room acoustics. In a relatively reverberant space, say beyond RT60 1.5 seconds, close miking techniques for voice using handheld, headworn or lavalier microphones will fare better than distant miking using shotguns or directional condensers. Audio signal processing can always be applied downstream to recreate the desired effect.
Well, so much for the technicalities. Let’s move on to the art behind streaming.
One of the common gripes from church members is that the audio doesn’t “feel” right when listened through their personal devices or TV sets. Besides the usual unbalanced vocal-instruments mix (already an existing issue with live sound), it also often gets described as “dull”, “dry”, “unnatural”, “isolated and in extreme cases, even “dead”, which is not how a worship service should be. For members not physically in church, this can fuel further disconnect and disengagement from the worship service. So, it is imperative that the audio crew learns how to create that immersive corporate worship experience for those at home. It will need the right tools, a good blend of stage and congregation/room sounds, skilful mixing and a tasteful amount of audio signal processing.
As for video, it should also focus on providing the same immersive and visually engaging experience. Watching only a single view on screen for a duration of 60 to 90 minutes (however long the service is) can potentially lead to visual fatigue and loss of interest for the viewer. When physically present at a church service, it is natural for congregation members to periodically switch their attention from the pastor, to the worship team, the projection screen, and possibly to the other congregation members. To emulate this pattern, the crew needs to know what to capture and when to switch to alternative viewing angles and images. This helps the home viewers engage and connect with the ministers as well as with the other congregation members on site (in a hybrid service setting).
There is actually a lot more to write about but I am limited by how much I can put into an article. However, I am currently collaborating with Spinworkz in working out a series of AVnTECH4CHURCH webinars where I together with invited guest trainers will demonstrate and expound in detail on the topics highlighted in this writeup. Do look out for it.
Robert Soo has been in the music and audio industry since the mid ‘80s, where his work involved studio recording, music arrangement, stage performances and eventually in live sound engineering and system design. A proficient worship leader and musician, he served as both Technical Director and Worship Pastor of a 10,000 member church for over 7 years during the ‘90s before moving on to R&D work in an American MNC for the following 10 years.
Robert then set up Cogent Acoustics in 2011, a consultancy firm that provides AV & Acoustics System Design and Training Services. He has also been recently appointed as Technical Consultant at Intricon Asia. Throughout his entire career, he has conducted numerous seminars and workshops and consults for many commercial, educational institutions and houses of worship.