Now that churches are opening up again, there is a growing demand for streaming services so that those who are unable to get to church can still take part in the service. There’s also a huge benefit for weddings and funerals. When people are unable to travel, they can still take part online.
However, with so many things online, people have become accustomed to high quality video and audio, and if your stream doesn’t make the grade you may not engage your online viewers.
Whilst cameras and phones can produce very high quality video, they are let down by poor audio, and if your audio is not clear then your viewers will quickly lose interest. It is therefore essential that you pay as much attention to audio quality as you do to video.
This is the system we are using in my church. It’s not the only way to do it, and it is not the cheapest way, but it provides a good quality stream and doesn’t require a lot of setting up. One thing we have found over the years is that if something is not easy to use, or if takes a lot of time to set up each week then it won’t be used.
A prerequisite for live streaming is that you have a good internet connection in the place where you are streaming from. Ideally that would be a permanent broadband connection, ideally fibre. If your church can get a permanent internet connection then this is likely to be your best bet. Our church is in town, so a fibre connection was the obvious route to go.
Failing that you would need a good 4G signal capable of supporting a high data rate. In rural churches where there is no BT or cable broadband this may be an option. You may be able to get an antenna fitted to the top of the tower to improve reception. Be aware that video uses a lot of data – typically an hour’s service will use about 5GB of data – so if you’re using 4G make sure your contract allows for that.
Pan / Tilt / Zoom Camera
We opted for a fixed PTZ camera, mounted permanently on a pillar about halfway along the length of the church. This particular camera can be steered to point in almost any direction using a joystick, and has 20x optical zoom. In practice that means we can get a wide shot of the whole of the front of the church, or we can zoom in on the high altar (about 25m from the camera) so that it fills the screen.
The remote control means that we don’t have to have someone standing next to a tripod changing the camera angle, and the permanent installation means it’s always there ready to go. PTZ cameras generally have a preset facility whereby you can store particular position and zoom settings and recall them with a single keypress on the joystick. This makes life simpler for the person running the livestream.
The camera we use is the Datavideo PTC-140, available in black or white. Since buying it I have found out about a similarly specified camera from a Chinese brand, SMTAV, which some churches are using successfully, and it is about half the price.
We are using a joystick by PTZ Optics. This uses a serial data cable rather than ethernet, but it is compatible with almost all PTZ cameras. As well as joystick control, you can use the keypad to store and recall presets, so you can send the camera to a known position with a single keypress.
Although the PTZ camera comes with a hand-held remote control, it only works if you are in the right position with line of sight to the front of the camera, which we don’t have. Nor does it provide the fine control that a joystick does, which allows us to track a bride coming from the west door and down the aisle.
DSLR & Mirrorless Cameras
For weddings and special occasions it is often good to have alternative viewpoints. Our PTZ position means that we see the bride and groom from the back. A separate camera on the chancel step would give a view of their faces. Most digital cameras have HDMI output, but you will probably need to get either an optical HDMI cable or an HDMI-over-CAT6 system to go the distance to your streaming system. In our case the distance is about 12m direct, and more like 15m as a cable run, which is really too long for an ordinary HDMI cable.
You need to check how long your camera will operate on battery, and whether it will shut down unexpectedly. For some cameras you can get a dummy battery which allows you to power it from an external supply.
This is where the video switching and streaming happens. It is possible to stream directly from some PTZ cameras, but it’s quite limited so we opted for a dedicated video switcher and streaming device, the ATEM Mini Pro from Blackmagic Design.
This will accept HDMI from up to 4 separate sources and allows you to select which one goes to your stream with a single button press. We use our projection system as one of those sources, so we can show song words or liturgy directly in the stream rather than pointing the camera at the projector screen, which really doesn’t look good. We can also add a couple of extra cameras for special events as mentioned above.
This device also takes care of the streaming, and once it’s been set up with the stream key you just press a button to go live. It’s a dedicated piece of hardware so you’re not reliant on a computer for your stream. It can also record direct to external hard drive, so if your stream fails for some reason you still have a back up recording.
We have a monitor connected to the ATEM Mini Pro which has a multi-view output. This shows the program output (what’s going to your stream/recording), all the separate video sources, the stream status, the recording status and the audio levels. As this is the only view we have of the PTZ camera output it is essential, but the multi-view gives an excellent overview and confidence check of everything that’s going on.
And no, this is not what our church services look like…
We have linked our church sound system to the streaming system so that we get the best possible audio quality. However, we need additional microphones to pick up the ambient sound, e.g. congregational singing and responses, and to give more life to the sound on the stream, which would otherwise be very dry. These sources go only to the stream and not to the speakers in church, to avoid feedback and clarity problems.
You may need some audio compression to ensure that the quieter sounds such as congregational responses are audible without the voices at the microphone getting distorted. Fortunately the ATEM can also do this, providing compression and limiting so that the audio never clips.
One thing to be aware of is that HDMI sources such as the streaming camera or DSLRs have a significant delay in generating the video signal, typically 0.25s. If you feed the audio directly into the ATEM then the audio will be ahead of the video and you’ll have a real lip sync problem. It is possible to add delay to the audio in the ATEM, but we have opted instead to send the audio to the camera, which then mixes it with the video and sends it back over HDMI.