Why I'm thinking of ditching SlingStudio
Last time I was at NAB (a couple of years ago) I looked at live streaming platforms and found that the SlingStudio from Dish Networks was the best looking solution. I selected it because it is a hardware-based hub that you remote control with an iPad and can use any iOS or Android phone as a camera, with support for up to 4 camera's. I also bought one of their proprietary NDI-type of converters (called a CameraLink) to bring in footage from my nice Nikon D7500. It also has a convenient little line-in port on the hub that you can use to get a stereo audio feed from your mixing board. All in all, it's a nice little package.
The first year, everything went great
I've used the product a couple dozen times, half of which were livestream+recording, and the other half were recording only. I used the product in hotels, coffee shops, outdoor venues, barns, even in the middle of the woods. I shot live performances on it, rehearsals, music videos and the odd workshop. I occasionally found myself wanting more than 4 camera's, but overall, the system worked very well and met my needs.
The integration with Adobe Premiere Pro is also pretty nice. Just copy the files of the storage media you recorded to, pull up an extension in PP and it imports your raw camera's, your program feed and the audio-line-in right into a timeline, all synchronized and ready to edit.
At some point I got the itch to broadcast to more than just one social media platform, and vimeo seemed like a good option. They were offering a Premium membership for $700 for a full year, and it included a Mevo Plus camera (worth $500), so I pulled the trigger on it. After I got my camera and opened the box, I discovered I could really only use it to send video straight to vimeo...it doesn't integrate with the SlingStudio, and although it can record to it's local storage, it was just too much of a hassle so I put it on the shelf.
Then I tried broadcasting to Youtube and Facebook at the same time through, and it didn't work, which was the primary reason I got the subscription. I spoke with someone on the phone at Vimeo (how weird is that?) and they informed me that facebook's terms of service didn't allow them to take a feed and send it to anyone else if they were feeding it to facebook. They did tell me about a hack where you could send them two feeds, and send one to facebook and one to everyone else, but it sounded like more trouble than it was worth (not to mention twice the upload bandwidth, which is usually in short supply, so I discounted the workaround. I felt like I'd wasted $700 on this premium package, but I'd already opened the box of the camera, so I vowed to cancel the subscription before it renewed.
Slingstudio breaks with Facebook
Everything was going pretty great until one day the unit would no longer stream to Facebook. It was 5 minutes before I was set to broadcast a Live@Lunch for KRFC Radio Fort Collins, and I was panicking!! Then I remembered the Vimeo subscription. I set vimeo as my destination, then used the already existing facebook integration to broadcast not just to the KRFC facebook page, but all of my various pages! Vimeo to the rescue!
It still hurt a lot when the renewal hit my bank account last December ($900 now), and it is way too much to pay a 3rd party to overcome a problem that the Slingstudio has, especially annually. That has got me thinking about some of the other downsides.
It's a closed system
Although you can use phones and iPad's with the system, everything else about this platform is pretty much closed. You can't use anything other than a SlingStudio Cameralink ($350 ea.) to connect up a standard HDMI input source. No NDI devices, no WiFi-enabled camera's like the MEVO, nothing. Sometimes the features and price of a "vendor-locked" system are too hard to ignore when staarting out, but once you've made some big investments it can be hard to leave...but in the end, vendor-lock usually ends up being an anchor for the vendor as more open platforms come along that are cheaper and more capable.
Maximum of 4 camera's - or 3 if you load your own footage
Four camera angle's is usually enough, except when it isn't. The studio at KRFC where they do the Live@lunch is very small. I like to let the musician's set up how they want, which usually means they are all the way around the walls of the studio...it's especially tough when there are 5 or more of them (plus the show host) to get them all only 4 shots. When doing other creative work with bands, I find that 4 camera angles is enough to get the basic angles, but I would love a few novelty shots as well, like maybe a couple over/under's on the drummer, a leader guitarist closeup, that sort of thing.
If you are using the new chroma-key functions (green screen), then that means you are probably loading your background footage into the system, and that chews up a camera angle, so takes you down to 3 angles...and the 4 camera option is starting to feel very limiting.
No integration with social media to pull comments back into the video feed
A big part of doing a livestream is audience interaction. Although your SlingStudio will tell you how many live participants you have, it will not show you comments (nor give you an option to re-integrate those comments back into the footage as a graphic). This means you have to manage this outside of SlingStudio...and if you are simulcasting to 6 different places? Well...yeah...no...
Even if you've never personally tried to broadcast from a coffee shop that only has DSL for an Internet connection, or over a hotel WiFi where the signal isn't the strongest, you can probably imagine that getting a high quality 1080p HD signal out of the building probably isn't going to happen. When in that situation, you're lucky to get a decent quality 720p signal so you have to downgrade the project to 720p. This won't seem like such a huge deal at the time, but when you get back to your desk to start working on a few segments in post, you'll find that 100% of your footage is recorded in 720p as well. Basically, SlingStudio tells all of the camera input sources to crank down to 720p, that way it doesn't have to transcode an incoming 1080p signal down to 720p for transmission.
I can see the advantages to this for the product developer...it vastly reduces the performance requirements of the hub (which reduces it's cost), but man is it annoying.
No support for 1080p @ 60fps input
This may seem like a small thing, but depending on what you are trying to do, it can turn out to be a deal-breaker. The single HDMI capture input on the hub as well as the Cameralink's only accept a frame rate of 30 fps. On my Nikon D7500, this is not problem because I can adjust the parameters of the output to match, but try hooking up an HDMI adapter to a tablet or your laptop, or plugging in a Chromecast dongle! These devices ouptut at 60 fps and I can find no way to customize the output on these types of devices like I can on the Nikon. If this is something you want to do, you are shit outta luck and are basically forced to load pre-recorded videos into the system before the show starts.
What to do about it
Except for the streaming issues I mentioned, most of my problems started when I decided to start experimenting with the chroma-key feature. If I scrap the green screen idea (contemplated in a future blog post), I might be able to live with the slingstudio system for another couple of years. That also means continuing to pay Vimeo to play a small roll in my process, and finding a solution for monitoring social comments during a show that doesn't unduly distract me from the show itself (now that I play bass in addition to managing camera's, lighting, streaming and sound!).
But I'm not the kind of person to give up on an idea. I'd rather push the envelope and have a set of tools that allow to me to experiment with ideas fully, and I think I've found something that might be better.
Vimeo bought a company called livestream a few years back and there's a product called Livestream Studio that might be just the ticket. I am still learning my way around it, and will write a review about it later, but on my first look it appears to have a lot of great features:
1) support for more than 4 camera's (not exactly sure how many, or if recording is limited to 4.
2) supports using phones as camera's using the livestream app (you have to put it in studio mode) (also supported by SlingStudio)
3) supports NDI, or Network Device Interface, for remote HDMI connections...a standard, and one with a lot of different vendor options (no vendor lock, yay!)
4) supports Mevo remote camera's, remote webcam's and local webcams
5) You can crop, color correct and EQ audio from any incoming stream (you can't do any of that in sling studio)
6) chroma-key (unclear how good it is compared to SlingStudio's)
7) Integration of remote data sources, such as facebook/youtube/twitter comments
8) more livestreaming options, such as twitch
9) remote control of the studio from an iPad (browser-based)
10) no hub, use your own Mac or Windows PC
I'm not sure if the last one is a pro or a con, but it does seem clear that vimeo is focusing on making this a strong software and platform integration solution vs. a turn-key hardware solution, and I think that strategy has some benefits for the end-user in the long run. Best of all, the software is included with your vimeo premium subscription, which I'm already paying for, so I can dump all of my old SlingStudio hardware and recoup some of the money I've already invested in the vimeo subscription.
It remains to be seen if this solution will be more user-friendly than the simple interface provided by SlingStudio on my iPad, and that is an important consideration as I cannot focus exclusively on video production during a show (obviously). I have, at best, 10 seconds to click on things between shows and I have to save some of those clicks for lighting and pedal board changes. This software has so many features, that you could run a broadcast-quality show from it, and as cool as that sounds it also scares me a little bit.
Anyway, time will tell. For the show this Friday, I'll be sticking with the SlingStudio, but it may be the last show I use it for.