Best Encoding Software for Live Streaming
Live streaming for broadcasting has become widespread. As people seek to minimize contact during the ongoing pandemic, live video streaming has taken over as an invaluable tool for interactive mass communication. Many pieces of equipment are involved to produce different types of broadcasts, from cameras and lights to audio mixers and video switchers. Much of this hardware is now available as software, and often combined into a full-suite video encoding software.
Table of Contents
- What Is a Video Encoder
- Hardware vs. Software Encoders
- Top Software Encoders for Live Streaming
- Open Broadcaster Studio (OBS) and How to Use It
- Telestream Wirecast Studio and How to Use It
- vMix and How to Use It
- The Best Encoding Software for Live Streaming
What Is a Video Encoder
A video encoder is a piece of software or hardware that receives a video signal coming from a camera sensor. It compresses that signal at near real-time speeds into information packets for a constant digital stream of information. This video stream uses both audio and video codecs to condense the data. The compressed stream can then be stored or packed into a streaming protocol and sent out as a broadcast.
Strictly speaking, encoders only handle the encoding process of compressing a stream of data. They’re often built into devices with camera sensors, such as your mobile phone or a camcorder. However, in the world of live streaming, the term encoder now tends to be a catch-all for any hardware or software that not only encodes a video signal, but also performs several video production functions and broadcasts that stream out to the world.
Hardware vs. Software Encoders
When it comes to live streaming encoders, they range from a simple tool for encoding and broadcasting to the center point of your studio, where everything connects. For television or cable studio setups, equipment is largely hardware, with the final connection going out to a transmitter. As live TV broadcasts have transitioned to include streaming to the internet, encoders have been added to the setup. Some encoders are designed to monitor and adapt to bandwidth changes, while others are made for the field, utilizing cell phones and hotspots.
Today, encoders can be specialized tools or complete studio production kits. Often encoders include ways to switch between cameras, add graphics and video, mix audio sources, and insert special effects. A full studio encoder for live streaming may require specialized hardware designed specially to meet the needs of all the equipment involved. This out-of-the-box hardware solution ensures all the equipment involved works perfectly together for a fully functional live streaming studio. The downside, however, is that your current equipment may not be compatible, and the responsibility falls on you to keep the system relevant with regular updates.
Since audio, video, and graphics are often stored on a computer anyway, software encoders are a great option. You can run them on a laptop for portability or a desktop for a high-speed in-house solution. This is often the hub of a studio system, using video capture cards and other hardware to connect peripherals. The software is often compatible with many types of equipment, allows for plug-ins, and performs regular updates. This also means you can pick and choose all the other pieces you need to complete your studio based on recommended use with the software encoder. Companies creating production equipment today are aware that many broadcasters use a software encoder to run their studio. For that reason, many design their products with built-in integrations to optimize your workflow.
Top Software Encoders for Live Streaming
I won’t mince words on software encoders. If you want something to get started, OBS Studio is a proven tool that’s completely open-source, available on multiple platforms, and free. It’s hard to beat free. If you want more functionality, which might solve some specific needs, go with Telestream Wirecast. A third option is vMix, which is only available for Windows.
All three of these solutions offer the ability to stream using the Secure Reliable Transport (SRT) protocol, a cutting-edge technology for streaming over noisy networks. It’s a more secure option than the Real-Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP), and works with both Wowza Streaming Engine and Wowza Streaming Cloud. If you are looking for encoders beyond the ones I’ve listed, you should make sure they are capable of streaming with SRT.
Open Broadcaster Studio (OBS)
Free can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. So can open-source. In the case of OBS, free means an easy way to get your live streaming studio up and running on a laptop. It also means a dedicated user base and developers who want to keep an amazing tool available and updated with useful plug-ins. One of the best updates for me was the virtual camera mode, which moved from a plug-in to an integrated feature last year. This made it possible to use all features in OBS Studio for simple Zoom meetings during the pandemic.
As a tool for live streaming, OBS Studio is great. It offers all the standard functionality anyone could ask for in a studio encoder. It’s got all your basics for transitioning between cameras, mixing audio, and integrating additional digital material into your production. Adding additional sources is easy to do, and all your settings can be stored as scenes to jump back and forth between. Output can be done as a live stream, recording, or as a virtual camera. When it comes to streaming, there are many options ready to go for a multitude of services.
Did I mention plug-ins? If you need a function or integration, OBS probably has a plug-in for it. As a popular free program, there are many readily available plug-ins — some from companies and others from developers who just needed the functionality. These may be hard to find sifting through the lists, so I always recommend going to the community for help. OB Studio has a good community following on their forums, discord, and even Facebook groups.
For me, some of the downsides to OBS Studio are that the user interface isn’t exactly tailored to video production. Quickly switching between sources is not as easy as it could be. That makes it difficult to multitask during a live production. And while some functions for modifying sources are available, it takes some time to figure out how to do it.
How to Stream to Wowza With OBS
Telestream Wirecast Studio
Some of us just want a good product made by people who understand the needs of those running the show. And in this case, Telestream is run by those people, with Wirecast being the product. It’s got a well-thought-out interface with easy-to-find functions and fields pre-populated with the best settings for live streaming. Plus, if you have a specific need to solve and don’t want a sometimes-working plug-in to solve it, Wirecast may turn out to be the right tool for the job.
When I mentioned that OBS Studio was great for those getting started, it’s because it’s a free tool that works for many who want to live stream. But if you want an intuitive tool with a quick learning curve, Wirecast is the better bet. The initial layout mimics editing software, with a timeline of where shots are added. Keep in mind it’s not an actual timeline but a layer of shots. Properties for sources are placed right up front with more control options, possibly due to better integration with more peripherals out there. And while OBS also has options like multi-view output, these are easier to find in Wirecast.
Wirecast has options right up front for live streaming, recording, and sending output to external sources. Where I mentioned the virtual camera option was just added to OBS last year, Wirecast already had it. The interface is designed for those who work in the video industry. There is an audio mixer and even pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) controllers. On the flip side of the coin, you’ll need to add these on as plug-ins when using OBS.
One big negative for Wirecast, though, is the price tag. While OBS is free, Wirecast Studio is $599 with full functionality in Wirecast Pro at $799. Honestly, that’s a huge difference. If you want to test Wirecast, you get a watermarked demo with the pro functions explicitly pointed out.
How to Stream to Wowza With Wirecast
vMix for Windows
If you’re on Windows, you may want to consider Vmix as an alternative. It has a cost gradient that unlocks different features going from $60 to $1,200. And to get started, you can download a 60-day trial which gives you all the Pro $1,200 features. Sixty days equates to plenty of time to learn all the features and try it out in a live environment. You may discover its social media integration or multi triggers to automate workflows are something you can’t live without.
I find vMix somewhere between the interface of Wirecast and OBS studio, but as I also just mentioned, there are a few functional benefits of vMix you may prefer. Some of these come with the $60 price tag, but for others, you’ll need to bump up to $700. vMix social is one cool feature. It allows you to integrate social media comments directly into your titles. In fact, vMix has several useful title tools and a large graphics library. With OBS Studio, you’ll be starting from scratch, which is one reason why you may want to consider paying for a software encoder.
I admit I’m biased here. While vMix has some great feature sets, it’s for Windows only. I’m a Mac user, which means I won’t be taking it further above vMix. I definitely do not recommend vMix be run in a virtual environment on OS X because it needs a good graphics card for optimal use. So while I did like vMix, it would never justify me switching to Windows. That said, if you’re a Windows user looking for encoder software that has a great suite of tools, you really should check out vMix and take advantage of that 60-day trial.
How to Stream to Wowza With vMix
The Best Encoding Software for Live Streaming
When connecting my AJA IO 4K Plus capture device to my studio encoder, the process was seamless for both OBS and Wirecast. I wanted multiple SDI connections for multiple camera sources, and this proved the best way to connect them to a laptop.
I’ve been working in video for 20 years, and when I think of a studio, I think of a three-camera setup connected to a switcher and an excellent audio mixer with at least 4 XLR inputs. These days, with a limited crew, I’d make those cameras PTZ so all the controls are at my fingertips and management can be done by one person if needed. Wirecast and OBS both do this. I also want the ability to have real-time video feeds for remote people, add music, lower thirds, video clips, and even replace backgrounds. Once again, both fit the bill. Both also stream RTMP and SRT.
Honestly, it’s a hard choice. And while for many, the difference between free versus more than $500 would be the dealbreaker, it isn’t. Because there’s something to be said for a well-thought-out interface, having everything available rather than a plug-in, and being backed by a company that maintains the quality, upgrades, and has been doing so for 14 iterations.
For those who just plan to vlog from your desk with one camera or possibly two, I’d say OBS Studio is the clear winner. My guess is you already have tight budget constraints and fewer production requirements. You don’t need to save preset configurations for different productions or clients. And while simulcasting to multiple services is nice, it may not be worth the price tag of Wirecast. Especially when services like Wowza Streaming Cloud let you do this for a monthly fee and egress charges.
For those of us planning to run a mobile multi-camera studio while managing multiple sources live, Telestream Wirecast is a better route. A good interface with easy access to controls is more important when you need to jump between them quickly during a live production. Having presets for different production or locations or equipment setups is also crucial to the business — especially when all your digital assets are located on that same computer. Plus, if your gear is worth thousands, then the price of Telestream Wirecast becomes less of an issue by alleviating the need to hunt for the right plug-in to solve a problem.
Encoding software has stopped being about simply compressing a video signal and broadcasting it to a service. It’s now an umbrella term for production studio management. And that means that choosing the right live streaming software is more about how you plan to use it.
Beyond OBS Studio and Telestream Wirecast, there are many other software encoders out there. Many are proprietary, and many of them will only work on Windows. That said, some of them may be just what you need for your productions, having that one function you’ve been looking for. But if you need something versatile, these two have been the best options for the last few years. And most likely, they’ll continue to be the leaders of the pack for years to come.
About Justin Miller
Justin K. Miller is the video and webinar producer at Wowza Media Systems. He’s responsible for both the live and recorded productions made to educate, train, and inform customers and live video streaming enthusiasts. When not focused on the many facets of video production, Justin spends his free time watching media, modifying 3D printers, designing terrarium topography, breeding poison dart frogs, and raising his two children Jonathan and Alexis.