How to Choose the Right Encoder for Facebook LiveJune 4, 2018
If you’re a Facebook Live producer, you’re probably wondering: What is the best solution for encoding the broadcasts you stream to Facebook and distribute to viewers? There are many alternatives, some of which are driven by event-specific requirements; some by budget; and others by the gear you currently own.
All encoding options present a unique blend of strengths and weaknesses. This article will present the most commonly considered solutions.
The Goal of a Facebook Live Broadcast
Let’s start by briefly exploring the concept of the ideal Facebook Live event. The event should start and stop crisply; stream at the highest possible resolution; and on-screen talent should promptly respond to comments and reactions. Under the hood, the stream should be resistant to changes in bandwidth from the event location, and should recover smoothly from catastrophic losses, such as complete bandwidth drops or power failures.
Though these concepts are simple in theory, few encoders achieve them. The difference is the level of integration with the Facebook Live application programming interface, or API. Most products in this review offer the simplest layer of API support, which simplifies logging onto Facebook and choosing a destination for your stream. The deepest layer of API support, which is only available in the final product category discussed, provides most of the features identified in the ideal broadcast.
Environmental Factors in Choosing a Facebook Live Encoder
Sometimes, encoder selection is driven by environmental factors relating to your event. For example, at events such as press briefings where you only have the physical space for a camera and tripod, your only option is an in-camera or on-camera device. Going one step further, you may be going live from a location without power or a local network connection, requiring an encoder with both power and 4G connectivity.
Some cameras—most notably, several manufactured by JVC—offer both encoders and 4G connectivity. So you may already have what you need for these types of remote shoots.
If your camera doesn’t come with encoding capabilities, Teradek is the most prominent brand of on-camera encoder, with two relatively inexpensive encoder-only units to consider: the VidiU ($699) and VidiU Pro ($999), which both support Ethernet and Wi-Fi. You configure and operate both devices with an iOS app that also allows you to add a graphic overlay or scoreboard over your live video.
The VidiU Pro comes with a dedicated encoder central processing unit (CPU), which helps ensure stream stability, and an SD slot for recording the encoded video, which is useful for archival or uploading to a video on demand (VOD) service, such as YouTube or your Facebook page. VidiU Pro also supports Sharelink, which lets you combine output signals from Wi-Fi, Ethernet and several iPhone LTE connections to increase the outbound bandwidth of your video stream, which can help improve the quality of your video.
Figure 2. The LiveU Solo is a battery-powered encoder that can support two 4G modems.
If there’s no Ethernet or Wi-Fi at your event, the least expensive alternative is 4G connectivity. Here, look for a device that supports multiple 4G modems from different service providers, rather than a single 4G service or USB modem. That way, if one 4G service isn’t available from your shooting location, or is swamped with other traffic, another might be open.
When multiple 4G services are available, you can combine the signals for the highest possible bandwidth. One popular product in this category is the LiveU Solo, which can support two 4G signals (plus Wi-Fi and Ethernet) and costs $995.
If you’re not affected by these or similar environmental factors, you have multiple options. Here are the most common categories.
Video Mixers for Facebook Live Encoding
Video mixers are products that can input multiple audio and video feeds; mix and switch between them; add graphics, titles and other overlays; and output one or more streams. Some products in this class are sold as hardware/software appliances, such as:
- The popular NewTek TriCaster line of products.
- Lecture-capture systems, such as the Epiphan Pearl 2.
- BlackMagic Design’s ATEM live production switchers.
Others are sold as software-only, including:
In all cases save OBS, which is primarily used for consumer streaming, video mixers are powerful programs, used worldwide for productions ranging from casual to professional. All of these programs should be able to connect and send a stream to Facebook Live.
However, if you’re planning to stream to Facebook Live via one of these products, remember that encoding is a very CPU-intensive process that can drain resources from other system tasks.
Figure 2. The TriCaster Mini: a popular video mixer that can deliver a stream to Facebook Live
If you purchased a streaming appliance with both hardware and software, chances are the manufacturer considered this, and configured a sufficiently robust CPU and other components to handle the load. However, if you installed a program such as Wirecast, vMix or OBS on an existing computer, you don’t have the same assurance.
Before using a self-configured system for an actual event, you should test streaming to Facebook Live under a realistic production load, and make sure CPU utilization—which all products display—stays under 60 percent or so. Levels above 60 percent can lead to instability and crashing. To promote stable operation, you should uninstall as many extraneous programs as possible and disable non-essential services. This will reduce the risk of transient CPU-related stoppages, as well as outright crashes.
If you’re considering pairing an existing system with OBS as an inexpensive encoding station, factor in the cost of a capture device to connect your camera to the computer. Again, for stable operation, you should strongly consider retiring the host computer from other general-purpose tasks, and uninstalling all unneeded programs and services to increase the total system cost.
Beyond stability and total cost, recognize that most products in this category are not that easy to use. Nothing onerous, but if you’re looking for a system that your marketing assistant or social media manager can use, you probably should choose one from the following category.
In addition, remember that though these products are highly functional, they’re video mixers first—not purpose-built programs for streaming to Facebook Live. While connecting with Facebook Live will be simple, these products lack the deeper functionality discussed in the final category.
Facebook Live Encoding Appliances
Encoding appliances are devices that input a signal from a camera (or video mixer) and send a stream to a video service. Some are low-cost units built specifically for sending a stream to social media sites, such as the Epiphan Webcaster X2 ($299). Others are general-purpose streaming devices that can also send a stream to Facebook Live, such as the Matrox Monarch HD ($995).
Figure 3. The Epiphan Webcaster X2.
While specs vary across the board, products purpose-built for streaming to social media are typically the easiest to use, with one-button operation perfect for non-video professionals. They also offer a higher degree of Facebook Live integration. For example, you can connect an HDMI monitor to the Webcaster X2 for a talent view screen that includes incoming comments and other reactions, simplifying viewer/talent interactivity.
Products such as the Monarch may not be quite as simple to use, but offer advanced features, including the ability to record a master-quality stream to an SD card, and an API for integrating into lecture-capture and other systems. With all appliances, you eliminate the need for a separate computer, minimizing the cost of the overall solution.
Though Facebook integration is increasing in products in this category, they typically can’t match that offered by professional Facebook Live appliances, covered next. As you’ll learn, this impacts quality, robustness and fault-tolerance.
Professional Facebook Live Appliances
There are currently only two products in the category of professional Facebook Live appliances, both from Wowza: the ClearCaster 1080 ($2,995) and the ClearCaster 4K ($6,495, coming soon), both rack-mountable with 12G SDI and HDMI input and remote management.
As the names suggest, the 4K model will support 4K and 4K/360º video, once supported by Facebook Live, and includes a one-year subscription to Wowza Streaming Cloud for simulcasting to other online destinations. Both can be operated either via buttons on the front or a web user interface (UI).
Figure 4. The Wowza ClearCaster professional streaming appliance.
What makes these products professional? It starts at the beginning of the broadcast, where both models offer a countdown clock for a crisp, professional start to your event. Both units stream at 1080p, the highest resolution allowed by Facebook Live, while most other live encoders only support 720p. Both also offer a Talent View monitor, which offers video preview and the ability for on-screen talent to see comments and reactions to foster interactivity.
When broadcasting primarily to mobile viewers, you can easily switch ClearCaster from 16:9 to square video, improving the visibility of your talent and the real-time comment feed. If your broadcast supports 608 captions, you can flow that through to Facebook Live and your VOD assets, as well.
Leveraging the Facebook API, both ClearCaster units monitor outbound bandwidth, and can reduce the data rate of the outbound stream when connectivity slows. While this may drop the quality of the Facebook Live event, it won’t cause a catastrophic stop—which can happen with other products without this feature.
If bandwidth is completely interrupted, ClearCaster sends a slate with the text “Live Video Interrupted” to Facebook Live, but stores the incoming feed to the hard drive. If connectivity is restored in under three minutes, the unit simply starts transmitting the recorded stream, so no content is lost. In the final VOD stream published by Facebook, the interruption is edited out—so while there may be a short interruption, the VOD version isn’t ruined.
If power is lost, simply restart the machine, and it will reconnect and restart the broadcast. Obviously, content is lost in the interim, but you’re back up and running as quickly as possible. Note that since Facebook ends a live stream if it’s down for longer than three minutes, this feature won’t help with long stoppages.
This functionality obviously comes at a price, but it’s one many producers find well worth paying for the crispness, quality and fault-tolerance the Wowza ClearCaster appliance delivers.
Want to learn more about creating professional Facebook Live productions? Read the Wowza Ultimate Guide to Facebook Live Streaming. For more information about Wowza ClearCaster, visit the product page or sign up for a personalized demo.