Islands in the Stream

Now that we’ve completed our 90 day free trial of 2020, I’m left wondering if I can cancel my subscription until 2021 comes out...

If you read ArtBeat in the April issue, you’ll remember I talked a bit about how art helps us cope with hard things. At the time of writing, we were at the precipice of an epidemic in North America and there were big questions looming about next steps to slow the spread. Since then we’ve been sent into isolation as a country—a historic ask by our government to ease the burden on healthcare and protect our vulnerable population. As predicted, our artists are struggling to find income without gigs, galleries, and disposable income. And as predicted, they are also rising to the challenge of helping us all through this time by posting painting workshops, creative inspiration, and concerts online. 

For centuries artists have been adapting mediums to suit their own needs. Letterpress printing, for example, was created as a practical communication tool to duplicate words and make books quickly. From about 1450 until 1950 that remained the primary use of the process, but when offset lithography started taking over as the primary technology, the artists started buying up cheap printing presses and old type and turning it into an art form—repurposing the wonderful machines, seeing beauty in the patina of vintage type, and reimagining the process into something wonderfully new and creative. The modern letterpress-printing industry is growing and the creative spirit continues to push the envelope of what’s possible, artistically speaking. 

In this age of quarantine and social isolation, it’s interesting to note that the artists are doing the same thing. Perhaps it’s one of the byproducts of innate curiosity, or maybe it’s necessity pushing us to invention, but in this lockdown you can see the artists casting about for available technology to get the message out: Facebook, Instagram, and now Zoom (how many people had heard about Zoom before March?) have all become new platforms for art distribution. The problem is; that’s not what they were designed for. 

Because we have these glowing pixel panels on our desks and in our hands, much of the technology used to drive them is visual. YouTube has become an entertainment giant by essentially creating a market for grassroots video documentaries and that has changed the way we think about entertainment from creating through delivery. If you’re a visual artist, or a motion-graphics artist, you’re in luck because these mediums suit you perfectly. If you’re a musician, on the other hand, there are some real challenges because we are all working on limited bandwidth, and video content is bandwidth-heavy. When content is coming downstream to us our internet connection is designed to reserve more bandwidth so we can stream 4k movies with hi-fi sound, but when our content is going up, there is less real-estate allotted in the stream. As a result, many streaming technologies like Facebook Live and YouTube Live choose an algorithm that emphasizes the video part of the stream, and compresses the audio. 

What happens is there is this little bit of software that decides what parts of the data are critical to send on, and which parts need to be dropped from the stream. That bit of software, to this point, has been focused on clarity in the speaking range, so as long as you can understand the words of someone streaming, the algorithm is happy, even if they sound a bit like a robot. The slower the up-stream, the more like a robot they sound (see figure 1 below for a visual representation). 

What this means for musicians is that you will look good on stream, but you won’t sound good. Until the big players decide that the audio quality of live streams is as important to the feed as the video and adjust the algorithm to compensate, we are unfortunately stuck with terrible-to-mediocre sound. Our band RedGirl (redgirlmusic.com/), which fortunately consists of my wife Anie and I, have streamed a few concerts and I’ve been getting questions from musicians everywhere about how we got reasonably clear sound from our stream. I thought I’d share a few tricks here to make sure we can all get to the mediocre end of the clarity scale and hopefully Facebook and YouTube will adjust their algorithms sooner rather than later. If they do, it will be because of pressure from musicians and avid listeners during this time. With this many fun things coming right to our living rooms, we may never want to leave again. 

Improving Sound Quality of you Streams:

  1. Plug it in: If you can plug your laptop or desktop directly into your router with an ethernet cable, that will help. Wires are still faster than wi-fi so plugging in makes sure your stream speeds its way to the interwebs. Most of us have a fibre-optic connections so once it’s at the router the journey to the server happens at lightning speed.
     
  2. Don’t get too close: There is an audio term called ‘headroom’ that is used to describe how much volume you can get out of a microphone. If you picture a person standing beside a helicopter, the taller they are, the less headroom they have. If you move really close to the microphone you make the person taller until at some point their head gets pushed into the rotors. The signal at that point is like the person’s head: it’s not bent, it’s just cut off. Capice? (See figure 2). This makes a horrible sound at the listener end (as you can imagine) that sounds like loud static or like nothing at all because the algorithm cuts the volume completely to stop the chaos. Instead, stand back from the mic and turn the volume up on your computer so you have a reasonable amount of volume, but it never ‘clips.’ Try making a sound that’s a bit louder than anything you’re planning on your stream to test the headroom. If it ‘clips,’ back up from the mic a bit.
     
  3. Take Control of the conversion from analog to digital as much as you can by adding an external microphone, which gives you way more control of audio quality. This requires a bit more technical proficiency, but I’ve created a diagram (figure 3) so you can see it’s just an extra step or two if you have the right gear. We’ve been using a high-quality condenser microphone which is a very sensitive mic that picks up a lot of ambient sound. As a result they are not great for stages or loud environments but they are great for controlled sound stages like studios and living rooms and kitchens where you can control the background noise. You have to be careful of headroom (see above) but it can help you get more nuances into the up-stream. You also have to be conscious of background noise—if you have small children or pets around it will pick up everything. 
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  5. Use a third-party streaming app: We’ve been using a service called StreamYard (streamyard.com) and it is a wonderful piece of software. You can sign up for free and use many of the features without ever having to pay a cent. It allows you to invite friends into your streams and monitor Facebook comments in real time. It streams directly to Facebook Live or YouTube Live (or both, if you upgrade) and records your stream for later. For musicians, in the audio settings make sure to check a box named ‘Disable Audio Processing’ which really improves the sound for music by adjusting the compression algorithm (see #3). There are other similar services so read up on the ups and downs of each.  
     
  6. Be Gracious: Both with yourself and with others who are streaming. We’re all in this together and we’re all learning. The important part is to know that there’s another person on the other side of the stream so go and have fun connecting!