Live DadCasts and Lessons Learnt

André and Eric
So last Monday night we held our first live DadCast in Montreal’s trendy Mesa 14 restaurant with Montreal systems biologist, photoblogger and awesome Dad André Nantel; let me just say that we had a blast… André is a great guy to talk too with so many awesome stories, and not just geeky ones either although those were my favourite. It was also really nice to get out of the Wendyhouse and do a live “gig” in a pretty cool restaurant like Mesa14 on Bishop Street in Montreal and streaming it over

However as much fun as it was we learnt a few things from our first gig that we had never encountered doing a studio show even as “nearly live” as we having been doing it over the years.

When we record the regular DadCast, we all pile into the Wendyhouse studios and then connect the odd the remote dad like Ben or guest dad like Stephen Hackett through Skype and although we do a little chitchatting before the show and a very fast read through on the show notes, from the minute I say “Nearly Live from the Wendyhouse Studios of Valois Bay” until we say goodnight to Eric or to our guest I am recording and we don’t stop unless there is a huge technical blunder, even then we usually laugh it off and make it part of the show. As they say: The show must go on. In the studio, we are still recording the dads on one track and the Skype call on a second and using Wiretap Studio to record 2 stereo channels separately. This is pretty basic stuff but it’s been working well for us and Season III’s sound quality should be proof enough.

So when we decided to do the live show at Mesa 14, we actually simplified the audio portion of the recording by eliminating the Skype call and the need to listen to the caller in pre-fade without looping it back to the mic mix in Wiretap Studio. Basically, all we had to do was make sure everyone’s levels were fine without any clipping and ensure that Wiretap Studio was now recording the mixing desk output and no system sounds. Easy enough right?

The tricky part was introducing the live stream and the video capture. There was no real easy way of doing this all on one machine and my life-experience in radio outside broadcast had taught me enough to make sure that if the MacBookPro died, the show could in fact go on. So my MacBook would record the live audio for the iTunes podcast portion of the DadCast and then we would use a video camera and separate MacBook Pro to stream the video and the audio being output by the mic mix on the desk. So far this is pretty easy to do with the Behringer Xenyx 1204FX we use, it has separate out put for the main mix as it does for the control room (Dads headphones) and something called the ALT3/4. This is a whole other sub mix you can then use to either monitor in pre-fade or actually send to another recording source or monitor. In the live show and live stream scenario, we were sending the main mix to the first MacBook to be recorded and then using the ALT3/4 to send to the second MacBook to be recorded for the live stream.

Live Studio Setup.png

By now, those of you with a little audio engineering background should be able to see where we might make some mistakes or where we could have taken extra steps to prevent possible pitfalls. First off there is the complete lack of non computerized back up: TAPE. Personally I still like to use a minidisc recorder even though you are restricted to 80 minutes stereo or 160 minutes mono. There are better solutions out there that use SD of CF cards but you really should use what you trust and what you already have.

Second issue is the desk itself. When you are essentially running three different mixes: Main Mix, Control Room (Dads Headphones) and the ALT3/4 it’s very easy to get confused and make mistakes especially when someone says they can’t hear their voice and demands you fiddle with some knobs. In our case on the night the only person who really need to monitor anything was myself as the desk operator, and the person monitoring the live feed for the stream: Ben. And in order to monitor the live stream, Ben should have been monitoring the sound from his MacBook and not from the Control Room. This was my rookie mistake number one. If Ben had been monitoring the stream he would have heard us “clipping” and distorting and would have been able to adjust the levels in Ustream’s interface. I should have figured this when I saw the monitor lights dip into the red, but I guess I got distracted by something else. You see Ustream doesn’t compress your source audio for you like Skype does, so you either have to ride your levels or set them low on purpose to get richer sound at a lower level. Most people tend to opt for the latter, that is why many live streams always sound so low.

And finally the Third issue is one that is so basic that if Bob Edgar, my first head radio-engineer, were to find out he’d totally kick my ass. So earlier I talked about two ways to use the ALT3/4:

  • a) The alternate mix
  • b) The pre-fade/solo

The pre-fade/solo let’s you listen to one or two channels exclusively without affecting either the main mix or the alt mix. In fact most DJ’s use this to cue up records and cd’s before playing them out to the main.

The alternate mix is just that. You dedicate a series of channels as ALT and then they all get sent to the ALT3/4 mix. This is great if you want to record and music mix but don’t want to record any vocals or even the other way around, you simply want the dry voice. Radio DJ’s use alt mixes all the time to record phone calls and in studio pieces while the music is being played out on air. Essentially it mutes those selected channels, eliminating it from the main mix totally. Essentially giving you two working spaces: A live main mix and an alternate for recording .

But in our live setting neither one of these are what we wanted or needed. What we actually need was for the ALT3/4 to be a second main mix. What essentially happened was that by raising both the main and alt mix levels, we would record all the channels to either mix exclusively. In our case, we muted all the main lines and sent them all to Ustream. Since we were monitoring both in the headphones and control room we never noticed that our main MacBook was essentially recording dead air. Radio presenters often monitor both the main and the alt so they don’t miss the “end of the record”. This habit of mine of monitoring both is what prevented me from getting a nice clean audio feed of the whole show.

So although the show went out on UStream a little loud and distorted we essentially succeeded in producing a live show that was heard by at least 9 people in the chat room and probably still more than my first paying radio gig. However we totally failed in mastering our equipment and getting nice clean audio for the iTunes version of the DadCast. In order to salvage the show, I played the UStream recording over again in my browser and fired up Wiretap Studio once again and recorded the audio portion of the feed. In fact the only thing Bob would have been proud of is my use of hi and lo pass filters to salvage the audio and make it almost listenable. The general rule of thumb when it comes to post production: you can always raise a low volume, but you simply cannot recover sound that is lost to distortion and clipping.

After a little thought here is a simplified revision of what the lay out should have been. You will notice that not only have I added a backup recording solution but that we are also monitoring both the main and the broadcast live stream. The audio taken out of the desk is all the same audio, essentially multiple versions of the main mix. This is actually accomplished through the multiple outs of the Focussrite Saffire Pro24 firewire sound card in our case but essentially this can be accomplished a variety of ways depending on your own equipment. If you’re not techie enough for this like us, you can hire digital experts like an audio visual technician to help set it up. These digital experts can also help you with Virtual video production.

The other thing you will have to remember when doing live streams is that if you are shooting video, make sure there is more than enough light to be able to see the folks you are trying to film but that is a whole other issue for a whole other post.