In this post I will present my own personal observations and experiences with using the setup we have configured, and my role as administrator and technician with these platforms and environments. In the next post, I will provide a few anecdotes and insights into the experience.
CONNECTING WITH PERFORMERS/ARTISTS
First of all, I would like to make the point that having this opportunity to administer and be the technical coordinator for this series has been a great privilege. For me, it has been rewarding on many levels. I have connected with and spent more time than usual with many more artists and performers then I normally would have on a week by week basis. It has almost selfishly given me a great sense of worth and the feeling that I, along with my colleagues, are helping contribute to creating cultural activity and connections during a time where our community are searching for it.
It has also provided not only myself, but our community the opportunity to connect again with artists from around Aotearoa, New Zealand and overseas with whom we have collaborated in the past when they have visited Auckand. We have also made some new connections with people who have seen what we are doing and are interested in being involved.
All of this cultural and social connectivity has been invaluable in creating a sense of well-being for myself, and dare I say for others. In terms of being active in coordinating performances, I have not actually found myself busier than during this time, and all this has been most rewarding.
OBSERVATIONS AND REFLECTIONS ON THE SET-UP
ZOOM and the PERFORMERS
As I said in my earlier post, using Zoom as the performance platform was not my initial intention. Although this had been a suggestion from within the Vitamin S community, I was reluctant to move quickly towards adopting it as I thought there might be better options. However, after that discussion with Sarah Weaver she suggested this was the best option to get as many people involved and as quickly and simply as possible. So this is the direction we took.
In this regard, this has definitely been the case. Everybody can easily get access to Zoom, and they can set it up relatively easily themselves. Most people within the performance community had already been using zoom for teaching purposes, as by the time we were beginning our Vitamin S-Tream series, it was one or two weeks into the lockdown. period.
The other benefit of using Zoom has been that it offers both audio and video in one platform. This has made it a more simple option for me to run as an administrator for a weekly performance series involving different people each week. To extrapolate on that, it is because every week I need to connect with all the performers in the days leading up to the performance and make sure they are set up and comfortable with performing using the Zoom platform. On some occasions this has involved actually working with someone to get Zoom properly installed, and in most occasions it has involved going over sound settings with most performers. This has been to set up what is called in Zoom 'original sound settings' which takes away the compression codec Zoom uses when people are using it just for voice meetings. In the advanced section of the sound settings we also adjust blocking out background noise to get a more freely open mic or input in summer platform so that there is less chance of the sound input being cut off.
If we were to use to platforms, such as Source-Connect Now, Jamulus, or other such network sound connections, we would still have to use a video platform such as Zoom or Skype to create an engaging online streaming performance. This would then require me as the administrator to assist six performers per week to set up those platforms, and get used to performing within those environments. It could also put more strain on the network, and thus compromise the stability of the Internet connections from either the performers end, or my end as the administrator running the stream. This is an issue that we face in New Zealand slightly more so than others do in the northern hemisphere in places such as Europe or the USA due to our lower Internet speed.
As I said above, most of the performers were at least familiar with using Zoom already, or were able to get it set up on their own without too much problem. In a few cases there were issues around getting sound settings properly set up. Some of this was due to different versions of Zoom performers were using because of the age of their computers. (Only older versions of Zoom would work on older operating systems) The older versions of Zoom unfortunately did not have access to the original sound settings, or some of the other advanced sound options. For the first week or two, it took some time to figure this out and much time could be spent in conversation with a performer trying to understand what they were looking at, and where they needed to click to adjust the sound settings, if indeed they could.
I think the longest I spent trying to get a performers settings working was 1.5 hours. There were other instances that didn't take quite as long as that, but would have been close to half an hour to an hour. I found working through these challenges actually also quite rewarding. As every time we solved an issue, I learnt a bit more about how to deal with the next issue that might come up at another time.
Just to give an idea of where some of the issues with the setup would come from here are some bullet points to show the factors involved:
- Zoom insallation
- Making sure Zoom was installed onto the computer, and the invitation was not opening from the website
- Zoom sound settings
- audio input and output
- original sound settings
- background noise settings
- Audio Interface or computer microphone
BENEFITS and ISSUES of Set-Up
First of all, let's go over the benefits of the platforms and applications involved with the setup. The first of these would be that the video and audio are all integrated within one platform/application, Zoom. Other benefits within the setup lie in the ability to control the Zoom performers and the (my) host audio feeds seperately because of the internal audio routing to logic, and then to OBS for streaming to YouTube.
OBS has given us the option of creating and controlling a sequence of 'scenes' where video/images and audio are put together, and we have the ability to fade between them. This is beneficial for the performers experience when setting up, and for the audience experience when watching. What this means is that we don't have to bring performeres into the live stream space until they are ready. It gives us a chance to make sure all the setup is done before we stream that performance space live to YouTube, yet still have some video and audio running into the stream. The creation and control of scenes in OBS Studio, creates a performance experience for the audience that keeps all the arduous performer setup, any technical issues which might result in the stream starting late behind a preceeding scene loaded with an image and some sound.
This creates a type of screen for all of that activity to happen. Having these scenes takes a lot of stress out of dealing with any issues if they do contribute to starting the performance late for two reasons:
- You can start the stream on time but with the 'welcome to the stream scene' playing.
- You can go back to any of these scenes if any technical issues arise if need be, which leaves the whole process less exposed between technician, performers, and the audience.
Some of the main issues from using Zoom as our performance platform are mainly to do with sound issues. As Zoom has not been created for the purpose of music or sound performance, it has artefacts that compromise the experience of collaborating and performing with it. Although the sound quality is rather good, especially as you can engage an option called 'original sound settings' (this disables much or most of the compression codec Zoom uses for speaking voices), there still seems to be an issue of some performers sounds being prioritised over others. This has been most apparent ironically for drummers. Drums and percussion constantly experienced dropouts in their sound when performing with other instruments. As we noticed this happening, we did some further testing to try and discover what might be a way to work around it.
The other issue with using Zoom as the platform is that none of the individual audio feeds can be balanced separately. There is also no way of monitoring within Zoom your own audio input. So, you only hear through your headphones the performers you are playing with, but not yourself. This makes it difficult to be aware of your own levels within the group. One way to work around this is to use a seperate DAW to monitor your own audio, however this does not give you a true representation of how your level is balancing with the other performers in Zoom.
We did eventually find a way that drums and percussion could work more effectively in the Zoom platform. This follows two separate sessions just with percussionists to try out a number of different settings, and look into setups. What we discovered was that contrary to the initial belief that using a good microphone for the audio input into Zoom was essential for audio integrity, the standard laptop or computer microphone with all the background noise settings disabled worked best. The theory that we came to in our conclusion of the testing was that the computer microphone was more' open', (for want of a better way of putting it) to a continuous signal from the drums or percussion, and would hence have less of a chance of dropping out, or being interrupted by another Zoom performer. A higher quality microphone through an audio interface seemed to require stronger input from the performer, so any subtle sounds would be lost, the performers voice or signal would drop out as it was interrupted by other Zoom performers.
Here are three clips where you can see and here three performers in each clip. In the first clip only one performer is a percussionist, and the other two are not. You will see and hear how the drums drop out and are interrupted by the other performers. The percussionist for this performance is using a higher quality microphone through an audio interface plugged into their computer. There are also two other clips that show us doing tests with three drummers.
The first of these clips shows the drummers/percussionists using condenser or dynamic microphones through audio interfaces. In this clip you still notice dropouts, In the last clip, the drummers/percussionists use their computer microphones, and you will see and hear that they do not drop out and are not interrupted by each other quite nerly as much. We also experimented in this third clip with one or two of the drummers at a time playing a stringed instrument to try and replicate what it would be like for one percussionist to be performing with other instruments in the Zoom environment/platform.
Although one of the drummers does have some dropouts, we theorised that this is due to him using an older computer and operating system, which means he does not have access to the original sound settings option in audio preferences. He is not able to change the background noise options either, and so we think these two factors contribute to his audio still dropping out and being interrupted. Although it seems from the testing, and through the videos, that there is a reduction in those dropouts when he uses his computer microphone as opposed to the higher quality condenser or dynamic microphone options.
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Administrating and hosting the feed or stream has been about trying to develop the performance space where the experience for the audience is rewarding. This has meant trying to run it almost like a live television studio. That is why using OBS Studio has been so crucial to the workflow. OBS has given us the option of creating scenes that mean we don't have to bring performeres into this space until they are ready. And gives us a chance to make sure all the setup is done before we stream that performance space live to YouTube. It also means I have been able to create a series of scenes that are unique to the Vitamin S-Tream. Each of these scenes contains various media of images/video and audio that can cross fade from one to the other. By being able to design a unique look to the stream providess an opportunity to think about an identity that could be expressed through the images and audio contained in each scene.
I personally have really enjoyed developing the stream, and putting in images and sound into each of the scenes to create a unique type of performance flow for any of the audience tuning in. This is something you will notice is developed from the beginning, if you look at the very first stream and the latest you will see a considerable difference in the look and the flow of the performance.
This image shows the scene that we used to begin the stream. It is a montage of images taken from the wine cellar, the local venue that we would normally be using for the Vitamin S pool nights.
There is sound playing underneath this image when the stream begins. The sound file I am using is an audio recording of general audience or crowd hub-bub in a bar/venue.
In between sets I chose to play music from local artists, that is artists from a Aotearoa New Zealand behind the image on the right. I feel this also adds a sense of affirming the locality, but also helping to promote local artists, the recordings and an interest in the scene that surrounds and contributes to creating our community.