Live video streaming is becoming more and more common place at conferences and workshops, but is often costly and it can be difficult to achieve good results. In this post, we consider an alternative method: live audio streaming
Anecdotally, despite the investment in live video, many “viewers” only listen to a live video stream for a large proportion of their viewing time. There is no definitive way of determining this from the viewer stats, but many remote participants have reported that they often have a live video stream open in a browser tab so they can listen whilst they work on other things, usually only dipping in to watch when the speaker refers to something on the slides or demonstrates something visually.
If this is the case, then many smaller events might be better amplified using live audio streaming, rather than live video. This has the advantage not only of being cheaper, but also requiring lower minimum bandwidths for both the broadcaster and the listener, making it possible to reach more rural audiences from a wider variety of locations.
Whilst many “plug and play” solutions exist for streaming video that take care of all the technicalities for you, until recently setting up an online “radio” channel to live stream audio has been a more difficult proposition. However, a short while ago we discovered Mixlr, which presents a quick and easy solution to this problem.
What is Mixlr
Mixlr describes itself as a live broadcasting tool that allows users to:
The main use case for the tool is for music lovers who want to act as an online DJ for their friends by setting up a playlist of their favourite tracks so they can listen together and chat.
The site also comes with a desktop app allowing you to broadcast live events using a variety of audio sources, including in built and external microphones. It is this feature, combined with the conversational facility, that made it a tool of interest for event amplification.
How to Use Mixlr
Mixlr allows users to broadcast pre-recorded material via SoundCloud, or live audio via a microphone input.
Here’s a quick summary of the steps involved:
- Sign in with Soundcloud, Facebook. Twitter or Email.
- Select “Broadcast now”.
- Choose between creating a playlist from SoundCloud or downloading the broadcasting app.
- Choosing “SoundCloud” allows you to add public tracks from any SoundCloud account, including your own, to create a playlist. Once you have created a playlist, you can choose to broadcast straight away or schedule the broadcast for later.
- Choosing “Download Broadcasting App” and following the download instructions will provide you with a simple desktop application that gives you two options: “Set Up A Broadcast” or “Schedule For Later”. Both allow you to choose and test a sound input source (typically an inbuilt or external microphone connected to your computer) and title your broadcast before going live or setting a broadcast time.
Once you are broadcasting, either via SoundCloud or your own microphone input, you are provided with a link to your own live broadcast page on Mixlr, which you can circulate to your target audience. This gives you a range of views on the broadcast, including:
- Crowd View: which shows who is listening to the broadcast in real time
- Chat View: which allows you to comment on the broadcast and chat with other listeners
- Stage View: which visualises the audio currently playing and allows the broadcaster to design their own custom “stage”
- About View: which shows basic statistics about the broadcaster, including their Twitter or Facebook details, if provided.
Alternatively, Mixlr offers an embedded player, which can be pasted into any web page. This provides links back to the broadcast page for listeners who want to use the chat features.
The embedded player is Flash-based, so will not work on iOS devices, but there is a Mixlr app for iPhone and iPad that will allow users to listen via these devices.
Experimenting with Mixlr
We experimented with Mixlr to help amplify Bath Folk Festival 2013, which took place between 10th – 18th August.
Our amplification strategy for the festival included running an online radio channel throughout the week, featuring music by artists taking part in the festival. These tracks were interspersed with pre-recorded trailers telling listeners what was coming up later that day during the festival.
The station was embedded into the Bath Folk Festival website on the homepage and promoted via Twitter and Facebook. Our aim was to provide a service that would provide people with a fix of folk music during the day and to inspire them to come along to concerts in the evening throughout the festival week.
The costs included $9 for a pro unlimited SoundCloud account, where we hosted our audio content, and $9.99 for a premium Mixlr account, which allowed us to schedule up to 72 hours of tracks in advance, and make use of an embedded player. Both SoundCloud and Mixlr have a free options, but on this occasion a one month subscription was a price worth paying for the extra features and storage space it afforded.
As this was our first opportunity to put Mixlr through its paces (albeit not in a conference setting), we took the opportunity to record some of the current pros and cons of the service, which we should stress is still fairly new and upgrading all the time.
- Mixlr has a “chat” space to engage with listeners with each other directly within your channel (although this was on a separate page, taking listeners away from the embedded player)
- Mixlr uses a simple desktop app and web interface that makes live audio streaming very easy – neither were over cluttered with features or gimmicks
- Mixlr integrates with SoundCloud, making it easy to build up playlists of music or podcasts to schedule for live broadcast
- The embedded player autostarts on page load, and has no way to stop/start play*
- The embedded player is not responsive*
- The embedded player does not show the name of the current track
- There is no way of adding entire playlists from SoundCloud to Mixlr in one click
- Only basic usage statistics are available via email after each broadcast ends, including the number of listeners, comments and “hearts”. Unfortunately, the length of time each listener spent listening to the channel is not reported, nor is the geographical spread of listeners. This makes it difficult to fully evaluate the effect or reach of the live audio stream.
* These issues have been resolved by Mixlr since the festival, although the start/stop feature on the embedded player is still not obvious.
Live Audio Streaming from Events
As well as allowing you to line up existing tracks and podcasts to broadcast, Mixlr also allows you to broadcast live via their desktop app:
It is simply a case of launching the app, selecting an audio source and starting the broadcast, making it a very simple, free way to broadcast an event to a wider audience.
As with live video, whilst it is possible to broadcast an event for free with very minimal equipment (in this case a laptop with an inbuilt microphone), production values will have a big impact on the experience for the listener.
Most importantly, the quality of the audio needs to be as good as possible. Using a feed directly from the sound desk of the venue’s PA is the best way to improve the sound quality. However, this is not always possible at smaller events, where there is rarely a way to connect to the sound system, and the speaker may only be provided with a fixed lectern mic. We frequently find that if the room is small and the speaker feels they can be adequately heard without a microphone, they tend to move away from the lectern, which results in poor sound for the remote viewer. When we are recording or live streaming an event in such situations, we usually attach a good quality wireless lapel mic to the speaker and collect our own audio, regardless of the PA set up in the room, so we have more control over the sound quality we deliver. We have also been known to provide a wireless handheld microphone for use by the audience, although this has to be caveated with an explanation that it is purely for the benefit of the video audience.
This kind of audio set up will obviously complicate things beyond Mixlr’s simple, three step broadcasting process. We would need to use our own mixing desk to balance the sound levels from these different microphones, then input this balanced signal into the computer that is running Mixlr. In our case, we use Mac laptops that do not have a microphone socket built in, so we would also need to use a USB audio interface to bring the sound feed into the machine.
In addition to high quality sound, there are the continuity elements of a live stream to consider. In our post Does a Live Video Stream Need a Continuity Presenter?, we discuss this in more detail in relation to live video streams, but the principle will remain the same for a live audio stream. How you start and finish your stream, how you explain any breaks and how you involve the remote audience in any breakout discussions or exercises will all take planning, as will the use of any pre-recorded material, such as podcasts or interviews. However, such additional material will be cheaper to produce than video, so it may be possible to offer the remote audience a much more varied programme of “bonus” material.
The chat feature has been more difficult to evaluate so far, as in our test at the Bath Folk Festival few people made use of the facility beyond showing their appreciation of the channel.
Many live streaming services offer a chat facility, often connected directly to Twitter or Facebook so users can share their comments with their followers. In general, we have found that where there is an active conversation within another platform (usually Twitter), the live stream chat feature gets used purely for support questions, or creates confusion and fragmentation of the discussion in the early part of an event, before being abandoned.
The chat feature of Mixlr seems to be more baked into the design, rather than appearing as an optional side widget, as with many of the live video streaming tools. It shows avatars for those who are currently listening, so it is easier to get a sense of who is out there sharing the experience with you. It would be interesting to see how this might encourage an audience to use the discussion space around the audio stream more, perhaps instead of Twitter for a smaller event. However, there appears to be no way to archive or analyse this conversation once the audio stream ends, which means these conversations will not remain amplified in the longer term.
Mixlr offers a cost effective, simple way of offering a live audio stream from an event, that can be enhanced by careful planning and good audio equipment to provide a useful remote experience of an event. This would suit events that do not rely heavily on slides or visual demonstrations, particularly those looking to reach remote audiences in more rural areas, where live video may be too bandwidth intensive.
We intend to experiment further with the chat functionality and keep an eye on future developments from Mixlr regarding reporting of usage data, which would be extremely useful to support the business case for live audio streaming from events.
We look forward to using Mixlr to help amplify a suitable event in the future.
Image Credit: Paul Hussey