Livestreaming at St. Paul’s

St. Paul’s Livestream, an integral part of the ministry of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church of Milaca, Minnesota.

The idea of livestreaming at St. Paul’s started a while ago. For years, St. Paul’s recorded the worship services, first to VHS and then to DVD, and mailed those DVD’s out to shut-ins or those who were regularly unable to attend services. This worked fine. But a few folks always wanted to do more and offer a better quality, modern approach and to have our worship services, Bible studies, and other events available on the internet.

A member of the congregation began to upload the recorded DVD to his computer, and then onto YouTube. He did this weekly, and over time more and more people began to access the church’s YouTube channel and watch. He found a way to share the YouTube video to the church’s Facebook channel which brought in even more online viewers.

But, the idea of livestreaming was still just a passing thought.

In 2018 Rev. Daniel Carlson was called to serve the church. He brought with him years of IT, Computer Technology and website design experience, as well as several years’ prior experience in church audio/visual setup and management. It had not crossed his mind, however, to make any changes to St. Paul’s A/V systems as everything was working fine and, at least during his first year, there was no reason to do more.

In late 2019 or early 2020, Benton Communications ran brand new Fiberoptic line into the church and converted the old DSL internet to super high speed. This major upgrade sparked a new found interest in improving, not only our current business technologies throughout the church, but also improving our A/V technology for worship and other meetings. At the same time, a large anonymous gift was given to the church to be used for expanding or strengthening our ministry.

Early in 2020, distant tremors of a strange new virus called Coronavirus began to emerge in the news. While it seemed like just another one of many annual viruses, members at St. Paul’s started wondering how things might progress. In February, it was becoming very clear that the virus was serious. Pastor Carlson, along with the elders, began to experiment with rudimentary livestreaming using an Android tablet set on a stand. This proved to be very insufficient.

The initial problem was that the tablet was at or below the height of the worshipers, so whenever the congregation stood up, the view of the chancel was lost. The audio quality was also sorely lacking and little could be heard unless viewers turned up the audio on their devices to maximum.

The other issue was the static nature of streaming with a stationary device. Prior to this, the church utilized a wall-mounted (very old school) camera which rotated and zoomed. The quality wasn’t great, but for DVD or VHS recordings it served its purpose.

The first official “COVID livestream” was the First Sunday in Lent. It served its purpose, but several people complained of poor video and audio quality, and frequent freezes. But due to, of all things, the virus, the congregation was not able to meet and other boards, including the council, were forced to postpone or cancel meetings.

The church struggled through February and March with the stationary tablet, and a laptop was used along with a higher quality webcam. Because of the state and federal guidelines, our midweek Lenten services were canceled, as well as Holy Week (though a special Good Friday Tre Ore service met). The Easter Vigil, Easter Sunrise service, and the Easter breakfast was canceled, and there was only one Easter Sunday service.

In April, the council finally met and spent considerable time discussing the situation, the need to improve livestreaming for both the era of COVID and for the long term. The council approved an immediate expenditure of a few thousand dollars to purchase a computer, a new digital PTZ (Point Tilt Zoom) camera to replace the old non-digital camera that the church had used for years, and software to properly livestream.

Pastor Carlson setup a folding table in the “Cry Room” (what was being used for storage and for the audio equipment) and with the help of an elder, ran cables and installed the camera. The first Sunday this was used was May 10, 2020.

Prior to the first livestream, it was discovered that the one computer could not effectively handle both the livestreaming software and the slide software which was being used to show words and liturgy on the stream. Even with an Intel i5 desktop with a good video card, the stream was choppy, and the audio was not clear.

Pastor lent a mini-PC to the cause, and the slide software was installed separately from the streaming software. This improved everything to a degree. There was still issues with sound and with buffering, but nothing near what it was with the old Android Tablet or the single PC.

Another conversation that was going on with the elders and others — a conversation that had gone on for years — was the notion of building a real Sound Booth in the sanctuary vs. having the equipment in the “Cry Room”/storage closet. Throughout the spring and into summer, this conversation got more predominant because of the immediate needs due to COVID. Plans were drawn up, changes to plans were made, and finally, come July a final detailed plan was created, along with a budget, to not only build a true Sound Booth, but to purchase several new pieces of equipment to totally upgrade and modernize the Audio/Visual infrastructure. This was a bold step, but a necessary step if St. Paul’s wanted to continue to livestream well beyond COVID and for years to come.

The plan was presented to the voters in July and approved. The Sound Booth was built in late September/early October. The budgeted equipment was purchased (though some things were on backorder due to the virus) and installed as it arrived. Come Reformation Sunday, St. Paul’s was fully livestreaming the services. Another addition to this was Benton’s upgrading the internet even more, to a full 100Mbps up and down service.

Today, we have livestreamed successfully every Sunday and have began livestreaming our Sunday morning Bible Studies (we also added tech to the Fellowship Hall so we could livestream). There’s been growing pains, but overall things have gone very well. We also continue to send DVD recordings to those who need, but they are better quality than before the upgrade.

EQUIPMENT

VIDEO AND STREAMING HAREWARE

In our attempt to upgrade so that we won’t have to upgrade again for many years, we purchased equipment that is considered by most to be “professional quality” and that has a good track record of a long lifespan. The hope is that we need not do any major upgrades again until 2030.

First, the cameras. For ease of use and to take advantage of modern ethernet-based communications (and so that we didn’t have to run special coax or RS-232 cables) we purchased three cameras which utilize the “NDI” (Network Device Interface) protocol. This, along with PoE (Power over Ethernet) means that we only have one standard CAT-5e ethernet cable running from the booth to the camera.

We chose two PTZ Optics cameras for our Sanctuary and one Minrray PTZ camera for the Fellowship Hall. In our case, we got a 30x and a 12x zoom for the sanctuary and a 20x zoom for the fellowship hall.

For these cameras to work, you must run CAT5e or CAT6 ethernet cable to the location of the camera. The other end should plug into your church’s network infrastructure, if you have one. Yes, you must have some sort of Gigabit internet/intranet in your building for these cameras to work, and your computer or computers must also be connected to the same Gigabit network. I will talk more about our network setup later.

Along with these cameras we purchased 3 VERY solid camera mounts. The mounts are designed specifically for PTZ Optics cameras. If you are mounting your camera(s) on the wall, be sure you mount high enough to get over standing people or other objects. Seven to eight feet is sufficient. Too high and the video will seem too distant and you’ll be forced to use zoom more than necessary.

Because these are 180 degree rotating cameras, you should not mount them in corners or in places where the full 180 degrees cannot be utilized. We mounted one camera above the back door to the sanctuary and the other on the side wall about 1/2 way into the sanctuary. This gives us MANY angles and options.

Models

PTZ20X-NDI
PTZ30X-NDI
Minrray 20X NDI

The next IMPORTANT piece of the livestream puzzle is the network infrastructure. Our internet provider offers 100 Mbps Upload and Download, which is more than sufficient for most livestreaming needs.

Once the internet gets into the building, you will need an ethernet port for each networked device you want to use. Since most ISP internet modems come with only four ports, you’ll likely need a Network Switch to increase the number of ports available.

A Network Switch can give you 4 or more ports, can be installed anywhere, as long as you can run an ethernet cable from the modem to the switch. Note: DO NOT attempt to do a wireless connection to your modem or use wireless for your NDI cameras or other livestreaming equipment!

For the sake of future growth, we installed a TP-Link 16-port gigabit switch in our sound booth. IMPORTANT: If you are using the PoE feature with your cameras, you will need either PoE injection or a switch with PoE ports. Our switch has 8 ports which can provide PoE power. Check with the camera’s wattage requirements to make sure your switch outputs the necessary power.

The above image is similar to our switch. The best brands are:
TP-Link, Linksys/Cisco and Netgear.

The next important piece of hardware is a computer. The NDI feed needs to go to some sort of processing device so it can be sent out to the internet. There are solid-state video processors, but they’re generally for protocols that are not NDI such as coax, rs232, SDI, USB, etc.

For NDI, it’s enough that you have a good computer that has a hard wired connection to your network and internet.

In our case, we have TWO computers. One computer handles the cameras and the livestreaming, and the other computer sends video slides, images, and text slides to the livestream. We will get into the software later in this post.

Our streaming computer is a very powerful, very fast PC with lots of memory (16GB, but we’ll upgrade to 32GB soon), a very fast processor (AMD Ryzen 9 3900x), a top of the line video card (AMD Radeon RX 5700 XT) and a gigabit ethernet port. See it here. We also have an ASUS touchscreen monitor so that we can easily control the cameras and inputs. This PC allows us to livestream 1080i quality to our streaming provider which we’ll talk about later, and with little to no lag or buffering issues.

Our “worship pc”, as it’s called, which runs the software for our video slides, text slides, etc., is a mid-grade Intel i5 system. It was custom-built by a company on the internet. It has a good video card, 16 GB memory, and a gigabit ethernet port. I can’t link this PC because it’s no longer available (it was custom). But if you do a web search for an i5 or better desktop PC in about the $800 range, you’ll be set. You could always do better, but for simply running a program like PowerPoint, Easy Worship or Media Shout, this is plenty.

AUDIO HARDWARE

The other side of livestreaming is, of course, your audio. After all, the pastor, speaker or presenter has things to say, and what is said needs to be part of the stream.

First, there are two methods of getting the live audio into the stream: analog and digital. Analog interfaces have been around for decades but also come with things like static, feedback, and other frequency noises. Digital is relatively new to the audio world, and is still a developing and growing enterprise, but there is no feedback, no static, and frequency noise is all but gone.

Most microphones or receiving devices are analog. The cabling that goes from such analog devices are generally analog. But the signal going out on the livestream is digital, and the audio and video needs to be sync’d so that the audio sounds fit with the video (the speaker’s mouth is in sync with the words he’s saying).

All of this requires processing power and a good analog to digital interface. This is both a hardware and a software process.

For our purposes, we chose to over do it with our sanctuary mixer. We purchased the Behringer X32 digital mixer, a 32-channel input, 16-channel output fully digital mixer. This mixer has been on the market for over a decade and continues to have software upgrades and is fully supported by Behringer. This is the go-to mixer for anyone wishing to take live sound and make it digital. This mixer can be controlled remotely with a tablet or on another PC, which makes it even more volunteer-friendly.

Along with this mixer we purchased a Behringer S16 Digital Snake. This allows us to have 16-input channels and 8-output channels accessible in a remote location connected with nothing more than an ethernet cable (needs to be a shielded Ethercon cable for best performance). That’s right! No large clump of wires running through walls or ceilings. Just an ethernet cable. We installed this S16 near our chancel and plugged in our chancel inputs and our wireless microphone receivers into it. We also use a couple channels for our Allen organ so it can be added to our feed. A single channel is utilized for our Roland digital keyboard.

Another important purchase is the x-Dante Interface Card, which is inserted into the back of the X32 mixer. This card, along with the Dante Network (see software section) gives us total digital audio from the board to whatever other device utilizes the Dante Network. In our case, the streaming PC. This assures that the audio and video are in sync and with very little latency. As with the S16 Digital Snake, the Dante Network utilizes ethernet cabling rather than analog XLR or patch cables.

Software

To get your service into a digital stream, some software is required. The software you need depends on your livestreaming plan and features you want to include. For St. Paul’s two important pieces of software are used each and every week.

First, the Streaming Software.

There are several applications available for doing the livestreaming. Some are free or “open source” and some are quite costly. If your plan is to simply use a tablet or a laptop and livestream to Facebook, it might be easiest to simply use Facebook’s “Facebook Live” feature and forego any additional software. YouTube has a similar service where, for free, you can livestream to their platform using a tablet or other camera-enabled device.

If you want a more robust solution however, such as multiple streams, the use of more than one camera, inserting lyrics slides and other multimedia, then a simple Facebook Live or YouTube live may not be the best answer. In this case, you will have to install an application onto a more powerful PC (see Equipment above).

St. Paul’s uses a software package called vMix. vMix is, fundamentally, a live video streaming application, but it is much more than that.

vMix is available in several price points, depending on required features. St. Paul’s uses the “4K” version which includes all of the features available from the company. Here are just a few of the features:

  • 1000 Total inputs (cameras, audio, NDI, virtual/presets, Powerpoints, etc.)
  • Up to 1000 camera inputs (reduces total inputs)
  • Up to 4096 x 2160 streaming resolution (St. Pau’s uses 1960 x 1080 or 1280 x 720)
  • 4 Overlay Channels (allows two two four inputs to stream at the same time)
  • Record the stream (St. Paul’s burns to DVD and mails to shut ins)
  • Up to 3 simultaneous livestreams at once (St. Paul’s uses one)
    • If you wanted to stream to Facebook, YouTube, and Vimeo all at once. You need massive bandwidth to do it this way, 50Mbps or more upload
  • Playlists (automation options)
  • External Outputs (if you want to send the stream to an internal source such as a TV, projector, or other types of devices)
  • Custom Scripting (advanced shortcuts so you can make vMix do things at the push of a button
  • PTZ Control (control your PTZ cameras in the vMix app.

These are a few of the features of the 4K version. There is one more costly version which has all the same features, but more allowances to certain options.

Second, add some words, slides, images and videos

At St. Paul’s it is important that the viewers not only see the service and hear the hymns, liturgy and readings, but that they can see the words and have a more immersive experience while sitting at home.

Media software is about as vast in both availability and price as is vMix. The main purpose behind this software is to add things like song lyrics, announcements, videos, sermon notes, and other visually helpful items to a stream or production. Quintessentially, PowerPoint is the first and most well-known of applications in this category. Everyone has seen a PowerPoint presentation, and many people have used or created presentations in PowerPoint.

However, where PowerPoint excels in on-site presentations or in live presentations using products designed for interactive meetings and conferences (Microsoft Teams, Zoom, GotoMeeting/Webiner, etc.), it does not do as well for 1-sided streams such as church services. Thus, other companies have come up with applications perfect for this task.

At St. Paul’s an application called EasyWorship provides this service. EasyWorship is an application specifically designed for church/worship presentation. It is used in many church-related venues, from small churches, liturgical church, massive “megachurches”, and everything in between.

There are several Subscription-based price points available for EasyWorship, each based on your church attendance size. Subscriptions are annual or monthly billed. There is also a one-time “Campus license” available which is not restrictive by attendance, but does not come with automatic updates or features; you need to purchase updates as if you’re buying a new license (can get very costly). For example, if your attendance is between 1 and 99 people per week, you pay only $180/year for a full subscription which includes updates, feature enhancements, and a collection of free media resources. However, if you purchase the “Campus License,” you pay $499, but you will have to pay an additional $499 when the next update or version of EasyWorship is released. You only get limited access to their media resources, and limited tech support.

Here are some of the great features included with EasyWorship:

  • Create custom themes for Presentations, Scripture and Songs
  • Utilize NDI for inputs (cameras, other NDI devices)
  • Send an NDI stream of the presentation to another device (i.e., a computer with vMix)
  • Create custom alerts (marquees) across all slides (useful for quick announcements regarding the weather, nursery, etc.)
  • Pre-loaded with hundreds of popular hymns and songs
  • Add your own hymns or songs to the database
  • Comes with dozens of Bible versions and purchase additional versions from the EasyWorship website.
  • Utilize “bottom thirds” text (useful as an overlay in vMix)
  • Import images, videos, audio for use in slides, songs, scripture or other elements
  • Great for Sermon Notes

EasyWorship has other features not listed above. St. Paul’s chose EasyWorship over other applications (Media Shout, ShoutCast, etc.) primarily because of the NDI feature. The presentation created in EasyWorship is NDI streamed to the vMix computer seamlessly and with little latency.

Online Services

Because of the importance of a solid, consistent stream, it is also important to have a good connection to the internet and a good way to get the stream from the church to the viewers.

When St. Paul’s started streaming back in February of 2020, the biggest problem faced was the quality of the stream. If not because of low-quality equipment, then because of poor internet; if not because of poor internet, then because of poor streaming software or services.

It was quickly discovered that, even with a 50Mbps connection to the internet over fiber, trying to multi-stream inhouse was problematic. the vMix software shows the quality of the stream, and the quality was always mediocre, at best, when multi-streaming was done in this way.

In July of 2020, St. Paul’s changed the way the multi-streaming was accomplished. Rather than running 3 separate streams (Facebook, YouTube, church website) inhouse, an internet-based “middle man” was employed to do the multi-streaming. Now, a single stream is sent from vMix, and the stream quality is always as fast as a 100Mbps Upload will allow.

A company called Catalyst Missions Group, based in Tulsa, OK, provides a service to churches called “Sermon.net“. Sermon.net is a streaming platform which provides livestreaming, video archiving, and other features at a very low cost to churches.

Granted, there are dozens of these sorts of services on the internet (Vimeo, DaCast, LiveStream, Stream Shark, Ustream, etc.) it seems that Sermon.net is, by FAR, the lowest cost, starting at just $30/month, a reasonable price for most churches that broadcast once or twice a week. Comparatively, a provider like DaCast charges over $100/month for similar features!

Bear in mind, if your church needs more bandwidth, more storage, or has more viewers — or if you’re not saving your videos at Facebook or YouTube after the stream, then you may wish to look at a higher-cost solution to manage your livestreaming. But if all you’re doing is streaming to Facebook and YouTube and your website, then Sermon.net is a great solution. Not only that, but they are very helpful and responsive should you have problems.

I will be adding more to this post in the coming days. But this should be a good start for anyone wishing to look at livestreaming. Remember: every church’s needs, budget and abilities is different. This is not a cookie-cutter solution, but a frame of reference.

If you have further questions, please ask. You can email pastor@stpaulsmilaca.org. We also plan on having a conference in 2021 for any church interested in what we do and how they might implement a similar solution in their facility.