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Upgrade your live stream on a budget

I’ve been getting a lot of questions from friends who are performers about how to improve their live streaming setup. Because most of us have been experiencing some form of self-isolation or lockdown for the last several months times have been especially hard for musicians, comedians, and other performers.

Many of them have turned to Facebook Live or other streaming platforms to stay connected with their fans and provide some much-needed entertainment to all of us. It also gives them a chance to earn a little income at a time when it is desperately needed. But after the novelty of watching your favorite local band jamming in their living room wears off people are starting to look for ways to improve the quality of these broadcasts. Especially the audio. No one wants to listen to clipped, distorted sound being crammed through the mic on a smartphone.

So below are some suggestions for how you can upgrade your live streaming chops on a reasonable budget.  

What you already have

Let’s start with what you probably DON’T need. Your smartphone has a decent camera already. And the apps you are using are ones you are already comfortable with. So don’t go changing things just for the sake of spending money.  

More importantly, the video quality of your phone’s camera is a pretty close match to the quality that Facebook, YouTube, or other services are going to broadcast anyway. Spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on a better camera isn’t going to change much for the folks watching at home.

If your phone doesn’t have a headphone jack, you probably already have the appropriate adapter to plug in headphones. If not, you can pick them up from Amazon for iPhone or Android devices.

The first thing to buy – Zoom H1n Field Recorder

So if the video isn’t going to be the problem, that leaves audio. This is where we are going to focus our attention.

There are lots of microphones on the market intended for use with smartphones, but most of them suffer from some of the same problems that the built-in mic does. Namely, they are optimized for human voices speaking at normal volume levels. If you are a musician (or someone who just enjoys shouting into the camera) you’ll already be aware that these mics aren’t the greatest when the volume goes up.

Enter the tried and true Zoom H1n field recorder. Variations of this device have been around for years and are trusted by journalists, filmmakers, musicians, and anyone who needs to capture clear audio in a variety of environments.

The recorder can be connected to a computer (via USB cable), to a smartphone, or simply use it to record audio on its own. The integrated stereo microphones provide crisp audio with no clipping or distortion and the line-in jack even allows for capturing sound directly from a mixing board if you happen to be performing with a PA system.

All of this flexibility for around $120 means that the H1n can be a piece of equipment you won’t outgrow. It can remain a useful part of your equipment kit even as you upgrade other items in the future.

Making Connections – Cables and adapters

While the H1n is a great stand-alone recorder, we want to use it with our smartphone for live streaming. So there are a couple of items necessary to make that connection.

The first thing you will need is an audio splitter like this one. This separates the headphone and microphone signals into 2 different cables. Without this piece, your phone will think the H1n is a pair of headphones and you won’t be able to use it for improved audio.

Next, you will need a cord to run from the H1n to your phone. Any TRS 3.5mm cable will do, but since they are affordable I suggest getting one that is at least 8 feet long. This will allow you to move your phone further away from the performers to catch more of the action on camera, while still being able to place the mic close enough to pick up all the sound.

Finally, you should pick up an inexpensive lightweight tripod to use with your H1n. This will give you even more flexibility in placing it in the optimal position.

Putting it all together

It will take a little practice and experimentation for you to find the best positioning and settings for the H1n to capture your performance. But after a few trial runs you should be hearing a massive improvement in your streamed audio.

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