Musicians live to play concerts. It is the culmination of the countless hours of practice, and the feeling of being onstage and sharing music with a live audience is irreplaceable. When the pandemic struck last year, musicians were faced with a choice: put their concertizing on hold, or adapt. Although livestream concerts cannot fully replicate the energy and magic of a live concert, we have found a new way to communicate with people all over the world from the comfort of our own living rooms. I’ll share what has worked for me, both from a technical standpoint and how I’ve adapted my live performance to fit the online format.
One of the best advantages that live stream concerts have is that people all over the world can watch simultaneously. There’s never been a better time in history to reach an audience! And even though your audience isn’t in the same room as you, there will be some really fun ways to connect with them. One way that guitarists connect to the audience in a traditional concert is speaking to them between pieces. This adds interest and personal anecdotes to the music being performed. In a live stream concert the performer has an even greater chance to connect to the audience by reading the chat to answer questions or give shout outs to recurring fans. Having the chat feature open during the performance is another fun way for the audience to interact with the concert since they can give their thoughts during the music without disturbing the performer or the other audience members.
The first technical decision you have to make is what platform you will be streaming on. Each online platform has different strengths and weaknesses and the audiences will have different expectations. When streaming to Instagram or Facebook, most people will be expecting an impromptu setup, and most likely your phone is all the tech you will need. When streaming to Youtube or Twitch a more professional setup is desirable. On Youtube it is perfectly acceptable to have a single night where you will present a concert. YouTube has features which make this easily shareable and can remind fans when it’s going live. You can also set up the stream ahead of time and even sell tickets right through your YouTube account. For Twitch the platform will be more rewarding the longer your stream lasts and your audience expects you to set up a repeating schedule of when you will be streaming. The majority of streamers on Twitch are playing video games for hours and hours on end, so the audience is used to watching for really long periods or popping in and out of different streamers. It’s important to consider these options carefully and choose the platform that you think will be the most fulfilling for you.
The sound of your concert is extremely important. You won’t need a full studio in order to stream since all of these platforms will compress your audio to some degree, but you will want to improve upon the audio quality of your phone. Generally for classical guitar you will want some kind of a small diaphragm condenser microphone. Some affordable professional level options for this would be a Rode NT5 or sE Electronics sE8. For my concerts I use a Neumann Km184 for the small diaphragm; as well as an AKG C414 which is a large diaphragm condenser. I like the way the two mics pick up the sound differently and I think it gives a balanced picture of my guitar. Using two microphones of any kind allows you to broadcast in stereo, which can create a more natural sound for the listener. These mics will be plugged into an audio interface, which is a small box with microphone inputs that connects to your computer via USB. A good interface to start out with is a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, which has 2 mic inputs and won’t break the bank. I use a Focusrite Clarett 4Pre, which has 4 inputs and offers slightly more high fidelity mic preamps.
For visuals, you can go one of two ways. You can purchase a webcam which is dedicated to livestream applications, or you can use a DSLR camera with an HDMI output. The webcam will certainly be cheaper, and can provide adequate definition for live streaming. The advantage of the DSLR camera is that once you make the big purchase, you can use it for lots of different applications. I use my camera for publicity shots, shooting my music videos, and for live streaming. In order to use a DSLR for live streaming you will need to purchase an adapter called a Camlink 4K as well as an HDMI cable. The HDMI cable goes from the camera to the Camlink, and the Camlink goes into a USB slot. The quality of the video from the Camlink is fantastic and looks just like the videos you take on your camera. To actually stream you will need a program on your computer called Open Broadcaster Software, or OBS. OBS is fairly easy to use, and if you want to get further into streaming you can get a program called Streamlabs OBS, or SLOBS, which is a different version of OBS with more bells and whistles. Both of these programs are free, although SLOBS has a premium version.
There will also be some challenges when you first start to live stream, so my suggestion is to try it out a few times before a big event. Sometimes things go wrong and it takes a lot of time to figure out why. So do a few test streams beforehand, like you would do a sound check for a traditional concert. Also just like a traditional concert, show up early, even if it’s your own house! I’ve found sometimes little things like chairs and mic stands take longer than you’d expect to set up and you don't want to be frantic right before you have to play.
There may also be some challenging things you will have to get used to. The most striking thing for me at first was there was no applause after a piece. And obviously I knew there wouldn’t be, but I was not prepared on how to handle that the first time I did a live stream. Do you want to stand up and bow? Do you want to thank the audience? Do you want to just start the next piece? Whatever you decide, the important thing is that you do decide before it happens. Another challenge you will have to consider is keeping the audience’s attention the whole concert. Usually the audience will plan on going to a concert and trust you with entertaining them for the evening. But with a live stream concert their favorite TV show, YouTube channel, email inbox, etc is only a click away. So you will have to decide what repertoire will keep their attention for as long as possible. Maybe you decide this is not the time to be experimental with your program. Or maybe you put your most exciting pieces in the beginning of the program. Whatever you decide is fine, just make sure you do decide beforehand!
If this all seems overwhelming or like too much gear, my advice is to start with what you have! If all you have is a phone you can still make fun and enjoyable streams and upgrade later as you learn what you and your audience enjoys. The equipment isn’t the most important part, the most important thing is showing up, playing music you love, and connecting with the audience.
The internet has allowed us to share our recorded music to an unprecedented degree. Although livestream concerts will never replace the feeling of a live concert, the ability to remove the barriers of entry to high-level concerts will certainly have a great effect on our classical guitar community. We would all love to see our favorite guitarist when they perform live in Carnegie Hall, but now we have the ability to share some piece of that concert experience with everyone from New York to Beijing. I hope that as concert venues begin to open their doors again we can carry these tools over to our traditional concerts.