A general principle, and one you might not find on websites for companies that sell video and audio equipment, is that buying new equipment that is specifically for online music leading should be a last resort. If you are going to buy new equipment, try to buy equipment that you will continue to use over time both live and online.
Step One is to identify the equipment you have, and what, if any, gaps this leaves from a participant’s perspective. If you have a SmartPhone, tablet, or computer with a webcam then you already have a good enough camera and microphone for leading community music. There are some simple and free software solutions for getting better audio and video with what you have so that you don’t need to spend money on new equipment.
TIP: check out Lyndal and Strat’s video on free and easy ways to look good on a zoom call.
It is likely that creating online resources (e.g. recording tracks and videos, hosting online meet ups, even performing live streamed gigs), becomes an ongoing part of your practice as a community music leader. This page aims to help you decide what equipment and software will help you get the best ‘bang for your buck’ to support an ongoing practice of online music leading.
What audio equipment do you already have?
a) “I have no equipment for live gigging” and don’t plan to buy any
If you don’t already own equipment for performing, then the simplest option is to buy a decent USB condenser microphone. If you buy a USB mic that attaches to a mobile phone, like the Shure Motiv MV88+, then you can use that to do high quality recordings or streams of your live performances in the future.
Affordable microphones for instruments and singing include:
- RODE NT Mini Studio USB mic ($150)
- Blue Yeti ($200)
- Audio Technica AT2020 ($140)
Good microphone that also attaches to mobile phone:
Shure Motiv MV88+ ($190ish - or add stand and cables for desktop use $340-ish) - top end sound and could be valuable for recording or streaming live gigs in the long term.
TIP: a SmartPhone already has a ‘good enough’ microphone. A decent tripod stand for your Smartphone will cost $60+, though I use a violin stand that I bought for ukulele gigs - a bit fiddly at times, but it was free!
b) “I have some equipment for live gigging” or plan to buy some
As a music leader, you may already have equipment you use for live performance, but not be able to plug it into your computer. An audio interface will fill this gap - by taking standard XLR (microphone) and TRS (guitar lead) inputs and connecting to your computer via a USB connection - and set you back between $50 and $450AUD depending on quality and features.
Popular and affordable audio interfaces:
The list below includes options for audio interfaces that have one XLR input (microphone cable) and one TRS (guitar lead), as well as an option with two ports that can take both kinds of connector.
- Native Instruments Komplete Audio 1 ($150ish) or 2 ($210ish)
- Focusrite Scarlett Solo ($230ish) or 2-i-2 ($330ish)
- Entry level is Behringer U-Phoria UM2 ($80ish) - will get the job done, but will not be studio quality sound.
For $160-$800AUD you can buy an entry level mixing desk with a USB output that can be used for streaming, for decent (but not studio quality) recording, and live gigging if it can plug into a PA system. Importantly, most affordable mixers usually only send two outputs to your computer, regardless of the number of things you plug in - so you may get exactly the same digital result with a $600 mixer as you would with a $150 audio interface. However, a mixer does allow you to add audio effects, such as reverb, directly into your computer, so that you don’t need to use mixing software.
Popular and affordable mixers with USB output
- Behringer Xenyx Q802USB 8-Input Mic/Line Mixer w/ USB ($160ish) - will get the job done.
- Yamaha MG10XU 10-Input Stereo Mixer With USB and Effects ($300ish) - a solid long term investment for live gigging and digital uses.
Lights... cameras... streaming software!
The quality of inbuilt cameras in most devices is good enough for leading community music. Note that your phone’s camera facing outwards is better quality than the “selfie” camera.
Many people hook up a webcam to their computer, this allows more control of settings and can give you better camera angles (e.g. fingering on fretboard is much easier to follow when shot from above than below). If you have the appropriate cable and adaptor you can connect a DSLR camera. This will likely require downloading a driver and/or software to get the computer to recognise and use the camera (e.g. Camlink). A mirrorless DSLR gives the best quality result if you get the focus and lighting right, allowing you to stand out from the background. As noted in Hosting and Running Zoom Session page of this resource, light should be coming from above and behind the camera, should be diffused (i.e. not a single point source of light such as a naked globe) and the camera angle should be at or above your eye-line, not looking up your nose! A blank background (e.g. a curtain) allows you to stand out and be clearly visible to participants regardless of how small their screen is.
A significant improvement to video quality can be gained by using streaming software. The two most popular streaming programs are:
- Open Broadcasting Software (OBS): free, open-source and works well on most platforms, but does require some learning,
- Streamyard, cloud-based and relatively user friendly and good for collaborating with others.
Streaming software overcomes issues of low audio and video quality, e.g. the picture chopping in and out or being pixelated, by creating a delay between when your computer receives the video and sound input and when your signal streams out through your software (e.g. Facebook). This delay allows time for the computer to stabilise the data streaming out (think of it as smoothing the rough edges of the data stream). The software can be used to add effects (e.g. sound mixing) and overlays (e.g. text and images) and allows you to switch between sharing your screen and your camera, or use frames to show both at the same time.