Video encoding is the process of taking one format of video and converting it into another format that is more suitable for the end product. This definition is true across both post-production and live-production; however, the video encoding process is quite different between the two. In this article, we will be focusing on video encoding in the live-production environment.
A video encoder is the beating heart of your live stream, this device or software (in most cases) is responsible for the delivery of video from the location of the event to the viewer.
Basic diagram of where a live video encoder sits in a simple live production workflow.
There are two main types of live video encoders we will cover in this article, the hardware encoder and the software encoder. Both types can fundamentally achieve the same result; however, we will talk through their differences to give you an understanding of what type to use on your next project.
A hardware encoder is a standalone device that is usually capable of being self-powered and connect to the internet via its own cellular connection. The form factor or size of these devices vary; however, commonly, they are no larger than a small box that you can hold with one hand.
Hardware encoders are arguably one-off the easiest ways to stream live video. These devices are independent, meaning they do not rely on a computer or another piece of hardware to operate, simply plug your camera into the device and tell it to start streaming.
Example of a single camera workflow, using a hardware encoder.
Some hardware encoders come with a feature known as cellular bonding, achieved by combining two or more cellular internet connections, to achieve greater internet bandwidth. Put simply, this allows for a more robust internet connection for your live video to be sent over. This is extremely useful for mission-critical applications, where it is paramount the live video does not drop out. Or even in scenarios where the mobile connection from a single cellular carrier is poor, but combining two connections gives you a stronger internet connection.
One of the more common hardware encoders used is the LiveU Solo. With a single HDMI input (on the base model), the ability to connect to the internet via a mobile connection and an internal battery, it offers a quick and easy live stream setup for a single camera/person operation.
While the Solo is not the only device that exists in the market, it is one of the more commonly used devices.
Some other common hardware encoder brands are:
Software encoders are a great option when you are trying to keep costs to a minimum by using existing equipment you already own. Some software encoders are even free to use, such as OBS.
However, as mentioned, software encoders usually run on consumer-grade computers, and these devices will commonly lack the video inputs required for the software encoder to receive the vision from the camera, this means an extra device is needed - a video capture card.
A video capture card is a device that takes the video input from a camera, usually via an HDMI or SDI connection, and converts that into a signal the computer can receive via one of its USB ports. These devices are generally straightforward to use; however, the biggest downfall in comparison to the hardware encoder is now we have gone from one device to two, to send our vision offsite (a laptop and a video capture card).
Pictured: Blackmagic video capture card.
Like with the requirement for a capture card, most computers need to be connected to the internet, usually achieved via a WiFi or Ethernet connection that is powered by an external modem. Some higher-end computers come with built-in cellular modems. However, it is important to factor in how your computer will connect to a strong internet connection.
Commonly software encoding functions are bundled in with vision mixing software, with software such as OBS or vMix allowing you to produce your program live and send it directly to many of the most popular streaming platforms all from within the vision mixing software. No external encoding needed.
While both hardware and software video encoders can achieve the same result, there are some differences between the two, which you should consider when deciding on what to use for your next project. In conclusion:
Hardware encoders are great for keeping your onsite setup simple and reliable. The hardware encoder has one job to do, and that is to send the video to your desired destination. They are usually purpose-built for the job, meaning you shouldn’t suffer from any instability issues that sometimes a computer can suffer.
Software encoders are great for when you are just getting started and trying to keep costs low. They can usually run on any well-powered computer without any hiccups. With the added benefit of being bundled in with vision mixing software, it can allow for greater creative control of your production.