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Sling media SlingStudio.

With the explosion that mobile live broadcasting has seen in the consumer and professional space within recent years, it's getting harder for companies to distinguish themselves from everyone else. Live streaming apps abound for seemingly every possible niche. There's Twitch for gamers, Twitter and Facebook for social connections, and YouTube for everyone else.

Most of these streamers are all using the same general device to stream: a smartphone. While smartphones are very capable for most wannabe streamers, they don't quite cut the mustard for pros. Until recently, going from a single-smartphone stream to a multi-camera broadcast was a huge leap in cost and complexity. At the 2017 NAB show in Las Vegas, DISH Network-owned Sling Media introduced the SlingStudio, a professional, multi-camera streaming/switching appliance. At $999, it competes with a number of existing pro-grade products from the likes of Teradek, LiveU, and Matrox.

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I was given a chance to review one of the first units available from Sling. The review kit included the following:

* SlingStudio unit (1)

* External hard drive (1)

* SlingStudio CameraLink (2)

* SD card (1)

* SlingStudio USB-C Expander (1)

* 3.5mm audio line-in cable (1)

* SlingStudio battery (1)

* Magnus tripod (2)

* iPhone 6s+ (1)

* iPad Pro (1)

* Manfrotto tripod (1)

* Manfrotto smartphone mount (1)

In addition to this, I received two Canon Vixia HF G20 1080p cameras. Shortly after I received the gear, I was given the opportunity to shoot and stream an outdoor concert with performers Kelle Jolly and Will Boyd. With that in mind, I began exploring the gear and building my kit to test everything beforehand.

Main Unit

The SlingStudio unit (Figure 1), about the size of a standard hardcover book, is housed in durable white plastic. The optional battery pack enables the unit to run wire-free for a few hours, depending on usage.

One end of the unit is home to the power button, indicator lights, and SD card slot for recording. The opposite side houses a number of ports: audio line in, USB-C, HDMI out, HDMI in, and external power. The unit can use either a connected portable hard drive (by way of the USB-C port) or the SD card slot to record your broadcast. HDMI in allows for a wired camera source, while HDMI out allows use of a local monitor of the program feed. Figure 2 shows a diagram of a possible SlingStudio setup with compatible devices. (You can see a list of devices certified for use with the product at myslingstudio.com/compatibility.)

Setup

Setting up the unit is incredibly simple and easy. Power on the unit, and wait for the large indicator strip along the top to glow solid blue. This means the unit is powered up and has created its own wireless access point. Grab the iPad that you'll use to control your broadcast, and connect it to the SlingStudio wireless network now available. Download and launch the SlingStudio Console app, and connect the SlingStudio to your internet-connected wireless network.

This may sound confusing, but essentially you're connecting the iPad directly to the SlingStudio, then pointing the SlingStudio to an internet connection for live broadcast. You're now ready to connect camera sources and begin broadcasting.

With the SlingStudio's HDMI input, you can use any of a number of professional cameras along with multiple smartphones (iOS and some Android phones are supported) to begin a multi-camera production. If you want to go fully wireless, you can purchase CameraLink units, which convert HDMI video and audio into a wireless signal that connects up to the Console app. The CameraLink connected cameras can be up to 300 feet away from the SlingStudio.

App

The SlingStudio Console app (see Figure 3 on the next page), available only for iPad, is the lynchpin of the system. I've found in other streaming solutions that the app is often the weak link, causing an otherwise good product to fail miserably in real-world uses. Console is impressively capable, stable, and responsive for a first-generation build. In favor of simplicity, design, and good function, Sling has removed a bevy of options that are often found in similar applications.

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The left-hand column of the interface contains several icons for accessing settings and diagnostics. At the top is a standard "hamburger" menu for changing your project settings and closing/opening projects. A button brings up a full-screen view showing diagnostics of your entire setup. It lists each source connected to the SlingStudio and shows its wireless signal health along with the bandwidth being sent from cameras, upload speed, and battery levels of compatible devices. In the center of the column are two independent buttons to start/stop the stream and the local recording.

Project setup includes the ability to set bitrates, project titles, recording locations, and streaming destinations. The only two streaming services currently supported are Facebook and YouTube. More destinations, including custom RTMP, are coming soon. A large, fast storage device is recommended for any project saved locally. With H.264 formats in up to 1080p60 and the ability to record program only and/or all video sources independently, data will quickly eat up available space.

The Test

For my test concert, I chose to broadcast live to the Streaming Media Facebook page. Once I was set up as an admin, I had the ability to create events and stream directly from the Console app to the SM videos page. You can view the archived stream here (go2sm.com/3y). Note that the beginning of the concert was plagued with an audio issue. The line-in feed to the SlingStudio from the performers' mixer was receiving only the instrument feed (no vocals). After some of our live viewers commented via Facebook, I switched to the onboard mic on one of the Canon Vixias. While not ideal, at least it allowed the online audience to hear the concert more completely since it was too late to try to diagnose the line-in issue. Again, here is where the SlingStudio Console app saved the day (Figure 4).

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The audio mixer panel shows meters for each audio source detected. In my case, I had the line-in, two camera feeds, and an iPhone feed. All of the sources except for the line-in were set to auto gain, since I didn't intend to use these sources for audio. To keep the feed receiving the line-in audio for the entire broadcast, I simply muted all other audio sources. If I had wanted to include their audio, I could have left them unmuted in one of two ways. "On" allows the audio from a given source to be constantly sent to the broadcast, regardless of which camera is active at a given time. AFV (audio follows video) forces the program source to broadcast the audio from that same source. In other words, when I switched the video to my iPhone source, I would be broadcasting the audio from the iPhone's mic. When I switched to one of the Canon cameras, I would be broadcasting audio from that camera's mic.

My setup for production was about as bare-bones as it gets. I had the two Canon cameras locked down on tripods (see Figure 5 on page 92). One was zoomed in for a close-up, while the other was my wide shot. My wife monitored the laptop to keep tabs on our 4G hotspot and WAP plus monitored the Facebook feed for problems and viewer comments. My 10-year-old son was thrilled to be handed an iPhone 6S Plus with Manfrotto PIXI tripod and told to run around and get unique angles and audience shots for me to choose from.

I kept a path clear between my two tripods so I could easily access either camera for adjustments. With my headphones plugged into the iPad, I tried to monitor the audio. Unfortunately, the live sound grossly overpowered what I could hear on the iPad, so it didn't end up being much help (hence why the viewers had to point out to me that the vocals weren't coming through on the broadcast).

After the stream began, I took my time getting used to the interface and controls. Basic switching was a breeze. I could drag a source to a larger preview viewer if I needed to give extra scrutiny to a shot before switching, or I could simply drag a source straight to the program for instant switching.

It didn't take long before I felt confident in operating the broadcast. This allowed me to insert more creativity into the shoot. I was able to quickly create some basic on-screen titles and lower-thirds within the Console app to include at the beginning and end (Figure 6). Plus, I could set the iPad down temporarily while I moved the two Canon cameras to different angles and framing. Going back to the Console app, I experimented with the multiview options available. There are multiple split-screen and picture-in-picture options that can be easily set up and saved either before or during a broadcast.

After almost 90 minutes, my camera batteries were giving out, and the concert was nearly over. After calling it quits on the stream, I was able to immediately show some of the recorded video to the performers and audience members within the Console app. That evening, I pulled all of the video from the SD card into PluralEyes to sync up and re-edit in Premiere Pro from the ISO feeds.

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The SlingStudio will be a bit under-featured for high-end productions since it currently lacks advanced features such as the ability to import custom graphics (coming soon) or prerecorded video clips. But for basic and semi-complex multi-camera productions, the SlingStudio has already proven to be one of the most intuitive and creative options available.

By Paul Schmutzler

Paul Schmutzler (paul@theschmutzler.com) has been involved in various aspects of photography, film, and video production, post-production, and motion graphics for more than 10 years. He reviews tools of the trade as a freelance tech journalist.

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Author:Schmutzler, Paul
Publication:Streaming Media
Date:Jul 1, 2017
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