One essential element for live streaming is functional live stream encoding software (or hardware). Encoding software is a tool that transcodes video from one format to another. An encoder allows you to capture video content coming from a source you previously selected (your webcam, a camera or your phone). Then the encoder allows you to send this content to your online video platform to stream to all your viewers via its CDN network.
Encoding software is the most popular encoder among our broadcasters here at Dacast. This article will guide you through how to select the right encoding software based on your streaming needs. The encoding software presented here is RTMP-compatible, which means they work with most video streaming platforms.
When one encoding software may be better than another
There is a wide variety of encoding software on the market today. They share many similarities in design and basic function. However, different users will prefer different applications.
For example, some of the encoding software we’ll examine here are studio products. These are designed for demanding users with powerful hardware, multiple monitors, and professional decks. Other encoding software is designed for small businesses getting started with live video streaming.
Part of the challenge involves figuring out exactly what your needs are and then matching those needs with the appropriate product. For experienced streamers, that process may be fairly easy. But for those new to live streaming and encoding software, it can be a challenge.
For that reason, I recommend taking advantage of the free trials offered for most encoding software. These trials usually include most of the features, though they often include a digital watermark on output live channels.
Nonetheless, running through test streams using these products while comparing several unique options can help you get a real-world feel for which is the best fit for you. You can also take the same approach with OVPs (online video platforms), using free trials to test out the available options.
Common Encoding Software
Before we move further, let’s take a look at a list of common encoding software. While this list isn’t exhaustive, it does include some of the most popular options among our community of broadcasters.
OBS Studio is a free and open-source option that’s excellent for beginning live streamers. It’s expandable with a variety of plugins and has a robust community for support and questions. It’s also supported on Mac, Windows, and Linux PCs.
vMix is a professional-grade switching and streaming application. It’s constantly being updated with new features and is widely used across the industry. It’s available on Windows PCs. The prices range from free (for a very basic version) up to $1200 for a “Pro” version (offering a wider range of features).
Wirecast is an accessible, capable encoding software from the company Telestream. It’s available on Windows PCs and Mac. Wirecast includes regular updates and a wide range of features, from instant replay to integrated video conferencing. Wirecast is available in two versions: Studio ($695) and Pro ($995), which includes additional functionality.
VidBlasterX is another live video encoding software and mixer. It’s a highly capable, expandable, and customizable product. VidBlasterX is organized into a series of modules, which can be added, removed, and rearranged on multiple screens as needed. It comes in three versions: Home ($9/year), Studio ($99/year), and Broadcast ($999/year). It’s available on Windows PCs.
More Encoding Software Options
In addition to these applications, there are a number of other offerings on the market. There are also live-streaming apps for streaming from an iPhone or Android device. One example is Live: Air, a mobile encoder by the company TeraDek. It allows for the production of professional-grade live streams from an iPad. It packs a great deal of studio functionality into a mobile package.
Finally, there are dedicated Enterprise video software encoders available. These include advanced features for massive throughput and redundancy that are necessary for some broadcast scenarios.
What key features do you need to select an encoding software?
A great way to determine which encoding software is right for you is to look at specific features. For example, if you have invested already in specific equipment such as cameras, computers, and capture cards, you should check compatibility. Most encoding software websites contain a table for compatibility. Otherwise, you can ask directly.
Here are some of the more common features that you may require. This list also includes whether or not each feature is available on the live streaming software we’re considering here.
Instant replay / scoreboards
These features are absolutely essential for sports streaming of any kind.
- OBS Studio supports instant replay via a plugin. A scoreboard plugin is also available.
- vMix Pro (the $1200 version) includes built-in support for Instant Replay. All versions include several scoreboard templates. You can also create your own.
- Wirecast supports instant replay and includes scoreboard templates that you can customize yourself.
- VidBlasterX supports this functionality via dedicated Replay and Scoreboard modules.
- Live:Air supports instant replay via an in-app purchase that costs $49. It includes a built-in scoreboard.
NDI, or Network Device Interface, is a NewTek technology designed specifically for broadcasting. It allows you to easily pass video feeds and other data between multiple computers on the same network. This allows you to offload tasks like generating graphics to external computers.
All the encoders listed here except for Live: Air support NDI (OBS via a plugin).
Multiple bitrate streaming
When streaming, the internet speed of your viewers is always a consideration. The best way to provide a great viewing experience to everyone is by streaming in multiple bitrates simultaneously. All the products here are capable of multi-bitrate streaming. However, OBS Studio’s support for this is limited and involves complex configuration.
Another important consideration is compatibility. VidBlasterX and vMix are Windows-only applications. Wirecast is compatible with both Mac and Windows. OBS Studio is the only program here that works on Mac, Windows, and Linux. And Live: Air, of course, works only on iOS (specifically, on iPads).
One common situation for live streaming is broadcasting a conversation between multiple people. If they’re in remote locations, the best way to do this is via video conferencing. Think Skype, but for broadcasting.
vMix and Wirecast both now have robust, integrated tools for video conferencing in a live stream. VidBlasterX, OBS Studio, and Live: Air doesn’t have native support for video conferencing. In VidBlasterX and OBS, however, you can bring in a video conference via external application in a variety of ways.
Fitting Your Budget
Cost is always a consideration in a business setting. Thankfully, free offerings like OBS Studio allow users to test out basic functionality. From there you can determine what additional features you may need. If plugins can’t provide this, professional-grade streaming software is now quite affordable. Compared to a full-fledged television broadcasting studio, they’re practically free! Most people can afford to live stream today.
Hardware vs. Software Encoders
One final distinction we should make is between hardware and software encoders. Thus far we’ve looked at software designed for a computer or tablet. Hardware encoders are dedicated devices, built for the singular purpose of live streaming. They come in various sizes ranging from rack mounts and mobile units.
Hardware encoders generally have more reliable operation. They can also include some cool functionality. For example, TeraDek’s line of mobile encoders allow you to use cellular bonding technology. This enables live streaming on-the-go. That’s ideal for breaking news, outdoor sports, and more.
As this article highlights, encoding software is more capable and versatile than ever. This technology is rapidly maturing and we’re in a great customer-centric market. Features are improving and prices are stable or dropping. Most people can now purchase and operate a professional-quality and easy-to-use broadcasting software application.
We hope this article has helped you to both better understand and to distinguish between encoding software. For regular tips on live streaming, you’re welcome to join our LinkedIn group. Any questions or comments? Let us know! We love to hear from you, our readers. Sound off in the comments section, below. We’ll get back to you as soon as we can.
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Thanks for reading, and, as always, good luck with your live streams!
By Max Wilbert.