Before hosting an online benefit concert at Secret Studio on Saturday, recording engineer Keith Hanlon and studio cofounder Amy Turn Sharp have some tips for musicians (and their fans) looking to stage virtual gigs
UPDATE as of Friday, 3/20 at 11 p.m.: The Secret Studio livestream event has been canceled. In an email, Keith Hanlon and Amy Turn Sharp explained: "After careful consideration, we have decided to cancel the Live Stream event tomorrow. Right now, we must all think about our safety, and the safety of those in our community. We don't want to contribute to a situation that would overload our hospitals and health care workers. The best thing we can all do right now is stay at home, and I urge you all to do that."
In some ways, Secret Studio cofounder Keith Hanlon is in the same boat as many Columbus musicians who are realizing that, with bars and other live music venues closed due to COVID-19, they have to learn a new skill set — namely, streaming live concerts.
“This is all new to me. I’ve never had to do streaming stuff before,” Hanlon said recently by phone alongside Secret Studio partner Amy Turn Sharp. Together, they’re hosting a Secret Studio Live Stream concert on Saturday, March 21, beginning at noon on YouTube. The concert features sets from local acts Linda Trip, Garbage Greek, Small Songs, Paisha, Sam Corlett, Joe Peppercorn, Closet Mix, Brett Burleson, Jordan Kirk and more.
Hanlon’s headfirst dive into streaming audio and video began this week with a panicked search for gear. “I had to drive out to Reynoldsburg on East Broad to buy a freakin’ webcam yesterday because nobody in town has them,” he said. “I got the last one at an Office Max.”
The scarcity of webcams isn’t a huge surprise given that people in Columbus are mostly homebound for the foreseeable future. For bands, livestreaming a show is a chance to connect with stir-crazy fans, but it’s also a brave new world that many musicians haven’t previously traversed. And even though it’s new to Hanlon, a longtime engineer who often records bands at Musicol, he has some pointers for artists and musicians looking to get into streaming but who don’t want their virtual gigs to look like a pixelated mess or induce tinnitus.Get the latest news on local livestream events delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter
Sure, you could just angle your phone, tablet or laptop appropriately and then start a Facebook livestream, but the quality won’t be too good using those built-in cameras and microphones. Plus, it doesn’t take a lot of time, money or expertise to cobble together a high-quality stream. “The software, a decent camera and a mic are actually pretty easy to put together and do on your computer,” Hanlon said.
While a good webcam might be hard to find locally, plenty of online retailers still have them available. “Start with a good camera that can do higher quality video. A 720p or 1080p camera would be a good investment,” said Hanlon, who got his for about $75. “And they often have microphones built in that will be better than your camera.”
For an uptick in sound quality from the webcam, a USB condenser microphone is a good option; those range from $35 to several hundred dollars and plug directly into your computer. Musicians who record using GarageBand or other software likely already have microphones and an audio interface system (the Scarlett 2i2 from Focusrite is a popular choice). In that case, don’t waste money on a USB mic; just use the interface and microphones you already have.
Then, all you need is some software to get everything in sync and stream-able, which is actually the cheapest and easiest part. Hanlon recommends a free, open-source program called Open Broadcast Software, or OBS. “You can easily send it to Facebook for a livestream, or YouTube or Twitch. They're all built-in presets,” he said. “You just need to plug in your account info and go.”
Once you have the gear, think about the best spot for optimal sound. “If you can choose a room that is not super reverberant, you'll be better off,” said Hanlon, who recommended rooms with carpet and/or bookshelves. “Books can absorb sound. Blankets and pillows can also be used to calm down the sound of the room. … Walk around and clap so you can hear where the reflections are. You might be like, ‘I'm hearing a lot from this area.’ Just put some stuff in that corner, a laundry basket or something.”
After everything is all set, don't forget to do a test run. Look and listen critically and make adjustments.
Also, be strategic about which streaming platform to use. Stageit allows musicians to sell tickets for the show, but if that upfront buy-in feels uncomfortable or daunting, try using Facebook, YouTube, LiveConcerts.stream and other services and then provide links to PayPal, Venmo or Cash App to use like a virtual tip jar.
Amy Turn Sharp advises bands to not be shy about the financial aspect of all this. “They're going to have to say, ‘Hey, guys. Here's my Venmo,’” she said. “That's what this is about — trying to make these musicians some money right now. … A lot of musicians that I know are also bartenders or servers. It's a double whammy for a really big part of the music scene.”
Hanlon also advises bands to think about these streaming concerts differently from a regular show, and look for ways to set yourself apart. “It’s a visual medium, and that's totally different from playing at Ace of Cups,” he said. “Don't look depressed. … I've seen a few things where I'm like, ‘Wow, this is a real downer.’”
“This is a weird, funky time,” Turn Sharp said. “Everyone in the world is coming online, so people will start to be like, ‘I like these guys because it looks good and it sounds good.’”
While people connected to the Columbus music scene are looking for ways to help support local bands, these aren’t mere charity gigs. Listeners are craving live music experiences, and it’s just as much for them.
“I was talking to somebody about [the Secret Studio streaming concert], and they said, ‘I'm actually doing OK. I don't need the money to pay the bills. I'm getting paid for my job,’” Hanlon said. “And I was like, ‘Well, it's not just for you. You don't have to take the money. Some people might just want to see you perform.’ We're helping the musicians, but we're also trying to give back to the community a little bit and have them enjoy something in their homes.”
“We all need inspiration,” Turn Sharp said.