Updated: Mar 16, 2020
A computer with encoding software can be a very cost effective and reliable solution for live streaming. Most of the hardware streaming devices are outside the budget of many small organizations. With a computer/software encoder combo, you can get the same functions, found in the high-end hardware encoders, for a fraction of the cost. Actually, a hardware encoder is a computer in a box with a stripped down operating system. One benefit of the computer is that any part of the streaming system can be changed as needed or switched out in case of an emergency. This is not possible with a self-contained streaming solution. In order to make your own powerful encoder you will need three components: A computer, encoding software, and a capture device.
Choose your audio and video capture device. First thing will be to get audio and video from your camera or switcher into the computer. The capture card is your bridge. Some of the better cards are made by Blackmagic Design, and Osprey Video. First make sure that the device is compatible with your computer (which we'll talk about later). Ensure that it will support the connections that your camera or switcher will supply. Most newer cards may come with an HDMI or SDI connection (or both). They may allow the audio to be embedded along with the video, but in some cases, you may need a separate audio feed into the computer. This may require an audio interface or an audio input connection on the computer. Choose the highest quality signal available from your camera or video source. If your source only supports a lower resolution, then buying a high end card may be unnecessary. The card should also have the correct connection for your computer. Cards may have USB or thunderbolt. Just check that your capture device is compatible with your computer.
Choose an encoder: At the center of it all is the encoder. This is the brain of the operation. The encoding software takes your audio and video feed, processes it and sends it out to streaming platforms (YouTube Live, Facebook Live etc) or Content Distribution Network servers (such as what Mickella Solutions can provide). There are quite a few choices of encoders, ranging from free to premium. One popular software is OBS (Open Broadcaster Software) Studio. It is free, has broad support and works with Mac, Windows and Linux. It has basic features, but it is quite effective for simple live streaming scenarios. On the other end, Wirecast Studio by Telestream, comes with a starting price tag of $495, but it has a lot of features, and is considered to be a professional-level encoder, purpose-built for live broadcasting. It is possible to have multiple cameras, pre-recorded videos and graphics all controlled from within Wirecast. This will eliminate the need for a video switcher. You can pull of a professional looking broadcast all from your favorite flavor of computer.
Select a computer: Speaking of computers, the most important thing about selecting the computer is to consider getting the best computer you can afford. Chances are you already have a computer that you'd like to use. However, be sure to check with the manufacturers of the software encoder, and capture device you intend to use, to ensure that it meets the minimum recommended specs. Pay close attention to any known driver or graphic card conflicts. Visit the user forums to see if other users have reported issues with the same make/model computer that you have. Most off-the-shelf computers may meet the minimum specs however, to ensure flexibility for the future, it would be wise to get a computer that beats the manufacturer's recommendations where processing is concerned. This becomes even more critical if you have any plans to stream to multiple destinations, and/or capture multiple cameras at the same time.
As you can see, a powerful encoding system is in reach of most people. Software/computer-based encoding is a very cost effective way to build your own live streaming rig.