Technically, it’s not a very steep learning curve. There are three key areas…
you can either purchase managed Shoutcast or Icecast hosting from one of hundreds of providers – some of which have some clever integration and web page tools, plus listener and music reporting features (I’ll get to that later). Alternately, you can self-host (by purchasing or renting a Linux server on a good host, setting up the appropriate software, adequately securing the server and using it to serve audio streams). Either way, the process is the same – imagine your “source” encoder machine connecting to the server, which becomes the central ‘hub’ from which all listeners connect to and receive the stream.
Very popular stations operate clusters of servers, each taking a relay of the stream from a master server then sharing the load of serving that to many listeners. This requires a little additional work to produce a mechanism to distribute requests between the servers in the cluster but is not very difficult. (And like all things to do with streaming internet radio, someone has certainly already invented it.)
The latter option – hosting your own streaming server – requires more technical knowhow and an understanding of the common pitfalls of self-managed servers (bandwidth usage, calculating your requirements, making sure your server can cope with many listeners if you plan to run a very popular service). Some people choose to use a third-party service because it provides an instant, quality service for a known price with no added management burden, but this can begin to work out considerately more expensive if your service becomes very popular but your budget is not scaling up at the same pace.
Sound and Quality
If you have a physical studio setup, or a mixture of devices connected through a mixer, one of the most important things is to use a moderately powerful computer with a great quality sound card, preferably a professional grade audio interface, to digitise your station audio. The PC should also be powerful enough to encode it to format(s) suitable for the streaming server and uplink it to the streaming server.
Critically, on this PC, you can then also run software or hardware to pre-process the sound before you encode it to compress, EQ and otherwise enhance it. When done well, this processing can make an otherwise humdrum audio stream sound fantastic, but like anything, it’s best in small doses. Overbearing or badly done processing may have an initial ‘wow’ factor but will quickly tire listeners’ ears and ruin the listening experience.
A zero-cost entry to accomplish effective audio processing is to use something like the superbwrapper program and load in a chain of audio processing VST plugins. There are many excellent free VSTs available. The trick is to configure them to sweeten the sound without ruining it. A good starting point for consistent audio is to gently compress, subtly EQ and always limit the final audio so as not to ‘clip’ the levels and generate unpleasant distortion.
To do this, you configure VSTHost’s audio input to take the computer’s sound card input as its source. Once in the software, you can manipulate it at will with VSTs. Then you can specify that the output of the VSTHost program should be used by your stream encoder software.
There are some very detailed guides on doing this online so I won’t go off-piste too much here. However if you’re audio-minded, there are some great multiband processing VSTs, superb sounding compressor limiters and other esoteric sound-enhancing plugins available online at sites like. Many digital music production web sites publish lists of the ‘best’ free VSTs with reviews of their performance, features and sound quality.
A modern-day laptop or desktop is more than capable of running playout software, processing and encoding the audio. I’ve obtained results not far away from that of professional audio processors costing many thousands using nothing but free software!
In terms of playout systems, there’s dozens. Spacial Audio’shas already been mentioned. Numerous other products including – to name just a few – , , , , , , , P Squared , Jutel and are available, covering a wide range of requirements and budgets.
You can run your station entirely inside a PC, using various pieces of free or commercial software and loading up digital audio files. Modern radio stations use computer-based playout systems to manage and play all music, jingles and trails, mixing the output with mics and other devices using audio mixers controlled by the presenter or assistant.
You can even use Audio over IP (AoIP) studio equipment where all audio is 100% digital and transmitted using IP packets – no more analogue!
The convenience and power of PC-based broadcast automation systems leads me on to…
Music Reporting, Royalties and Licenses
Using PC-based playout systems has significant advantage of automated, fully integrated music reporting. You can compile music reports manually but this quickly bcomes unbearably impossible if you are a small operation playing a lot of music.
To stream in certain countries (the UK, the US etc) you must obtain performance licenses from the relevant industry associations responsible for meting out royalty payments based on which songs are played, when they’re played, how frequently they’re played and how big an audience hears them. This is where consulting with someone who is familiar with your music and media industry is essential, because if you’re not careful you can either obtain unnecessary licenses – adding to your management burden – or you can accidentally operate unlicensed.
is a great example of a popular, long-running online music service which fully complies with all the music industry licensing requirements. It costs them quite a lot of money to do so, but they cover this with a mixture of listener donations, sponsorship, merchandise sales and private funds.
Radio Paradise, like any other radio station, will periodically report to BMI, ASCAP and SESAC in a standardised format; these organisations will then use that information to divide up the total royalty ‘pot’ and make payments to artists, labels and publishers. The process varies slightly depending on which country you are broadcasting from; in the UK you would send your ‘broadcast report’ to PRS for Music. They have a useful section on their site with.
Radio Paradise, operating from the USA, deals with their ‘home’ agencies. The situation is less clear in the US due to there being multiple overlapping agencies. The Radio Paradise site has an explanatory sectionand how the licensing model works.
There are many more articles online which explain the various ‘webcaster’ licenses available and how to set up a station then operate it in compliance with your country’s regulations.
Purely technically, you can set up a streaming radio station from scratch in less than 20 minutes. Getting it sounding professional and fully understanding the legal technicalities takes much longer to get to grips with. If you are serious it’s not a massive piece of work, though as always the financial implications need thinking about carefully.
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