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What you need to live stream and how to do it

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We’re going to be using OBS, which makes broadcasting yourself (relatively) easy

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I keep writing about live-streaming like it’s accessible and easy to do — which it’s not. It’s actually quite difficult to get started. Sorry! My bad. I didn’t mean to lead you astray. If you’re still Twitch-curious, I have a gift for you: a guide for how to get started.

Before I dive in, I’ll begin with a few caveats. First, there are many ways to stream. Zoom allows you to stream directly to YouTube, for example, and you can always go live on Instagram. Some ways of streaming are easier; others are more difficult. All require a bit of knowledge about how to read forums and not want to die while doing the necessary troubleshooting. This is not a comprehensive guide.

Second, this isn’t meant to be exhaustive. I’ve been streaming for a little while on my own channel, and most of what I’m going to lay out is just the stuff I’ve picked up since I’ve been on Twitch. Third, please know that even if you do everything right, something will still probably not work. That’s okay. Become one with the troubleshooting, and do things systematically so you’re always able to work backward and find the source of your problem. Also, remember that troubleshooting live on stream is a rite of passage.

Fourth, this guide also assumes you’re a beginner and that you’re not planning to either buy a new PC just to stream or to extensively modify one you already own (e.g., buying an internal capture card). It’s also focused on streaming using Open Broadcaster Software (OBS), an open-source piece of software that a ton of people use to live stream. (If you’ve already got your setup working and just want to learn how to use OBS, feel free to skip ahead to the section “How to Stream with OBS.”)

If that’s you, let’s dive in!

Step 1: Hardware

This is where your journey begins, traveler. Actually, now that I think of it, we should back up a little.

Step 0: Why do you want to stream, and what do you want to get out of it?

This is the real start of your adventure. Why do you want to stream? Be honest with yourself. (And feel free to message me about why! I will probably include your answers in a future entry of this column.) Is it because you want to gain fame, fortune, and influence online? Is it because you want to take your friendly gaming sessions up a notch? Is it because you have a specialized skill — e.g., cooking, yoga, etc. — that you want to share with people? Is it just cause it seems like a fun thing to do?

These are all valid reasons to start streaming, but it’s also important to ask the questions in the first place because it’ll influence what kind of setup you’re eventually going to want. But that’s a later step.

Step 1 (again): Hardware

This is where you’ll determine the actual quality of your stream. There are three questions to ask: What machine do you plan to stream on? What kind of webcam and microphone do you have access to? What’s your internet connection like?

Any answer is fine; I used to stream PS4 gameplay through a 2017 MacBook Air via the console’s remote play function, which should honestly be illegal. (It did work; however, I would not recommend doing this.) The reason these questions are important to answer is twofold: your software options will change based on what operating system you’re running (Windows, macOS, mobile, console), and the quality of your stream will differ based on what your webcam / microphone / internet connection is like.

Ideally, you’re going to want to use the fastest, newest computer you’ve got, and the best microphone and webcam in your arsenal. Your computer is the brains of the operation, no matter what you’re streaming. It has to be fast enough to both handle whatever you’re doing on it — DJing? Gaming? — while it’s also encoding and uploading a video stream to Twitch (or whatever platform you’ve chosen to use). If it’s older, your computer will scream at you, which is fine. Ignore its screams and the wild amount of heat it’s generating. Do not wonder whether you could bake a cookie on the heatsink.

So here’s what to do: connect your mic and your webcam (no shame if those are on board) to your computer, and test them to see if everything is working. A tip: getting clear audio is more important, at least initially, than having great video. If everything works, great!

Next, check your internet speed. You’re going to want a fast connection — specifically a fast upload speed. I’d say around 8–9 Mbps upload is the minimum for a stable HD video output. If you don’t quite have that, don’t fret! There are some software settings I’ll go over later that you can crunch to fit your pipes.

If you’re planning to stream console games, the other piece of gear you might want to have on hand — aside from extra HDMI cables and a long Ethernet cable — is a capture card. A capture card is a cool device that duplicates the audio and video coming out of your consoles and sends it to your computer as a video input, which your streaming software can then recognize and stream. The current standard is Elgato’s HD60s, which retails for around $200, though you can get a refurbished one for a slightly cheaper price. (The S+ has way more features but is commensurately more expensive.)

Other hardware to consider: lighting and green screens. Probably the most important thing you can do for yourself after getting a good mic is investing in good lighting for your streaming space. It helps your camera do the vital work of making you look good. That can mean anything from setting up a lamp behind your camera so it lights your face / body properly to investing in a dedicated ring light that will ensure that everything looks even. Green screens are another popular tool to upgrade what your stream looks like. Basically, you set it up behind you, and you can use your streaming software to edit out your background so you’re directly in front of your video output. (Think Zoom’s virtual backgrounds, but with the game you’re playing.)

Got all that? Great! Now it’s time to move on.

Step 2: Software

I’m not going to lie to you: there are a lot of buttons, and you’re going to need to click a lot of them. This can be intimidating. But you can do it! It’s a matter of trying everything until you find a solution. It’s time to wrinkle your brain.

I’ll divide this section by platform.

Windows

Congratulations! You have the most options. In the beginning, live-streaming was developed mostly for enterprise users and hardcore gamers, which means the software was developed for people who had Work Machines — machines that needed to be powerful enough to render Crysis or do corporate Excel sheets.

Let’s focus on the free offerings. You have basically three options: Open Broadcaster Software (OBS), Streamlabs OBS, and XSplit. (There’s also Twitch Studio, which streams specifically to Twitch.) Each has its charms; of the three, I prefer regular OBS because it feels standard in a way that my brain appreciates. In fact, I’d recommend using OBS for the majority of people. Streamlabs is also incredibly customizable and fairly easy to set up, with a built-in ecosystem of overlays, extensions, and themes baked right in.

macOS

Hello, Mac users. You’re actually quite lucky because it’s only within the last year that it’s become easier to stream on a Mac. Elgato introduced OBS Link, which greatly simplifies the use of a capture card on Macs — which you literally couldn’t do before without processor-intensive, hacky workarounds — and Streamlabs made its macOS debut, at very long last. Your options are Streamlabs OBS and regular OBS, which are both very solid.

Mobile

The first thing I should say is: yes, you can do this. Twitch and Mixer will let you stream from your phone if you download their dedicated apps, for example. But your options will be limited and fragmented by platform. There’s Periscope, which lets you stream to Twitter, and Instagram Live, which does exactly what it sounds like it does. (You can also live-stream to YouTube from a mobile device if you have more than 1,000 subscribers.)

What you can stream depends on the platform and the app you’re using. Mixer allows you to stream mobile games, while Twitch doesn’t. Streamlabs’ mobile app, on the other hand, will allow you to broadcast whatever’s on your screen to the platform of your choice. If you’re really dedicated to streaming off your phone, godspeed. You have a tough row to hoe. While it’s possible to stream, the audio and video quality is generally much lower, it’s harder to customize the stream itself, and it’s very limiting in what you can actually do on stream. (It should be said that you can, in fact, stream from iOS devices to OBS using Elgato Screen Link — which is good if you’d like to stream mobile games.)

Console

This is the easiest way to stream. All you have to do is connect your Twitch / Mixer / YouTube account to your PlayStation 4 or Xbox One console, and you’re good to go. There are, however, significant drawbacks. You can’t customize your stream at all, and there are weird UI elements that kind of get in the way of gameplay. The consoles handle audio just fine, but adding video gets a lot trickier. (Translation: If you want to upgrade your stream, you’re going to buy a console-specific webcam. Sorry!) Here’s a more in-depth guide for how to start streaming on console.

How to stream with OBS

Right. So now that we have the options out of the way, it’s time to dive into the software. For this part of the guide, I’m going to stick with regular OBS because it’s what I know best and because it also translates to Streamlabs OBS. (It’s also the same on both macOS and Windows.)

Step 2.5: OBS

Don’t be afraid, traveler. OBS can seem like the Big Bad in the live-streaming universe, but it’s really a powerful ally — if you can master what it’s trying to tell you. OBS is a way station: it is the point where your inputs (webcam, microphone, game capture) and outputs (your stream) merge.

The first thing to know about OBS is that it looks like this.

This used to scare me; now, it comforts me because I am in control (mostly).

The first thing you’ll notice are the menus down at the bottom: Scenes, Sources, Mixer, Scene Transitions, and Controls. The second thing you should look at are the numbers at the very bottom, labeled “LIVE,” “REC,” and “CPU.” Once you open OBS, you should start to see your CPU usage rise. When you’re live, expect that number to get higher.

Basically, OBS works like this: scenes are the building blocks of any stream. Whatever’s in a scene is what’s put on your stream. You customize scenes with sources, which you can add, and you check audio levels for basically any source within a scene via the mixer.

From left to right: Scenes, Sources, Audio Mixer, Scene Transitions, Controls.

Scene transitions are there if you want to customize what it looks like when you switch between scenes, but I haven’t found that it matters much, personally speaking. (Think PowerPoint transitions.) Controls does exactly what it says. Those little gray buttons are how you’ll push everything live. We’ll return to Settings in a moment.

What we’re going to do now is set up three scenes in OBS: a “stream starting soon” scene, a “live” scene, and one that’s for intermissions — you know, just in case you have to run to the bathroom or refresh your drink.

So let’s start with the Stream Starting Soon scene. The first thing you should do is delete all of the preprogrammed scenes because they’re empty and because renaming them is about 5 percent more of a pain in the ass than it should be. To do that, highlight the scene and click the minus button at the bottom of the box. Great!

Now click the “+” button next to it, and enter the name of the scene. Something like “Stream Starting Soon.” You’re going to want to be clear and specific because you don’t want to be hunting for scenes while you’re streaming. This is part of OBS’s flexibility: you can have as many scenes as you want, and they can be as specific as you want them to be. If you want to have silly graphics and not have to remake them every time you want them on-screen, the Scenes tool is what you’re going to use.

You’ll notice I’m using a Mac here because that’s what I write on. It’s also cool because it’s the same for Windows, even if the UI looks a little different.

Now that we have a scene, let’s move to sources. Click on the “+” button under sources. Whoa! It’s a long list!

Unfortunately, all of these things mean something. For now, let’s focus on the most important thing: creating a cool graphic that shows off our personality for the people who are going to see our channel. So now: open up Photoshop / MS Paint / etc., and get to work! Save that file somewhere specific, too, because we’re going to need it.

Okay! Time to go back to OBS. Highlight your scene again, and click the “+” button in sources; next, navigate to “Image” and name the source — again, be very specific — and make sure the “make source visible” box is checked. Maybe name it something like “This is my starting soon screen lol.” Hit browse, find the image file, upload it, and then click okay. Here’s what mine looks like so far.

Oh no, my image doesn’t fit my streaming canvas because I didn’t size it right in Paintbrush! If this is you, that’s an easy enough fix. Just manipulate the image the same way you would if you were resizing anything else, by dragging the corners around. If you really beefed it, resize the image in your image editor so that it fits your screen dimensions, which you can find in Settings > Video > Base (Canvas) Resolution.

Anyway, great! We have our first scene. That wasn’t so hard, was it?

The next thing you should know is what those things under audio mixer actually do. Pound for pound, Desktop Audio is probably the most powerful thing you should know about in the audio mixer settings. Basically, Desktop Audio sends whatever sounds are on your computer out onto your stream. That’s Spotify, YouTube, game music from whatever you’re playing on your computer — everything. With one major caveat: it plays everything that’s pointed at Desktop Audio. If you go into its settings by clicking on the gear just below it, you’ll see a number of options for where it can get audio from. And this is where it starts to get complicated. You can prevent a ton of troubleshooting down the line if you make sure your audio is routed to the same place.

This setting is not scene-specific, although it does change based on where the sources in the scene have their outputs pointed. Basically, if there is an audio source that has its output pointed at Desktop Audio, and the source is in the scene that’s currently active, you’ll hear it. Sources don’t output video or audio if they’re not in an active scene. Let’s take a look at the scenes / sources / audio mixer triumvirate again. No reason, it’s just nice to look at.

Ahh yeah... that’s the good stuff.

When I’m streaming, I like to do a little pre-show to give people time to filter over to my channel. Mostly it’s just a “live soon” scene with some chill beats playing under it, while I putter around my apartment and finish setting things up. I use YouTube; you can use whatever you want — whatever you’re playing on your computer will output to desktop audio, provided desktop audio is getting audio from the place you’ve sent the music. Copyright policies differ based on the platform you’re using, but it’s generally a great idea not to use copyrighted material; you don’t want a strike on your account or a temporary suspension. (If you’re into more advanced stuff, you can find and make animated overlays for your starting soon screen, but that is definitely beyond the scope of this how-to.) We’ll talk briefly about audience stuff later, but the main thing to remember is that streaming is something of a second-screen activity — like a podcast, almost.

The next thing you should do is repeat the same steps as above to create an intermission scene that you can quickly flip to if you need to. You got this!

Finally: the live scene. This is where things get a bit more complicated. Start the same way you did before by creating a new scene. In the source tab, add two new sources: one for audio input capture and one for video capture device. What we’re going to do here is add your webcam and your microphone to your sources, so that your audience can see and hear you. In the menus that pop up for those sources, select the devices that you’re going to use, and give the sources appropriate names (“logitech webcam,” “blue yeti microphone,” etc.).

The video capture device — your webcam — should pop up on the OBS canvas, but your audio device won’t. A note here that should save you some troubleshooting time: if your webcam is being used by a different piece of software, it will not show up in OBS. Make sure you close any other software that might be using your camera.

Your microphone will show up as a new set of bars in your audio mixer. Now’s the time to make sure your levels are appropriate. Generally, you want to be peaking in the yellow part of the mix for everything; if you hit the red bit of the bar, it’s going to sound terrible. Your audience will tell you to adjust as needed — just slide the volume bars underneath the offending input to change the levels.

Now it’s time to build in everything else. One of the best things about streaming is that it’s infinitely customizable; you can add browser sources to capture audio, play alerts on your channel when someone subscribes or follows, and basically anything else you can think of. For right now, we’ll keep it simple. Let’s add a game to your streaming output. (If you’re not planning to play a video game on stream, feel free to skip this bit.)

We’ll start with games on your computer because the process is slightly easier to explain — and it’s different on Mac and Windows. We’ll start with Mac this time.

To add a game to your sources list in OBS, you’re going to have to do a bit of a workaround, for now, and use a Window Capture. These work similarly to Video Input Capture sources, but instead of capturing a video, you’re going to capture the specific window of the game you’re playing. Find the window that has the game running in the menu in the same way, and add / name the source in the same way you did the others. On Windows, there’s an option called Game Capture, which allows you to either capture any currently full-screen window or pick a specific game to broadcast.

To add a console game is harder because it introduces another piece of software — Elgato Game Capture HD. (This is if you’ve decided to go with the Elgato HD60s/s+.) Remember, you’re going to need the capture card to send its video and audio to your computer and your television at the same time. We’ll start with Windows.

First, make sure your console is on, and that you’ve correctly attached the HDMI cables to the capture card and that the capture card is plugged into the appropriate USB port on your streaming PC. (If you’re using a PS4, make sure you disable HDCP copy protection on PS4 in settings, as you’ll make your screen look weird and have horrible clicking noises come out of your TV otherwise. For other consoles, go here.)

Next, you’ll need to boot up Game Capture HD. You should see whatever’s on your TV in this app. Look at the top right where a small image of your capture card should be, and click through to its settings by clicking on the gear under it. You should be able to change the settings there based on which console you have plugged into your capture card. It’s important to change the settings to match your console here because this changes what’s going on inside the card itself, and the signals it outputs to your computer.

Finally, return to OBS and add a new video capture source to your live scene. You should see your Elgato capture card as an option, labeled by the port it’s in; choose it. Your console’s video will now be mirrored in OBS.

For Macs, the process is different. You have to download a separate piece of software called OBS Link, which is what will allow your computer to recognize the input signal from the Elgato capture card as a video capture device, which you can then add to your stream. (It’s important to note that the S+ can connect to Macs directly and doesn’t need OBS Link to function.) You can find more information about how to set that up here.

Phew. Lots to do, right? And you’re not ready to stream yet. But you do have a live screen!

Step 2.7: OBS Settings

Now we dive into the settings. This is extremely important because, as I mentioned above, this is how we’re going to optimize for our pipes. (If you’re using Streamlabs, the software has probably done this for you at startup.) The first thing you should do is open up settings, navigate to video settings, and then change the frame rate — “Common FPS Values” in OBS — to 30. This will drop the processor load considerably. To futz with it further, feel free to go to town on the “Output (Scaled) Resolution”; if your stream is still choppy, drop the output resolution. Your viewers will probably notice a commensurate drop in quality, however.

There are a ton of other options in here. The other important box is under output where you can find your computer’s streaming settings. Changing the encoder, bitrate, and presets will change how your viewers experience your stream, so feel free to play around in here. If something breaks, you’ll know what did it.

But the most important part of this section is connecting OBS to your streaming platform. Go to the Stream tab and choose your service. If it asks you for a stream key, go to your settings on the platform you’ve decided to use; it should be in there somewhere. Never give out your stream key because if someone else has it, they can stream anything they want to your channel.

Step 2.97: Record yourself

You’re almost there. And you’re probably wondering: huh, what does this actually look like? Well, I have some good news for you. Whatever is showing on the screen in OBS is what the stream will output. But if you want to see and hear what your mic and webcam are like in action, you should grab a quick recording of yourself so you can see for yourself before you stream to an audience. To do that, hit the “Start Recording” button under Controls. It’ll record whatever is happening in OBS, and save it to the location delineated in Settings > Output > Recording. You can watch your broadcast there!

Step 3: Stream!

Now that you have your hardware set up and your software configured, it’s time to do some final checks before you go live. The first: do you have a place where you can easily read chat? That can be your phone, a tablet, an old computer — just some place where you can see what people are saying and respond to them. The difference between live-streaming and something like live TV is that streaming is about interaction; you talking with your viewers is what people come for. The other thing is having a channel page that shows you off: what you’re interested in, what you play, and what kinds of things you like to do. Go ahead and play around with themes, overlays, and extensions until you find a look and branding that you like.

The main thing to remember, though, is that streaming isn’t really about the audience you draw in — though that is really cool — it’s about being social and having a good time.

If you know you can keep it fun, you’re ready to go live. Go ahead and press that button. (You’ll immediately be live with whatever is on your screen in OBS, just in case that wasn’t clear.) One last thing: to switch scenes while OBS is running, just click on the scene. A final tip: if you’re taking an intermission and your microphone is active on the intermission scene, make sure you mute it until you get back.

Oh, and if you have any questions, you know who to call.