What do you need to be able to stream live video? Surprisingly little, as an average smartphone contains a complete streaming setup in terms of hardware, and even most of the software you’d need. Plus, the websites that allow you to stream live video usually have apps that let you stream to them directly from your smartphone.
The fastest and easiest way to live stream isn’t always the best. In some cases, there might even be a significant requirement for streaming via a smartphone, so using the app to stream with a smartphone becomes difficult, or even impossible. For example, you can’t use the YouTube smartphone app for live streaming, unless you have at least 1,000 subscribers.
Smartphones are, without a doubt, convenient. In some situations, they are even indispensable for live streaming. For example, if you’re broadcasting from an event or a situation you’re witnessing, and even to stream smartphone games.
For the most part, however, the drawbacks of streaming via a smartphone are significant. People who take video streaming seriously need to have serious streaming setups. At the very least, they will use the best gear they can get their hands on. That should be a laptop, or a desktop computer, and not a smartphone. So if you’re wondering what exactly it is that you’ll need to be able to start that first live stream without relying on your smartphone, you’re in the right place.
The basic structure of a streaming setup
Live video streaming doesn’t have to follow a narrow path or a pattern. You can have plenty of different goals for your streams, from driving sales to socializing with like-minded people. You can use different kinds of content to achieve those goals. You can also choose the platform or social network that will help you reach your audience the best. Streaming is a creative endeavour, after all. It allows a certain degree of freedom.
However, whatever type of content you create for whatever reasons, and whatever platform or network you stream it on, the streaming setup should remain pretty much the same. It contains the very basic things you need to able to stream at all:
- A source of video or audio content.
- A device that will transform the content into the appropriate format – an encoder.
- An internet connection to transfer the stream.
- A streaming website or a platform where people can watch your stream.
This is the simplest possible way to look at a live video streaming setup. We’ll go through it point by point to see what type of gear and software is the most affordable, most commonly used, and generally best suited for building a beginner’s live video streaming setup.
What’s a good audio/video source for your streaming setup?
A live stream starts with audio and a video source. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to live stream for the simple reason of there not being anything to stream. The source is, in other words, the video and audio data we feed into an encoder.
There are a couple of things that can serve as a source of the audio and video data for your stream. The most common ones are:
- A webcam.
- An advanced camera such as a DSLR or GoPro.
- The screen of your computer.
- A built-in microphone.
- An external microphone.
The least expensive option is to use your computer screen as a source of video data and simply stream whatever there is on it. It’s an option that’s great for live streaming tutorials, how-to videos, or other similar content.
Webcams are great and inexpensive solutions for novice and professional video streamers. They can be exactly what you need if you just want to overlay footage of yourself over the broadcast of your game. Better webcams have built-in microphones that aren’t too bad.
As you progress with your streaming career, you might progress to using professional cameras. For a beginner, however, it’s either a webcam or a camcorder/DSLR setup. Here, you have to keep a couple of things in mind:
- Your camera needs to be capable of capturing at least 720p@24fps footage.
- Webcams don’t work well for capturing anything that moves too much.
- You can use more than one camera at a time, so keep that in mind.
- Camcorders and DSLRs will require you to use a capture card.
The last one is a biggie. Webcams, being simple cameras you plug into your computer via a USB port, can feed their footage directly into an encoder. Same goes for USB microphones. Camcorders and DSLRs, being more complicated pieces of gear that use HDMI might need one extra piece of gear.
It’s called a capture card, and it performs the vital function of capturing whatever the camera you plug into it is seeing. It then relays that into the encoder. Another important thing a capture card does is increase the cost of your streaming setup, probably by a couple of hundreds of dollars.
So maybe put using a nice camera on the list of things you’ll do when you decide to work as a professional streamer. For the time being, try getting a decent webcam. It should be all the gear you need to get you through your first months of streaming.
How to choose an encoder
An encoder is a device that takes in the data from your camera or the capture card and repackages it into a format that’s easily understood by the destination – the streaming platform. The codec that’s becoming increasingly common for live streaming compression is H.264.
There are two types of encoders: a physical, hardware encoder, and a software encoder. As a beginner, you’ll probably want to choose the latter because you can get it for free. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know the difference.
Here are the characteristics of hardware encoders:
- They don’t rely on your computer’s processing power.
- They don’t require you to use a capture card.
- They are made for streaming and are reliable.
- They can be hard to use and upgrade.
- They are not the most affordable option, which might not be ideal for someone who’d like to try out streaming before investing in it.
Software encoders, on the other hand, are the exact opposite. They are the more affordable options, allowing you to try them out before committing too much money to your streaming setup. They are also very easy to use, and you can upgrade them by simply downloading new and improved versions. Usually, that’s enough to persuade live video streamers to use software encoders instead of hardware encoders.
There’s a variety of software encoders you can choose. The two that people seem to use most often are OBS Studio and Streamlabs OBS. The latter is a slicker version of the former, and it’s generally considered to be more user-friendly. Whichever you choose, however, you won’t make a mistake.
If you know which platforms you are streaming to, OBS can configure itself to deliver the best quality of video your computer can produce for that platform. While the auto-configure feature works reasonably well, especially for a beginner, you should understand at least the most important settings you can configure. They are:
- Resolution is the size of the frame of the video you are encoding. It affects how much information the encoder needs to process, which affects the quality of the encoding process and the whole stream. In general, you should set it at 720p or 1080p, and downscale it in OBS to troubleshoot performance issues.
- Frame rate is the number of images – frames – displayed per second. 24 frames per second should be the lowest framerate you use. 30 fps is the standard, and 60 fps is great if you have a computer that can handle the workload.
- Bitrate is the rate at which you’ll be uploading data to the streaming platform or service. Bitrate has a direct correlation with the quality of your video increasing the resolution and the frame rate will also increase the bitrate.
The elephant in the room is, of course, that high-quality encoding requires high-quality hardware. When using OBS to encode your video, your computer’s CPU does a lot of work. If you’re a gaming streamer, that same CPU also has to handle the game you’re playing. That can be too much work.
Some gaming streamers use two separate computers, one for playing the game and another one for encoding. New GeForce GPUs with the RTX encoder technology support the encoding process in a way that enables professional gaming streamers to do everything on a single computer. So there are solutions to the problem of excess workload. It’s just that they cost money or require you to stream at a lesser quality.
How to make sure you have a good connection for streaming
The data your encoder delivers to the streaming website, service, or platform needs to travel via an internet connection. The encoder is effectively uploading data in real-time, as it’s being encoded. The internet connection you’re using must be able to handle it.
Technically, you’ll need an upload speed that won’t be a chokepoint for the bitrate you’re pushing to the streaming website. If you’re encoding at 3,000 Kbps, your upload speed should be greater than 3 Mbps. You can read a more in-depth explanation of what’s a good upload speed here.
Here are a couple of important things to keep in mind about upload speeds and streaming:
- Bandwidth and speed are not the same. Your ISP might declare your upload bandwidth at 10 Mbps, but the best upload speed you can achieve can be much lower.
- Test your upload speed first. There are plenty of ways to test your download and upload speeds online.
- Maintain a buffer. Your upload speed should be 20 to 40 percent higher than the bitrate you’re streaming at. For a 3,000 Kbps stream, a speed between 3.6 Mbps and 4.2 Mbps would do.
- Think about stability. Do your best to ensure a stable connection. Use a cable to connect directly to the modem. Disconnect the devices that might use up the upload speed.
Because the upload speed you need depends so much on the bitrate of the video you’re streaming, you might need to do some balancing in order to find a sweet spot that fits your circumstances.
Every streaming website or platform has its own bitrate recommendations, and you should check them out. You should also consider the type of content you’re producing and the gear you have at your disposal. Then, see whether you have an upload speed that can carry as much data as you need while maintaining the stability of the stream.
If you don’t have the upload speed you need, there are three things you can do. You can contact your ISP and see if they offer a service that includes higher upload speeds. You can switch to a service provider who offers the type of connection you need. Finally, you can also reduce the quality of your stream.
What’s the right streaming platform for me?
There are many streaming platforms, or websites that let you stream your live video content through them. Some of them are free to use, such as YouTube. Others have a tiered structure, such as Twitch. Social networks such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn have their own live video streaming services. On top of it all, there are paid live video streaming services like Wowza.
As someone who is new to video streaming, you will probably want to stick to the free options. It’s not just because they are free, though. You might already be using some or all these platforms for other purposes, and the connections you have there can help you jumpstart your live streaming hobby or career.
Still, you should make sure that the platform you’re using at least matches your intent. It’s slightly different if you’re, for example, a marketer who wants to try out the usability of live video content for video marketing, then if you’re just a gamer who wants to stream.
Here’s a breakdown of all the major places people go to stream video:
- Twitch is the gaming-first live streaming platform that’s becoming increasingly open to other types of stream content. It’s the most-watched live streaming platform.
- YouTube Live is YouTube’s live streaming service. While YouTube tries to compete with Twitch in the gaming niche with little success, it’s still a great platform for any other type of live stream.
- Facebook Live, Facebook’s live streaming service, has its own gaming section. But it also has all the things that make Facebook a marketer’s dream.
- Periscope is a streaming app owned by Twitter. That’s probably how you should think about it – just like Twitter, but with live video. Great for breaking news and events.
- Mixer is a Microsoft-owned gaming video streaming platform. It’s not as big as Twitch or YouTube live, but it’s less crowded and has plenty of potential.
- LinkedIn Live is LinkedIn’s live streaming service. It launched in early 2019, and it might be a good live streaming service for business, networking, and recruitment-related content.
These platforms are different enough to make the choice of platform consequential, so you should give it some thought. Keep in mind, however, that on some level, all these platforms work in a similar way. Every one of them requires you to make a profile, for example. Most of them will let you announce or schedule your stream beforehand in some way.
The important thing all these platforms have in common is the way you connect them with the encoder. You might have heard of something called an RTMP URL, or a stream address? That’s basically the address of platform to which the encoder will send data. Together with it, your platform will also provide you with a stream key, which is a security key you need to put into your encoder to let the platform know it should receive the data from you.
How to start a successful live stream
Now that you have the gear you need, you can start planning your live stream. Planning is the keyword here because live streams, even though they seem perfect for impromptu content creation, benefit from forethought a lot.
Spend some time thinking about what the contents of your live stream will be. When you have some idea about it, you can go ahead and schedule your upcoming stream. Most platforms let you do this in some way to let your followers know about your next stream. The hype is your friend, remember, but you’ll need to deliver what you promise, so think about the content. Also, start thinking about optimizing your streaming timing as early as possible.
The technical stuff is simple, and you can do it in four steps at most:
- Connect your audio and video source. Physically connect them to your computer, either directly or via a capture card. Make sure all the drivers load correctly. Use a power adapter instead of batteries whenever possible. If you must use batteries, make sure they are full.
- Add the audio and video source in OBS. You’ll find audio sources under the ‘audio’ tab in the ‘settings’ menu. You can add video sources by clicking the ‘+’ sign in the sources box in the main window. You can add multiple sources, for example, if you want to overlay your webcam over a game.
- Configure the stream. You can either auto-configure the stream to fit the platform or do it manually. Either way, you’ll probably be aiming at a resolution of 720p or 1080p, at around 30 fps, and a bitrate of around 5,000 Kbps.
- Connect to the platform. You use the stream address and key, to connect the encoder to platforms. The address and the key are usually found in the advanced user or account options in your platform profile. Copy the address and the key into the ‘stream’ tab in OBS’ ‘settings’ menu. In some cases, you might be able to log into the platform directly from the encoder.
With that, you have done most of the work. When you’re ready to stream, head to the platform and set up the stream either to stream immediately or to stream at a set time. When it’s time to stream, pressing the start streaming button in OBS will start your stream.
That’s when all the fun starts, even though broadcasting live might make you feel nervous in the beginning. However, if you’ve set up everything right, you can trust that your hardware and software will do their part and keep your stream live and smooth.
For your part, it’s best to try to be as engaging, authentic and honest as possible. If you keep at it long enough, live video streaming can develop into a career or a great conversion tool for your business. Just be consistent, and don’t give up if it seems that things are moving slowly in the beginning.
Bonus tip: use Restream
If this setup looks a bit overwhelming to you, the last thing you would want to do would be to add another link into it. However, adding a service like Restream to your setup can give you some incredible options while making your life easier.
The things you’d get with Restream include:
- The ability to stream to multiple websites at the same time. Yes, it’s true. Restream is a multistreaming platform and people use it to be able to stream to websites like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitch at the same time.
- Access to great tools. Restream has features that expand its usability beyond just streaming to multiple websites. You can stream pre-recorded video with the Scheduler, integrate several chat windows with the Chat tool, get useful insights from the Analytics tab.
- Have all your channels in one place. Restream supports more than 30 platforms, websites, and channels. You only need to log in through the service, and you can skip entering all the URLs and keys into OBS. You connect the platforms to Restream, and then Restream to OBS with a key and URL Restream provides.
- Additional options when your streaming career takes off. You get all of this for free, but when the time comes for your career to require additional support, Restream will be able to provide additional features to help you.
As you can see, adding a service like Restream into your setup can simplify things for you. Plus, you get the ability to stream to multiple platforms whenever you want, which can increase your reach, save your time, and help you achieve your goals faster. You only stand to gain by adding a multistreaming service like Restream into your live streaming setup. There are no excuses not to do it right away.