As I’ve been mentioning a bit in posts, I’ve been doing a lot more livestreaming lately over at twitch.tv/kaylriene, and I wanted to discuss the process by which I came to some of the decisions on hardware I did.
Some of this will be revisiting my current gaming PC and how the choices I made there affect stream quality or settings, but a lot of it will focus in on the peripherals and stream-specific goodies I have acquired and use to make my streams work as well as I can!
My gaming system as of today is pretty darn powerful and I love talking about it, so I am going to restrain myself slightly to discuss the more streaming-focused aspects of it!
Here’s the spec list in total first:
AMD Ryzen 9 3900x
64 GB DDR4-3200 RAM
Nvidia Geforce RTX 3080
AVermedia LiveGamer Duo Capture Card (1 set of HDMI ports for passthrough capture and output, 1 lone HDMI input for camera feed)
A bunch of storage totalling 22 TB local
Full custom loop watercooling
So of all of this, there are a few points that are relevant to my stream quality. First up, the CPU. The Ryzen 9 3900x is a 12-core part, so if I need to lean on software encoding via X.264, I can use a slower quality preset to keep things looking good. The 64 GB of RAM alongside it is largely not needed for streaming, but is sometimes useful for video rendering or 3D rendering tasks, which helps me with my stinger transition creation and the creation of bespoke 3D elements like my transitional scenes.
The Geforce RTX 3080 is the real star of the show, though, in that it offers a few key components to power through the work of a stream. Firstly, it runs fast at my main gaming resolution of 3440×1440, so things stay smooth and my stream looks crisp for it. Secondly, as it is a newer Geforce card, it has the newest video encoder logic on-board, which works with the new NVENC software-side to enhance quality along with the performance enhancements that came in the software through having zero copy to reduce burden on the system. With those enhancements, especially to the hardware logic, the end result of using NVENC is competitive with even really good, slower quality preset X.264 encodes, and retains a lot of detail with a minimum of system load and almost zero usage of the game-facing hardware, so you gain a lot of benefits with no real downsides (NVENC maybe can’t compete with X.264 slow on quality, but that preset will absolutely destroy most CPUs, so there’s that).
Lastly from a pure hardware perspective, the AVermedia LiveGamer Duo allows me a lot of cool stuff. It has a matched pair of HDMI in/out ports for console capture and passthrough, allowing me to grab my Switch for easy livestreaming and recording, and with an HDMI switcher (which I also have in the chain) I can plug in all my consoles for it. The AVermedia card works great because while it only streams or captures a downscaled 1080p image, it can passthrough 4k and it can also capture HDR output from newer consoles and tonemap it to SDR, which works on all displays while retaining some of the sharpness in the recorded output. It also has a third HDMI port dedicated to just input without passthrough, which functions like the Elgato Cam Link, allowing you to take a 1080p60 clean HDMI feed from an external camera and add it to your streams and recordings. It runs really well, has had no issues so far with the feeds from the HDMI splitter handing off the Switch or the camera I’m using, and the quality is spot on.
Lastly, watercooling ensures my parts can use their maximum boost headroom to reach higher clock speeds and stay there for longer, and it also means less fan noise from my system which reduces the background noise that can potentially be picked up by my microphone.
Now, let’s step outside of the PC to talk about some acquisitions I’ve made for streaming specifically!
Face Camera: Panasonic Lumix G85
This micro-4/3rds camera is fantastic for streaming and video usage. It has all sorts of built-in stabilization, in-camera and in-lens if using their lenses, including the kit lens included with the camera. The auto-focus on it works wonders to maintain a crisp image with my background enshrouded in a nice, subtle bokeh effect, even with the large amount of light I have on my streaming set. It has 1080p60 video (it can do 4k30 as well, but my capture card cannot and for streaming I find that less useful anyways) and has clean HDMI out, which allows it to work well with any HDMI capture device on the market. It has an easy-to-find ecosystem of additional lenses should I want to fall down that rabbit hole, and finding spare batteries and a dummy battery for streaming was exceptionally easy and cheap. It also doesn’t suffer from the excessive CPU utilization that my old Logitech C920 webcam did, and while micro-4/3rds sensor means less light hits the sensor and there is some crop on the image, it fits my set wonderfully and I’ve overcome the lighting challenges with a couple of very production-focused lighting upgrades at low cost!
Audio Input Chain: Shure SM7B Dynamic Vocal Mic to Cloudlifter CL-1 Mic Activator to Focusrite Scarlett Solo USB XLR Interface
This one is almost cheating, in that I’ve had this hardware chain for about two years now, but nonetheless, still counts. This whole setup for a single microphone is, perhaps, a tad bit high end for a casual streamer, but it made mixing my audio remarkably easy. The Shure SM7B is a renowned vocal mic (famously, Michael Jackson used one for many of his studio sessions) and has excellent sound quality, given enough gain to drive it. The Cloudlifter CL-1 is there for that gain – taking a 48v phantom power feed from the XLR interface and turning it into clean gain to boost the mic’s volume into the mixer. The Scarlett Solo is a great little interface meant for novice musicians – a single XLR input intended for a mic, a 5/8″ input for a guitar or instrument, and a monitoring output, all on a simple box connected to your PC via USB. It has nice, clean, neutral audio and some hardware controls for balancing – you can turn the mic and instrument inputs up or down via the box.
Lighting – Neewer 2-Pack LED Key Lights, A Basic LED Desk Lamp, RGB LED Kicker Lights
One of the things I tried when I was streaming a bit in the fall was upping the quality of my webcam through stronger lighting, trying to use a ring light gooseneck stand along with some basic LED desk lamps as fill and highlights to aid the autofocus of the camera. It worked fairly well, all told! With the Lumix G85, I knew that the autofocus principles would be the same – I needed more light on myself to define and shape the image and give the autofocus the easiest possible time with “grabbing” me out of the frame. To aid the camera, I picked up a basic pair of cheapo LED key lights from Neewer, an absolutely terrible company that makes pretty bad stuff, and then used an old desk lamp I had lying around. Only one of the Neewer lights stays on, so it is my key light, mounted to its included stand behind my monitor array and casting down on me at a 45-degree angle. I then use the desk lamp on the floor as a kicker light/highlight, casting up and from the side at me to outline myself and my chair against my backdrop, giving a full illuminated edge to me for the camera to easily latch onto with auto-focus. Lastly, for ambience and to get maximum streamer A E S T H E T I C, I grabbed a pair of app-controlled LED panels that are very bright, set them to purple to match my desk, and have them firing up the sides of my set to cast a full purple glow on my backdrop. I have other lights in the backdrop to keep things looking warm and interesting (the LED lights I use as key and highlight are very cool color temperature) and that helps keep me from looking too pallid, because the cool whites wash out my skin tone and make it look ghastly!
The Stream Control: Elgato Stream Deck
I fought with myself on this one, because I thought it was just me wanting a gadget, but in truth, the Stream Deck is perhaps one of the better purchases I made for my streaming aspirations. For those unaware, the Stream Deck is basically just 15 (6 for mini or 32 for XL) buttons, each of which has an OLED display built into it. You can put all sorts of macros on them, from basic commands for most streaming and creative software packages all the way up to complex multi-part commands to orchestrate vast changes to your setup. In my case, I use it for scenes, with each scene mapped to trigger different audio states for my desktop audio and microphone, and to push the transition through OBS Studio. Before, I had to do this by clicking the scene in OBS, then manually muting or unmuting the microphone and desktop audio, which led to occassions where I was missing stream audio or a transitional scene had audio clashing with the intended experience. With the Stream Deck, I can hit a single button to launch my starting soon scene, actually start uploading to Twitch, and auto-control my desktop and microphone audio to turn them off while I set up. Once I’m ready to actually start, I use macro transitions to push the new scene and re-enable the needed audio devices.
I also built a really dumb soundboard on it, because it’s fun.
The Extras: Not Showing My Mess Live On The Internet
The rest of my setup is basically around some production elements that are there to obscure or hide my mess. My desk is pretty much where I live most of my time at home, so the side where the camera is mounted has my personal items hidden under a shelf that is clamped to the desk. None of my set lighting hits it, no reflections show it, so I can have drinks, snacks, and other various messes off-camera (my wallet, allergy medicine, etc). My bookcases used for backdrop elements have a bit of a black fabric skirt around the bottom that I stuck on with double-sided foam tape, so it has a small acoustic benefit but also hides the actual storage in use. My standing mat for use when my desk is in standing mode helps to also darken up that side of things and keep it looking cleaner overall, although there is still fabric behind it for when I stream while standing, which does happen here and there (the camera mount and key light being fastened to the desk helps with that a lot). Lastly, because my “office” is just the dining room area of our small apartment, on the first floor, where my window is also next to the front door and looks out at…the stairs to the second level, the blackout curtain helps a little bit with keeping things visually neat, although I can also move it and use the blinds a bit to allow natural light and that works pretty well still with my smorgasbord of lighting. For that same reason, I also have some well-hidden foam acoustic panels. They’re nothing particularly fancy, but they do seem to help a little bit with reducing noise from outside and also allowing my wife to watch TV 18 feet to my left without that bleeding in. I’ve considered getting a T-stand and some sound blankets to maybe create more acoustic isolation, but with a dynamic vocal mic, that isn’t necessary, strictly.
Where I Went Spendier Than I Would Recommend
Like with my core PC, what I’ve described here is definitely an overspend for the sake of enthusiasm. My wife and I have a rig for the Lumix that we take outside to shoot with, along with a shotgun mic for it, so that gets double-mileage for us, but if I were actually trying to just recommend things to a person wanting to stream online, I wouldn’t go much further than a few basics.
So, let’s review:
The Camera: A proper digital camera with strong video focus like stabilization and auto-focus can help a lot, but all you really need to start is a basic webcam for face cam, assuming you even want to use one. It isn’t strictly necessary, but it does help engagement to have one. Almost any webcam will do – when I went to work from home last year, we got cheap Amazon-special webcams from a brand I’ve never heard of and I managed to polish that up for Zoom meetings before I got a USB 3.0 switcher and just used my Logitech C920 for work as well. Logitech makes great webcams overall, as does AVermedia and Microsoft, and Razer is getting into the market with a line of webcams, one of which includes an integrated ring light.
The camera itself matters to a point, but for a basic streaming setup, what matters far more is lighting. You can spend $500 on a base micro-4/3rds camera kit or a used DSLR of good quality and then get a Cam Link or capture card for around $150, or you can take a webcam and light the scene better and get very close with less spend. You should read reviews for webcams and really come away with an idea of the relative quality of the one you’ve found in-stock (although they are generally better than they were a year ago!), but then focus on lighting if you want to make it work ideally. The best principles for almost any webcam will be a 3-point lighting setup – get a key light to light you, a fill light to reduce harshness of shadow roll off, and then a highlight/backlight to give you a sharp edge of lighting around yourself. This works great with webcams because they are made to autofocus on a human face, but need all the help they can get finding you. If you light your stream with just standard room lighting, it might work and it might even look okay, but if you take all the guesswork out of the autofocus for the camera, the resulting output will be a lot better for a fraction of the cost. The lights don’t need to be Elgato-branded key lights or purpose-made ones either – basic desk lamps with a color temperature you find pleasing will work just fine and get you started for far less!
The Microphone: The Shure SM7B chain I have is something I love, because it works well and the microphone is well-balanced overall so I don’t have to do much tuning, but it costs far too much for that as a beginner. The best play is to get a decent standalone microphone that you can tune to your preferences – the Blue Snowball and Yeti are great mics for starting and more-advanced audio production at home, and with some smart settings, you can tune them to work very well. Because they pick up more background noise with their condenser capsules, you just need to work to tune them with a noise gate to set a higher floor for OBS or your stream software of choice, so that they only pick up your voice directly into the mic. Any money you would spend on a higher-end mic to start out is better put into a microphone arm or mounting solution so that you can consistently place the mic in the same place to keep settings locked in. Consistent placement means you can set a single noise gate and adjust the gain and level in your mix one time and have it really well set – if you just leave it on your desk, you’ll have to tune it anytime the desktop arrangement in your room changes and then contend with things like keyboard noise or system fans getting into the mix. A noise gate can help with that as well but it may have unintended consequences like clipping your actual voice if you’re too far away.
You can also use a gaming headset with a microphone, but to be perfectly frank, the mics on most gaming headsets (even the very best ones!) just don’t have enough room for great stream-worthy sound. You can tune and adjust them to get close enough for your satisfaction, but I personally wouldn’t go that route if you can avoid it. That being said, gaming headsets do give you the advantage of a microphone made for vocals that has fairly consistent positioning and you can tune and sweeten it in your mix to sound pretty decent, so if you already have that and don’t want to go for the $40 on the Blue Snowball, it’ll still work just fine. Audio is very subjective to many listeners anyways, so my opinion is just one of many.
As far as room sound treatment, it’s fine but not really all that needed in most cases. Furniture and things filling out a space give sound less room to travel and more things to bounce and dissipate off of, so just having a full room gets you a good chunk of what you want from sound foam anyways. Sound foam tiles off of Amazon or the like are fine and can help with reducing sound bounceback, but they don’t offer anything inherently better than just a strong, well-adjusted noise gate. If you have a desk in a common area, sound blankets are the way to go there if you need to pull down the level of background noises sharply, but even then, unless you are in an uncannily noisy room, that isn’t something that you can’t get close enough to with software tuning and adjustment of your mix.
The Stream Deck: Easy enough here – it’s fluff anyways for streams with a fair number of scenes or weird settings per transition, and so it is entirely superfluous for a beginner. It’s nice and it offers some cool stuff, so if you want to replicate it for less, you can buy the Mini version (if you find it in stock!). There’s also an Elgato app for Stream Deck functions via your phone – I haven’t personally tested it but it seems to work reasonably well, however the Elgato app is a trial and requires a subscription to use past the first 30 days. A lot of streaming software suites that cost money have free apps with similar functionality for your smartphone, like Streamlabs OBS and XSplit, and there are also free apps from indie developers that can integrate with most streaming suites and offer similar functionality. Lastly, you can work to record macros for macro keys on your keyboard, extra mouse buttons, or buy a cheaper hardware macro pad with normal physical keys that can be used in a similar way.
In my next post on this topic, I’ll discuss my software setup, how I setup my scenes and manage my stream bitrate, encoding, and the like!