Now that an increasing number of people are staying at home, more people are asking me for advice on how to get started with live streaming. I think this is great (yay for sharing knowledge!), so I want to share some of that advice here to make it more broadly accessible. This advice is primarily targeted at people live-streaming technical content, but may also be applicable beyond that.
If this was useful to you, or you have a question that isn’t answered here, please let me know!
I use OBS Studio, and am very happy with it. It supports all sorts of input sources, works on most platforms, and supports both recording and streaming out of the box. It even lets you inject websites into your video to include dashboards, chat, etc. should you want it.
I stream concurrently to both YouTube and Twitch using restream.io. The service is free, and also takes care of synchronizing your chat between the two platforms. I have no complaints about it, and it’s also easy to set up with OBS. I multistream to those two platforms because I find that people have strong preferences for what platform they want to watch on, and who am I to say no. On average, about a quarter of my live viewers are on Twitch, and the rest on YouTube. Twitch has lower latency, better quality, and fewer connection problems, but YouTube presents a wider audience.
For drawing things, I use MyPaint, and it seems to do the job nicely.
Get a decent microphone. If there is one thing you take away from this, it’s that. A proper, standalone microphone is so much better, and not even all that expensive. I started out with the Samson Q2U, and was very happy with it. You can hear what it sounds like in one of my first videos. I’ve since upgraded to the RØDE Podcaster (which sounds like this), and I doubt I’ll need anything more fancy that that ever. I’ll add that the step up from the Samson to the RØDE is noticeable (just see the comments).
I recommend also getting a mic boom (an arm that holds your microphone). It lets you position the mic closer to your mouth, which makes your voice clearer and reduces the noise from your keyboard and desk. Compare this video without a boom to this one with a boom. For the Samson Q2U microphone, I used this InnoGear arm, and for the RØDE I got their PSA1 arm. Both work great.
If you’re going to be doing live programming with a lot of typing, I’d also recommend investing in a shock mount. They’re pretty cheap, and they reduce amount of vibration from your key presses that gets picked up by the microphone (which users do notice), as well as thuds if you accidentally hit your mic. To hear the effect, compare the video with the thud to one with a shock mount. I only ever got one for my new mic, not the old one, and there I went with the RØDE PSM1.
I’ve also found that it’s really useful to have a drawing tablet of some kind for simple whiteboarding. Pretty much any tablet will do. I’m using the relatively simple Huion H640P and it does the job.
It’s not necessary, but I also suggest getting a small second monitor where you can have non-public things open during the stream. For me, the primary use for this is chat. That way, you can devote your full primary screen real-estate to the stream without having to cramp things due to the space taken up by the chat window.
Having OBS run video encoding in the background may put a strain on
your computer, so you’ll want to make sure you have the hardware to
drive full 1080p encoding while also compiling code (or doing whatever
else it is you are streaming). I did my first few streams on my laptop,
and that worked okay, but the stream quality did suffer as a result. I
now do my live coding on a desktop with more cores and a (not very
fancy) GPU, and that works way better. A short test stream is great for
figuring this stuff out! You may want to consider restricting the number
of cores you allow your compiler to use using something like
Don’t worry too much about your internet connection. Fast is great, but my streams seem to be doing okay with a meager 5Mbps upload speed.
Content and Structure
Probably one of the #1 questions I get is “what should I stream about”? This one is tough, because there isn’t one good answer. But let me try to give some pointers. Think about what you enjoy working on or talking about, and what you think you’d be able to coach people along through. And then stream that. Perhaps obviously, your streams will be best when you are excited about what you’re streaming! Don’t worry too much about what the viewers want to see — trying to guess what other people are interested in is a losing game. In my case, I just picked one from my pile of “stuff I wish existed but never have the time to do myself”, and then did that.
For programming streams in particular, the one bit of more concrete advice I can give is that it’s good to not dive in the very deep end at the start of a stream. Instead warm people up by explaining the problem and letting them be a part of researching the solution. If you already have a plan for what you’re going to implement and how, it’s unlikely the audience is going to be able to follow along. In my case, my first stream was basically “I need this thing, and would need to build it from scratch, so let’s just do that together”. It included a lot of figuring out how to do what I wanted to do on-stream, and I think that’s a good thing.
The key piece for any stream is to make sure you are talking, and preferably explaining, as you go. Speak your thoughts aloud. If you sit there quietly writing code, you’ll lose most viewers. This is perhaps one of the most important parts of an interesting stream: don’t be silent.
People like to plan, and then forget things. Write a post ~1 week in advance, and then post a brief reminder 24 hours before the stream begins.
Make your announcement self-contained. If you want people to share your announcement, make it as easy as possible for them to do so. Include a brief description of what you’ll be streaming, the date/time, and the location. If you have space, you should also include a brief bit about the intended audience and planned length.
Remember people in other timezones. I tend to announce all streams in UTC time, and then link the exact date/time on everytimezone.com so that people can easily see what that time translates into where they are. The 24h reminder also works well for that, since people can look at when the post was made their time, and then just add 24h.
Announce the recording when it’s ready. After your stream has concluded and the recording of it is available online, write another brief post that links to the original announcement, gives a brief recap of how it went, and then links to the video.
The Stream Itself
Do a test stream! Things will inevitably go wrong the first time, so have it be something that doesn’t matter. Invite a few people to be your “viewers” so they can help you test on the receiving end.
Start your stream ~10m early with a static screen (you can set this up in OBS) showing some text like “Starts at 5pm UTC”. This lets viewers who show up early know that they’re in the right place, and allows them to start chatting before the session itself begins. I usually also jump on a few minutes early with audio-only both to chat informally and to test audio levels and chat.
Use a separate browser window, and maybe even a separate browser profile, for your streams. Your old tabs and history auto-complete can be both revealing and distracting.
Do not type passwords on-screen during your stream. Move the password input off-screen before typing. If you’re paranoid (like me), set a hotkey for muting your mic as well when you’re typing them in.
Don’t show chat on screen. It takes up screen real-estate, and means that people can’t opt out. Those who really want it after the fact can watch the saved live-stream (see below). Also saves you from when people type weird things you want to ignore in chat.
Increase your font size. Then increase it some more. People will be watching your streams on small tablets, or even their phone, and at 1920x1080, your normal font size is going to be impossible to read. Another good reason to do a test stream and get feedback!
Avoid switching rapidly between dark and bright windows. If someone is watching in a relatively dark room, this can be extremely jarring. Open the windows side-by-side, or at least warn them that this will happen before you do it.
Do a quick audit of your OBS stream layout. It’s no good if your webcam video overlay hides an important window on your screen for example. Try out the main few views you will have on screen during the stream, and see that the OBS output view looks reasonable.
Record your stream locally when you start, and upload that to YouTube after you’re done. The auto-saved version is affected by poor connection stability and includes your “stream starting in 10m screen”, which is just annoying. Make the uploaded version public, and the saved live-stream version unlisted, then link to the live-stream version from the recorded version for those who want to see chat.