Friday, April 5, 2019

Optimize Your Stream Audio Without Buying a New Mic

One of the most important aspects of a Twitch stream is its audio. Most streamers know this to be true, but what I find shocking is many don't actually know why. When faced with a subpar audio situation, or sometimes without having any specific problems at all, it's very common for streamers to pine over more expensive microphones. It's understandable- better mics will typically yield better audio, but in a perfect world we'd all be buying "better" everything. What I'm saying is, you can likely improve your audio quality significantly without spending any money at all. You achieve this not with a better mic, but a better mix


Looking for loot can be fun. Save it for the games you
play, not the stream surrounding them.
It's easy to get lost in the 'quest for loot' when streaming on Twitch. It seems like there's always stuff out there that would take your channel to the next level, and if you just had those few new pieces of equipment you'd be gaining more traction than you are now. Where I come from in the world of film & television, there's a concept called "Gear Lust." Someone caught in the throes of Gear Lust gets lost in tech blogs and statistics breakdowns, wasting time looking up info and comparing products rather than actually putting in work. Yes, more expensive things can improve your content, but at the end of the day everything comes down to how you use what you have. A truly great cinematographer can film a movie on a cheap DSLR camera and make it look beautiful, a truly great artist can paint a masterpiece with the lowest quality paints and brushes, and a truly great Twitch streamer can make their stream pop with cheap entry-level equipment. Nobody ever ate a great meal and asked the chef, "What kind of oven did you use?" Equipment is always the means, don't ever let yourself think it's an end unto itself.

Whether you've been caught in the spiral of Gear Lust or not, you need to understand what actually matters about audio on your Twitch stream before you can improve it. You may notice I do this exercise a lot- in fact I break down almost every problem on my channel to its absolute simplest form before proceeding. I find that it's a great way to demystify the problems in front of me, and be governed more by logic than irrationality. Remember way back in the second entry when I talked about Minimum Viable Product? Stream audio is one of the easiest departments to break down into its most bare essentials. When it really comes down to it, there's only one thing that matters about your stream audio:

Can the viewer understand what you're saying?

That's literally it. Everything after that is just window dressing. I don't care if it sounds like you're talking through a 1980's car phone- as long as your viewers can understand the words coming out of your mouth, they are capable of connecting to you as a streamer. Yes, one mic will sound 'better' than the other, but whether you're using a $200 mic on a jib arm or a $20 headset from RadioShack, the ability to create an emotional connection doesn't change. That will always be up to you as the stream's host.

Hopefully this curbs your desire to click the 'Buy Now' button on whatever new equipment you've had your eye on, but you might be wondering how to actually make your microphone sound good with the tools you have. Especially if you don't have a background in audio production, you might be feeling particularly lost. The science behind actually understanding audio can be a rabbit hole as deep as Gear Lust, but when it comes to Twitch streaming, there's one concept that stands above all others when trying to achieve great audio: the sound mix.


A good sound mix is worth more than a great mic.
Sound mixing is more than just an Oscar category that nobody fully understands- as a Twitch streamer it's your lifeblood. The mix of your stream dictates what a viewer is hearing, and when they're hearing it. There are a lot of moving parts to a Twitch stream's soundscape- more than you might even realize, so making sure they're all working together in harmony is crucial. Here are some of the basic audio concepts that may be a part of your stream, in order of how important they typically are:


Obviously this is the most important aspect of a stream. Your voice should be louder than all other sounds at all times. Many streamers either don't understand this however, or don't pay attention. It's one thing to look at your bouncing volume levels versus the game's volume levels visually, but you have to make sure you're listening back to your stream as well. You'd be surprised how the measurements taken by your stream software can lie. Sometimes the game's volume levels look incredibly loud, but upon listening back they were barely audible. Many times I'll come into a stream where the game is completely drowning out the person speaking. You have to listen, and pay attention to your own stream from the perspective of the viewer. That's who you're making the shows for after all, isn't it?

One extremely important aspect to take into account is your voice's relative volume at different moments. Yes your voice might sound fine against the musical backdrop of Overwatch's menu screen, but have you listened to your speaking voice while in a firefight? Even that can be tricky- sometimes a battle is intense and causes you to yell everything you say from excitement, but sometimes firefights aren't a challenge at all and you're just discussing the weather with your chat without raising your voice. In these two scenarios your voice will be broadcast at two drastically different volume levels because of the way you're speaking, but in both scenarios the game will sound exactly the same. There's still a cacophony of gunshots, explosions and one-liners, whether or not you yourself have a raised voice. This means you need to watch large portions of your streams after the fact- understand what it's like to hear your voice during ALL of your show, not just the aspects you're able to check on in the minutes before going live.

In previous entries I've mentioned that you need to enable Past Broadcasts so you can watch your shows after the fact. If for some reason you haven't done this yet, you really need to do it now. Your streams will never get better in any department if you're not paying attention to how they've been so far, but audio is one of the biggest fields where improvement hinges on your watching the show afterwards, because you can't check on the sound easily while you're live.


Make sure someone's headset on the other side of your
Skype call isn't louder or quieter than everyone else.
If you've invited one or more guests to your show to play multiplayer games, make sure you understand how loud each of them are, not just in your headset, but on the stream itself. I've been on many streams where the guests were way louder or quieter than the streamer. It's also common to have one individual guest be significantly louder than all the others. If you're using Discord or Skype chat, it's useful to make sure before the show that everyone's Discord or Skype input volume levels are similar, or are optimized so that everyone can be heard equally. Having them specifically adjust the levels of the chat software rather than any dials on their mic or in the Windows/Mac sound options will mean that they're not likely changing anything that would affect their own stream's audio if they're doing a multicast along with you.


Every game will have a different base volume level. This may be more or less important to you depending on what kind of streamer you are- someone who mainly plays one game for example, will have to deal with this a lot less than someone who juggles ten different games every week like me- but the first step is always to understand how loud your game's audio sounds on stream. Many times it helps to adjust the game's sound mix based on your needs- one thing I always do is lower the music compared to the game's character voice and sound effects levels so that I'm able to speak clearly above the game even when music swells or songs are playing on a menu screen.

Sometimes, especially if you're using a capture card, there are glitches you can't detect in your own headphones either, and would have to find by watching your streams after the fact. From one capture card I've had single pop sounds appear in my stream audio every 60 seconds, but not in my headphone audio. Another would, over the course of 6 or more consecutive stream hours, slowly drift the sound out of sync by a second or two. It's imperceptible as it's happening, and not something you can test beforehand since it will only happen over a prolonged length of time. Make sure you're listening for these kinds of problems as well as the basic ones.


You worked hard setting up your alerts. Don't let a bad
audio mix ruin them.
Alert sounds are tough because there can potentially be so many of them to juggle at a time. These might be follow/host/raid alerts through Streamlabs, sound effects activated through your chatbot, or scene layouts you switch to in your streaming software. Lots of times the comedic timing of someone's joke using a sound effect on their soundboard, or lip syncing to a song that plays when they get raided will be sullied by the audio levels being way too quiet.

I recommend taking each effect one at a time and recording snippets of yourself talking while one of them plays, then adjusting the sound's volume levels accordingly. There will always be variables you can't plan for, no matter how much prep you do though. The only way to truly know they're all mixed properly is to- you guessed it- listen to how they sounded during a stream. Are you sensing a pattern here?


Music can be an essential part of your stream, whether you curate a playlist like a pirate radio DJ or take viewer requests like a, well, pirate radio DJ. (Man, I want to watch the movie Pirate Radio again.) All things considered though, there's almost never a reason for your music to be louder than anything else on your stream. Unless there's nothing else producing audio on your show, your music should be mixed lower than everything, providing a base of sound that picks up the energy level even during the quietest moments.


These are some helpful rules of thumb I've always stuck to when mixing my stream's audio. The specifics about what's most important or how you go about solving issues comes down to how your channel works though. What I do know for sure is that properly mixed audio is one of the biggest factors in making your stream seem 'professional', and you can do that with a $200 jib arm microphone or a $20 RadioShack headset. I know because I've done hundreds of streams with a $20 headset and had the results shine. If you've already bought something to upgrade your stream, that's great- these same concepts of sound mixing apply to you as well. But if you're still using an entry-level microphone, I want you to understand that purchasing equipment will never be as useful as actually putting in the work. You're going to need to understand these concepts if you want to get bigger anyway, you might as well learn them before you set yourself back financially. So when you're worried about how your stream's audio doesn't sound good enough, always remember this: Don't blame your mic- optimize your mix.

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