Friday, May 17, 2019

Getting Your Stream Output Settings Just Right

There's a lot to think about when making a Twitch stream, but some of the most mysterious aspects are the stream output settings. These don't deal with how your stream is designed or how you as the host act on camera, but rather how the stream gets to the internet, how faithfully the image you see on your PC is conveyed to the viewer, and how reliably the audience is able to watch the stream without buffering. When doing their job right, your output settings will be completely invisible. When set up wrong however, your stream settings might cause the show to look ugly, create performance issues, or even completely crash the stream.

Choosing a resolution is like choosing the size of
a barrel. Choosing a bitrate is about how much
you can pack into that barrel.
I'm going to help you arrive at just the right settings for broadcasting your streams- not by giving you the exact numbers to punch in (everybody's games, PCs, layouts, accessories, and internet connections are too different to give one definitive configuration), but by handing you the tools to arrive there yourself.

Please be aware though, especially if you've never read The Twitch Playbook before and you skipped to this entry first: ON CAMERA EXPERIENCE is always more valuable than a perfect stream. If you haven't done at least a dozen combined hours of streaming already, put this entry down, enable all the "auto" settings on your broadcasting software and get out there, live on the internet. If you need an extra motivational boost, read the entry Start Your Twitch Channel With NO MONEY.


Depending on what broadcasting software you use, there may be a crazy amount of sliders and menus for you to tinker with. There are only two truly top-tier settings though, which just about every piece of streaming software will have, and these govern all other aspects of your stream. They are: RESOLUTION and BITRATE.

If you got Da Vinci to paint your portrait, it would
be totally lifelike. But this may not always be
The interesting thing about streaming is that what you see in your game, or even on your computer's broadcasting software, is NOT what your viewers see. The nature of the internet is such that only a portion of your stream's original quality can be conveyed to viewers. There's a lot of science behind resolution and bitrate, but it all boils down to the following concept:

Before cameras were invented, if you wanted a picture of yourself, you'd have to hire an artist to paint a portrait. The resolution and bitrate settings you choose are equivalent to choosing a better or worse artist to paint the 'portrait' of your stream. Low settings may be severely lacking in detail, and high settings may be completely identical to the source, but it's important to always remember that there is an intermediary between you and the viewers.

Resolution denotes how many pixels of video are delivered on your stream. This is typically measured by two numbers, which represent the horizontal and vertical pixel counts. It's not necessary to get into more details for these purposes, but suffice it to say that 1920x1080 is the HD resolution commonly known as 1080p, and 1280x720 is the HD resolution commonly known as 720p. There is also the 'standard definition' resolution of 848x480. These are the most common output resolutions for Twitch streaming.

Bitrate is trickier for many to understand. This number, measured in Kbps, or 'Kilobits Per Second', denotes how much data is packed into each second of your stream. The lower your bitrate, the less internet speed is required on your end to broadcast. The tradeoff is, the lower your bitrate, the blurrier your video will look.


"Very interesting," you might be thinking. "But higher resolution and bitrate mean higher quality streams, right? I'll just crank everything up as high as it'll go and then my streams will look amazing!" This could work out for you, but in most cases, extremely high settings are a terrible idea. There are three main factors to be aware of: Processing Power, Your Internet, and The Viewer’s Internet.


Don't make your PC explode.
The higher your resolution and bitrate settings, the higher the processing load on your PC. As it is, your stream software is sharing your PC's processing power with the game you’re playing, as well as all other pieces of equipment connected to your computer. How much this affects you depends on what kind of computer you have, and how much strain your game puts on your PC. Playing a pixel based sidescroller won’t likely cause your computer to bat an eye, but attempting to play a next-gen visual powerhouse game on its max graphics settings, while also outputting a stream at max settings will likely crash your computer or cause major performance issues. Playing a game while streaming isn’t the same as playing it off stream either- just because you get a solid 60fps in Metro Exodus while playing on your personal time does NOT mean you’ll get the same results while streaming. If you're running into performance problems, it's likely because of these warring juggernauts: try lowering your game's graphics settings, and if that doesn't work, lowering your stream settings the next time you go live.


Everybody knows that you can't stream without an internet connection. What most people don't know is how much internet is required to stream, and how much of your home internet is safe to allocate for streaming. If your bitrate exceeds your amount of available internet speed, even for a half second, you'll start 'dropping frames', meaning your stream will appear frozen to everyone watching, until the internet speed raises above your attempted bitrate again. Here's a simple metric to find out how much internet you should be allowing your stream software to use, so that you won't have this problem:

Find out your internet plan's upload speed (not the more commonly advertised 'download speed'). A good bitrate to start with is roughly 30% of your upload speed.

This accounts for the huge swings in connectivity most internet companies suffer from (though they don't advertise it much), as well as anyone else who might be using the internet in your house.

Your internet provider may advertise their speeds in Mbps, or Megabits Per Second, which is simply the Kilobits Per Second number that your stream software uses, divided by 1,000. So for example if your internet plan has a 10 Mbps upload speed, this means you can use 3 Mbps to stream with. That's equivalent to 3,000 Kbps in your stream software.


One other important point that many new streamers don’t consider is how the viewer RECEIVES the stream. Let’s say your PC can handle anything you throw at it, and your internet is screaming fast. If your stream outputs at 10,000 Kbps, this means your viewers need to have at least that fast of an internet connection to actually watch it. Bitrate is not only the setting that dictates whether you can stream from your end, but also the setting that dictates what whether someone can watch on their end. Have you ever watched a YouTube video that froze and started buffering, so you had to wait for it to load? This means the transmitted bitrate was higher than your internet connection could pull down at that moment. And you don’t want your viewers sitting around watching a ‘buffering’ screen all day. Otherwise they won’t likely be viewers for long. So you shouldn't just be lowering your Bitrate to the maximum that YOUR internet can handle, but one that most people can actually watch. If a lot of people complain that your stream is buffering, especially if they mention that other streams on Twitch load just fine, don't ignore these comments: lower your bitrate. You don't want to drive people away just to make your stream look better.


If you're on a pretty good PC and have decent internet, try starting with a resolution of 720p and a bitrate of 2,500 Kbps. From here, you can go higher if everything is smooth, or lower things if you notice problems. But there's a reason I waited until the end to mention these two numbers. Hopefully by teaching you what these metrics actually mean, and by demystifying the numbers themselves, you'll be able to get more performance and quality out of your streams than if you simply punched in a 'one size fits all' value.

Your ability to make an entertaining show will always be more important than how clear your stream looks. But if you've been improving your stream and are looking for another way to get better quality for no money, optimizing your output settings is a great way to do it. Always keep the 'trial and error' spirit I've mentioned in previous entries- you'll likely want to tinker until you find the sweet spot. But now, when raising or lowering these settings, you won't be shooting in the dark. Once your stream output settings are just right, you'll have one less thing to worry about when going live. So take some time behind the scenes, and make that stream shine!

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