Friday, June 7, 2019

The Best Microphone Setup for Streaming

If you've been reading The Twitch Playbook up to this point, you should know two things about me: First, I think good audio is the most important technical aspect of a Twitch stream. Second, I'm vehemently against buying new equipment in order to upgrade your shows.

In the earlier entry 'Optimize Your Stream Audio Without Buying a New Mic,' we discussed how to make your stream sound GOOD. In this entry, arguably even more importantly, I'm going to help you prevent it from sounding BAD. A microphone set up in the wrong location, using the wrong settings, or creating harsh audio glitches gives off the impression that the streamer isn't even trying. What's more, it's just plain unpleasant to listen to- I've left streams before, only because the person's microphone was constantly peaking with shrill audio, a problem that can be solved easily with a few minutes of adjusting.

Here we will combat a multitude of common problems with your streaming microphone. This will not only make your streams sound better, but hopefully instill a more solution-oriented attitude when approaching your shows. You're not going to come out of this entry as a professional audio engineer, but you don't need as much knowledge about the science of sound as you might think. You just need to know where to look. Or more specifically, where to listen.


It should go without saying, but you need to be prepared to listen to yourself. Regularly doing this will allow you to solve most audio issues, because you'll be able to identify what you don't like. Using a little common sense, you can typically trace the problem back to its source.

If you've got one of those hangups about hearing the sound of your own voice, you're going to need to get over that real quick. You're being broadcast on the internet- you're asking everyone else to listen to your voice, so you may as well have the decency to listen to it yourself. Download a free piece of audio software called Audacity. Use this to listen to your mic's audio, separated from the rest of your stream's audio. It'll go a long way toward optimizing your microphone's potential.


Contrary to what they might tell you, the robots
do not know what's best.
There's an unfortunate feature on Windows called 'AGC', or 'Automatic Gain Control.' What this does is constantly and very aggressively 'equalize' your voice to make the loud moments quieter and the quiet moments louder. Sounds good right? There's a slight problem: It never works, and it almost always makes your microphone sound like crap.

In your Windows sound settings, find the Recordings tab and go into the properties menu for the mic you use on stream. If your mic supports it, AGC will likely be enabled by default, so you're going to want to disable that immediately. But while you're in those properties, make sure to uncheck all the other automated features as well. We want a 'clean' version of your microphone's audio, without any extra processing layered on top. This means turning off everything related to boosting, enhancing, or otherwise artificially improving your sound. AGC is often the sole culprit in a case of bad audio though, so definitely don't overlook that one.

In production audio, AGC is the devil.


When your audio is peaking, the waveform will be
cut off on the top and bottom. This means the audio
file will be damaged, and so will your ears.
Screenshot credit: Larry Jordan
For anyone who's never worked in audio before, 'peaking' in the simplest terms, is when your mic sounds strangely loud even when your speaker volume is turned down. For anyone a little more audio-enlightened, peaking is what causes most audio distortion. Remember when I told you to download Audacity? Well, open it up and start a recording. Talk once at your normal speaking volume, then get as close to your microphone as possible and YELL AN ENTIRE SENTENCE AS LOUD AS YOU CAN. You'll notice that the audio's 'waveform', the squiggly line that visually represents your sound, looks like a solid block at the point where you started yelling.

Listen to what that sounds like (but make sure to turn your speakers down first) - it's definitely not pleasant. Without getting into the technical concepts of why this phenomenon occurs, it's best to say that you want to prevent it from happening on your show. Now place your mic wherever it's normally located during a livestream. Say one sentence at your typical hosting volume, and then yell one, as if it's an intense moment, like a firefight in Apex Legends or a tough boss battle in Sekiro. Does your audio peak, or get close to peaking? There are two major factors to consider in solving this: your mic settings and your mic placement.


Turn this bar down and it'll go a long way
toward improving your mic. 
Your microphone's levels are a major factor in causing the audio to peak. Navigate back to your mic's recording properties and try turning down the Microphone slider bar in the 'Levels' tab to 50%. Do not do this in your stream software, but in the sound settings of Windows. If there is an 'input volume' dial on the microphone itself, you should adjust this even before changing the Windows settings. This will ensure that you are making adjustments as close to the source as possible.

Now, open Audacity and record the same two sentences from earlier once again. You may have to turn your speaker volume up to hear it, but has the peaking issue been removed? If so, all you have to do is find the proper middle ground in the Microphone 'Levels' tab to use for setting your audio. A little peaking in the most absolutely crazy moments is OK, but you want to make sure it's not a regular occurrence. Once your mic is no longer peaking, you can raise the mic input levels in your streaming software to make up for the lowered Windows input settings.

Don't let Windows sell you on their own automated choices for
your microphone.


Give some thought to where your microphone is physically located. If your mic is close to your mouth, make sure you're not breathing directly onto it. This can produce an ugly windy sound, much more intense than your breathing sounds in real life. If it's too far from your face, this can cause an echo effect. Does your mic sit on your desk? Make sure your use of the keyboard isn't creating loud taps or thumping noises. These are all things you can't detect in real life without listening to your recorded audio, so make sure you're not skipping that step. Aside from basic technical preparations, the placement of a microphone is the single most important aspect in capturing good audio.


Everyone has experienced bad background noise in audio. We've had bad phone calls with someone speaking near a busy street, with construction going on in their building, or with their little cousins shrieking in the background. Of course, there are a few basic steps you can take: don't put your fan right next to your microphone, shut the windows, and keep the door to your room closed if you aren't streaming from a common area.

Background noise can be a killer.
Oftentimes, communication with others in your home can be even more important than self-contained fixes. You need to set boundaries. When I had multiple roommates, making sure they understood that someone barging into my room while streaming, trying to have their voice pick up on my microphone, or even being in my room while streaming at all, were not okay with me. If your roommates or family members are reasonable human beings, they'll understand and hopefully support you. But it's up to you to set whichever limits are important to you, as well as to make it clear specifically when you're streaming. Every household is different of course, but communication and transparency are key when you plan to be streaming for the long haul.


It should go without saying, but you need to be prepared to listen to yourself. Wait, did I say this already? Oh yeah, that's because it's REALLY IMPORTANT. I know a lot of you probably skipped this step, but I'm not kidding- you need to be able to listen to the sound of your voice, and be willing to do it A LOT. All of the above items: Removing Automated Features, Minimizing Peaking, Mic Placement, and Managing Background Noise, require it. You can't afford to be bashful about hearing yourself speak. If you skipped this step earlier, go back and do it now. There is no acceptable excuse.


All these steps mentioned above will help the audio coming from your microphone sound as crisp as possible, and you'll be moving further and further into a level of professionalism that many streamers never achieve. Your mic may still not sound as good as one that costs hundreds of dollars, but that's not what matters. Making your stream feel more professional isn't about money, it's about discipline.

If you're taking steps like these to improve your sound quality rather than throwing dollars at the issue, you'll be setting yourself up to last longer on Twitch. There will always be another piece of equipment you can buy, but having enough work ethic to direct all your focus toward solving problems is something you could never pay for. It means you're committed to your channel, and that you actually care. So don't spend any money on a new microphone- but make sure you're getting the most out of the one you already own! 

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