Friday, January 3, 2020

Monitoring Your Streams

Streaming on Twitch usually means doing a lot of things by yourself. The average streamer sets up their graphics, tweaks output settings, keys their greenscreen, creates a title and then talks on-camera for hours, all without anyone else in the room to check the show for errors. It's a lot to think about, and because there are so many moving parts, small mistakes can end up causing you to lose major portions of your streams.

You might accidentally turn off your microphone at the start of the show, so that everything you say for the whole rest of the stream is lost. If you’re playing a singleplayer game or other offline activity, your internet might even cut out without you noticing. Smaller issues can go unnoticed as well, like an OBS scene not working, capture card framerates being incorrect, or sound being too loud or quiet. In an ideal world, every potential issue would be caught before you go live. But things happen, and that isn’t always the case. So for our imperfect world, we need to keep careful watch of our streams while we're streaming, to make sure anything that does break isn't broken for long.


Monitoring can be a balancing act.
We all know we should be engaging with Twitch chat to get closer to our audiences, but did you know that your channel's chat is also one of the most accurate detectors of major stream problems you could possibly have? Let's say your internet upload speed drops, and the whole stream is no longer working. Don't forget- in the entry Getting Your Stream Output Settings Just Right, I laid out the difference between upload and download speeds. This means your stream output can be completely disconnected from the internet while you notice no drop in internet connectivity during your Fortnite match. It also means that, should your stream fail due to poor upload speeds, you'll still be able to read your channel's chat messages as they happen, and the complaints about the stream going dark will quickly start flooding in.

Chat will not hesitate to tell you about things that prevent them from watching the show- the stream cutting out, your microphone being muted, your camera dying, things like that- and you can count on them reporting it quickly as well. This means that, in addition to engaging with chat often, you can also use your chat as an alarm system for major stream issues. As a human element, they can also be much more reliable than software at recognizing particular stream problems- your computer isn't likely going to warn you that your microphone is turned off for example, but chat will notice instantly. You can't rely on chat to report all problems, however. First, if there's a more subtle issue, your viewers either won't notice or won't bother telling you. Nobody wants to feel like they're crying wolf, so people will generally save their warnings for when it's really important. Second, and this is extra crucial if you're a new streamer, this method assumes that you have people chatting in your streams in the first place. 


It's necessary that you have at least one method of checking on your stream from your side as well. This of course is the best way to know about an issue as soon as it happens, provided you notice it. Keeping OBS visible on your computer is the best way to catch problems at their source- you can see a preview of all the stream's visuals to ensure everything looks right, and monitor volume levels to see whether your mic and other sounds are turned on. OBS has the added benefit of reporting when your stream has dropped frames as well, so you'll be able to tell when a viewer's connectivity issues are because of your internet or theirs. 

Sometimes I'll listen to the stream audio through
my phone, so I know I'm hearing the final output.
However, if you don't have a second computer screen through which to keep OBS visible, your OBS window will probably stay hidden behind the game you're playing while you stream. If this is the case, you do have another monitor available though- your phone. Leave your phone propped up somewhere you can see, with your stream open and the sound turned off. This will still serve most of the same functions as watching OBS, like being able to see any visual glitches on your shows, or detecting certain internet problems. Your phone also sports the bonus of showing your stream's final output- something even OBS doesn't necessarily do. For example, certain framerate, bitrate, color depth settings, and more, won't appear for you in your OBS preview, but if you watch through your phone you could see all these things happening. During my own streams, I'll regularly turn up my phone volume for a few seconds to check my final output audio- something I can't easily do through OBS when I'm in the middle of a show.


You shouldn't only be monitoring for problems on your streams though. There are many actions people can take on your Twitch channel that you should be watching for, all of which deserve your attention. Follows, hosts, raids, subscribers, cheers, and all sorts of other alerts will show through your Twitch chat window, but it's important to keep these organized and separated from your chat as well. If you're having a particular lively chat day, you wouldn't want to miss the opportunity to thank someone for following, just because their message got buried behind other comments.

You can use dedicated (and free) pieces of software like Streamlabels, which will show lists of any major stream actions you want to keep track of, separated from your chat window. Even better, if you're using Streamlabs' version of OBS to broadcast your shows, they have Streamlabels and other such tools built right into the software, so you can do most of your monitoring all in one place. If you want to go without extra software, your Twitch channel's dashboard screen has many tools as well, though they aren't as complete as third party solutions. 


There are all kinds of monitoring solutions you can use for your streams, but it's not about simply having every tool available. Think about which things you have a hard time detecting on your shows, and use the tools which will best help you to locate those issues when they happen. In addition to the theoretical, part of the process is going to involve running into new problems and going through this process again. If you can't prevent something from happening on your stream, the next best thing is being able to stop that problem quickly, once it starts. The more efficiently you monitor your shows, the more confidently you'll be able to broadcast. With all kinds of software, as well as your own chat backing you up, no technical problem can stand in your way for long!

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