Turn on the lights

But I have 100mbps

Hey, streaming is a complex matter. Broadcasters are ever increasing and so are the options for platforms and equipment. While setting up a FB/IG live session from the app is fairly intuitive, stepping up one’s game to offer a more ‘pro’ gig can be challenging. And no wonder, media acquisition, encoding, transport, processing, delivery have to be well tuned and work in sync to ensure crisp and smooth playback.

Far from able to summarize all it takes to make your transmission crystal clear and free from ‘lagging’ or ‘freezing’, will in turn try to outline the most common rookie wrongdoings when setting up a broadcast. Though the following may come to you as common sense, I still get a huge share of ‘ahaaaa’ moments when I tell people to…

Turn on the lights!

Yes, the difference may amaze you. Blinding lights studios use are no mistake. 

Thing is, regardless of its sensitivity, the digital sensor (and the film before it) of any camera will output a grainy/noisy picture under low lighting. And if streaming it, noise does not encode particularly well and you end up with an unexpectedly poor frame quality, either ‘grainy’, or ‘blocky’, or both. Tech details aside, use the brightest light you can find and see for yourself. Next up if you truly need to shoot in the dark realize you may need specialized (i.e. expensive) gear. 

Bonus: you’ll get a less ‘choppy’ video. Many low-end consumer webcams do not have an adjustable aperture and will in turn vary the exposure time to tune the brightness of a frame; in low light this will lead to longer exposures and reduced framerates.

Get a better connection

Please, stop being convinced your internet is amazing simply because your provider or the default speed test told you so. In the case of the latter, what you’re seeing is merely the speed to the nearest PoP, which is usually way off your true internet speed. There’s a lot more to networking than raw (average) speed unfortunately, and before going scientific at least try running the same test against a farther ‘server’ like one in Australia or South America. 

Moreover, if you’re wireless (may that be wifi or cellular) keep in mind that the quality of your connection varies with position, obstacles, interference, weather, conspiracists’ tinfoils. And unlike browsing or tweeting, streaming works best under constant and predictable network speeds and latencies.

So I beg you, especially since nowadays anyone can whip up a high speed mobile hotspot, try another network, you may be in for a surprise. 

Get a better camera!

Sure, that’s obvious. Yet the characteristics will vary widely, and often the quality/performance of the lens, sensor, and sometimes electronic post-processing will make a remarkable difference, between cameras with identical specs nonetheless.

But you don’t have to break the bank in the process. A used/aftermarket DSLR or ‘handycam’ will output a crisper picture than many high-end webcams or smartphone cameras. There’s no wrongdoing in lending or trying out a few and see what looks/works best for your needs. Or ask around to find what worked for others. Just don’t run your broadcast business around that same camera unless you understand it very well, it may be suboptimal for a million reasons, like having been pointed at the sun.

Reduce the resolution

But hey, isn’t HD and lots of megapixels what everybody’s after nowadays? It is, but the full broadcast chain has to support it in harmony. That is the camera, the capture device, the encoder, and the upload bandwidth. If any of these isn’t up to the task you’ll end up with a sub-par HD picture that is either wasteful or poor. Depending on your setup, a high quality SD may look better and get enjoyed by more.

Bonus: try streaming at 540p. Often unknown or overlooked, you can think of it as near-HD. It’s suitable for most unremarkable needs, and it’ll take slightly more than half of 720p’s bandwidth to encode at the same quality

Reduce the bitrate

I know, it’s counterintuitive. Higher bitrate always means higher quality, given all else the same. But it’s not proportional. Depending on your content (and the equipment, remember?), there will be a sweet spot beyond which increasing the bitrate will result in little to no visual improvement. There are tools and metrics pros use to gauge that (see psnr) but the naked eye can still be a good judge, just run a few tests. 

Don’t beat up your encoder

If using a computer for streaming, make sure its CPU never runs above 80%, ideally even lower. Else, it will drop frames (‘laggy’ again) or otherwise degrade the performance of your stream. Dedicated encoder boxes and smartphone apps tend to automatically pick the encoding profile to match the hardware capabilities so you don’t have to worry that much, but do keep the same in mind and measure it if possible. Now you know. 

Use (better) microphones

This one’s easy. If your sound is poor you’re probably too far away from the mic, or you need a better one. Pay particular attention to the wireless kinds as some may introduce delays, and getting it in sync is kind of an advanced topic. 

Bonus: Be careful not to introduce echo/feedback. Mute all your players and always use headsets if you really need to monitor the transmission’s audio in the vicinity of the microphone. 

Reboot everything

Sketchy topic… For reasons only understood by masterminds, electronics with a reset button don’t just crash and freeze, they may also malfunction in weird, unobvious and unexpected ways, more so if they’re low end and have been running for a longer while. Especially if you’re not an expert, do yourself a favor and take the time to restart that router, computer, smartphone or gadget before the big event.

Expect to fail

Things will go wrong, mercilessly, when and where you least expect it. Ensuring redundancy/failover for every scenario is overkill and overly expensive. Do prepare for the most common mishaps (internet/electricity going out) but not the apocalypse. When it hits the fan, deal with it the best you can and don’t freak out; your viewers are forgiving and your reputation is salvageable. Apologize if the case, be honest about what went wrong and steps you’re taking to avoid that in the future. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *