For the next year or two, we’re going to be learning and sharing online rather than in-person. I wanna look and sound as good as my budget (and my face) will allow, so in this post, I’m going to lay out a starter ($220), good ($1,500), and great ($3,000) online video/audio setups and show you what each level looks & sounds like.
The links in this post are all Amazon referral links, so I get a kickback if you buy through ’em. If you buy your gear through these links, I appreciate your generosity – it’s like tipping me for putting the time into building posts like this. You rock. I love you. Now let’s get started.
The easiest way to understand how investments can pay off is to talk about microphones. In this 11-minute video, I use four different microphones so you can hear the difference between different investment levels:
The gear I show in that video:
- Crappy: Logitech Brio webcam ($200) – sold out everywhere, but that’s okay, you probably don’t wanna buy it after hearing it
- Starter: Jabra Evolve 40 headset ($100) – and make sure to pick whether you want mono (1 headphone) or stereo (2 headphone speakers), and USB-A or USB-C.
- Good: Electro-Voice RE20 microphone ($400) – which also needs the Focusrite Solo or 2i2 (whichever is in stock), an XLR cable, and a boom arm (whatever’s in stock)
- Great (for me): DPA headset ($1,000) – highly configurable for one or two earpieces, different colors for different skin tones, etc. This one isn’t a referral link because the buying process is kinda tricky because they’re so configurable: DPA assembles these to order whenever your order is placed through one of their resellers. When you get to the point of picking out the audio adapter, you want the XLR version, which you can then plug into a Focusrite Solo or 2i2 (whichever is in stock) using an XLR cable.
- More microphones: Marco Arment’s podcasting microphone review – with samples from dozens of microphones.
See – or hear, I guess – what I mean about starter, good, and great? Everything about streaming has that gradual progression. Now let’s zoom out and talk about what influences our decisions as we pick out our gear and upgrade it over time.
My home office has constraints.
Maybe yours does too.
Erika and I chose to live in downtown San Diego, California, which means we can’t afford a big apartment with a huge home office. My office is just 10′ x 12′, about 11 square meters. We also like clean, modern architecture, so we’re in a building with floor-to-ceiling windows, concrete walls, and wood(ish) floors. My office has a 12′ wall of glass and a 4′ wall of exposed concrete.
My office means good audio is tougher to get. When you record audio in a small space with hard surfaces, you get a lot of echoes and reverb. I could work around that by covering the home office walls in audio-absorbing materials, but…frankly, I don’t want to. They’re ugly.
My office also means good video is tougher to get. The 12′ wall of glass means I have dramatically different lighting through the course of the day. I typically start classes at 6AM Pacific (9AM Eastern), so within the first hour of class, that 12′ wall goes from pitch black to brightly lit. I don’t have a whole lot of space for bulky light box gear to make up for it, either.
If you have a giant home office with carpeted floors and tiny windows, then you should probably stop reading here. You would be able to use different kinds of microphones, like boom mics that wouldn’t show up onscreen, and use different kinds of lighting that would get better results. You’ll be better off searching for general video recording studio setups.
With those constraints in mind, let’s start picking out our gear.
Starter Setup: $220
You can get started streaming with any phone headset and the webcam built into your laptop. Before this whole virus thing started, I’d have told you to spring for a slightly better headset and webcam, but all the kinda-sorta-upgraded gear is sold out now anyway. Just use whatever webcam you have (worst case scenario, the one built into a laptop. Just buy two things:
Microphone: Jabra Evolve 40 Headset ($100). I like this because it’s available in either USB-A or USB-C, and in both two-ear or one-ear versions. I like the one-ear version because I don’t like having both of my ears covered in long meetings. I like still being able to hear what’s going on in the room. The single-earphone version easily flips from left to right ear orientation. I don’t like wireless headsets in this price range: you’ll deal with audio lag time, lower microphone quality, and constant recharging of batteries. If you spend $100 just on a microphone alone, you can probably do better in terms of quality – but you’re not going to remember to keep your mouth as close to the microphone as possible. A headset takes care of that problem.
Light: Neewer 18-inch ring light, stand, and tripod ($120). Your favorite beauty YouTubers (don’t lie, I know you watch them) use adjustable, dimming ring lights because they cast very complimentary light patterns. Trust me, our faces need all the compliments we can get. If you have a standalone USB webcam, you can figure out how to mount it in middle of the ring light, so when you look at the camera, you’ll have a good lighting position, and you’ll look great. If you try mounting the webcam & light on your monitor, then when the monitor wobbles as you’re typing, so will the webcam & light. (You haven’t noticed your monitor wobbling? Your viewers will, especially when you mount a webcam and a light to the top of it.) Don’t put the light’s tripod on your desk, either, because your desk wobbles too. Put the tripod on the floor, behind your desk.
You need a microphone, webcam, and a light. All three are required. I don’t care if you don’t agree with my specific gear choices in this post, but just as you wouldn’t try to present without a microphone, you can’t present without a webcam and a light. Many viewers will tune out quickly if you’re invisible.
Here’s what a Zoom session looks like with that setup:
Optional upgrade webcam: Logitech Brio 4K ($200), but really anything you can get right now. The Logitech is the best USB webcam out right now: best resolution, best low-light sensitivity – but due to everyone working from home right now, it’s pretty much impossible to find these in stock. You may have to settle for something else. That’s okay – the light is going to make a lot of crappy webcams look great.
Optional: collapsible chroma key screen ($65) or wall-mounted Elgato green screen ($160). If you have a cluttered or ugly background, just put this up behind you. Many webcast apps like Zoom and Teams will be able to swap out your background in real time much more easily with this, and it’ll actually look good. If you try using their built-in features to replace your background and you DON’T have one of these, it looks terrible and amateurish.
I don’t think you should invest more than this until you’re ready to commit to the entire package of kit in the next section. You can go a really, really long way with the above gear. Build your audience and build your technical content, but track how much revenue you earn from it. When you’re ready to make an investment and take your game to the next level – but you’re also confident that it’s going to result in increased income – then hit the next level of gear.
Software: Streamlabs OBS (Free)
The more you present, the more you’re going to want to lay your video directly on top of your slides. Here’s what it looks & sounds like with the starter hardware setup listed above:
In the streaming world, the default standard in this space is the free, open source OBS Studio, but…it’s not very friendly or easy to use. I had a pretty rough time when I first started with it, and I decided I wanted to stop spending time futzing with something trying to get it to work.
I use Streamlabs OBS instead. It’s also free, works with both Windows & Mac, and Streamlabs have added a lot of cool stuff to make the streaming process easier. They do try to upsell you to Streamlabs Prime, which costs $12/mo, and adds all kinds of themes and apps. I think it’s worth it for a better-looking stream, but don’t spend any money on it when you’re first getting started. Just download plain ol’ Streamlabs OBS and go from there. Their 5-minute tutorial is super straightforward, and you can start streaming to YouTube, Twitch, or Facebook in a matter of minutes.
But like I discuss in that video, we’re specifically talking about YouTube, Twitch, or Facebook here. This setup doesn’t work for meeting software like Zoom, WebEx, GoToMeeting, etc. There are ways you can get it to work like obs-virtual-cam on Windows and obs-mac-virtualcam, but that’s outside of the scope of this blog post.
Good Streaming Setup: ~$1,500
You’ve been streaming for a while, and it’s earned you a consulting engagement, or you would like it to. You put work into your presentations, and you’ve decided that you want people to notice both the quality of your material, and the quality of how you deliver it.
While the stuff in the starter setup was meant to get you off the ground, it’s not really reusable or extendable. From here on out, we’re talking about foundational building blocks that you’ll never throw away again, only build atop of.
Camera: Sony A6100 ($700). Think of it as a webcam with a really nice 4K sensor, but instead of having a USB cable, it has an HDMI cable out. (It has a micro USB input, but that’s just for charging.) We’ll need an HDMI converter to make it act like a webcam – more on that in a second. The A6100 is one of the cheapest interchangeable lens cameras that shoots 4K videos continuously and has a little pop-up selfie screen:
This makes it easy to stay in-frame, and when you’re webcasting, your eyes are naturally drawn to your own face. That helps you stay focused on looking at your viewers, and raises the quality of your video.
Camera adapter: Blackmagic Design 2-HDMI ($200) or 4-HDMI ($550). These take a camera’s HDMI output and turn it into a video source for OBS. However, they will not work for all meeting software: if you’re using stuff like GoToMeeting and WebEx, you’re probably going to want an Elgato Cam Link 4K ($200) or something similar, which takes a single camera’s HDMI and makes it act like a real USB webcam. I would have recommended one of these instead, but with this virus thing, they’re sold out everywhere. I’m not going to discuss Cam Link alternatives because that situation changes constantly based on what’s in stock.
Microphone: ElectroVoice RE20 ($400). This thing sounds buttery and amazing. The drawback is that, like any professional microphone, it’s kinda sensitive to placement. You’re going to have to mount it on a microphone arm that’s visible inside your videos, and you need to be right up on top of it to get the best sound. However, for me with my small, echo-y office, that’s also a benefit! It picks up way less of the noises in the room.
Microphone Interface: Focusrite Scarlett Solo ($150-$200). Professional microphones have XLR cables, and they need a device that accepts analog XLR signals, turns them into digital signals, and sends them over USB. The Solo is a great cheap way to do it, and it only handles 1 microphone, but that’s all you need. If the Solo isn’t in stock, the 2i2 and 4i4 also work fine – they’re just overkill because they handle more microphones, and you don’t need that.
The most anal-retentive readers might catch that I’m using a different lens than the kit 16-50MM one that ships with the Sony A6100. I’m using a nicer Sigma 16MM F/1.4 lens, but you shouldn’t do that: use the kit lens so you can use its zoom to frame you & your green screen as closely as possible, filling as much of the camera’s sensor as possible, and not cropping out pixels in OBS like I’m doing in the video below. (Long story as to why I have the Sigma, more on that in a future post when I add the next Sony camera. I’m gradually building out my setup for 3 cameras.)
Great (for me) Dual-Camera Streaming Setup: ~$3,000
This tier is about really starting to look professional: having multiple cameras, and switching between them like a live TV news studio. Here’s what it looks and sounds like:
We’re reusing almost all of the gear from the Good tier above:
- Cameras: Sony A6100 ($700) and our leftover webcam (in my case, the Logitech Brio)
- Camera adapter: Blackmagic Design 2-HDMI ($200) or 4-HDMI ($550)
- Microphone Interface: Focusrite Scarlett Solo ($150-$200)
This gear will be new:
Customizable keyboard control: Elgato Stream Deck ($250). LCD keys so you can configure what they show & do, like switching between different cameras. Could you do this by memorizing a bunch of hotkeys? Probably, but as you start to rely on more advanced OBS functionality, like playing sound effects, this will come in super handy.
Headset: DPA In-Ear Broadcast Headset ($1,000). If we’re going to pivot back and forth between cameras, we’ll need a microphone that works wherever we turn, and doesn’t get in the way of our video. This headset has a very good directional microphone, very small so it doesn’t look like you’re wearing an air traffic controller’s headset, and very configurable. These are basically assembled-to-order based on your choices:
- Different colors depending on your skin tone
- One earphone or two – I like one, since I like to hear the sounds in my office
- Lots of adapters – if you’re just going to tether directly to the Focusrite Scarlett, you can get a cable to connect the DPA to an XLR cable, or you can get the DPA with different connectors for different wireless packs, like what I’m about to describe next.
Optional: wireless audio connectivity:
- For the microphone: Sennheiser AVX ($900). The only reason I got this is so I can move around much more easily, and walk away from my desk without worrying about clipping/unclipping different pieces of gear. This is basically an industry standard for wireless audio, and it’ll last me the rest of my life. It actually comes with a clip-on lav microphone, but it’s just alright, not great.
- For the headphone: Mpow Transmitter/Receivers (2, $30 each). The DPA headset above has a headphone jack for the earphone, and it connects to a 3.5mm headphone jack. You could plug it directly into your computer, but then you’d be tethered to it, defeating the purpose of the Sennheiser AVX.
Here’s what the office looks like from the other side of the screen:
Bananas Setup: Tens of Thousands of Bucks
Adam Saxton is part of the Guy in a Cube phenomenon, and as part of their channel hitting 100,000 YouTube subscribers, Adam gave a video tour of his home studio in Texas:
Of course, Adam didn’t jump to that overnight: he began with a starter streaming setup just like you will. He continued to invest in his skills and his gear, saw the returns, and continued to invest more. You don’t need Adam’s gear to get started, and neither did I.