Webcasting with the TriCaster

By Stuart Sweetow of Audio Visual Consultants © 2005

Originally published in Camcorder & Computer Video Magazine Camcorder & Computer Home Video Magazine Logo

NewTek’s TriCaster is a TV studio in a box. It lets you perform live switching between three camcorders, it is a full-function editor and it lets you stream your video as a live webcast. TriCaster is a standalone unit; no computer is needed. All you need is a computer monitor, electricity and a DSL equipped telephone jack, if you want to use the webcast feature.

Packed into a black cube about half the size of a computer tower, the TriCaster comes with a keyboard and mouse; you supply your own monitor. You can control all switching, editing and webcasting functions using the keyboard and mouse. TriCaster lists for $4995, and you may purchase an optional VM video mixer for an additional $995. The optional mixer is about the size of a keyboard has the manual T-bar fader and switches found in studio controls.

Live Switching

If you want to record an event live, you can connect up to three cameras or camcorders using S-video or composite RCA video cables. The TriCaster does not let you connect cameras via FireWire for live switching, but for editing you can use FireWire to capture audio and video from a camcorder. More on that later. You can also connect a VCR to play videotapes and a computer for still images, graphics and PowerPoint slides—all ready to be mixed together with the camcorder signals.

Your computer screen displays the live camera and external input signals, and TriCaster has an on-screen program monitor for switching between the different inputs. You can select transitions from cameras, such as cross-fades or wipes, and modify the speeds of the transitions. If you wish, you can manually control the speed of the transitions with an on-screen “T” bar that you drag down with your mouse.

The TriCaster even has a Camera Setup tab that lets you adjust brightness, contrast, hue and saturation for each of the camcorders. This is especially important if you are performing a multi-camera shoot with colleagues who have different brands of camcorders. A common problem with live switching is that when you compare the video from two different cameras, the colors from one may not perfectly match with the colors of another.

Live Switching mode includes an Overlay tab where you can take titles from the included template-based titler and overlay them onto your video. For example, if you are shooting a dance recital, you can add the title of each dance to the screen. The Color Background tab lets you place your overlaid images on a colored background of your choice. There is a variety of styles to choose from. The Keyer is a chroma key device that lets you place your main subject over a background graphic, such as the weather forecaster in front of the weather map.

The live audio mixer lets you plug in two microphones plus one line source, such as a CD player or VCR. Each input has its own volume and equalization controls, and a red Master Audio knob lets you adjust and fade the final mix. You cannot mix the audio coming from each of the camcorders.

Video Editing

The Edit Media tab turns TriCaster into a powerful nonlinear editing system. First you will capture your video clips by connecting your camcorder’s FireWire (IEEE 1394) output to TriCaster’s FireWire connector. TriCaster’s transport controls let you fast-forward, rewind, play and pause the camcorder as you capture the scenes you want. You can adjust the audio levels during capture. If your camcorder does not have a FireWire connector, you can still capture from the S-Video or the composite video output from your camcorder. Then you will have to manually control your camcorder. You can also record narration by selecting mike input.

Once you have captured your clips you can start editing them using either the Storyboard or Timeline views. Here you adjust the start and stop times of your clips and arrange them in the sequence you want. TriCaster includes over two hundred transitions to choose from when combining clips together.

Digital video effects, such as 3D rotation, cropping and picture-in-picture (PIP) are available here. TriCaster’s editing system also lets you create slow motion and perform color correction. You can create chroma keys during the editing process as well as luma keys where you can replace a black or a white background with a graphic or video image. You can also automate many of the editing routines within the Tool Shed.

Internet Streaming

Perhaps the most exciting feature of TriCaster is its ability to webcast. Within the Live Production is the Stream Output button. NewTek provides a service where you can stream your video to a particular Microsoft Media Server (mms) Internet address. You tell your viewers the IP address, connect TriCaster to the Internet and stream away.

The default is a single stream with a resolution of 360 x 240 pixels, but you can use any of the Windows Media Profiles that are provided in a drop-down menu to change TriCaster’s streaming image size and bandwidth rate. While you are webcasting, you can archive the stream as a .wmv file using the Write to Disk option. You can upload that file to your streaming provider for later on-demand viewing.

If you want to record the stream live, you have to do so onto a VCR or DVD recorder. TriCaster cannot record full-resolution video to its own disk and stream at the same time. Also, while TriCaster includes a video editor component, due to digital rights management issues, it is not possible to edit the saved .wmv file using the TriCaster editor.

Audio Mixer

TriCaster has a sophisticated four-channel audio mixer that lets you mix two mikes, audio from a VCR and audio from an external device such as a CD player. Each input has a volume control, a balance control and a three-band equalizer. The display includes a VU meter.

Solo buttons for each input let you quickly select audio from that single source only. The mike inputs each have a Talk-over button that automatically reduces the audio levels of everything else by 20%. This lets you easily narrate a scene and create a good mix of live audio, music and narration.

Character Generator

In the Edit Media panel you can create titles for your program. TriCaster includes three types of page styles: still, scroll and crawl. Scroll is for rolling titles, and crawl is when you want to add horizontally moving text to the bottom of the screen, such as a stock ticker or news announcements. The system includes a variety of Title Styles, and you can animate the text.

TriCaster VM Interface

If you do a lot of live switching you may want to move faster than a mouse and keyboard allow. That’s where the optional VM control panel comes in. It acts as the video mixer and has two rows of input select buttons, a “T” bar for manually controlling transitions and Auto and Take buttons.

The top bus of buttons, called the Live Row, and the bottom row of buttons called Up Next, each have a total of eight buttons: three for cameras, one for network connection, one for VCR, one for still pictures, one for color background and one for black. You can perform a take using the Live buttons only, or you can set up the next shot using on of the Up Next buttons. Then you either move the “T” bar or press the take button to transition from the top bus to the bottom bus. There is also an Auto button that creates the transition at a speed that you can pre-set with the Transition Speed button.

There are also buttons for Transition Select, Overlay Select, Fade Overlay, Take Overlay, Fade All and Take All.

Evaluation

We were impressed with the “out of the box” experience we had with TriCaster. In little time we were switching between camcorders and capturing video clips for editing. The on-screen interface looks just like a studio switcher in a broadcast facility. Actually, it’s better because the computer interface displays thumbnails on the buttons, not just camera numbers.

In the Live Production mode, switching was fast, and the cadre of special effects at hand was mind-boggling. TriCaster’s menu includes 114 different 2D effects such as wipes and dissolves, 84 3D effects such as warps and squeeze zooms and 30 special effects including UFOs, filmstrip and falling autumn leaves.

We were able to match the camcorders’ colors by using a vertical split screen. We overlaid graphics and text and were able to select the speeds to move them in and out. The VM hardware switcher with its full-size buttons and smooth “T” bar sped up the switching process, and the red/green color coding of the buttons let us know quickly which camcorder was live.

In the editing process we were able to capture camcorder footage using the FireWire connector, but when we were ready to send the edited program to a DVD recorder or camcorder, we had to use the S-Video or composite video output. We were impressed that the effects required no rendering time, not even any lag.

Capturing of clips went smoothly, but TriCaster does not support batch capture, a feature found on more advanced editing systems. Also, we were able to import bitmap (.bmp) files but not Photoshop (.psd) files. When we first called NewTek tech support about this, they said they did not know why it wasn’t importing .psd files. Later, when we spoke with the public relations person at NewTek, we were thanked for discovering a bug. They said they a fix would be available as a free TriCaster patch on the company website by the time this review is published.

We were somewhat disappointed with our results using the webcasting function. TriCaster sent a smooth 30 fps signal from our DSL connection through our Ethernet to a computer on our internal network. That proves that TriCaster has a streaming capability. However, when we tried webcasting over the Internet, the smooth video was interrupted by still frames, perhaps 2 fps, and then would return to smooth 30 fps video, only to be interrupted again. Sometimes the smooth stream would last for 90 seconds and sometimes only 30 seconds before getting choppy.

We tried this with two different viewers at their homes—one with DSL and the other with a cable modem. We gave them the supplied IP address, and each viewer said they had Windows Media Player 9. When we ran the first test, we were sending at the stream at 374kbps, but our friend, who has DSL, was receiving our webcast at only 66 kbps. After speaking with NewTek, we made an adjustment and then sent the video at 323 kbps. The cable modem viewer received a similar mix of smooth 30 fps video at 314 kpbs and choppy 2 fps video at 214 kbps.

NewTek said that since TriCaster was able to webcast smooth 30 fps through our Ethernet, it was performing as expected. They said that the bottleneck could have occurred with firewalls and routers at either the sending or receiving path. We did bypass the router on our end and connected TriCaster directly to our DSL modem. NewTek added that they “soon will be posting an online white paper to help clear such networking obstacles.”

Other users may have better results, especially if they have higher speed DSL connections or T1 lines. Your computer technician may be able to suspend the firewalls and you can easily bypass your router. However, we wanted to run a test in real world conditions—the kind of broadband connection and home network that most readers might have.

So, for live switching and video editing without a computer, we would highly recommend TriCaster. It is well worth the money, because a broadcast-grade switcher alone would cost much more. Add in a standalone editor, and you have real value. Sure, we would like DV output from the editor, and it would be a plus to be able to switch camcorder audio together with its video, but those are minor limitations. The plethora of effects, the quality of the image and the ease of use make TriCaster an exciting tool that can be utilized for broadcast television, corporate training or event videography.

For more information go to www.newtek.com

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