NewTek's TriCaster first caught my eye as I was browsing through the latest batch of glossy magazines to land on my desk. At first glance, it resembled a number of other solutions that have appeared over the past few years. Upon closer inspection, however, I saw that it combined both a live video-production suite and a powerful encoder into a portable package. The price stopped me in my tracks: $4,995. If the TriCaster performed as advertised, then this was a significant offering, representing a huge price drop for the functionality it offered.
Ironically enough, moments later an invitation to see the TriCaster in action at NAB dropped into my email inbox. I wasn't going to be at NAB, so a demo unit was arranged, and a few days later two small packages arrived at my office.
NewTek should be well-known to videographers, since it almost single-handedly created the desktop video market with the Amiga Video Toaster in 1990. NewTek has received numerous technical achievement awards, including two Emmys, and continues to create innovative video production products, including VT Live! and Lightwave 3D.
The TriCaster is built into a Shuttle PC case, which is just slightly larger than an average shoebox. The front panel is where the A/V inputs and outputs are located, including two microphone inputs and a stereo line input, three camera inputs (S-Video or composite), as well as audio and video outputs (S-Video or composite video and stereo line output). There is also a 1/8" mini headphone jack, as well as two USB 2.0 ports and a FireWire port. NewTek offers an optional mixer interface, the TriCaster VM, which plugs into one of the USB ports.
The back of the TriCaster features connections for the power cable, keyboard, and mouse, as well as the network and VGA cables. There's also a DVI output for connecting a second monitor or projector (more on this later).
The TriCaster is simple to set up, with all the required connections being fairly obvious. The manual is helpful and to the point. After powering up and logging in, the user is presented with the default TriCaster interface, which resembles a live video production studio. For anyone who has worked on a live broadcast it will be very familiar. The screen is divided roughly into thirds, with the top third dedicated to displaying the available sources and the program feed. The middle third contains the controls for switching video sources, choosing transitions, and setting up overlays. The bottom third offers a tabbed interface for adjusting settings and parameters.
All of the settings are intuitive and obvious. Camera setup, for example, allows the user to choose which input is being used for each camera, and provides individual brightness, contrast, hue, and saturation controls for each camera. The VCR & Picture tab lets you cue up video clips and still images to mix into your broadcast. The Overlay section lets you manage your overlays, so adding graphics or lower-third titles to your production is a snap. There also is a tab for setting up a colored background, another for chromakey options, one for controlling the streaming and local archiving settings, and finally a tab where you can control the built-in scan conversion the TriCaster offers.
The scan conversion feature deserves special mention. The TriCaster ships with a small application called iVGA that enables the unit to use any computer on your local network as a VGA source during a broadcast. This means PowerPoint slides, spreadsheets, or anything else you want to showcase are only a click away. Not only that, but the VGA signal can be sent directly to the DVI output on the back of the TriCaster, bypassing the scan conversion. This means you get a scan-converted version mixed into your video production, and a crisp and clear version sent to your projection system. Nice!
This is only one of a number of well thought-out features the TriCaster includes. For example, the audio mixing section provides solo and mute buttons for each input, and additionally includes a "talk over" function for the two mic channels. When this function is turned on, the level of all other channels is dipped when a signal is seen on the talk over channel. This is perfect for a moderator or voiceover applications.
Getting started with the TriCaster is simple. Connect your sources, line up some video clips and stills, set up a source for scan conversion, and away you go. There are two rows of buttons corresponding to your sources, the top row for whatever is live, and the bottom row for whatever you're switching to next. You can switch by clicking the Auto button, the Take button, or by pulling on the virtual "T-bar." Auto switches use an effect and duration of your choosing. The T-bar allows you to control the duration of your effects. The Take button does a hard cut. You also can click directly on the source you want to switch to—the first click makes it the next source, the second click selects it. Similarly, the space bar is mapped to the Auto button.
Once you've done a few practice runs and are ready to go, simply click the Record Output button in the lower left to start recording. To stream your production, press the Stream Output button. The TriCaster provides you with a link address to distribute to your audience, or if you're planning on a large-scale Webcast you can use this link to set up a pull encode to a Windows Media Server. The Record or Stream tab allows you to specify where to save the master and encoded versions of the broadcast, as well as a Windows Media profile to use when streaming.
In addition to live production, the TriCaster can serve as a capture station. In Capture Media mode, the upper half of the screen is used to control the video source, and the bottom half is used to determine where the captured clip is stored. Video clips are recorded either from Camera 1 Input (in the case of analog video) or via FireWire (for DV input). When capturing via FireWire, the TriCaster also gives you control over the DV camera, similar to a typical nonlinear editor.
To start capturing, press the Start Capture button. To stop the capture, press the Stop Capture button, and a nice thumbnail appears, which will come in handy later. The TriCaster captures video using a DV codec, which is acceptable for most situations, and uncompressed WAV format for audio. Once you have all the clips you want for your production, you can either add them to your VCR clips on the Live Production tab, or edit them via the Edit Media mode.
The TriCaster also functions as a video editor via the Edit Media tab. This screen is divided into a timeline along the bottom, and a preview window and media bin along the top. The editor offers all the functionality you'd expect from a video editor, with some surprising features.
The first feature of note is the timeline, which offers two different editing modes, Timeline and Storyboard. Timeline editing is similar to any nonlinear video editing system, where clips can be positioned, edited, and overlaid with effects. Storyboard editing is similar, but each clip is represented by a thumbnail. You can adjust the in and out points of each clip by holding down the Alt key and scrubbing. Transitions can be dragged from the transitions folder right onto the timeline. Because the clip representations and transitions are small thumbnails, they can be rearranged quickly and easily. Storyboard editing is a fantastic way to get a rough cut together in a matter of seconds—finessing, if necessary, can be done in Timeline mode.
The TriCaster also offers a number of titling and video effects in the editing mode. Effects are dragged onto the timeline just as clips and transitions are. You can also do zooming and cropping via the Controls tab. That's not all—you also can do drop shadows, rotation, colored borders, feathered edges, color correction, and a host of other effects.
Finally, the editing mode offers the Toolshed, where some truly crazy effects are hidden. Some of these are useful, others . . . well, anyone who has seen one of my workshops knows how I feel about effects. Streaming media and crazy effects just don't mix, and they're not much better on DVD or tape. When was the last time you saw a crazy effect used on anything other than America's Dumbest Videos?
There are a number of unique touches that distinguish the TriCaster from other applications. First of all, it doesn't feel like an application—it feels more like a complete solution. For instance, when you browse through your clips bin, you can display the bin as thumbnails with titles, just thumbnails, just titles, or titles with all the details. Those of us who are used to working in the video world will most likely be most comfortable with the thumbnails; IT professionals who get roped into producing a quick broadcast can switch into details mode and get a more Mac/Windows-like presentation.
On the other hand, there is not a single Windows or Mac icon to be seen. Instead there are simple, well-placed buttons that do what you think they should. Want to add clips to your VCR bin? Click the Add button next to it. Cleanup? Click Remove. It's that simple. I don't think the TriCaster would present a steep learning curve to anyone who has a decent video production or rich media background. Given the Byzantine interfaces some current applications present, this is a refreshing change.
The design obviously benefits from NewTek's experience in the field, with great attention paid to detail. Things work the way they should. For instance, if you line up a clip or list of clips in your VCR, when they're done playing, the picture automatically switches to the next source in your list; no need to get the cut just right. Anywhere an effect can be applied, it can be bypassed quickly to make sure you're not adding too much.
As much as I like the TriCaster, I do have a few quibbles, minor though they may be. First, give me balanced XLR inputs for the microphones. Also, if the audio inputs on the bottom of the front panel are inoperative, remove them or cover them up. An adjustment for the talkover dip would be nice. While you're at it, add an adjustment for the overlays so I can fine tune.
The only cardinal sin I found was in the Windows Media templates, which used a resolution of 360x240. This is not a 4:3 aspect ratio, and results in skewed video when viewed on VGA (or LCD) screens. (Note to NewTek: I'm sending my unit back with a 320x240 template! Use it!)
I also need to mention that during my testing of the iVGA application, I never successfully got it running across a network, though I did get it working via the supplied crossover cable. I think scan conversion across a network is a dynamite feature, but the iVGA application needs a little more work, mostly because even with the (very helpful) NewTek support crew on the phone, we were unable to troubleshoot. Also, it does not install itself into the Windows program tree, and doesn't install a shortcut or a menu entry.
In the grand scheme of things, I really have nothing but good things to say about the TriCaster. It's a neat little box with a ton of functionality. The price is staggering, given that the only box that comes close, the Anycaster from Sony, is priced at $20K. If you're looking for a compact system to produce live broadcasts, you should definitely consider the TriCaster.