When I first started in event and industrial video production in the early 1990s, one of our indispensable tools was the Video Toaster. Not only did the Toaster do cool transitions like the once-ubiquitous falling sheep and bouncing basketballs for live productions, but it was also a serious post-production switcher. We used BetaSP, S-VHS, and MII decks, and the Toaster, along with its companion product-LightWave 3D-to do intricate graphics, 3D, and stacked transitions in an era where the only other tools capable of doing any one of these things cost close to $50,000 each.
After a few years, the original Toaster team split, with a splinter group going off to create another company called Play, Inc. This outfit had some success with a product called the Snappy, which grabbed still images and-for a time-had a photo of Kiki Stockhammer on it, the pitchwoman extraordinaire who had helped get the Toaster off the ground. Along the way, Play spun off a company called Play Streaming Media Group and created a product called the Globecaster that combined streaming with live video switching, at a price point set with high-end broadcasters in mind.
Meanwhile, NewTek updated its Toaster product line, after the aging Amiga platform, on which the Toaster was based, ceased production. It also began receiving requests for a product similar to Globecaster, but with Toaster-like ease of use and a feature set geared toward the event market. In essence, these customers wanted NewTek to create a box that would allow them to do live switching and limited post-production work but would also give them the opportunity to move into the new world of streaming content.
NewTek listened and created a product called TriCaster. Since its launch in 2005, it has won numerous awards, including Editor's Picks from EventDV and Streaming Media, as well as a Technical Emmy nomination. The product succeeded in marrying the ease of use for which NewTek's products were known with a low price point (MSRP $4,995).
Accolades aside, several key tools were lacking: the original TriCaster didn't allow component inputs, didn't have balanced audio (XLR) connections, and lacked a vectorscope and waveform monitor. It also was missing high-resolution outputs, among other things. In essence, the original TriCaster was a high-end consumer product but lacked professional features that would make it a cost-effective broadcast-level product.
NewTek has addressed many of these issues and taken aim at that "pro" market with the new and aptly named TriCaster Pro. NewTek designed TriCaster Pro for corporate presenters, educators, local access, sports broadcasters, and media ministries. How much does TriCaster Pro differ from the original TriCaster, and what do you get for the additional $2,000 U.S. list price ($4,995 versus $6,995)? Quite a lot, actually, as the feature-comparison chart shows.
|Video Inputs||3 Y/C, composite||3 Y/C, composite, component|
|Video Output||Y/C, composite||component, Y/C, composite|
|Projector Output||XGA||XGA, SXGA, WXGA|
|Video Capture||6 hours of DV-AVI||10 hours of DV-AVI|
|Mic input||2 phono (unbalanced)||2 phono or 2 XLR|
|Line inputs||2 RCA||2 Phono (balanced), 2XLR, 2 RCA|
|Waveform monitor||No||Yes: Y or YC|
|Web streaming||Yes; pull only||Yes; push or pull|
|Simultaneous stream & record||No||Yes|
XGA resolution CG
|iVGA (PC or Mac)||No||Yes|
|iVGA Fade on/off||No||Yes|
|Timed picture playback||No||Yes|
|IEEE 1394 deck control||Yes||Yes|
The new TriCaster Pro handled very well during our testing. The form factor is fairly small, using a Shuttle PC (mini ITX motherboard) case. An optional USB-powered external human user interface (HUI), dubbed the TriCaster VM-switching surface, can be used to interact with the TriCaster Pro. The HUI is essentially a video switcher that mimics many of the TriCaster Pro's on-screen commands, complete with a very solid-feeling T-bar. I used the external HUI for several tests, as I was comfortable with a traditional switching surface, but my assistant found that she was more comfortable with keyboard shortcuts and on-screen mouse clicks.
Setup was fairly straightforward, although I recommend that you connect to the internet a few hours before your first use of the product in order to give the machine time to download Windows and NewTek updates, and to set up the basic network parameters if streaming is going to be an integral part of your event production. The TriCaster Pro boots right into its own switcher interface, which gives it the proper "video appliance" feel, but a number of the machine's standard Windows features (My Computer, My Documents, etc.) and a few additional NewTek tools can be accessed by closing the TriCaster Pro interface. Power users may find this cumbersome at times, especially if they have a significant number of still image or video files with which they want to pre-populate the proper media folders.
Our test unit came with two drives, a system drive and a media drive. The media drive stores still images, pre-recorded video content used during a live production, and live production recordings, with enough capacity to store a little over 10 hours of full-motion, 601-compliant AVI material. While we were primarily streaming our content to an external audience, we chose to record simultaneously to the media drive, which was a simple process of clicking one extra button when we went live (one button for streaming, one for hard disk recording). The choice to record while streaming proved prescient, as several viewers requested higher-resolution copies of the content after each event.
Since the events we were involved with (a concert series) occurred over several weeks, we used a pre-produced digital video file to open the event. TriCaster Pro handles this in a very straightforward way; you "load" the content into the on-board digital VCR (an on-screen option that has standard device control buttons to cue up the content) and then choose the content when ready for playback during the event. Once the VCR is selected in the switcher, it begins to play content and will play all the way through to the end, or until the operator chooses another switcher input.
We also made extensive use of a new feature called "still image timed playback." This feature works in a way similar to a nonlinear editing system such as Premiere Pro, in that it can play a still image for a set period of time. In the TriCaster Pro's case, though, it is being displayed in a live-switching environment instead of a post-production process. We used this feature to pre-load several sponsor and title JPEGs, then rotate through each in five-second intervals prior to the actual concert. The non-profit event management team putting on the concerts also liked this feature, since it gave them an extra package to sell to sponsors.
Another feature we used was multi-camera setup and switching. The TriCaster Pro allows you to connect up to six cameras, with a choice of any three being switched at one time. We also were able to set up our Canon XL1 as a direct FireWire (IEEE 1394) camera input, which could prove useful for event videographers who might have a MiniDV camera with component output but may not want to carry component cabling.
TriCaster Pro also has the ability to scale down VGA inputs to NTSC or PAL resolutions. Dubbed iVGA, this feature provides the ability to display any computer content, including live web pages, in a video production. While the quality of these XGA and WSXGA signals scaled down to NTSC don't replace a high-quality computer graphics display or projector, the ability to show everything on one screen could prove handy in situations where only one display device is available.
NewTek's TriCaster Pro builds on the solid base of the initial TriCaster but adds features that make it worthy of use in a professional environment. The $6,995 price point positions the product in the very low-end price range of professional equipment, but the features-like those of its Toaster ancestor-rival mid-range professional products. Thus, the TriCaster Pro helps re-establish NewTek as a company whose innovations will once again push the boundaries of what a new generation of event videographers will be able to provide for their customers.
Just remember, though, the falling sheep are so 1992 that they're almost retro—but don't count on them becoming retro-chic anytime soon.