Telestream Wirecast 5: The Definitive Review
The newest version of this popular live video production tool offers significant improvements and is a no-brainer upgrade for existing customers.
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With Wirecast 5, Telestream has significantly improved usability with a redesigned interface, beneficially expanded the product’s input capabilities, and upgraded the product’s plumbing with features such as x264 encoding and HD-SDI output via Blackmagic Design’s Intensity or DeckLink cards. All told, these improvements make the $129 upgrade price ($295 for the Pro version) a no-brainer decision and strengthen the product’s value proposition vis-a-vis other software and hardware production switching tools.
As an overview, Wirecast is a production tool that can input audio, video, and graphics content from a number of sources. For live video, input will depend upon the capture hardware installed on your computer. I tested with a Blackmagic Design 4K Extreme that can input HD-SDI, HDMI, and a range of analog formats. I tested with the first two, but not the latter. Wirecast can also capture DV and webcam input, and input from some versions of Skype, Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting, and FaceTime (depending upon operating system and versions; check telestream.net for more details).
Using the Desktop Presenter plug-in, Wirecast can input audio and video from applications running on the same computer or on any computer on the same local area network. Desktop Presenter is a great tool for those combining traditional video inputs with PowerPoint presentations or software demonstrations, or for integrating Skype calls into the program. Finally, Wirecast can also play disk-based files in commonly supported formats such as MOV, AVI, and MP4 and load most still image graphics formats.
Once you’ve got your sources configured, Wirecast can overlay bugs and titles over these sources, with a functional titling utility and lots of useful titling presets. Using the Shot Editor, Wirecast can integrate two or more streams into a virtual stream, allowing you to present your various inputs side by side in an interview situation, for example, or a small video of the speaker next to a software demo or presentation. Wirecast can also chromakey a video into a virtual set, though this isn’t a feature that I’ve ever used or tested.
When you’re ready to broadcast, Wirecast can send QuickTime, Flash, and Windows Media (Windows-only) streams to any RTMP, QuickTime (unicast and multicast), or Windows Media server, with presets for popular destinations such as Bambuser, Brightcove, Justin.tv, Ustream, and YouTube. During my testing, I successfully sent streams to Ustream, Brightcove, and YouTube.
Wirecast is built around the concept of five Master layers, which are operated from the top down, as with most timelines. That is, if you place an item such as a bug or title in Layer 1, which is on top, when you enable that layer, it displays above items in lower layers. This is shown in Figure 1, where Layer 1 contains a logo, Layer 2 a lower third title, and Layer 3 multiple thumbnails of the base content that I’ll switch around to and from (you can faintly see the layer numbers on the extreme right-hand side of each layer).
Figure 1. The new user interface in Wirecast 5: Note the CPU, memory, and bandwidth status info on top.
The video from my webcam, a Logitech Broadcaster, is in the Live window on the right and is second from the left on the top row of the third layer. Other windows on that layer are all local Desktop Presenter instances showing the various screens in a tutorial, with the full-screen view in the Preview window ready to take live. You can put whatever content you’d like in any layer, but the top-down approach lends itself to putting the main content on the third and fourth layers and overlays in the first and second. You can match audio with the content, in which case it switches on and off with the content. Or, if all audio comes from one source, as it did in this tutorial, you can place that audio source on the fourth track, then enable it and forget it.
In previous versions, the master layers were tabbed, and you could only see one at a time. This complicated production because you couldn’t see all of your content without switching tabs, and it meant that many edit activities involved at least two clicks: one to open the layer, and the next to choose the content. In version 5, Telestream not only placed the layers in a single panel but also made the layers, and the thumbnails within the layers, freely resizable. This makes the critical content easier to find, and makes it easier to see exactly when to switch sources.
Hardware purists will immediately notice that the preview thumbnails in the layers are not as smooth as those in the preview and live windows. That’s because they’re not videos; instead, they are thumbnails updated at a selectable frame rate up to 60 times per second. Strangely, even at 60 fps, the movement is slightly jerky, more noticeable than any kind of hindrance to program operation. Still, if you’re looking for differences between Wirecast and most hardware platforms, this is one of them.
As with previous versions, you can run Wirecast in either AutoLive mode, which switches the content into the live window when selected, or via the preview function, where selected content appears in the preview monitor on the top left, and then goes live when you click the arrow button (called the Go button) beneath the live window. The paradigm may feel a bit uncomfortable to folks who have used hardware switchers and expect the ability to toggle different layers in and out individually. However, once you understand that only the content selected for preview goes live when you click the arrow button, you’ll figure out that you have almost the same level of control as you would with separate live buttons in a slightly less cluttered interface.
Another new feature in version 5 is the Live/ Preview swap, which is useful when your productions involve primarily two main sources. As the name suggests, when you enable this mode, Wirecast swaps the content in the Live and Preview modes whenever you press the Go button, simplifying these camera switches. Overall, the new interface makes a huge, positive impact on usability that current users will immediately grasp and appreciate.
One of the most significant new features in Wirecast 5 is the expanded ability to open multiple Desktop Presenter instances on the same computer as Wirecast. This is shown in Figure 2, which is from the aforementioned tutorial and is a shot of my 31" Apple Cinema monitor. Briefly, the demo tutorial covered how to choose a preset when using the x264 codec. On the bottom right is Squeeze, which I use to show the available x264 presets. On the bottom left is a Google spreadsheet showing a comparison of encoding times, while the top right is a view of Adobe Premiere Pro comparing the output produced by the different presets.
Figure 2. Each of these application windows are in a separate Desktop Presenter instance in Wirecast 5.
To produce the tutorial, I created a separate Desktop Presenter instance for these three applications, plus another for Wirecast and another to show the full screen. While I could have created a single Desktop Presenter instance on the same computer as Wirecast with previous versions, setup was more complicated, and the resultant image was less precise. In Windows, for example, to create a Desktop Presenter on the same computer as Wirecast, you had to find and enter the IP address of that computer into Wirecast, which isn’t rocket science but isn’t intuitive either. On both Mac and Windows computers, Wirecast captured the screen, compressed it, and sent it to the local router, which sent it back to Wirecast. This process degraded the image slightly, limited the capture frame rate, and potentially caused a slight delay.
In Wirecast 5, you can create multiple Desktop Presenter instances on the same computer as Wirecast, but they’re captured directly from the graphics card, not via the router. This allows capture rates up to 60 frames per second with no compression. So as long as you have a big enough screen to show all applications comfortably, Wirecast 5 is easier and produces better quality.
Of course, by running all applications on the same computer, you run the risk that one crash might force a complete restart. For this reason, if you’re running a CPU-intensive, interactive application such as Skype or other videoconferencing program, you may want to run that on a separate computer. However, I had no stability problems whatsoever and plan to use a single machine for Desktop Presenter and Wirecast going forward whenever possible.
Note that when you close or move the applications and especially reboot your computer, the Desktop Presenter instances may not be totally restored. That’s because Wirecast looks for applications at the specific IP address of the application, and if that changed when you rebooted, it may not find the applications. If this happens, the fast and simple fix is to open the Source window, shown in Figure 3, choose the Desktop Presenter instance, and reidentify the target program, which only takes a few moments. If the IP address remains the same after rebooting, but the applications aren’t open when you run Wirecast and load the project with the Desktop Presenter instances, you may get a green screen within each instance indicating that Wirecast (quite understandably) can’t find the target application. On Windows, Desktop Presenter will automatically find the application once you reopen it. On the Mac, it won’t, and you’ll have to reidentify the target program as discussed previously. To be clear, all this falls in the category of very minor hassle; for me and for many users, the ability to create multiple Desktop Presenter instances on the same computer as Wirecast is a great new capability.
Figure 3. The Source Settings dialog where you can now input a Web Stream
Input Web Streams
Another new feature is the ability to implement live and on-demand RTMP, RTSP, HTTP, and MMS web feeds, as shown in Figure 3. One use of this feature is to support the growing base of IP cameras, which is aided by ONVIF (Open Network Video Interface Forum) detection. By supporting all the designated protocols, however, Telestream opened up a range of new possibilities, including rebroadcasting existing feeds and incorporating streams from mobile devices into a Wirecast presentation. You can’t just grab a stream from CNN, of course; you need to know the originating URI (uniform resource identifier) and must have the credentials to access the stream. However, if you have your own Wowza Media Server or Adobe Media Server, or a CDN that provides the URI and credentials, you can integrate videos from a very diverse range of sources into your Wirecast projects.
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