Wirecast Pro for Mac 4.1.3: A close look at a powerful webcasting tool
Over the past few weeks, I've been getting up to speed on using Telestream's Wirecast Pro for Mac to broadcast the weekly TUAW TV Live show. In this review, I'll describe some of the features of the latest version (4.1.3) of Wirecast Pro, and how it will be streamlining the production of the show.
For those of you who don't watch the show either live or in recorded form, let's start with a description of how it used to be done. In the past, I launched LineIn (sound), Soundflower (sound), BoinxTV (video), CamTwist (video), Adobe Flash Live Media Encoder (video), and a number of other apps that were used to capture video from other devices. I used the built-in FaceTime camera on my iMac for face shots and an IPEVO P2V low-resolution cam for shots of iPad and iPhone screens. When I have guests, they'd join me via a Skype video call and were brought into the video mix through CamTwist.Once the show went live, it was streamed through Ustream.tv using Live Media Encoder and recorded locally to disk for upload to our CDN (Castfire) and to YouTube. The YouTube upload gives the show a wider distribution, while Castfire is used to feed the podcast of the show.
As you can tell from the second paragraph in this post, there were a lot of apps running on my iMac. Sure, it could handle it, but I often had issues switching gracefully between applications, cameras, and demonstrations. On occasion one of the apps would decide to crash (usually just as the show was going live), necessitating a quick "please stand by" tweet and a reboot of the iMac. Since it's a one-man show, I don't have the luxury of having a technician running the software -- I have to do it all by my lonesome. I needed something that would ease my duties while still offering video that was as good or better than what had been produced earlier.
That's when I heard about Wirecast from friend and ace blogger Rene Ritchie of iMore. During the broadcast and recording of a podcast a while back, he did some tricks that totally amazed me, so I asked what he was using to produce the show. Wirecast was the answer, and now I'm a happy owner of Wirecast Pro (US$995).
It's not an inexpensive application by any means. There is a less expensive but almost equally capable standard version available for $449 -- the Pro edition adds 3D virtual sets, audio controls with sync delay, integrated scoreboards for people who are livestreaming sports events (which could be useful for a head-to-head Apple trivia contest!), and support for additional cameras including wireless IP and HDV cameras.
For those of you who are familiar with Ustream Producer, Producer Pro, or Producer Studio, you'll manage Wirecast or Wirecast Pro very quickly. Ustream partnered with Telestream in 2010 to make Ustream-specific versions of Wirecast available. If Ustream is your primary streaming service, then you may wish to look at Producer Pro ($149) or Producer Studio ($549). The differences in Ustream Producer and Wirecast versions are found in this document.
Wirecast Pro presents a very streamlined and compact user interface to the producer. The primary display can show a preview of shots that are about to go live as well as the current live stream, and then lists different layers and the shots on those layers in a logical layout. Shots consist of live or pre-recorded video, sound, logos, or static graphics, and Wirecast Pro provides a simple way to gracefully transition between the shots.
Layers consists of a number of different shots that can be transposed on top of each other. For example, if I want a logo to appear on screen regardless of what else is currently showing -- video of me, a demonstration screen, or a running IRC chat -- I can put that logo in a higher layer and then turn it on so that regardless of what's showing in a lower layer, it's visible.
There are fine controls for just about every shot -- you can adjust position and opacity of a shot or add a matte, crop a shot, add titles (many with colorful frames designed by Telestream), set up chroma key shots (green screen -- useful with the virtual sets), set builds for different sources (like fading in and out), set attributes for playback of pre-recorded video, and add video filters.
Those filters are like what are found in CamTwist, which means that they are applied in the app instead of needing to run CamTwist. Likewise, I used to use CamTwist to "pick up" windows on my iMac screen (for instance, video from an external camera or Skype) -- now I can do this with the free Desktop Presenter app from Telestream. What's cool about Desktop Presenter is that I can run an instance of it on another Mac, capture a screen, and send that to Wirecast Pro on my iMac. That's very useful for doing app demos.
As for recording and broadcasting, I have preset both the location of the recorded video file as well as the settings for the Flash stream to Ustream. To start up TUAW TV Live, I used to switch to the Adobe Flash Live Media Encoder window, start up the stream and recording (and hope that the app didn't crash), then switch to BoinxTV to start the show. Now I just click a recording button and broadcast button -- both located prominently at the top of the Wirecast window -- and I'm on the air and recording the show.
Wirecast and Wirecast Pro both support QuickTime and Flash streaming servers, Ustream, justin.tv, Livestream, Stickam.com, Sermon.net, Brightcove, Akamai, Limelight, BitGravity, Wowza, and other streaming services. As noted, the app can simultaneously record the stream to a local file for archiving or editing, and broadcast to a remote monitor.
I'm still using LineIn and Soundflower for capturing audio; they do a great job and use relatively little in terms of the resources of my iMac. CamTwist and Adobe Flash Live Media Encoder are both gone now, making my life a lot easier while I'm producing and hosting the show simultaneously. Telestream's free Desktop Presenter app makes capture of app or video windows a piece of cake, even if the app or video is running on another Mac or PC.
I find Telestream's tech support to be excellent. They provide an online tutorial for learning the basics of Wirecast, there's a forum that features good input from Wirecast support personnel, and most of the questions that I've had have been answered by the materials in the FAQ section of the website. When I first started using Wirecast, I was having difficulty using a Logitech C910 HD webcam as an input -- it would work, but the video was distorted. I had the same issue using that camera with Boinx TV. The latest version of Wirecast (4.1.3) responded to user complaints about not being able to use this popular (and fairly low cost) webcam, and the Logitech C910 HD now works flawlessly with the app.
One other cool feature, for those of us who want a way to use multiple cameras with Wirecast, is the ability to see exactly what bus your USB cameras are attached to. Using this tool, I was able to see a conflict between two cameras that was causing issues; I moved the second camera to a different USB port that appeared to change the bus the camera was on, and it resolved the problem.
What's missing from Wirecast? I'd love to see a way to automatically assign Skype video calls as video sources, a title "designer" feature would be lovely for creating custom title overlays, and as far as I'm concerned there can never be too many virtual sets and screen layouts. One cool feature of Boinx TV that I never used and that is missing from Wirecast is animated titles. They truly provide a professional look, and if they were available in Wirecast I'd be using them.
I highly recommend Wirecast for anyone who is considering creating their own live streaming video broadcast. For those who are tight on money, you can start by acquiring the relatively low-cost Ustream Producer app to learn the ropes, and then move up to Wirecast Pro as your abilities and needs grow. I found the UI and built-in capabilities to be designed in such a way that I can now produce my broadcast with fewer apps running. It's perfect for a one-person operation like TUAW TV Live, yet has the features and power for just about size video streaming operation.
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