Making the switch to live webcasting

Live broadcasting over the Internet has enjoyed something of an explosion recently. When it was first tried over a decade ago, the bandwidth wasn’t there, the viewers weren’t really there and the equipment required was complex not to mention the planning and infrastructure that was needed.

How that situation has changed! Websites such as Ustream.tv, Livestream.com and Justin.tv (amongst others) now permit anyone to connect a camcorder to the ‘net and broadcast from anywhere with WiFi.

It really is that simple; the cheapest and easiest rig is a Panasonic HC-V520 camcorder at just £340 GBP. Its built-in WiFi permits connection to Ustream and enables anyone to broadcast from their bedroom.

Entry level live webcasters need look no further but for anything more serious in the live webcast arena you’re going to want more than one camera, probably more than one microphone, some graphics and more. For this you need some kind of switching device so you can toggle between each camera, just as broadcast TV studios do on live shows.

Fortunately, there has also recently been an explosion in “low cost” (relatively) devices to do just that, bringing TV-style live switching to the corporate market and even the enthusiastic semi-pro Tubeshooter. This article is not a review as such but a flick through the catalogue of what’s on offer, from the cheapest to the most expensive.

1. Vestax PBS-4

At $499 USD the PBS-4 is absolutely entry level, providing 4 composite video inputs and one HDMI (though this too must be fed with standard-definition signal which most camcorder won’t do). It has no frame synchronisation so there could be a burst of noise when you switch inputs. Output is via USB to a PC (bought separately) which must then run software to encode the video and upload to a streaming service. Given how basic this device is, especially with the lack of frame-sync, Tubeshooter can not recommend it with good conscience despite the low price.

2. Edirol / Roland

Existing versions of Roland’s webcast mixers, the VR-3, VR-5, are limited to standard-definition. Frankly, for webcasting this may not be an issue – standard definition PAL’s frame size of 1024×576 is quite large really – but modern camcorders are all HD and offering HD output so the company’s latest offering may be more useful in real terms. Available later this year, the rather snazzy-sounding VR-50HD supports 12 inputs (configured as four channels) including HD-SDI and HDMI. There’s a twelve channel audio mixer, 4 layer compositing (eg still images over the main output) and output over USB3 for feeding to a PC for upload to your streaming service.

 

Roland VR50HD

Roland VR50HD

A built-in 7-inch touchscreen monitor provides preview so there’s less need to lug along external monitors. One of the key benefits of the Roland unit over some other switchers is that it is physically built with controls; in other words you have tangible knobs and buttons to press rather than trying to drive everything with a mouse in software. This should be an exciting product to try when it is released later this year.

More info at www.roland.com/products/en/VR-50HD/

3. Sony

From September 2013, Sony will have their intriguing AnyCast Touch on sale.

The AWS-750, as it is less glamorously known, is an all-in-one unit which actually has TWO touchscreens on a hinged panel, a bit like a laptop. One screen is for video and the other for audio. Also like a laptop, it folds up and is therefore easily portable, a valuable consideration in a live event switcher. The unit both switches and encodes (Flash H.264) for web and includes a titler. 6 HD video inputs are offered along with 6 audio inputs. Compatible tilt-zoom webcams are even controllable from the unit which could be handy where space is at a premium. An internal solid-state hard drive enables recording of the output as well.

Sony Anycast Touch

Sony Anycast Touch

It’s not out yet but on the specs alone, Tubeshooter’s recommendation is that this is a very interesting product to keep an eye out for. Unfortunately, pricing is shown only as “available on request”

More info at www.sony.com/anycasttouch

4. Blackmagic ATEM TV Studio

Unsurprisingly garnering great interest from the web production community, this astonishingly low cost (£655 GBP!) unit takes up to four HDMI or HDSDI inputs, switches them via software, and performs real-time H.264 encoding for direct output to your live streaming service.

Controlled by a software interface running on a PC or laptop, it has 3 keyers including chroma-key so with the addition of a green screen, you can drop a background behind your presenters. Or do a weather forecast. Or anything else of that ilk. Designed for unobtrusive installation via its 1U rackmountable form, it would be straightfoward to create a mobile solution – just add power, controller PC and screen.

Blackmagic ATEM TV studio

Blackmagic ATEM TV studio

If you need budget-priced live switching right now, this looks to be a superb option. Take a look at www.blackmagicdesign.com/products/atemtelevisionstudio/

5. Build your own

Not actually as hard as it sounds since the hardware and software is off-the-shelf and you just need a stonkingly high-spec PC with lots and lots of expansion slots to house various capture and output cards.

Take the example of Finnish company AVTake, whose CutFourHD software costs 799 Euro ($1190 USD). Designed to work with low-cost BlackMagic Design capture cards using SDI and HDMI inputs, it provides the capability to mix up to six live inputs with overlaid images, titles and lower-third captions.

AVTake CutFourHD

AVTake CutFourHD

It can also roll pre-recorded AVI files,offers colour correction on each channel and has a user interface modelled on a traditional broadcast mixer. You will need also to buy the aforementioned PC as well as the capture cards and choose a streaming encoder (the software is purely a video mixer, it doesn’t encode though it does provide a direct feed to various encoders such as Windows Media and Real Media). There’s more info on their website at http://www.avtake.com/

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