This Much Updated "Studio-in-a-Box" Now Includes Virtual Sets

It is hard to overestimate the impact the original NewTek TriCaster made when it was released in 2005. Quite simply put, this $5,000 shoebox-shaped computer gave anyone wanting to do multi-camera video production most of the tools they needed. Sure, there were limitations. Only three video inputs? No chromakey? But still, the TriCaster defined its own market. And there was so much good stuff to play with- the ability to stream, feed a projector and output video all at once, an onboard digital disc recorder, video editing, graphics and more- that you’d almost feel guilty complaining about any shortcomings.
Power-Packed Features
Like any attentive company, NewTek heard the comments and updated the TriCaster, first with the TriCaster Pro, which added a waveform and vectorscope, two balanced audio inputs and component video inputs. But that just wasn’t enough, and in 2007 NewTek went wild. The TriCaster STUDIO has all the functionality of its older siblings, and much more. In a box that is now about double the volume of the original, the STUDIO version includes six video inputs, any of which can be composite, S-video or BNC-based Y/C sources. There are now four balanced audio inputs, support for tally lights, and you can now work in 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio. And as if that wasn’t enough, get your greenscreen ready for onboard chromakey and even virtual sets. It is no stretch to say that the TriCaster STUDIO features a collection of tools that makes it possible for skilled video producers to create very professional, polished productions of many types. It’s not hard to see why the TriCaster is so popular with church, industrial and streaming-video producers.
Of all the new features, the virtual set function is the most amazing. Called LiveSet, it combines pre-created virtual sets with up to six of your cameras, allowing a wide variety of shots within a synthetic environment. And with NewTek’s LiveSet Constructor program, you can build your own space-age newsroom or Starship bridge, without ever picking up a hammer, jigsaw or paintbrush. Power like this at this price point is nothing short of amazing. (Although I wish there were more than four scant pages in the otherwise very good manual to address LiveSet.)
Layout Complications
I’ve used the original TriCaster on dozens of shoots and consider myself pretty well-versed in its abilities. That said, there are some things that have carried over from the original TriCaster that I’m not crazy about. NewTek adds more (virtual) inputs to the TriCaster by making it possible to display graphics (like PowerPoint presentations) from computers using Ethernet and a little applet called iVGA. This has a few hidden bugs, though. For one, I’ve found iVGA to be susceptible to firewall blocking at every turn; if you don’t supply the presentation computer, get ready for some firewall hacking. Secondly, presenters are generally very resistant to some A/V guy (like me) installing some unknown piece of software on their laptops- if they even know the administrator password to begin with. So for me, a simple scan converter is the solution, and with six video inputs on the TriCaster STUDIO, I’ll probably find somewhere to plug it in.
Secondly, my least favorite part of the original TriCaster was the audio section- not so much for what it was, but for how you had to control it. Nestled down in the lower-right corner of the monitor, four tiny faders need to be manipulated by the mouse cursor, and when you are busy switching a show, this is ridiculously cumbersome. The TriCaster STUDIO has the same layout, but with six faders in approximately the same space. I think an outboard fader box to sit alongside the TriCaster VM hard switching surface would be a big step in the right direction. (Of all the TriCaster versions, I recommend the VM. I consider it essential- a thousand dollars very well spent.)
You may have started to sense my major misgiving with the TriCaster STUDIO: Depending on the level of sophistication you need in your production, it can become quite complicated to use. And making this worse is the graphic display, which has grown cluttered and confusing, with too many things vying for your attention at once. The three major panes of the display have a staggering 13 tabs between them, each of which takes you to another sub-section of the software, such as editing, graphics generation, video capture, and streaming output. It is simply a lot to look at and keep straight. Support for multiple monitors might help alleviate some of the clutter, but one is left with the mental image of a Swiss Army knife with a few too many blades to use easily.
The other missing piece in the TriCaster STUDIO is support for high-definition production. While its major competition, the Sony Anycast Station, costs about twice as much, it does feature the ability to work in HD-SDI with the appropriate input cards. If you are positive that HD production isn’t in your future- and for many folks, especially Webcasters, it may not be- that won’t be an issue. But in a world obsessed with "future-proofing," you have to assume that a prototype TriCaster HD must be humming on a lab bench somewhere.
A Perfect Box for Live SD
Still, if you can live with standard-def production, there is a lot to like in the TriCaster STUDIO. Capabilities like this would have cost over a million dollars 10 years ago, and some, like virtual sets and live Internet streaming, barely existed at all. If you are willing to take the time to learn the ins and outs, there is enormous power and potential in the TriCaster STUDIO.
Bruce A. Johnson works in the new technology department for Wisconsin Public Television and owns Painted Poste Multimedia.