Review: Streamstar Webcast Case

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As regular readers will know, I am a bit of a fan of portable kit. During the past 2 years’ explosion of cellmux (cellular multiplexer video links), I have often waxed lyrical about how the transmission connectivity that used to be facilitated by a satellite truck with two operators now can be provided by a small camera-top cigarette-pack-sized unit.

Production technology, once the preserve of dedicated hardware manufacturers, printed circuit board (PCB) makers, and well-capitalised fabricators, have evolved to a world of software using Intel and ARM-programmable platforms to create a market vibrant with choice, features, and capabilities.

Portable audio and video encoders are now widely available, and as many as a dozen vendors spring to mind as I type. This is a dramatic change from 10 years ago when only the VBrick and ViewCast’s GoStream could have been considered as field-ready systems.

But a portable encoder and a portable transmission link (or an integrated encoder and transmission link cellmux) isn’t quite enough to give a producer everything he needs for a fully immersive, multicamera experience. A product such as the Streamstar Webcast Case is just what the doctor ordered.

History and Context

Starting back in 2004, Sony’s eye-catching Anycast Station AWS-G500 (now, sadly, discontinued) heralded a new age in production kit. Running a software-based solution, the Anycast was the first production switcher (vision mixer) integrated with software encoding for streaming. Sadly, Sony opted for the RealMedia streaming format, in what was pretty much the end of the RealMedia format era. That choice turned the heads of streaming engineers for its innovation, but it left an otherwise great product marginalised in the sector.

While a number of PC-based systems, such NewTek’s TriCaster, emerged after that point, several have been used in compact production environments. The very nature of not being an all-in-one means less portability. It’s great technology, but it’s not always good for a one-man webcaster.

Obviously, Telestream Wirecast has emerged as the leading software/laptop solution. It’s great, award-winning technology that has widespread adoption and works brilliantly for lightweight solutions in relatively nonchallenging setups such as businesses, schools, or churches. However, given that laptops don’t have input for multiple video streams, it leaves the operator needing outboard interfacing out to the production team; typically, these have not included digital signal processing (DSP) or hardware encoding, so the laptop needs to be pretty powerful to produce good video.

The side of the Webcast Case, which features PCIe-based capture.

Once you move to an outboard, it becomes hard to resist moving other features to the outboard, which rapidly rub against Wirecast’s “everything in a laptop” model. For example, using a Roland VR-3 or Roland VR-5 as an outboard takes all the effort of camera mixing and audio routing out to a simple hardware setup that is robust and unlikely to crash midevent. These Roland devices only put out the Program Stream as a raw video stream, leaving the laptop to encode it, but, theoretically, that is all the laptop has to do. With Wirecast, not only are you encoding, but you are managing all the other aspects of production, while relying on a USB-tied outboard to capture the signal. In other words, you still have two boxes to carry anyway.

Recently, I got very excited about BlackMagic’s ATEM Television Studio. It is ridiculously small -- reminding me of the early Osprey Rack Mount Breakout panel unit of yesteryear -- and presents SDI and HDMI inputs with AES audio, so it is broadcast-grade, which is useful if you want to shoot at high quality with a micro rig. It also promises an H.264 encoder built-in, but beware: if you don’t use certified software with the H.264 encoder USB link, you end up with raw video and audio on the source. You are back to software encoding on your laptop CPU, while potentially also trying to control the mixing, including keys and titles, via software. While it does offer the capability to layer still graphics, it does not support animated titles and other complex titles and graphics. A final gripe was that the HDMI inputs fail with cables of 5m or more on all the cameras and sources that I tried. To be fair, this is typical of HDMI and is not specifically a BlackMagic issue.

The next evolution of the all-in-one encoders is driven by the rugged-portable-computer sector. There are many chassis available with all sorts of layouts that can be used as a basis to run a portable software-based production studio. Integrating a decent capture card with several channels of raw video capture -- and coupling this with a high-end multiple CPU selection, lots of RAM, SSD, and high-speed disc -- storage would form a much more powerful and flexible base for running an application such as Wirecast. This would provide more headroom for more multitasking.

The Webcast Case’s touch panel user interface.

In essence, this is not a million miles away from what we see running on the Livestream Studio HD500 that Jan Ozer reviewed in December 2012, and the Streamstar Webcast Case that I will dwell on for the remainder of this article.

The Case for the Webcast Case

There will automatically be a tendency to make comparisons between the Livestream HD500 and the Streamstar Webcast Case. To be honest, there is quite a bit of similarity. Ultimately, they both allow multiple camera mixing to a program feed output, with multiple channel audio mixing, live streaming, and the ability to overlay titles.

For video encoding, both vendors appear to leverage the available Sandy Bridge H.264 encoding on their Intel processors, and this frees up the CPU for other tasks -- and CPU space is critical in an all-in-one. Notably, the reliance on Sandy Bridge also ties them to Windows 7 as an underlying OS (as does the Cisco Intercompany Media Engine and Inlet’s Spinnaker, for example). This may be an issue if you have religious views about your OS and the stability that it can offer in a production environment.

Keep in mind that each of these products has evolved as a solution to a specific problem faced by the companies that developed them.

For Livestream, the HD500 provides a simple product companies can sell saying, “Here is everything you need to use our service’s solution.” It is therefore designed to produce good results on the platform and targets Livestream’s existing customers. Unlike most broadcast-quality production switchers, Livestream Studio HD500 comes with a built-in H.264/AAC multi-bitrate live streaming encoder. You can stream HD video directly to Livestream, UStream, YouTube Live, or any RTMP-compatible server or CDN (such as Wowza Media Server, Akamai, or Flash Media Server). Also, the HD500 supports the ZiXi streaming protocol and 1080p streaming when using custom quality settings. Given this inward targeting, this makes the unit a well-designed system for the diversity of content that Livestream customers produce. The UI is relatively intuitive in that it simply looks like a video-mixing or audio mixing surface.

In contrast to the HD500, the first thing I noticed when I used the Streamstar Webcast Case was that there was no “T-bar” for crossfading. The majority of the use case for the design of its kit has evolved alongside Streamstar’s yearly output of around 2,500 live sport webcasts. Its system is interfaced with the simple production of sport as a top priority. Yes, you could produce content for many other types of events with the system, but, without, a doubt this unit is optimised up for covering live-action sports.

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