Product Review: TriCaster 40

The TriCaster 40 is the classic magic "black box"; a powerful multi-cam HD switcher that is well-designed, flexible, easy to use and affordable.

NewTek’s TriCaster 40 is designed to give small facilities, schools, churches or independent producers live production capacity without breaking the bank. ForTri00 $4,995 you get the TriCaster 40, and an LED backlit keyboard and a mouse. This powerhouse can switch between 14 channels that include four live mixed resolution video sources up to HD, two network, two internal graphics, one digital disc recorder, one black and four virtual sources. And it is also among the first budget switchers that can compress a live stream for the Internet.

Simply Powerful
Setup is about as easy as it gets. In fact, unless you're completely new to video, you'll have no problem hooking up cameras, starting the system, creating a new session and beginning live switching without ever glancing at the user guide. From taking the unit out of the box to switching between two cameras took us just less than 10 minutes without a glance. But should you need to, the TriCaster 40's well-written 70+ page manual keeps things brief and clear. It is also one of the first user guides that uses a QR code on the switcher screen for ready access on your tablet or smartphone.

Tri01The TriCaster 40 is a compact black box that easily fits on a small desk. The front panel houses all of the A/V inputs and outputs that keeps you from fishing around the back to change configuration. Video inputs use professional locking BNC connectors but if you don't have the right cables, the TriCaster 40 includes BNC to RCA converters. There are a pair of stereo RCA ins and outs and one mono balanced 1/4-inch input for a microphone and one stereo 1/4-inch output for headphones. Four USB connections and the power button complete the front panel. The rear panel offers standard computer system connections plus one HDMI and two eSATA ports for external storage.

Newtek sent us the optional control surface for this review so, of course, we had to check it out. Like the mainTri03 unit, the control surface is very well built. The buttons have a solid feel and the T-bar for dissolves and fades has the same silky smooth motion found in very expensive switchers. We also used the mouse control included in the base model.

Test Configuration
For our tests we hooked up two 720p JVC GY-HD110Us and a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with the HDMI output converted to component video. Your camcorders need to output a composite or component analog signal. If they only output digital data you'll need to use an external signal converter. We then manually configured the types of camera signals by selecting the input settings icon at the upper right of each input screen within the Live Desktop. Here there is also a processing amplifier (proc amp) if you want to adjust brightness, contrast, color or saturation, a chromakeyer, and crop tool for making simple garbage mattes. What we did not have to do was perhaps most amazing; each camera input was automatically in sync. Unlike many switchers, you don't need expensive external time base correctors or genlocks to sync cameras.

For audio we connected the output of a 12-channel mixer to the TriCaster 40's unbalanced RCA inputs and also plugged in a lavalier microphone to the balanced 1/4-inch input. The last part of our system configuration included setting up our main Live Desktop screen on a 24-inch LCD and connected the Program Out component signal to an LCD TV.

Ready, Set, Switch
We started the system and created a new 720p HD session. At this point you can either go directly to a live show or manage digital assets such as video clips, stills, titles or audio. We imported some sample media and started our session, letting the TriCaster 40 go through its initialization which can take about two minutes the first time. The Live Desktop screen appeared and we were ready to start our test show.

We performed a sample two minute live show with open graphics, talking head, lower thirds title, pre-produced video segments, externally networked PowerPoint, chromakey, a live music mix and closing graphics. Starting from black the fade up to our open revealed the fades are incredibly smooth with no banding or rapid fall-off near the end of the transition that some budget switchers display. The cut to our talking head had no perceptible lag. We used the downstream keyer to dissolve in our lower third identifier graphic stored in the GFX 1 channel. Like the fade up from black, the dissolve of the overlay is very smooth with no visible banding throughout the transition that can plague low-cost switchers.

We then transitioned to our first pre-produced video clip. When playing back video clips a nice feature is a red bar that alerts you to the last five seconds of playback so you are ready for the next take. But even if you forget, the TriCaster 40 can automatically switch back to your last source. Autoplay is another very welcomed feature. With it, all you have to do is click Auto take and your preview media automatically starts rolling (if a video clip) in perfect sync with dissolves or special effects. In addition to cuts and dissolves, the TriCaster 40 keeps 20 other transition types at the ready in the two downstream keyer banks but there are dozens of others you can load into this reserve.

Using the TriCaster 40's iVGA client software loaded on a separate networked computer, we cut to a PowerPoint presentation and advanced through slides. We did notice some loss of fine detail and color shifting when accessing the desktop of another computer. We adjusted some of the color and contrast problem using the TriCaster's proc amp but there is no compensation for the slight loss of detail. 


WE WERE IMPRESSED AT HOW GOOD OUR KEY WAS, EVEN WITH BASIC LIGHTING.


For our chromakey test we used the TriCaster 40's LiveMatte. You get basic matte and spill suppression controls that produce a very good chromakey quickly and with minimal fuss. We were impressed at how good our key was, even with basic lighting. To really have fun, we browsed the many virtual sets included with the system and picked one to use with our keyed host shot and a pre-produced video clip to create a picture in picture effect. For an added touch of realism, you can even zoom into virtual sets with keyed subjects locked into place. Lighting your subject to match the virtual set is the most important part of making the composite look believable but even with a simple lighting setup, our test looked very good.

Tri02The TriCaster 40 is designed for use with an external audio mixer if you have more than one microphone or external sources but the internal audio mixing gives you all the basic controls. Levels adjust in real-time smoothly and quietly. We liked the separate Stream and master output level controls as the demands for these can be different.

The TriCaster 40 excels at output options. You can send both HD and SD signals at the same time to a recorded file or composite or component devices such as TVs, monitors or projectors. But perhaps the most intriguing is its ability to encode a compressed Windows Media Video or Flash video on the fly for live streaming to the Web while recording your archive at the same time.

Conclusion
To keep costs and complexity to a minimum, there are some design limitations built into the TriCaster 40. You can only reallocate so much screen space in the Live Desktop for sources, preview and program. The graphic overlays are limited to the included templates and there is no internal livecharacter generator, just predesigned title templates that are editable on the fly. So if you need more customization you'll need the optional $995 LiveText. Other options left out of the base model include a $1,995 control surface and $1,495 Virtual Set Editor that lets you create and modify your own virtual sets. The audio inputs are minimal so multiple external audio sources needs to be premixed. We would like to see at least balanced line inputs in a future design. About the only thing we found objectionable was the fan noise. But if you are producing your show in a large space, this shouldn't be a problem.

For such a potentially complicated piece of equipment, the TriCaster 40 makes it uniquely easy and affordable to create professional looking HD multi-cam, multi-source live productions that can be broadcast, projected, recorded or streamed. The TriCaster 40 is well designed and built, portable and has just enough flexibility to unleash your creativity, and simple enough to be nearly foolproof. If you are thinking about a switcher, you must check out the TriCaster 40.
Brian Peterson is a commercial video producer, consultant and certified Steadicam owner/operator.

STRENGTHS
• Easy to use
• Flexible source and output types
• Low cost

WEAKNESSES
• Minimal audio inputs
• Fan noise
• Limited graphics customization


TECH SPECS
Switcher Channels: 14 – 6 external, 4 internal, 4 virtual inputs
Video Input: 4 simultaneous mixed live video sources, including HD, Component, SD Component, Y/C or Composite.
Network Sources: 2 via Gigabit connection.
Virtual Inputs: 4 independent, mix/effect-style channels.
Downstream Key: 2 with independent DVE, transition controls, positioning and scaling.
Video Layers: 5 simultaneous layers.
Virtual Sets: 24 HD live virtual sets.
Video Output: Analog BNC configurable for Component (2) or Y/C + Composite (Program and SD-only AUX). Network output for live streaming.
Recording: Resolutions up to 1080i Encoded as QuickTime or Web-quality H.264
Recording Capacity: Approximately 20 hours of 1080i or 120 hours of 480i via internal drive in QuickTime format.
Live Streaming: HD live streaming via Adobe Flash or Microsoft Windows Media Push/Pull.
Audio Inputs: 1/4” Mono (Mic) Stereo RCA, L/R (Line)
Audio Outputs: Stereo RCA, Stereo L/R 1/4” Stereo (phones)
Supported Formats: NTSC model: 1080i, 720p, 480i (16:9), 480i (4:3)
Playback Media Formats: AVI, DV, DVCPro, DVCProHD, FLV, F4V, H.263, H.264, MOV, MKV, MJPEG, MPEG, MP4, WMV, WebM, PSD, PNG, TGA, BMP, JPEG, EXR, RAW, TIF, AIFF, MP3, WAV, and more.
Processing: Video: 4:4:4:4, 32-bit Floating Point.
Audio: 2 channels, 96 kHz, 32-bit Floating Point.