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Shoot Review — Channel Storm Live Channel Pro 2.2

With Live Channel 2.2 software as the hub, your live video production hardware is comprised of a USB digital microphone, a USB webcam, a FireWire digital video camera, and a Mac PowerBook G4.

As broadband Internet access becomes more widespread, streaming video is reaching people from all walks of life. With a fairly fast computer, a web camera, and some software, you can see and hear someone across town or on the other side of the planet. Streaming offers tons of new opportunities for video producers. Communicate with long-distance clients, share dailies, and do pre-shoot consultations with talent and crew — and show a final video project to a client for approval. What once produced a jerky, blurry mess the size of a postage stamp has evolved into a technology that supports fullscreen, full-motion video that’s near TV quality.

But well into the desktop editing revolution, you still couldn’t find a software-only application that enables live productions. Outboard hardware (switchers, mixers, etc.) are generally required for productions that incorporate a few live video sources, video clips, still images, and audio. Not anymore.

Live Channel Pro 2.0 from Channel Storm is the first and only software solution for producing and broadcasting live media. First introduced in 2003, Live Channel has some important new features added in version 2.2 that make it worthy of consideration. Live Channel Pro allows Mac OS X users to capture video and audio, encode, edit, manipulate, add titles, and output it all to videotape or stream it to the Web. Use DV videocameras connected via FireWire and/or webcams, and connect microphones to the Mac’s audio input. The idea is to provide an easy-to-use, all-in-one media creation solution. For the most part, Channel Storm has succeeded.

Based in Israel, Channel Storm also makes Live Presenter and Live Render, a video processing technology. The company has incorporated proprietary technologies into Live Channel Pro 2.0 and sunk its teeth into streaming. The new 2.2 version adds compatibility with Apple’s OS X 10.4 Tiger.

I found out about Live Channel Pro though an online user group, and later found out I had a friend in Italy that uses it at his job all the time. Currently, Channel Storm sells the download version only through its website, where there are QuickTime demos and the software manual. You can download a trial version the software, install it, and get used to using it. It’s fully functional, but the software will place a logo and an audio stamp over your content. Once you get a serial number, the logos are removed for full, unencumbered output.

Hands on

For the review, I used Live Channel Pro 2.2 on my PowerBook G4 laptop (1GHz CPU with maxed-out RAM), an Apple iSight USB web camera, a Shure mic connected to a Griffin Technologies iMic USB audio interface, and a Sony DV camera (you can use multiple cameras). I was up and running easily. The Mac saw all connections, and Live Channel Pro seamlessly takes over the system. Add a high-speed Internet connection and/or videotape (or DVD) recorder, and you have a powerful portable production platform.

Using it as a standalone video production center rolling out to tape, I had no problems. I could easily mix multiple video sources — both live and clips — plus stills and audio clips with smooth transitions. But I could not use two live video sources. (Later I learned that this is a limitation of OS X and Apple QuickTime. The company addressed this in a 2.2.1 release, and compatibility issues with Tiger in a 2.2.2 version.)

Tiger OS X support helps a great deal. There’s support for multiple video layers, a full 256-level alpha channel for variable transparency, realtime color adjustment, a 10-nanosecond character generator for super-clear titles, and unlimited audio and video inputs. Despite a rudimentary feel, this software has professional features.

I was also able to do multiple overlays and composites with titles, graphics, and live video for a sophisticated look that was easy to achieve. The switcher can create three-dimensional transitions and other dynamic effects like picture-in-picture, animations, and colonization.

Live Channel Pro’s interface is easy to understand, and when I got stuck I found the manual to be written in simple English. After transferring some clips to my project folder, I was able to capture video and switch between various sources as I rolled out to DV tape. It worked like other hardware solutions costing many times as much.

I was happy with the ease of use and ultimate results using it as a portable nonlinear editor and live switcher. Unlike timeline-based applications, everything here is based on windows, browsers, and menus. All controls are realtime-responsive, which, quite frankly, was a pleasant surprise. I was able to do realtime color correction with no hassle to make the clips match more closely. To my eye, video quality — both on the RGB LCD monitor and NTSC output — equaled that of other video editing applications on the market, but the tools here are much more intuitive.

Serving streaming

Among Live Channel Pro’s strong points is its ability to stream its content output at the same time it outputs to conventional video via the Mac’s FireWire or Y/C port. Live Channel Pro has a built-in streaming server, an adaptation of Apple’s Darwin streaming server, the open-source version of the QuickTime streaming server. In theory, I can webcast directly to a number of local or remote network viewers simultaneously, without running a dedicated streaming server — and, most importantly, without hiring a streaming service provider. In my tests, I was unable to keep more than a few viewers at one time. When the numbers grew too big the stream would stop.

To keep the stream from serving too many clients, set the maximum number of viewers in the Server Settings dialog. I streamed at the 56kbps compression setting; with a 300kbps connection I could webcast to four or five viewers. Perhaps more, but I tested only this many.

The Live Channel Pro internal server has no administrative control. According to the documentation, you can stream to up to 100 viewers with no additional streaming server, but in my experience this did not seem to be the case. In addition, it cannot be used for on-demand streaming, or for relaying or reflecting streams from any source other than the Live Channel software itself.

However, you can “unicast” to QuickTime streaming servers or Real Networks servers for large-scale webcasting, and viewers can see content on any QuickTime-enabled web browser, Mac or Windows.

The software supports all QuickTime-compatible video and audio codecs, including QuickTime 7 and MPEG-4 video and audio. You can use the predefined compression settings for common Internet access data rates, or set your own. And for a handy tape backup, you can roll out to tape whatever you webcast. Most of all, I found Live Channel Pro to be one of the easiest streaming solutions I’ve ever run across. For some, that by itself will be worth the cost.

On balance

There are only a few drawbacks to this product — one is that it’s Mac-only.

Overall, I’d give Live Channel Pro 2.0 high marks for usability and robustness, but dealing with a foreign company has its challenges. Channel Storm indicated that it does its best to answer users within 24 hours of receiving their emails. Most customers receive an answer during the same day. For urgent support matters, the company can also be reached by phone. Time differences can work to your advantage — put in a question in the evening and get the answer back the next day. It would be nice if Channel Storm facilitated an online user forum so that users could share their experiences and knowledge with one another.

Live Channel Pro 2.2.2 is compatible with Mac OS X 10.4 and QuickTime 7, but the higher-quality H.264 video codec is still not supported. Channel Storm officials indicated that beyond an occasional maintenance update, further development would be based upon customer demand.

To cut down on piracy, all Live Channel Pro serial numbers are valid for a period of only one year. This is done to reduce the possibility of illegal distribution via fraudulent use of serial numbers. Normally, 60 days before the license expiration is due, Live Channel Pro 2.2 or higher prompts the user to contact Channel Storm support to receive a new serial number and continue using the product. After the old serial number has expired, the user still has a grace period of 60 days to contact Channel Storm support in order to receive a free new serial number. This seems to be a simple solution to the rampant problem of software piracy.

While Live Channel Pro is not as well-known as many other solutions, its users read like a who’s-who in industry, government, and academia — Lockheed Martin to Cambridge University to National Public Radio. For training, business presentations, product demos, and graduations, Internet Channel Storm’s Live Channel Pro 2.2 is reportedly on the job.

As it stands, Live Channel 2.2 could be a must-have for every Mac user working with video on a regular basis — depending, of course, on business model and budget. At $999, one really must think twice about this purchase. Still, for those Mac users regularly involved with streaming — or looking for a simple all-in-one video production package — this software and a good PowerBook G4 can really fit the bill.

Bottomline

Company: Channel Storm
Herzlia, Israel; 972-9-956-8143
www.channelstorm.com

Product: Live Channel Pro 2.2

Assets: All-in-one webcast solution, solid code with no crashes, very slight learning curve.

Caveats: The faster the CPU and the more RAM the better.

Demographic: Any Mac-based video professional

PRICE: $999

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