When Facebook originally launched its live-streaming service in 2015, it was limited to smartphone-toting celebrities. While the service has since rolled out to all users, going live is still most easily done from a mobile device — not a real camera, and certainly not a professional multi-camera setup. This is a bit of a problem for broadcasters, particularly news studios, for whom Facebook Live is no longer an optional addition to their over-the-air signals, but a requirement.
Fortunately, equipment to meet the live-streaming needs of high-end professionals is now available, and we had to chance to check out one such product in our Wowza ClearCaster review. Wowza Media Systems specializes in cloud-streaming solutions, and the ClearCaster was built in concert with Facebook to take full advantage of the Facebook Live API, promising effortless live-streaming from any HDMI or SDI source.
To be clear, the ClearCaster is not intended for consumer use. It is a $6,495 rack-mountable box that lights up like an aircraft on a landing approach — and is almost as loud, too. That said, we found it to be surprisingly easy to set up and use, with unexpected simplicity and worry-free operation that just works.
Installation and setup
The ClearCaster is designed to be inserted into an AV rack alongside all manner of professional studio equipment, although its bright orange exterior probably means it will stand out. It offers a wealth of ports, including six USB, two Ethernet, SDI and HDMI inputs, and two HDMI outputs. All of the ports are on the back, which may limit flexibility in some instances, but is likely not an issue for its intended use cases.
For the most basic setup, however, only three cables are needed: HDMI (or SDI) from a camera or other video source (we used a Fujifilm X-T2), Ethernet, and power. There is no need to connect the box to a computer; it’s not only smart enough to get itself online, but it handles all of the video encoding, compression, and stream-health monitoring on its own.
The ClearCaster is surprisingly easy to use, with unexpected simplicity and worry-free operation.
The front face has a small LCD for the settings menu along with a button cluster to navigate said menu. There is actually very little menu diving that you need to do (we were prompted to install a couple firmware updates, but other than that, there was nothing we had to touch in the menu).
Once everything is plugged in, you need to register your unit’s unique identifying code with Wowza online. The code is automatically displayed when you first start up the device, both on the ClearCaster LCD as well as any monitor you have connected to the HDMI output, making it very easy to find. You’ll then be prompted to authorize the ClearCaster to use your Facebook account, just like you would any other app or service. After that, you’re ready to hop over to the Facebook Live portal.
Going live in 3, 2, 1…
Once successfully registered and connected to your account, the ClearCaster will show up as an option in the “Live Encoder” menu when setting up your live-stream on Facebook. Simply select it, and you’ll see a live preview (generally with a significant delay) of your camera feed. Wowza has a demonstration video of the process.
You can also run an HDMI cable from the ClearCaster to a monitor or television, which provides a much more immediate way to preview your shot (it also displays audio levels, which is a very nice touch). Once you click the “Go Live” button in Facebook, the HDMI monitor will show a three-second countdown so that you — or your talent — know exactly when the live-stream begins. Comments and reactions from viewers will also display on the monitor, offering a live feedback loop for on-air talent.
There is no need to connect it to a computer; it handles encoding, compression, and stream health monitoring on its own.
The ClearCaster can handle resolutions up to 4K at 30 frames per second, although Wowza slightly downplays this ability since Facebook live streams are generally limited to 1080p, or less, depending on network conditions.
Fortunately, there’s no need to set the resolution or quality of your stream. Regardless of the input resolution, the ClearCaster will scale it in real time to match the limitations of your network speed. In our testing, we piped in a 4K/24p signal straight from a camera, but our Facebook Live broadcast was displayed at significantly lower quality due to the poor upstream performance of this writer’s rural internet service. However, framerate and audio quality remained smooth and clear, which we were pleased to see (and hear).
We really have nothing to compare the ClearCaster to. This is a far cry from the type of consumer gear we normally review, but it was quite fun to get to play around with a piece of such high-end, dedicated hardware. This is a purpose-build machine that really does just one thing, but it does it very well. So well, in fact, that we’re a bit miffed there isn’t a more consumer-friendly solution to streaming to Facebook Live from a real camera.
While solutions do exist, they all require special video capture gear and software. Or, like the Freestream (previously Freecast) or DxO One, they still rely on your mobile device to actually transmit the stream. Why isn’t there a simple box that we can just plug in to our routers and access through Facebook’s live-streaming portal?
The answer to this question may be obvious: The vast majority of individuals simply don’t have a need for high-quality live-streaming — at least, not at the moment. Going live is used as little more than a way to share your experience at, say, a concert or other event. Here, you’ll be streaming from your phone, regardless. But, it’s nice to see that professional broadcasters now have access to tools that can make their Facebook Live steams looks just as good as their over-the-air broadcasts — especially a tool as easy to integrate as the Wowza ClearCaster.