Skype, CamTwist, and Ustream

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So I’ve been talking a lot about live-streaming my Skype tastings to Ustream for a while now. Well there always seems to be some kind of issue with Skype and my computers. You see, I’m a tinkerer. That means I break stuff. While I don’t intentionally break things to learn how to fix them, that’s the end result. It’s how I’ve become a “super user” of computers.

The past few Skype interviews I’ve tried something new. And it’s just about always resulted in a screwup in the interview technically. While the interview and tasting itself goes well, somewhere along the line the connection goes wonky, the computer locks up, Skype crashes, or some other catastrophe occurs. Sometimes I’m lucky and it’s just a glitch. Other times I completely lose the video and only have audio (I’ll eventually post that interview). In between interviews I do some research to figure out what went wrong but never really experiment; until today.

Today I decided that once and for all I was going to tackle the issue I have with Skype, CamTwist, and Ustream. A few weeks ago I decided very authoritatively that the 3ivx plugin I had was the culprit of my Skype crashes. It was what was causing iPhoto to hang, and it’s basically a useless plugin. I only had it because I had a Flipcam for a minute and needed it. I’ve had it cause other issues in the past and decided that it might be the cause of my Skype lockups.

So I deleted all traces of the thing. It can be a pain to get rid of if you don’t look in all the nooks and crannies. Once I had done that I fired up Skype. I have two accounts. A personal one (my original one) and the 1337 Wine account (leetwine). I have my laptop running one account and the iMac running the other. I do this for a while and neither computer has a hiccup. So I feel justified in my conclusion. I now know that I can at least conduct an interview.

But there’s a Beaujolais Nouveau tasting coming up soon. There’s going to be people out there following the Ustream feed of WineTwits. Well, not to be outdone, I want to not only Ustream my stuff, but also see if some fellow wine people will want to Skype in. So I need to make sure that I can relay that to Ustream. Now I haven’t tested having multiple Skype connections coming in and forwarding it to Ustream yet (see I always try something new), so I fully expect to have a meltdown. Plus I’ve never even tried multiple Skype connections yet either. For it to work, someone has to pay a premium. At least you can do it a la carte.

Google Hangout is an option, but being able to record it on my computer is a difficult task at best. There isn’t a program that is written to really do it. Not like Call Recorder from Ecamm Network. It does it’s job well as long as Skype behaves. And to make things look better I got another one of their pieces of software called iGlasses. It promised to improve the quality of the video on my end.

So today, after uploading my latest review, it was time to tackle the big problem. Of course I assume it would take 1-2 hours MAX. Yeah, right. 7 Hours later, I finally could successfully repeat connections that actually made it to Ustream without crashing. I even made sure I made some notes so that I could boot into my Skype user account on the iMac and remember what I did.

So after all of this, what did I learn? Quite a bit. One important piece of info, is that it’s important to start certain software before others. I can remember back in my Amiga days that my favorite music sequencer of all time, Music-X, “preferred” to be started first before any other programs. It was a memory hog and would just grab all the memory it could. If you didn’t have at least 512kb (if I remember right) of memory, it didn’t play nice. And if other programs had been started before it, it would fight to get some of the memory allocated to those programs.

Nowadays, modern operating systems do a better job of managing memory and making sure a program has what it needs. The ability to have tens of gigabytes of memory and swap disks for memory means that it’s hard to really run out of memory. But today I found out that it’s not just memory that programs fight over. Built in cameras are another.

Here’s the scenario. In order to get all this stuff to work like I want, I need many programs to work in conjunction. Here is the list:

  • Skype
  • CamTwist
  • Adobe Flash Media Live Encoder (FMLE)
  • Call Recorder
  • iGlasses
  • Timer Utility
  • LineIn
  • Soundflower
  • Any Browser to connect to Ustream for monitoring
  • I’ll detail each below:

    First, by far the most amazing of the programs here is CamTwist. While I don’t expect to really ever use the switching capabilities or the other cool “studio” features of this program, the fact that it’s F.R.E.E. is friggin’ amazing. I mean check out Soldier Knows Best and you’ll see what he does with this. Or even better, go to Space Vidcast and see what they do.

    Back in the day, NewTek (from right here in San Antonio) created the Video Toaster and revolutionized video forever. For $5000 you could replicate $100,000 worth of equipment. Again, another Amiga thing here. PCs were for business, Macs for Desktop Publishing, and Amigas for Video. CamTwist upends what you can do just in software and it’s free. It’s not gonna replace a network’s equipment, but for small guys like me, it’s amazing.

    What I basically do is route either the Skype window itself or the entire screen and work in full screen mode with Skype to FMLE. But the most important thing to remember is that this needs to be the very first program started. Remember the memory problem above? Well here is has to do with the camera. Before I watched the video I’ll link later, I knew that there must me a conflict with all these programs potentially trying to get the feed from the camera in the computer. I was getting choppy video as soon as I connected to Ustream on their website. Up until then it was fine.

    Skype. Well, hopefully by now you know what it does so I really don’t need to expound on it. With the ability to have pretty reliable and secure peer-to-peer connections for audio and video, it’s another essential piece to the puzzle. Again, free. Now if you want to contact people on land lines or have multiple-person video chat, that’ll cost you, but still. On the Mac side, Skype is finally getting some love with features so it’s no longer iChat or nothing. Of course Google Hangout is a nice competitor, but integrating recording of sessions is lacking.

    Speaking of recording calls, Call Recorder is a Mac OS X only program that really has no equal. While there are other programs that will essentially do a screen capture of the video being played in the window for other video chat services, no one that I know of actually taps into the video and audio feeds like Call Recorder. With MultiTrack you will get all the video feeds as separate tracks from how I read the docs. Audio is a bit different. Your audio will be on one track while everyone else’s is on the 2nd track. While they don’t record HD yet, it is on the table.

    FMLE. No it’s not F My Life Eternally. Even if it’s from Adobe and has the word Flash in it. While this isn’t an essential piece of software, if you want high quality video, you do need it. This is what sends the feed to Ustream. Yeah I said it wasn’t essential, because you can just straight up connect to Ustream via a browser and let CamTwist send the feed to the Flash Video control on Ustream’s site. But it’ll look crappy. Another thing this program does is record your video. In as high definition as you can throw at it. So I use it as a backup in case Call Recorder chokes. But usually it’s Skype choking so it wouldn’t matter anyway.

    While Call Recorder doesn’t record HD, from what I can tell CamTwist is still passing along the HD signal. Of course all this HD could slow down your computer. I tried to do everything at 1280 x 720 and my Quad Core i5 was cranking at 300% many times plus other issues. I use the recommended settings of 640 x 360 until I can be comfortable going higher (basically when Call Recorder starts recording in HD). Oh yeah, FMLE is FREE.

    iGlasses. Another one of those pieces of software that isn’t essential, but it’ll make things better. For my purposes it allows me to adjust the camera to improve the look on my end. It can also do some neat effects (many of which are in CamTwist). But for me I only need it for the ability to adjust the image and also do some zoom and cropping if needed.

    LineIn. You might not think you need this piece of software, and it’s easy to forget you do. With all the attention being paid to video, audio can get forgotten. I know, I didn’t do this for one of my Skype -> Ustream tastings. Not a huge deal as far as the tasting itself was concerned since I was recording it to use later, but anyone that may have been watching live would be frustrated. The thing to remember here is that you need to set the Output to Soundflower (ch2).

    Soundflower. Another piece of software that is easily forgotten. It’s not something you launch. It’s really a plugin for the system. You may have installed it at one point or not. If you haven’t installed it, you need to get it.

    Timer Utility. There are tons of timers out there. Many are free. But what sets this one apart for me was that it has a setting called “Keep windows always on top.” This is important if you use full screen mode for Skype since any other timer windows will be covered. And while Skype can tell you how long you’ve been on a call, it’s pretty small and it fades away. This thing doesn’t go away and it’s big enough so that I can have the iMac a couple feet away and easily see how long I’ve been on the call. Plus I can start it just before recording instead of trying to remember what time I started to how long into the call I started. It’s not free ironically considering the rest of the amazing software that is, and it’s not a must have, but it’s nice to have.

    Lastly, connecting to Ustream. Any browser will do. I’d prefer to use one that is barebones so that you don’t have tons of add-ons or extensions bogging it down. All of them will do that especially if you use a separate user account just for Skype. But the thing to remember here is do this last. Once you click Connect and Start in FMLE you will be connected to Ustream and broadcasting anyway. Loading it the browser is so you can monitor the feed and also have Ustream record everything too. Otherwise you really don’t need it. If you start the browser too early, there’s going to be some conflicts between UStream and FMLE and you may not get the feed.

    So here is the order I have in my shorthand notes:

  • Open CamTwist first – Use Desktop+ Full Screen/This Screen
  • Then LineIn: Input Built-In or whatever I’m using. Output: Soundflower (2ch)
  • Then FMLE
  • In “Save to File” name the File
  • Connect
  • Start
  • Record (FMLE)
  • Start Skype
  • Call contact or wait for call
  • Start Timer Utility
  • Open Safari and log into Ustream
  • Go Live
  • Select Server Monitor (to see what your audience sees)
  • Click Start Record
  • When you log into Ustream, you won’t have the option to Start Broadcast (this is a good thing). You might think you can use another computer for this, but you really can’t. That computer will try to broadcast on your channel instead.

    Here is a great video from the host of Space Vidcast that covers all the settings for FMLE, CamTwist, and Ustream. He also shows how he uses CamTwist Studio. It’s a bit dated as you have to find the XML file differently in Ustream. You now go to your Dashboard, then Channel, then Advanced to find the XML file. Make sure to pay attention to the rest of the settings that the host talks about. It’s very important in order for everything to work.

    My Virtual Tasting page has most of the other advice on how to do Skype like make sure no one else is using the connection, etc.

    I hope this steers you in the right direction if you are looking to not only use Skype, but also create your own studio or stream to Ustream.

    Mark “Leet Wine” Fusco

    One More Thing. I HIGHLY suggest you set up another user account on your computer that ONLY does Skype. It runs the bare minimum of other programs. All those other login applications you use, you won’t need them on this account, so disable them. You’re going to need all the CPU power you can get at some point so make sure nothing you don’t need for the call is running.

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