By Jason Snell
April 20, 2022 5:38 PM PT
Learning to love Ecamm’s Live
When I first tried Ecamm Network‘s live-streaming app Live, I didn’t like it.1 I liked the idea of it. Software that streams live to YouTube, Twitch, and other services is dominated by open-source projects like OBS and Streamlabs and expensive cross-platform apps like Wirecast. Live is a rarity: it’s a relatively young (introduced in 2017), Mac-only app. There aren’t many of those out there in any category, and this was a category that frustrated me with unreliable, slow cross-platform apps.
Most of my friends who have dived into live streaming gave up and bought Windows PCs, dedicated to running that software. No judgment—I get it. But I really didn’t want to go down that path. I wanted to use my Mac, if at all possible.
Unfortunately, my first attempt at embracing Live didn’t take. In early 2020, I desperately hoped it could replicate my needs for streaming Total Party Kill (and, potentially, Six Colors). Unfortunately, the app wasn’t flexible enough. I wanted control of the layout of the live display. For example, I wanted to place video of two people side by side, with a small picture-in-picture overlay of a screen capture. It just couldn’t be done—Live had a very particular way of approaching a document with a single “source” dominating the screen and additional items being added on top of it.
I gave up and went back to Wirecast, OBS, and Streamlabs, and spent a couple of years frustrated that not even an iMac Pro with eight Xeon cores had enough horsepower to stream videos smoothly on the Internet. (These apps, all focused primarily on Windows, don’t properly take advantage of various Mac features, making them less efficient on macOS.) I had crashes, failures, and frustrations with interfaces that just weren’t made for me.
Earlier this year, I decided to check in on Live to see if it had made progress in the last two years. It turns out, if you build a sustainable business model—Live costs $16/month, or $32/month for a Pro tier—you can afford to steadily update your software! In two years, Live had addressed literally every frustration I had experienced with the 2020 version of the app. I can’t see ever going back to another video-streaming app now. (I used Live for our first experimental Six Colors stream last month.)
How it works
The big breakthrough in Live was its addition of the concept of a scene with its source set to Blank. This allows me to place objects on the canvas any way I want without working around a big, primary source like a camera or a screen capture. (I realize that most video streamers want that feature, which is why Live initially implemented it that way—but I am a bit of a control enthusiast.)
Live’s main window is the live-stream canvas. You can add items to it as overlays, which display in a floating palette that’s analogous to the Layers window in Photoshop. Items you can add to the canvas include images, cameras, screen or window captures, and text. You can position, resize, and crop them all easily. I especially appreciate that objects can be placed on Show In All Scenes or Show In Background layers, reducing the redundancy of elements you use in every scene. You can also assign keyboard shortcuts to individual overlays, so it’s easy to make overlays appear or disappear quickly.
Of course, I’m always wanting more. I’d like to be able to lock objects at their current aspect ratio so that resizing them doesn’t become a bit of a guessing game in terms of getting their current crop to remain unchanged. More masking options would be nice, and I’d like to be able to move or resize multiple objects at once.
Every scene is its own individual canvas, and you can switch between them by clicking, via keyboard shortcut, or via a Stream Deck button. You can choose one of two modes—in the default mode, when you switch to or edit a scene, the results are immediately reflected on your live stream. If you switch into Preview Mode, any switching or editing isn’t displayed on your live stream until you press Return. Both have their advantages.
Live has a document-based interface, sort of: each different project appears as a different Profile in the Profiles menu, with its own set of scenes and destinations. So I can have a Profile for Six Colors and separate ones for every D&D campaign I’m streaming. You can export and import Profiles to exchange them with other people or move them to other devices.
I’ve also been very impressed with just how fast and stable Live has been. In other apps, capturing a bunch of windows leads to reduced frame rates. I’d been reduced to capturing cropped portions of my screen, which saved me on frame rates—but also meant that if I accidentally moved a window atop the windows I was capturing, I would mess up the capture completely. In Live, I was able to capture a Zoom window, make copies of the capture, crop them differently, and place them all together. Not only did the frame rate not suffer, but the Live interface itself didn’t become sluggish, another common occurrence when capturing a lot of windows in other apps. It feels like Live is that much more capable on Macs with Apple silicon; using a Mac Studio with an M1 Max chip, it felt like there was literally nothing I couldn’t do with Live.
Live supports streaming to several different services, but only one at a time. It supports restreaming services to let you, say, stream to YouTube and Twitch at once. (It might be nice if Live was capable of streaming to more than one service itself.)
As is usually the case with products like this, I know I’m not taking advantage of a fraction of the app’s features. My friends Mikah Sargent and Rosemary Orchard use the Pro version of Live to produce iOS Today; they use Zoom to communicate with each other and the TWiT studio, but rather than using a webcam, they are sending the output from Live across the Zoom link. This lets them choose to display themselves or a locally shared iPhone or iPad screen capture, which is a key part of what they do on that show. In essence, they’re using Live to direct their own portion of the show themselves.
Another Pro feature is support for Live’s own integrated videoconferencing service. I’ve used this on live streams with Matthew Cassinelli, and it’s quite good. But it’s not enough to make me switch from using Zoom, especially since most of my D&D sessions feature far more than Live’s four-guest limit. Live even supports NDI, which allows you to import individual guests in apps like Skype as their own cameras, so you don’t have to section up a screen capture of a VOIP window. Unfortunately, my podcasting app of choice is Zoom, which doesn’t support NDI in regular use! (Liminal’s ZoomISO sort of does this, but it feels really hacky. I’d love to see Zoom support NDI directly—and perhaps it will, since Zoom recently bought Liminal.)
While it’s true that you never get a second chance to make a first impression, I’m glad I revisited Live two years on. In the intervening time, Ecamm has removed every stumbling block that made it an impractical app for me. Live is now my live-streaming app of choice. It feels good to add a new, Mac-only app to my toolbox.
- Ecamm also made the now-discontinued Call Recorder, an excellent tool for recording Skype calls. ↩
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