Over the last couple of decades, “popular and affordable”
video switchers that cost under $10,000 were
NewTek’s Video Toaster Board (in a Commodore
2000 personal computer), Panasonic’s WJ-MX12,
WJ-MX30, WJ-MX50, Sony’s FXE-100/120, DFS-
300, DFS-500, Grass Valley’s 100/110 or Videonics’
MX-1 or MX-100.
In the late 1990s, non-linear editing removed
production switchers from postproduction, and the
only thing that kept production switchers from the
scrap heap for most was the need for live production
The “Toaster” was too complicated to use in
a temporary field production—it required a lot of
effort for a single-day shoot—but using it for a permanent
setup or multiple-day project could make
sense. Therefore, the most affordable option for a
quick setup since the mid-1990s has been Videonics
MX-1 at $990.
Despite the coming of high-definition equipment,
standard-definition switchers were still prominent
because HD switchers were expensive. Nonetheless,
the method to capture video in HD was developed
in which HD cameras recorded video, while down
converting to standard definition to feed to the
switcher, and out to the projector. The HD video
recorded in the cameras would then be used in
postproduction to produce a HD DVD of the event.
That changed in 2011 when Blackmagic Design
released the ATEM Television
Unlike traditional switchers, the
ATEM is not “plug and play”;
it needs a few more items than
those accompanying the product.
What it does come with are a one-rack-unit, 19 inch
rack-mountable switcher hardware, a power supply,
a power cord and a CD with the software.
|Blackmagic Design’s ATEM Television Studio|
In addition to those items, the ATEM needs a
computer with Windows 7 or a Mac computer (ideally,
notebook computers for portability). Because
all of the video processing is conducted within the
ATEM’s hardware, any inexpensive notebook computer—
as low as $500—outfitted with Windows 7,
a USB port and Ethernet port will work. Macs need
the same ports, but the cheapest Mac notebook is
Now video production departments can obtain
an HD/SD - SDI/HDMI switcher that can do down
conversion for about the same price of the Videonics
MX-1. That is an amazing value, even with all of the
system requirements to make it work.
SETUP IS SIMPLE
The setup of the ATEM is fairly simple. First you
attach the switcher hardware to a notebook with
the Ethernet cable, then install the control software.
That can get a little tricky; the system will ask you to
check the BMD website for updated software, then
ask you to add it. Following that step, you may see
the same message again, but this time the message
refers not to software for switcher operations, but
to firmware for the switcher hardware that also
must be updated.
The next step is to attach the ATEM to the computer
via a USB port. Once the firmware update is
completed, the operator runs the ATEM software
to ensure the software is pointed to the ATEM’s
Internet protocol address. Once completed, cameras
and monitors can be hooked up and tested.
One of the great features of the ATEM is its builtin
HDMI multi-viewer. When the ATEM is hooked
up to an external HDMI monitor, the user can view
the program out, the preview and all of the eight
sources on any inexpensive HDMI monitor. A few
years ago, that feature alone required special hardware
costing thousands of dollars.
Some of the inputs are dedicated HD-SDI or HDMI,
the software control through the computer. To switch
the switchable inputs, there is a settings tab with a list
of the inputs. A drop-down menu enables the user to
switch between HDMI and HD-SDI.
While it is likely you will use the ATEM mostly
for cuts or dissolves, a number of Society of Motion
Picture and Television Engineers standard wipes and
transitions would be familiar to any operator who
has used a Grass Valley 100/110 switcher. It also
does chroma and luma keying, but those brightness
controls were not tested for this review.
For some, the computer screen and mouse may
not be the preferred user interface. Therefore, BMD
offers the ATEM 1 M/E Broadcast Panel as a $4,995
option providing actual buttons, and a “t-bar” gives
the operator a more tactile feel.
For testing, I used a pro Sony HVR-S270 camcorder
that has HD-SDI out, plus a consumer
Sony HDR-HC7 “Handycam” with HDMI was used.
Cutting, dissolving and wiping were mastered within
My initial thoughts on the unit could be described
as wonderment that a digital HD switcher, costing
under $1,000, could be so easy to set up.
Operators or technical directors familiar with the
NewTek Video Toaster are accustomed to the space
bar triggering the transition and the “enter” key
triggering a cut. With the ATEM those key functions
are reversed and cannot be reassigned like you can
do with some non-liner editing software.
My only other immediate observation is that the
ATEM hardware gets very hot. Blackmagic Design
says the unit is not a fire hazard; but I recommend
that you place nothing on or near the unit that can
melt, or be damaged by the heat. In addition, users
should wait about 10 minutes for the unit to cool
down before touching it to avoid being burned.
IN THE REAL
As a real-world field trial,
I deployed the ATEM at a junior high
graduation where it was set
up for a live-switched image
magnification program where
the switcher is routed to a
|Blackmagic Design’s ATEM Television Studio|
The initial setup was the same as the initial test,
but with a few differences. The cameras were a
Sony HVR-S270 with the HD-SDI and a Sony HVRZ7u
with HDMI out. The HVR-S270 was fine as
before, but the HVR-Z7 had issues. A 50-foot HDMI
cable ran from the ATEM to the HVR-Z7, but there
was no signal. After moving the HVR-Z7 closer to
the ATEM and deploying a 6-foot HDMI cable, there
was a signal. Subsequently, placing a HDMI signal
booster between two HDMI cables solved the problem
of the longer cable.
Just before the graduation, the school’s principal
asked if a couple of graphics and a slide show from
a DVD could be projected. I was able to handle those
requests because of the ATEM’s flexibility. For the
DVD, an up-scaling DVD player was hooked up to the
ATEM via HDMI, and the two graphics, given as JPGs
were loaded on the computer via a USB thumb drive.
As mentioned, only a basic computer is needed to control
the ATEM, but the only Windows 7 notebook used
was a more powerful HP Mobile workstation loaded
with Adobe CS6. The HP Mobile was a lucky break
because one of the images, when put in the frame
buffer, showed up as a postage stamp. Fortunately it
was of sufficient resolution that Photoshop was able to
enlarge the image and fill the screen.
Getting the program to the screen was another
issue, for the cameras were shooting 1080i but the
projector was only capable of 720p. Rather than down
converting from 1080 to 480 in the ATEM hardware,
the operators went HD-SDI out into a Barco unit that
did scaling, and produced a great 720p image to the
projector. The ATEM can down convert 1080 to 480,
or 720 to 480, but not cross convert 1080 to 720. It
would be great if it could, but remembering the costeffectiveness
of this unit, it is forgivable.
It took about five minutes to train the technical
director how to use the ATEM’s computer interface
and the show went off without a hitch. Then something
odd happened. Members of the audience
approached the crew and said how good the image
looked on the screen. One would believe that nine
out of 10 consumers probably could not differentiate
a good standard-def video from HD, but a
steady stream of audience members mentioned it.
Using the previous setup, an SD mix tape was
recorded. For postproduction, the HD camera masters
would be used. With the ATEM there are few
affordable HD-SDI videotape recorders for recording
the mix, with the Sony HVR-1500a HDV VTR being
the least expensive at $7,500. Another option is a
HD-SDI to Firewire converter with a HVR-M15, but
that combo could also run $4,500.
However, Blackmagic Design’s Hyper Deck
Shuttle 2 (a digital disk recorder) is an affordable
solution. The unit itself costs about $345 and
records Avid DNxHD MXF compressed format,
Apple’s Pro Res 422, or uncompressed Quicktime
files to solid state drives. With SSDs running from
$1 to $1.50 per gigabyte, it would still be cheaper
to purchase the Hyperdeck Shuttle and two or three
SSDs, rather than a video deck. Unfortunately the
SSDs did not arrive in time for the review.
Because Blackmagic Design’s ATEM Television
Studio delivers tremendous “bang for the buck,” I
recommend it highly. Even if the user’s application
of the ATEM requires obtaining a notebook computer
with Windows 7, and an HDMI signal booster
or two, the price should be well under $2,000. For
productions that require switching of HD video live
and on a budget, this is the way to go without
Marc Franklin has been working in video production
and post-production for over 20 years. He has
worked as a video production, and post contractor
and trainer at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
hospital in North Hills, Calif., UCLA and at the Los
Angeles Unified School District. For his own company,
Franklin Video Productions Inc., he has shot and edited
a wide variety of different programs such as short
films, special event video, news and corporate video.