Blackmagic’s ATEM, Not a ‘Plug & Play’ Switcher

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 switching.

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 Studio.

BLACKMAGIC DESIGN’S ATEM

 
Blackmagic Design’s ATEM Television Studio
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.

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 about $1,000.

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, and three are switchable in 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 minutes.

INITIAL THOUGHTS

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 WORLD

 
Blackmagic Design’s ATEM Television Studio
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 screen.

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.

POSTPRODUCTION

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 many compromises.

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.

MORE INFO

Blackmagic Design:
www.blackmagicdesign.com

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