FastChannel, an IP-centric company that serves broadcasters, was one of the first companies to deliver commercials via IP to stations. Because we have equipment in several locations and are committed to IP technology, all of our video equipment needs to be controllable from remote locations. We have technicians at all of our sites, but we do much of the engineering remotely with IP-based gear.
We receive spots on tape from advertisers or post houses. The tape is played back and fed into a Grass Valley Concerto router, then through Ensemble Designs' Avenue signal processing gear and into a Telestream ClipMail Pro encoder. ClipMail Pro uploads spots in MPEG-2 to our Boston Network Operations Center's (NOC) proprietary server array. Spots are quality checked from our Chicago location by accessing spots on the NOC server. After QC, the spot is released for distribution and is sent from the NOC server over IP to a TV station. Each station has a FastChannel server on-site. Spots are distributed in MPEG-2, 4:2:2 at 18Mb/s.
With offices in Chicago; Dallas; London; Los Angeles; Memphis, TN; and New York, we need to monitor and control all of the video and audio equipment from any of the locations.
The sync pulse generator (SPG), distribution amplifiers (DAs) and signal processing gear in Ensemble Designs' Avenue line met our performance criteria for video and audio specifications, remote control over the Internet and customer service responsiveness.
We use the 5400 signal generator, the 5460 and 5465 changeover switches, and the distribution amplifiers. The SPG, switch and DAs all share a 3RU frame that can hold 10 modules. We use one or two frames at each location and populate them with a mix of modules.
The frame and cards arrive in separate boxes from the factory. Cards plug into the frames from the front. All connections, including BNCs, dual power and Ethernet, are on the back of the frame. We like being able to reach the fan from the front, too. Installation was straightforward.
The frame has a control card as an option, which should be required with every system. The control card is needed for the Ethernet port to be active, a must for our application. The control card has a slot between the processing cards and the power supplies inside the frame.
It's easiest to set the frame's IP address if the frame has a touch-screen front panel. Otherwise, the IP address is set on the control card edge using a switch and push button, which works fine too. Once this is set, we control the frame through the Avenue PC software or the touch screen. Because we control most equipment remotely, we use the PC software more than the touch-screen control surface.
The PC software can control any frame and its cards that are on the network. We use the PC software to control any of our frames by accessing a particular facility IP network and then targeting the specific frame we want to access. The control system is easy to use. The frames and cards show up in a logical manner on the left side of the screen. We can see all the cards in our system and know what equipment we have on hand; it's all reported to us. We click on a particular card and its controls are displayed, and then we can change any settings.
The signal generator is ID-based, which means the name of the facility can be embedded in the test signal. This is important because when we're accessing signals remotely, we can easily see which facility is originating the feed. We rely on the ability to log in and change to different test signals and adjust levels remotely. The generator also has a tri-level sync output in addition to the standard reference outputs. It's helpful in a dual-standard house. Multiple video, audio and tri-level outputs can be set to different types of signals through the control system.
We use a changeover switch due to the comfort factor. The signal generator is the brain of the operation, so the changeover switch will shift to the other SPG card if necessary. It's not a fancy card, but it's vital. There are three poles on the card that check for signal presence, and we decide which video or audio signals to connect.
The ability to put a distribution amplifier card in with all of the other modules in the system is a nice feature. When we access the system remotely, it's also easy to access the DA and make tweaks if there is a level loss somewhere in the plant. Again, anything that we can adjust remotely is helpful.
A typical application for FastChannel is the need to remotely test a system in preparation for an agency to get a spot to broadcaster. This involves checking for signal presence, alignment, video levels, audio levels and continuity. We call in through our keyboard video mouse, check a crosspoint and dial in the signal we want through the IP settings on the unit. We verify the signal path from the SPG to the VTR or server. Then on-site staff loads a spot and uploads it to the NOC.
Maintenance and customer service
We can access all of the cards and power supplies from the front of the frame, so maintenance is easy. For example, we can swap out a card simply by pulling the old one out and plugging in the new card while the unit is still running.
Customer support is critical. When we need help, we want to talk with a knowledgeable person right away. Ensemble Designs has always been prompt and helpful.
The company Web site has been our backup customer support system. The site offers free software updates for the cards. Software updates sometimes have new features, such as a new test pattern for the signal generator, or fixes, such as how the audio levels work.
The software update process is fairly simple. The same Avenue PC software that we already use for control has a pull-down menu that allows us to update the software in a card. It takes a few minutes to get the new software into the card, and then it runs smoothly. The card is not usable on-air during an upgrade.
Each module comes with a manual, and the company provides a binder to put it in. When we get new modules, we just add the packet to the binder. But more often, we use the Avenue PC online manual for checking pinouts, because it has built-in manuals.
The user interface is self-explanatory, and we haven't had many reasons to use the manuals. The PC control software and touch screen both have pull-down menus that make everything clear.
Robin Shahid is the chief engineer, broadcast product specialist for FastChannel.