Production switchers

Movies usually portray the glamour of television with a shot of a large control room (usually at a New York network studio) with a passel of production people sweating over a newscast or awards show. A shot of the production switcher always makes the final cut because it epitomizes the glitzy, high-tech look the audience associates with television production. In fact, a close-up shot of a Grass Valley Group Model 100 production switcher actually appeared in one movie as the controls of a nuclear power plant.

Most live broadcasts involving more than a camera or two must use some kind of production switcher. Whether the studio is a location production truck that can accommodate only two people or a control room with 20 chairs in it, the production switcher is an essential element.

Those who want to upgrade to digital switching without replacing their old analog control panel may benefit from a solution like the Ross Video frame shown above.

A switcher has a number of inputs ranging from four to 80, which can be combined into a number of outputs, ranging from one to 50 or so. In a digital mixer, the software that mixes the inputs allows the usual range of cuts, wipes, dissolves, keys, effects, moves and fades in at least one, and as many as four, complex mix-effects banks. (This article focuses on digital switchers because few analog production switchers are sold new today.)

A brief history

The first analog production switcher was a GVG device that predated 1966. At that time, Ampex, CDL, GVG. RCA and Vital all sold switchers. Today, GVG has been reborn for the third time, and the rest have disappeared, replaced by Echolab, Ikegami, Panasonic, Parkervision, Pinnacle, Ross, Thomson Grass Valley, Snell & Wilcox, Sony, Videotek and others. The number of models of switchers available from these companies and the range of options they offer is mind-blowing, producing results no one dreamed of in the mid-70s when Vital brought out the Sqeezoom (along with the highly valuable and still-available heart wipe).

With the introduction of digital switching based on software, the days of manual switcher setups have passed. (You might remember the literally hundreds of interacting pots in an Ampex AVC-4100 switcher. It was quite an art tweaking one up to high standards.) The capability of every basic switcher today is light years ahead of the most sophisticated switchers made a decade ago. Take the venerable GVG Model 100 as a base point and you will find many similar-looking digital switchers today. Compared to the original, each of these modern Model 100 look-alikes provides more functionality, the same or better reliability, and superior performance. And, in deflated dollars, they even cost less.

Decisions, decisions

But all these choices present a problem: How do you select the switcher that's right for you? A good way to begin is by looking for the number of inputs you feel you need. Be sure to count key signals because most modern switchers don't segregate key inputs from primary video inputs. There are switchers as small as four inputs (for ENG applications), and as large as 80 inputs (available from Sony and Thomson Grass Valley). Effects systems range from simple key and dissolve effects in some ENG products to a full range of mix, wipe, key and DVE effects in one to four mix-effects (M/E) configurations.

If your facility has several control rooms, large and small, you should consider systems that allow you to standardize an operator interface (control panel design). This will allow your personnel to move easily from one room to another without retraining. Thomson Grass Valley offers the Zodiak and Kalypso series, and Sony has the MVS-8000/DVS-9000 series based on similar technology. Ross Video (Synergy one to four) and others provide a similar range of scalable products.

At one time, digital video effects were defined by a statement like, “What kind of ADO do you have?” Well, ADO is gone. But in its place is a range of digital effects systems integrated into the production switcher, and this trend has really caught fire. Not long ago, a four-channel DVE was considered huge. Pinnacle Systems' PDS 9000 has nine DVEs, Thomson Grass Valley has six dual video/video or video/key channels, and Ross has eight channels.

Still stores have also become a necessity in switchers. Some have capacities that make separate still stores unnecessary in many applications, with storage for literally thousands of uncompressed frames. This is a blessing for the budget, but a curse for the TD who has to operate it. Fortunately, some manufacturers provide a separate control panel that offers limited functionality for a second operator. If you have lot of stills and change them often, consider an outboard still store in addition to the very useful internal units.

GVG invented effects memory with EMEM a long time ago. Since then, every manufacturer has been able to come up with its own similar system while avoiding the patent attorneys. With a complex switcher, pay particular attention to how those setups are stored and recalled, and stored offline as well. Floppies are convenient, but a zip disk might allow you to off-load stills and save them with the rest of the setup for a program. In the sports-production business, many clients bring the setup for their entire show in on removable media so that the TD does not have to reprogram each effect in each truck.

HD and beyond

Technology does matter, and the evolution of technology leaves old products in the dust altogether too often. HD production switchers have been available for many years. Full-featured units have been available from Sony, Snell & Wilcox, Philips (Thomson Grass Valley) and others since the late ‘90s. A new crop of switchers that can handle a full range of standard definition and multistandard HDTV is now on the market. They provide the ability to use a studio to produce an HD program now and switch back to SD production at will. This may well be a key to getting wide acceptance for the cost of HDTV-capable systems.

Lastly, it would be unfair not to mention that Parkervision has innovated production with a system that includes a video switcher. The switcher can be timeline-driven using a technical script that includes not only the production-switcher events, but also the character-generator pages, script and teleprompter, and audio console. The era of automated news is here and, for many stations, the appeal of lower labor costs is irresistible.

John Luff is senior vice president of business development at AZCAR. To reach him,

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