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Analog dj vu

I was at an industry reception to promote a new advanced technology product when I fell into a conversation about a company that sells analog distribution amplifiers. I don't know if it was the effect of the energy drinks on hand, but I felt as if I was suffering from flashbacks. Here we were talking about HD, fiber distribution and advanced signal processing, and broadcasters are still buying analog products!

It must be because I spend too much time keeping up with the latest technologies that I don't realize a section of the industry is still firmly rooted in the 20th century. When I visit a broadcast system, it is usually brand new and seems to have more IT routing than video equipment.

It must be difficult staying analog — keeping all those obsolete tape machines running. That said, even today, many pieces of “glue” include composite outputs. I presume that composite outputs are useful for feeding old CRT monitors that haven't reached end of life.

What broadcast facility has the luxury of a skilled maintenance department that can keep old analog systems running? Tweaking drifting blacks levels, adjusting color timing, equalizing long cable runs — all these processes need video engineers, who are fast becoming a dying species.

In the days when I worked for vendors, I remember that we wanted to donate some obsolete equipment to a college's A/V department. The college declined, saying that it took too much time and effort to nurse the old equipment into life. The school used new, low-cost commodity products. They work, and the maintenance costs are low. When they fail, they are replaced, not fixed — skilled labor is a lot more expensive than automated assembly lines.

Of course, analog technology is still around. A 3Gb/s line receiver is largely analog, but the complexity is hidden from the station engineer, as is the need to align the equalization. Even transmitters now sport digital modulators.

This shift to digital processing has lessened the necessity for a skilled video engineering staff; all that has been done at the semiconductor and equipment manufacturers' development labs. That's not to say that the R&D labs find it easy to get analog engineers. I hear that it can be difficult to find younger engineers that understand that indeterminate region between one and zero. The demand is high, as RF design is still a big factor in many consumer goods. Mobile TV handsets are a good example, with a 3G transmitter millimeters from the mobile TV receiver.

Analog issues are not just engineering; there is the operational side. Recently I was watching some archive programming from the 1970s that was shot “live” to videotape — a music video. I felt another bout of déjà vu as I unpicked the effects. There was extensive use of the nonadditive mix, a hangover from the days when video was mixed like audio on a few faders. Another effect looked like howl-round created by aiming the camera at a video monitor. This again is essentially an analog audio effect borrowed for video. Before the DVE — an all-digital device — such effects were all that was possible unless the production could use film opticals, but this was not possible with a live production. There was a naivety to the video, but a certain look that is difficult to recreate with pristine digital processing.

The engineers and special effects operators of the pre-digital age had to possess a skill set that is virtually absent in television production today. Will it be missed? I for one won't miss color-timing a control room, but the analog special effects have a charm that can be perpetuated by the skilled digital effects artist.

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