Matchpoint Studios contracted me to build a new production system for the 2011 Presidency 5 Republican National Convention in Orlando, FL. The production and post-production company wanted a system that could be repurposed for future Republican conventions in the 2011-'12 season. After seeing Blackmagic Design's ATEM 1 M/E production switcher at NAB2011, I decided to make it the centerpiece of this new production system.
The switcher comes as a thin, 2RU-high package. While an external control panel was included, my client wanted to keep costs down and opted to use the software interface. The switcher is configured and controlled with an Apple Mac computer. Communication between the computer and switcher relies on a USB connector and an Ethernet cable.
Once you set a static IP address for the switcher and a corresponding static IP address for the computer's Ethernet port, you are connected. It's that simple. A GUI of a switcher control panel instantly appears on the computer screen.
Based on the number of features the ATEM offers, I expected to find a 400-page manual. However, the switcher's manual comes in PDF format on a CD and is actually quite short. Being familiar with the complexity of other switchers, I was not looking forward to a long learning curve about the functions this switcher offered. And I did not want to read through another large manual. I was pleasantly surprised at how intuitive everything was. There were no hidden menus or functions that you could discover only by plowing through a large manual. All functions and controls are managed within control three tabs.
Assigning crosspoint names is easy. Just click on the pictorial display, and type in a name. All the configuration is like this: Click, drag and drop.
One surprising feature about the switcher is its ability to instantly ingest graphics and QuickTime files from the DVI output of a second Mac computer. When we initially investigated the ATEM, we thought we'd need an external scan converter. To our surprise, all we had to do was use a DVI to HDMI cable to connect the graphic sources directly into an HDMI input of the switcher. Everything locked up instantly. Because all of the switcher's inputs have frame sync, everything instantly genlocks. There is no need to worry about timing or syncing various cameras and other sources — including free running computers — to the switcher.
The ATEM 1 M/E has eight inputs. Four are SDI/HD-SDI and four are HDMI, one of which is also component/composite. If you have more than four HD-SDI sources, you will need additional HD-SDI to HDMI converters. The switcher does not upconvert to HD-SDI, but it does offer a downconverted SD-SDI program output.
Also, when doing HD-SDI, you cannot crossconvert within the switcher. You must choose between a 1080i or 720p HD format. Conveniently, Blackmagic Design does offer an array of inexpensive up/down/crossconverters, as well as HDMI to HD-SDI, HD-SDI to HDMI, and analog CAV to HD-SDI converters.
The switcher takes in analog audio and embeds this into the HD-SDI program stream. We simply connected the analog output of an audio mixer directly into the ATEM's analog audio inputs.
As we were setting up the switcher for the first time, we kept looking for things to not like about this product. But as we discovered, the device always offered a good solution to any issue. For instance, we discovered that we could use the computer's number keys to switch between cameras, eliminating the problems posed by the use of a mouse. Because we had only two motion clip players, we assumed that this configuration might be too slow for a live operation, because an operator would have to switch out of the main control panel and go to the clip player screen.
When we realized that this was a networking product, all we had to do was put the ATEM and several Mac computers on a simple network using an inexpensive Ethernet switch. Now, we were able to have an operator with an iMAC load lower thirds directly into the clip player, freeing the technical director from having to ever enter this screen while operating the switcher. We were also able to have the operator doing playback to cue up his own clips on an iMAC in QuickTime and play them across the network directly into the switcher.
For transmission, we used another MAC Pro with a Blackmagic DeckLink SDI card to stream the video out to the internet. We used one of the AUX outputs of the ATEM to feed the Blackmagic card's SDI input. This switcher performed flawlessly during the actual production.
Having been around expensive production equipment my entire life, I was certainly apprehensive about a product this inexpensive and equipped with so many features. It seemed too good to be true. And even if it was true, it would probably be a cheap piece of junk that was not reliable. I was proven wrong on every account.
The ATEM 1 M/E production switcher is as solid as any high-end professional video switcher. It's packed full of advanced features seen only in much more expensive products. And, it is quite inexpensive.
Bob Zelin is a video engineer for Maxx Digital.
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