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Upgrading to HD

Upgrades sometimes require getting into tight spots to avoid removing a lot of equipment needlessly. Small installers are ideal for this purpose.

Previously I've addressed the issues facing the NTSC truck owner considering a video system upgrade to SD. Many of the issues of that upgrade path also apply to the current quandary facing many truck owners. Considering an upgrade from SD to HD, while an entirely separate technical challenge, still involves similar questions regarding the physical issues of the existing trailer, power, heat, air conditioning, etc. This article focuses on the various questions that must be addressed to turn an SD truck into an HD truck.

To be HD or not to be HD

The time has come. Your clients have been pressuring you for the past year or more to offer them an HD production vehicle. You, of course, with one or several SD trucks in your fleet and perhaps several analog trucks, have jumped right in with multi-million dollar upgrades for each and every vehicle in your fleet, right? WRONG! You have barely begun paying for that shiny new SD truck you built only two or three years ago. How can you now justify an upgrade that will set you back roughly one half to three quarters of the original price of the truck, the initial cost of which you have only barely begun to write off?

The answer to that question is simple: You will have to find a way. HD is here to stay, and you are being driven by market forces to provide this service. If you don't, you'll be left behind by those who do. The intricate and usually painful details of financing this upgrade are not the subject of this article. Neither are the various client-oriented discussions you, your banker and your staff have been undertaking for most of this past year as to whether or not to upgrade vs. build an entirely new vehicle. While the concept of upgrading is relatively simple, the mechanics by which it may be achieved are not.

This article will focus on the nuts and bolts of actually accomplishing the conversion. We will examine the pros and cons of an upgrade as opposed to a complete replacement of the vehicle, beginning with the options for the video core systems and continuing through all of the audio, communications, structural, electrical, air conditioning and various other subsystems, each of which can cause many sleepless nights when deciding if/how/what to upgrade, what to reuse and what to replace.

For the remainder of this article, HD will refer to a high-definition digital signal, namely 1080i, 720p and all the various permutations thereof. SD will refer to a standard-definition digital signal, or plain old 601. Aspect ratio of 16:9 is, of course, assumed.

First things first

You have come to the conclusion that you simply must offer HD production to your clients. One of the initial decisions you will face is whether to upgrade one of your existing trucks, or start from scratch and build an entirely new vehicle. Because this article is about upgrading, we will focus on this concept. There are many individual and intertwined steps that have led you to the conclusion that upgrading your existing truck is the way to go. A thorough analysis of your existing vehicle will be the first step in the process, from both the physical/technical perspective and, of course, the always-present financial considerations.

A decision must be made initially whether to save existing wiring or start from scratch.

You must simultaneously determine if your existing trailer will suffice to house your new HD video system and if the remainder of the systems (audio, communications, room layout, etc.) are also sufficient for the new truck concept. You also must consider the cost of both in terms of new equipment purchase and lost revenue from downtime while the conversion is being accomplished. This latter point is important to consider.

Consider whether the downtime required to accomplish your conversion may cost you an amount equal to or greater than that of building an entirely new vehicle from scratch. Careful planning can make the upgrade significantly more cost-effective than building an entirely new truck. Some of the more obvious factors that must be thought out in advance are timely equipment delivery, advance engineering and pre-fabrication of some or all of the wiring, and picking an appropriate spot on the calendar during which your vehicle's being off-road would least impact your production income projections.

This upgrade required moving the old video wiring and starting at the beginning.

If it is a straight truck as opposed to an expando, is it adequate in size and layout to attract and/or keep the clients that will be needed to pay for all the shiny new equipment? If the answer to this question is no, or you determine that you also require a complete audio system replacement, then you will likely be considering a new trailer as opposed to upgrading this existing one, and you have passed beyond the scope of this article. Overcoming these two issues would require completely gutting the old truck, modifying whatever structure is inadequate in the old layout and then essentially building a new truck within the old remodeled box. The downtime alone for a project of this magnitude will probably place this approach to an upgrade beyond consideration in terms of cost effectiveness. I wish you well with your entirely new truck build!

If, on the other hand, your existing trailer is physically adequate in both space and layout, and your remaining technical and mechanical systems are up to par, then it is likely that upgrading only the video systems will add your truck to the HD-for-hire fleet. You may wish to take this opportunity to evaluate and upgrade, or repair if necessary, the mechanical systems of the truck. This would include air conditioning, power, running gear, frame and expando mechanisms. If any of these areas need attention, the time for correcting these issues would be now, by employing careful time management of your upgrade project. Otherwise, you will probably be facing the prospect of pulling the truck off the road again in the near future to address such issues.

Nuts and bolts

Careful examination of these points have led you to the decision that you will be upgrading an existing truck by converting the SD or NTSC video system to HD. The next decision facing the truck owner and system designer is whether to completely remove and replace the video system, which includes all the cabling, patching, distribution and production equipment and wiring, or attempt to reuse some of the installed gear and cabling.

Experience has shown that the latter course of action is generally the only way to accomplish this upgrade without incurring an extraordinary amount of downtime and labor in an attempt to salvage a relatively small portion of the existing video substructure. This question is more or less equivalent to deciding whether to upgrade or replace a computer. At the time you built it, it looked like a good idea to future-proof it somewhat by designing an apparently simple upgrade path. What has occurred in the meantime, however, is that the equipment manufacturers have by no means been standing still. Newer, and in almost all cases better, and vastly more capable equipment has been constantly introduced, and your planned “just replace the DAs and router” idea has most likely fallen completely off course. Unless your labor is free, complete replacement of the video system will make the most sense in almost all cases.

The old system (top) has been removed, and installation of the new HD video core system (bottom) has begun. Seen through the racks of the new system are coils of green wire, which is all that is left of the old system in this particular rack. The colored bundle in the back of the rack is the new wiring beginning to go in.

At the same time you are converting your SD or analog truck to HD, you must still consider that this truck will, for some time into the future, still need to have some multiformat capability. Exactly how much capability is the tricky part.

Are all sources required to be available in all formats at all times? If so, your truck will be a lot more complex than a pure HD truck that may have SD and/or analog available as only a final output format. You may be able to have the best of both worlds here by using the non-HD outputs from equipment that does supply these signals and including a bank of routable format converters to handle the unforeseen needs.

My own experience would seem to indicate that pure HD is becoming more and more of a trend in, at least, the core design of the vehicles. SD, interestingly, appears to be falling aside in favor of a design that is less costly in wiring, patching and conversion overhead. If you can go with HD monitoring throughout the truck, this is definitely worth considering. In this event, you would simply need to provide NTSC outputs for field monitoring and the occasional piece of legacy equipment (i.e. the always present VHS deck).

Seeing the big picture

One of the first decisions you will be confronted with in designing your upgrade will be that of monitoring. You presumably have a truck full of 9in tube monitors. Perhaps they have SD inputs as well as analog. In any event, you will have to decide whether you are keeping your existing monitors or moving on to a flat-screen solution. If you elect to keep the existing monitoring in the truck, you have yet another decision to make. Do you want these monitors to be displaying NTSC, SD or HD? I would hope you could rule out the NTSC approach.

And, of course, there is the consideration of 16:9 vs. 4:3. This issue branches quickly into a truly dazzling array of possible solutions. If your tube monitors are not already 16:9 switchable, I would recommend you jump down to the flat-screen options below. If you have 16:9 monitors with SD inputs, you will need to do some soul searching to decide if you want to keep them and use them in SD mode, or switch over to one of the HD flat-screen solutions. Hopefully, as this is now a pure HD truck, you have made the decision to jump into HD monitoring.

Fortunately, there exist some relatively simple and elegant solutions to this monitoring issue. Of course, with such elegance comes a price. It's expensive. But, when you factor in all the costs of conversion and complexity in the truck's technical core, the cost in dollars may not be that much additional, particularly for the benefit gained. At this point in your design process, it may offer you both a solution to the complexity of trying to use your analog tube monitors in an HD environment and a large step into the future, where tubes have all given way to flat-screen display. I say “future” with the full awareness that this future has already arrived. You, however, must weigh the actual costs involved in this decision.

So, what are these avenues of monitoring? First of all, you can simply replace the tube monitors with individual flat screens, now available with all types of input and panel resolution options. A quick aside on flat-screen technology: If you are expecting to see the best pictures on your displays, you will want to make sure that the display can handle native resolution of whatever HD signal you intend to have as your primary truck signals. I suppose you could make the argument that when viewed on a small monitor, native HD resolution will not be particularly discernable from any other. However, make sure that any of the larger displays can handle your signals in native mode.

The second monitoring solution is, of course, one of the multidisplay engines that have now come of age in the HD world. There is little that can compare, in sheer visual impact, to a monitor wall consisting of a handful of 50in high-resolution plasma displays, chopped up into whatever mix of 16:9, 4:3, small, large, bordered, tallied and UMD-displayed viewing areas that your clients may desire. The only drawback is the aforementioned cost in dollars. The benefits are many. Not to be overlooked is a huge savings in weight and heat. Because this is an upgrade, you may not realize the space savings available with this solution unless you have the downtime and budget to rework your racks and floor plan as well as replace the technical equipment.

An added benefit to the multiscreen display engine approach to your design is that this system acts as a monitoring router at the same time. The one twist is that any areas of the truck that do not use a large panel display driven off the multiscreen engine will require either router feeds or discreet patching. Don't overlook the designer's quandry that once you start routing your monitors, by whatever means, it becomes rather messy from a design standpoint to not have all of the monitors routed. Essentially, it creates the need for a lot of extra DA outputs to feed whatever number of discreet monitors are scattered around the truck.

Sounds like HD

Of course, no upgrade to HD video is as simple as it seems. One of the areas that generally rears its ugly head late in the planning stages, or perhaps early in the actual build itself, is the question of audio. Because we have already determined that your audio system is adequate (or we would be building from scratch), what makes audio a special consideration? Well, two things really. One is delay, and the second is transmission.

On the subject of delay, this in and of itself can be a rather involved matter to attend to. Consider the virtual monitor wall solution mentioned above: Not only do you have the usual amount of digital video processing delay relative to audio to deal with, but you now have an additional frame, two, or even three to consider that has delayed your HD video with reference to program audio in the production areas of the truck. This can be a lot more involved than may at first appear. You can have noticeable and perhaps even distracting lip sync errors on your pristine HD monitor wall. Easily corrected? For your main room program feed, yes. But you also must consider the other sources of audio in the production room. Will you have to individually delay every input to every Wohler monitor? While this question must be considered sometime during the design, it is usually left until the testing phase to determine what delay, if any is required. Make sure you factor it into your plans as an item that must be dealt with eventually.

Part two of audio for HD is the transmission system. You can pretty much solve this with the proper selection of a final TX processor. If it does embedding, disembedding, delay and all the magic tricks that the better units today do, you are done with this issue. Do not overlook the possibility of AES inputs to the processor as well, which may add a small digital audio level to your existing analog system.

You may wish to avoid the expense of this final output device. Most likely, however, the costs of using discrete devices to accomplish the same task will equal or exceed the proc, and you will probably not get the same level of functionality.

In summary

The issues facing the designer, operator and banker involved in upgrading a truck to HD are many, varied and rather complex. Start at the beginning, and work out a solution to the problem before just jumping in. At the end of the upgrade, you will have saved yourself the cost of a new trailer, audio system, support systems and, of course, a lot of downtime. As we discussed at the beginning of this article, several factors must point to an upgrade being a possible path to HD as opposed to building a new truck from scratch. Hopefully, you can save 30 to 50 percent of the cost of a new truck by pursuing the upgrade path. Happy motoring!

Barry Bennett is president of Bennett Systems, a specialist in truck systems integration and design in Columbus, OH.