I’ve been working in TV stations for over 30 years now. I can trace one of the primary reasons I made this career choice back to a basic fact of my DNA:
I love buttons.
I wanted to switch video on a video switcher from the day I saw my first one, and eventually I managed to get to that point. While never having joined the ranks of the elite folks that switch sports or national news programs, I have at least some experience on switchers from such old and new names such as Grass Valley, Ross, Sony, Crosspoint Latch, Echolab and CDL, among others. And while their operation varied between brands, they all had a couple of things very much in common: They were expensive, they were tweaky, and they required lots of external gear to make them more than basically useful. I’m happy to announce that those days are largely gone.
Blackmagic Design has been revolutionizing the video world for the last ten years or so with boxes that are compact and cost-effective, and always address some annoying need, be it digital video interfacing with computers, routing switching across a plant, or solid-state video recording. Their acquisition of Echolab in 2010 gave them access to some of the most robust video switchers on the market. Now we can see the results of that merger.
I was provided with a Blackmagic Design ATEM 1 M/E switcher to put through its paces. (By the way, M/E stands for “mix/effects buss.”) There are actually three switchers in the ATEM line – the 1 M/E and 2 M/E, and the ATEM Television Studio. All three switchers can be controlled by the software control panel, or the hard switching surfaces that are sold separately.
The switching surface is a switchers dream – heavy, solid, with robust buttons that light up in different ways depending on what is currently selected on the switcher or what is coming up next. A group of buttons on the upper left of the board change color and label depending on what function you want them to perform. In the center middle is an alpha-numeric display with four knobs that can be programmed to modify hundreds of parameters on the switcher, from the color of a background or a wipe border to setting the various IP addresses of the parts of the system.
And do not be fooled: The ATEM is very much a part of a system. The switcher panel is useless without its corresponding rack-mount input-output module. It in itself is a miracle of miniaturization.
The Input Side
In two rack-mount spaces and less than two inches of depth, it provides as many as eight external inputs, divided by HD-SDI, HDMI and one component analog video input. There are a slew of outputs as well, including program, preview, auxiliary busses, and a very clever internal multiviewer, which can be fed via HDMI or SDI video to an external monitor.
This allows you to see your program feed, preview and as many as eight sources all on one monitor. The cost savings with just this one feature can be huge. There are also program outputs in all flavors: SD or HD-SDI, HDMI, component SD or HD, or composite SD. Three auxiliary busses on the ATEM 1 M/E have their own outputs as well, making it a snap to provide a “clean feed” when necessary. (The 2 M/E has the same output features, but in most cases it amplifies the number of options.)
The third part of the system is a necessary, but not included, component: A computer to run the ATEM Software Control program.
One of the really powerful parts of the ATEM system is the ability to customize the buttons on each control panel to just about any configuration you like (and in fact, the ten input buttons on the ATEM 1 M/E panel are actually twenty inputs, thanks to the clever SHIFT key that selects between two layers of inputs.) Not only can you arrange the inputs to your heart’s content, you can also modify the electronic labels above each input. This is VERY cool.
While the ATEM 1 M/E is technically a single mix/effects bus switcher, it actually punches well above its weight class due to the inclusion of six keyers – four upstream and two downstream.
You can use the included digital video effects unit to fly, wipe or otherwise effect your supers or other sources on and off the screen. Managing the DVE effects is made easier by the large & sturdy three-axis joystick on the upper panel of the switcher panel. Another great keying feature is the ability to link the downstream key transitions to the main transition button. This makes complex transitions with multiple keys a much less finger-busting affair. Feeding the keyers is the job of the Media Pool, part of the ATEM Software Control program. There are twenty slots for stills in the program, which is probably an adequate number for most smaller productions.
One of the most intriguing key types is called “sting.” A “stinger” is an animated, keyed effect that often acts as a transition between sources, such as from live action to instant replay on a sports production. The 1 M/E works with the ATEM Software Control to load a series of graphics (currently Targa files; .AVI and Quicktime support is in the offing) that comprise your sting transition. Sadly, though, the capacity of the two playback slots is limited to 180 high-def or 360 standard-def frames divided between the two Media Players. I was hoping for the ability to play back entire clips from the Media Player, as is featured in other competing switcher products. Honestly, several competing switching systems have full digital disc recorders (DDRs) as basic parts of their operation; it doesn’t seem too much to ask the ATEM to do it too, especially since an operator would have a computer tethered to it all the time anyway.
Other than the lack of built-in DDR, there are few disappointments in the ATEM 1 M/E, but one really questionable omission. The baseline, sub-$1000 ATEM Television Studio includes SDK support for direct h.264 output, essentially making it a live streaming solution in a box. The ATEM 1 M/E and 2 M/E do not include this functionality, jobbing it out to another piece of software called Blackmagic Media Express. This program acts as a DDR, recording the output of the ATEM 1 M/E Aux buss to a computer via USB3. Again, other products have direct Ethernet feed to Ustream and other similar streaming services. It would be nice to hope that Blackmagic Design might fold this ability into a future software revision.
But in case you haven’t figured it out yet, the Blackmagic Design ATEM switchers represent incredible value for the money – a high “dollar-to-donut” ratio, if you will. Compared to products from as recently as five years ago, they are revolutionary pieces of gear that can bring high-quality multi-camera productions into the affordability range of even the smallest producers.
DISCLAIMER: I was provided with a Blackmagic Design ATEM 1 M/E switcher for review purposes, which is on it’s way back. Nothing of any value has changed hands based on this review.