It has been interesting to watch the recent upswing in multi-camera remote micro-production. For quite a while, video cameras kept getting more capable and less expensive, but the price and complexity of gear to do multi-cam switching and recording stayed stubbornly high. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Newtek Tricaster here, which was the true pioneer in this space, but Newtek was soon followed by other manufacturers. The name that comes to mind next for me is Sony, since from 2008 to early this year I used their Anycast Station and Anycast Touch switchers to record almost 1,300 programs for Wisconsin Public Television. While hardly as full-featured as a true studio switcher, both Anycasts included the most important parts to make small remote production do-able, if not exactly deluxe.
Moore’s Law seems to have caught up to video switchers as it has on all other electronics. Good capability doesn’t need a large package anymore, and Exhibit #1 on this score is the Sony MCX500 Multi-Camera Live Producer. Measuring a scant 15”x 9”x 2” thick, the MCX500 is a piece of gear that can sit on just about any tiny desk – or even a lap if necessary (although not recommended.)
The MCX500 features four inputs, which can take a mix of HD-SDI (all four inputs), HDMI (two inputs) and composite video (two inputs.) A VGA connector allows you to feed graphics into the MCX500 from a separate computer. The five-channel audio mixer is fed by two combo XLR/TRS jacks or from embedded audio in the digital video streams. Outputs are available as HD-SDI or HDMI, with another HDMI jack feeding a monitor as a multi-viewer. There is even a composite video out (if you can find a way to use that signal anymore) and analog audio outputs via RCA jacks.
Onboard recording is provided via a SDXC card slot on the front-right corner of the switcher, using AVCHD as the codec. A small LED touchscreen sits in the middle of the switcher, to assist in effects selection, audio metering and setup tasks, among others. However, Sony recommends an operator connect a laptop via Ethernet to make setup simpler, and to give access to several new, powerful functions. The majority of the laptop functions duplicate the switcher; in fact, you can operate the switcher quite well from a laptop.
When the MCX500 is connected to the RM-30BP Remote Commander and up to three Sony FS5 or NX5R cameras with LANC cables, the RM-30BP panel becomes a mini camera control unit. Remote functions include iris, white balance, shutter speed, focus and zoom, and also – taa-daa! – both preview (green) and on-air (red) tally indication in the LCD viewfinder. Folks without “big” multi-cam remote experience often underestimate the importance of tally lights, but a few errant swish-pans resulting in a screaming director will teach that harsh lesson quickly. If you don’t trust your directing skills, and want isolated recordings of all your cameras for a later edit, the MCX500/RM-30BP combo will start recording both in the switcher and in all cameras simultaneously. And since this is the late 2010’s, with Internet video all the rage, the MCX500 ships ready to stream at the touch of a button – although strangely, it can only stream to the UStream service. In a world of Facebook Live and YouTube Live and dozens of others, this seems to be a strange and major omission.
The switcher panel is made of brushed aluminum, with large, pliable rubber buttons. A single physical fader controls master audio levels. I was pleasantly surprised to find picture-in-picture and chromakey capability on the MCX500, but a little disappointed to find no onboard graphics storage, which was one of the most useful features on the Anycast series of switchers. Another disappointment is the switcher’s support of HDCP copy protection, which effectively forecloses using any Mac computers or BluRay players as HDMI sources. As Sony is both a hardware vendor and a content producer, I can understand the logic, but from a field producer’s perspective this is just one of those little details that can really bog down a production.
The field multi-camera switcher space is becoming crowded, and while the MCX500 offers a lot of functionality at a fairly low price ($2200 street), other competitors are showing up at a rapid pace. Still, the combination of compact size, reliable operation and the potential for remote camera control should find a niche for Sony’s new small switcher.