How could I get a “big video switcher look and feel” on a budget?

That question is what drove my decision to purchase a BlackMagic Design ATEM 1 M/E Broadcast Panel and ATEM Television Studio video switcher.

In the summer of 2012 I was looking for a portable video switcher to take in the field to cover events for our School District. We produce a wide variety of events from football, baseball, basketball, soccer, choir, band and even a parade so I need a solution that is very versatile.BM01

The main features I was looking for was a physical switcher panel, SDI standard definition and SDI high definition compatible, easy graphics solution, multi-viewer, a way to record in a computer/laptop and portability. There are quite a few solutions that will meet most of these requirements but the ATEM seemed to fill them all.

I first saw the ATEM in action at the 2012 NAB Show and that’s where I was sold. I had been reading about the system on the web but it’s hard to tell size and feel until you see it in person. The BlackMagic ATEM Video Switcher has three models of rackmount video switchers that can be controlled by software (no panel), the ATEM Television Studio, the ATEM 1 M/E Production Switcher and the ATEM 2 M/E Production Switcher. BlackMagic also offers two versions of their switcher panel, the ATEM 1 M/E Broadcast Panel and the ATEM 2 M/E Broadcast Panel. For this review I will take a look at the ATEM 1 M/E Broadcast Panel and ATEM Television Studio.

ATEM Television Studio

The “brains” of the operation is the rack-mountable ATEM Television Studio. When I first took it out of the box I was surprised how small it was, only 1 RU (rack-unit) high and a couple of inches deep. This is where all the cameras and outboard gear connects. You do need a computer or laptop to control the unit, which connects by Cat5 Ethernet. For switcher upgrades, configuration or to use the Photoshop Graphics interface you need to connect a USB 2.0 cable.

BM02The cameras connect by either HDMI or SDI (HD or SD). This may be a deal-breaker for those with only cameras that output composite or component video. We are using our old studio cameras connected via SD-SDI in 16:9 mode and the picture looks great.

You will also need a monitor that can take a HDMI or HD-SDI connection for the multi-viewer. For our first production with the ATEM we used an inexpensive 19” consumer monitor connected by HDMI and it worked great. For our last couple of productions we took our big LED screen on a mobile mount and as they say, bigger is better!

The multi-viewer connection was one of the only problems I had getting the system broadcast ready. I was hoping to use an old 42” screen I had as a multi-viewer that doesn’t have HDMI and only has SD-SDI input. No dice, the ATEM only outputs HD on its SDI connector for the multi-viewer. Oh well, a small setback.

Theoretically, this is all you need to multi-camera switch a live event, the ATEM Television Studio, a multi-viewer monitor and a laptop. This setup will also allow you to drop in graphics with Photoshop. Did I mention that the ATEM Television Studio lists for right under $1,000? That’s a bargain for professional video switching.

For recording, there are a couple of limitations with this setup. To record a full resolution SD or HD signal you will need an outboard recorder. I’m currently BM03using a AJA Ki-Pro Mini. The recorder also must have either HDMI or SDI input, there is no composite or component signal out of the ATEM Television Studio. I have a Blackmagic HyperDeck Studio Pro on order, which should work great and for a more inexpensive solution the BlackMagic HyperDeck Shuttle would also be a great solution.

There is one more “got-ya” when recording. If you are recording an H.264 signal in a connected laptop you have to have a way to input digital AES/EBU audio into the ATEM Television Studio via a BNC connector. BlackMagic recommends the Behringer SRC2496 A/D Converter for about $165. You simply connect the output of an analog mixer into the Behringer and it converts the signal to a digital signal the ATEM understands. This setup allows for you to record in a laptop using the included “Media Express” software via a USB 2.0 connection.

ATEM 1 M/E Broadcast Panel

The deal-clincher for me was the ATEM 1 M/E Broadcast Panel. It has the true look and feel of a true professional video switcher. My students have used the NewTek Tricaster control surface and a Ross Synergy Switcher so they had no trouble jumping right on the ATEM panel. The ATEM panel has a very intuitive layout and all the buttons and functions are well labeled.

The connections for the ATEM panel couldn’t be easier, a Cat5 Ethernet to the ATEM Television Studio and a power supply. The ATEM panel has two Ethernet jacks and you could get fancy and hook by Ethernet to a network but for my purposes we just used a direct Ethernet connection to the laptop and another Cat5 cable to the ATEM Television Studio. The manual has easy step-by-step instructions if you have to change an IP address so the panel, switcher and laptop can see each other.

ATEM Extra Features

I mentioned earlier that there was a Photoshop interface. When you install the ATEM software on a Mac or Windows computer/laptop, with Photoshop installed, it will add an export option to send to the ATEM switcher. You then have the option to send the graphic created in Photoshop to either Media Player 1 or 2, which is easily recalled on the panel for broadcast. We used this feature to update graphics during a volleyball game and it worked very well.

Another nice feature is the source names on the panel can be customized which carries over to the multi-viewer. You can also customize the multi-viewer in the layout of the windows in multiple ways.

ATEM Manual

For a simple live multi-camera production the ATEM is very easy to use but that is just scratching the surface of what this switcher can do. For a more in-depth discussion of the capabilities of the ATEM system and the differences between the models I highly suggest taking a look at the ATEM manual.

The manual comes with the ATEM on CD or can be downloaded from the BlackMagic Design website and is very thorough and easy to understand. In fact, it’s one of the best product manuals I have ever read… and yes I have read a few manuals! I encourage you to go download and skim through the manual. It gives some good tips for live productions and has some nice illustrations and explanations of the ATEM features.

ATEM “Even Better If’s”

One thing I find lacking is the ability to live-stream with the ATEM Television Studio. It will send out an H.264/MP4 “web-friendly” file that can be recorded via USB 2.0 connection and then immediately uploaded to the web, but that’s not live. I am hoping that BlackMagic will come up with a solution to this either through their Media Express software or integration with Adobe Live Encoder.

For a work-around I will start using a Matrox MX02 Mini with an HDMI connection to live web stream because I happen to have one on hand.

ATEM Overall Impression

Despite it’s inability to live stream, I still think it’s a great switcher that fulfills my wish for a “big video switcher feel” on a budget. We have used the system on six or so productions in the Fall of 2012 and it’s never given us a problem. I even had the system setup in my classroom for a few weeks to test connections and to give the students a chance to try it out and I got nothing but positive comments.

If you have any specific questions about the operation or setup of the ATEM please shoot me an email listed below.

BlackMagic Design ATEM Website

Dupont-HeadshotAlbert Dupont has been the Advanced TV Broadcasting Facilitator (Teacher) at the Satellite Center in Luling, Louisiana since its opening in 2005.  The Satellite Center is a “satellite” facility of Hahnville and Destrehan High Schools.  The schools are a part of the St. Charles Parish Public School System located near New Orleans.

Before becoming a teacher, Mr. Dupont was a news and sports videographer for WVUE-TV in New Orleans for twelve years and news producer at WAFB in Baton Rouge and KATC in Lafayette for five years.  As a sports photographer, Mr. Dupont was a field videographer at the New Orleans Saints games from 1994 to 2009.  He also was a videographer at two Superbowls and numerous college national championship games in a variety of sports. He is an Avid Certified Instructor in Media Composer 5.