Atem 2 M/E Production Swithcer and Atem 1M/E Broadcast panel.
This month we have decided to try one of the last equipments launched by Blackmagic Design, the ATEM 2 M/E video mixer and the ATEM 1 M/E control panel. As a usual user of its products I was very eager to assess the real potential of these equipments, their theory and the technical features that appear on the specifications, which are amazing. But as always, there is nothing better than doing a field test before deciding to invest on a new equipment. After reading the equipment manual (you can download it for free from the official page: http://www.blackmagicdesign.com),
I was a bit sceptic regarding the system performances, especially due to its price-quality ratio because I thought it was too competitive. In this case we have two systems which by default we think they should be connected for their correct operation, as we are used to with the current mixers, but this is not entirely true. The reason why, is because we are entering a fiction zone, which is to control a mixer with all its functions (they are quite a few) from different computer systems (desktop computers, laptops) and without any kind of limitation. This is a reality thanks to an excellent management and operation graphic interface.
Therefore, it opens for us a very interesting world of possibilities in a market of continuous change and which is asking high quality at low prices, a concept that not a long time ago was almost impossible. Let’s discover the secrets that this video mixer is hiding, but I tell you in advance I was highly impressed.
KNOWING THE SYSTEM
We will begin by basically describing the strong points that offers at a technical level. The ATEM 2 M/E PRODUCTION SWITCHER is an extremely compact and strong system, as all the control electronics is done with discrete elements of high processing capacity and low thermal dissipation. The result is a size reduction of the equipment base because it manages without cooling fans and uses instead an oversized heat sink to make it work correctly (as you will read in the temperature test, at the beginning I didn’t know its real dissipation power).
One of the strong points of reducing the equipment size has been the externalization of the power sources, it has one main power source and other reserve power source, which make possible the installation of the equipment in places or racks where there could be problems with base/size/weight. The system has a dimension relation of 3 UR and a base of 132 mm, with a weight of 3.2 kg. As you can see it’s very reduced and what is best, is “portable”.
Regarding the signal processing and compatibility, it has a multiple format system with 16 SD/HD switchable inputs; the first of them is a double input with a BCN connector and a HDMI connector to be selected depending on our necessities. The whole system process the signals in a 4:2:2 and 10 bits ratio, supporting in SD 625/25 PAL 4:3 and 16:9, 525/29.97 NTSC 4:3 and 16:9, in HD 1080i50, 1080i59.94, 720p50, 720p59.94 and in HDMI 720 x 480 59.94Hz, 720 x 576 50Hz, 1280 x 720 59.94Hz 50Hz and 1920 x 1080 59.94Hz 50Hz. As you can see it doesn’t have analogue inputs in order to maintain the quality margins of the system (Blackmagic Design offers a variety of low cost and high quality converters, I recommend you to take a look at their web page).
In the outputs we will find the most important difference with regards to its most direct competitors. With all the features I have detailed and its size, this small device offers six auxiliary SD/HD switchable outputs, the first one (Aux 1) with a BCN parallel connection and a USB 3.0, two SD/HD switchable program outputs, one analogue program output, one SD/HD switchable preamp output, one program output of the M/E bus, two outputs of Multi View through HDMI or BNC and one input of external reference.
The audio includes a connector which provides us with the option of two analogue In channels, two analogue OUT channels of PGM and one input and output of Timecode.
The ATEM 1 M/E (BROADCAST PANEL), it a typical panel with cared ergonomics for the correct positioning of the hands during its use, multiple function buttons with pulse repetition to access the advanced functions directly, as well as a display screen for the navigation menu which is quite simple. Despite of its small size (the bigger one that matches this electronics is the ATEM 2 M/E (BROADCAST PANEL) it has a fast operation when controlling all the signals and the two M/E buses. It gives us information about the state of the power sources both of the electronics and the panel through the presence indicators. It includes a control joystick to position the different insert layers (ex. window positioning). This control speeds up the work regarding the positioning via control software.
ASSESSING ITS POTENTIAL
Now that we have explained the most important features, we are going to talk about the system. As we have already mentioned, the real advantage of this device is its price-quality ratio and the module option which allows to avoid high unnecessary costs, which means, we can have the electronics without buying the control panel, because the control software is a real virtual control panel with a real-time answer of electronics and with all the possible work functions.
Used to the typical mixers where the software is not easy to handle (I use them for the error control of the mixer), this software allows us to do a relatively complex mix with the mouse/keyboard. We are entering an era with a new concept of work to which the potential users should get used to, but the system is worth it.
The description of the control software and the options of the system will show the easy use of it. First of all, we find a very visual and enjoying working environment. When we turn it on we can choose between (superior menu “window”) the type of electronics we are using (ATEM 1 M/E or ATEM 2 M/E). With the electronics we are analysing we should choose ATEM 2 M/E display mode, but I tell you in advance that depending on the necessities of the program you should maybe use the first option; we will see it on the second real test. In the superior menu we will also find: “File”, “Aux1”, “Aux2”, “Aux3”, “Aux4”, “Aux5” and “Aux6”, which give us the signal assignment.
We can record the system configuration in the File pull-down menu to avoid losing our usual configuration once we turn off the equipment. Once we choose the option of the display window we will find several tabs in the lower part of the equipment which will give us access to the Switcher, Audio, Media and Setting screens. There are many functions and options, if you want to know more I recommend you to download the user manual.
The “Switcher” tab gives us a general view of the totally operative control panel with the adjustment options on the right of the window. Among the wide options it offers, we highlight two:
1.- Apart from having one DVE by Key, it has a predefined option called “SuperSource” which gives us the option of inserting up to four windows in our signal, defining for each one the source, position, edge and base (a camera, an image, an image sequence, a colour, etc) among other options. The program output will be done with an independent button (it’s another source of the mixer), that will free the KEY for any other need. I think this is really interesting.
2.- The inclusion of 2 Media Players (we control them through the “Media” tab), allows us to have ready-to-use images and sequences for each of them, and the best part is the store capacity of the images or the sequences will only depend on the hard disc size of the computer you use as control, they are not locally stored. This is also very interesting because we are not limited like with other competitor mixers.
The “Audio” tab gives us the control and basic mix of the audio levels related to each input (embedded audio) and the external analogue audio input (just one channel), allowing us to select by channel its activation for the mix or the follow video audio, resulting in the program output in SD or HD with embedded audios. I have to say that when I measured it, I didn’t detect any delay on the audio regarding the video, which is very important.
The next tab, “Media”, enables us to control the download of any image (PNG, TGA, BMP, GIF, JPEG,TIFF) or sequence (TGA) in any of the 32 banks for still or the 2 banks for clip.
Finally, in the “Setting” tab we can configure the parameters of the video and audio inputs and the maximum capacity of the media player, as well as the four patterns for each Multi View output.
1.- Once I installed the electronics and associated it to a laptop whit the control software, I saw the real options of this mixer. As I told you before, I decided to manage without the control panel at first and started searching for a system implementation with different computers in order to find a low cost and highly portable scenario. In this case I decided to control the mixer with two laptops via Hub; the first one did the pgm and M/E mixture sequence, and the second one the quality control of the input signals (wave form via AUX1 with USB 3.0 connection) and control of use parameters (audio, sequences and graphic download in the different “Media” banks).
The work environment was a mixture of an event with five cameras and three screens (two with a channel logo and a third one with a parallel filming), where we had to record the master signal and clean feed in different VTR´s and received the event audio from an external system in international analogue audio. The electronics were placed in a non-refrigerated external rack with and environment temperature of 20 degrees. The event length was of four hours without interruption.
- Once we configured all the system and download the necessary graphic elements we distributed the mixer outputs in the following way:
PGM 1 output for recording
- Aux 1 output to the laptop to control the quality with the WFM software, we left the second laptop with the “Switcher” 2 M/E display.
- PGM 2 output to the rear projection screen.
- AUX2 output for the Clean Feed recording.
- AUX3 and AUX4 to the side screens for logos and sources designed by cut.
During the entire event the operation was perfect. I want to highlight that we didn’t miss the control panel. Once we explained to the staff how everything worked, essential for a system via software, the results were excellent. I was worried about the possibility of the overheating of the electronics. Therefore, I measured the electronics temperature, directly from the heat sink and I have to say it was six degrees over the environment temperature all the time the event lasted. I was pleasantly surprised with this piece of information, the conclusion is the components are totally reliable and the electronics is very strong.
2.- In the second test we did a parallel mixture of a news program in the production program centre of IB3TV. With this test we wanted to analyze the operation in a real situation where there are multiple resources. The process was simple; we doubled the same available video sources (four cameras + four main play-outs + two video titlers (fill+Key) + two play-out backup + four external contributions), generating two clips for bumpers between news and sections, as well as two output signals for video-wall. The audio signal was produced in analogue and it was included via In analogue audio (Ext) for embedding it. The program signal via PGM 1 output and the Clean feed via AUX2 were recorded independently to analyze the results.
In this case we used a traditional work format; the electronics were in a refrigerated rack with a constant temperature of 18 degrees and had a connection to an ATEM 1 M/E control panel via Hub. In order to check the system we connected a control PC with the capture program provided by BLACKMAGIC DESIGN, with which we recorded in real time the parts of the mixture.
I have to say the filming of the parallel news was a huge success, although we used the “small” control panel, we did everything that was necessary and without any problem. The operators adapted themselves perfectly to the new work area and understood quickly the operation philosophy. The following recording comparison made it clear the signal processing is the same (measurements done with two way forms from different providers) and its broadcast quality without any doubt.
WHAT CAN WE MISS?
After seeing the operation of the equipment in the two tests I did, there are few things that I missed. Something that I personally think should be included is the open/reset button in the electronics to avoid the supply IEC search associated when we place it in a rack with many other elements. Also, talking about the software, I missed the possibility of generating frameworks for automating complex sequences, because it only includes the automating for simple and preset sequences.
Despite of this, the advantage of having the development SDK for free with the equipment allows us to create our own customized interface and to program any solution that we can think of (it’s necessary to have C++ programming knowledge). The external option of Tally and GPI is sold in an independent module, which can be perfectly integrated in the system.
I was pleasantly surprised with the reliability, quality, management and especially the price of the ATEM system. This is a cutting-edge equipment with real support service and which really does what it promises. Is one of the equipments which can make the difference in a market like ours that is constantly changing, but in which the costs are more and more limited. We want to thank Kristen of Blackmagic Desing for letting us the equipment, as well as to IB3TV for letting us use its facilities for the test bench.
Test bench made by Pablo Martínez