ATEM Television Studio - First Hands On Test
I've been lucky enough to get my hands on the first ATEM Television Studio switcher to make it to the UK. This post is just a collection of thoughts based on a half day of testing.
Opening the box the first thing that strikes you is how small the unit is - 1u rack format is small for a switcher, but it is the depth that is unbelievable - the whole unit including heatsink is less than 50mm deep! This ultra short depth allows you to mount the unit the 'wrong way' round on the back rackstrip of a standard flightcase allowing room for other equipment to mount in front of the switcher.
The front of the unit is very plain with just the Blackmagic logo and ATEM Television Studio text printed on the smart grey colour box. There is nothing else, not even an LED to show the power status so it is safe to assume that Blackmagic intend for this to be mounted backwards on the rear rack strip of your flightcase.
From left to right the rear panel has the following connections, 4x HDMI inputs, 4x HDSDI inputs, 1x Ref input, then the big central heatsink followed by the outputs, 1x USB output, 2x Program HDSDI, 1x Multiviewer HDSDI, 1x Multiviewer HDMI, 1x Program HDMI. Then we have the RJ45 network port for control followed by the power input on a standard DC jack and finally we get a single AES/EBU audio input.
Generally the connections feel sturdy enough, the presence of mounting screws by each HDMI socket is reassuring as these kind of domestic connectors are often somewhat flimsy, but here on the ATEM they seem to be high quality and well secured to the metal rack casing. The BNC connections are maybe not quite as high quality, they have no locking nut on the rear of the connector, but they do appear to be tightly clamped in position by the casing so I hope they will stand up the rigours of a PPU with constant repatching. The power connector is the biggest issue with the physical ergonomics of the switcher, it is a standard DC Jack connector which lacks any facility to secure the power cable, this is a really poor bit of design, I hope that future units may be improved with either a locking sleeve for the DJ jack or an industry standard XLR4 for 12v power.
There isn't much more to add to the physical description, the unit seems sturdy and well constructed. It does get rather hot when it has been on for a while so it may be an idea to invest in some kind of cooling system for the flightcase / rack that will house the main ATEM unit.
It's worth quickly mentioning the specs here for people who are not aware of the ATEM TV Studio functionality.
It can utilise upto 6 inputs. All these inputs MUST be the same resolution and framerate as each other. (no mixing 720p and 1080i sources, no mixing 25fps with 30fps) It has one upstream keyer and two downstream keyers. It has 2 media players which on the TV studio version can only hold still images. It has a built in 10 channel multiviewer.
So on to the operational side of things. The switcher can be controlled via the ATEM software control panel (a free download from the Blackmagic website) This software runs on both OSX and Windows and provides a simple GUI interface to control most of the functions. The software has a sensible selection of keyboard shortcuts allowing for basic live mixing functionality without needing to use the mouse, however it is nowhere near as nice as using a proper hardware switcher control surface. One issue with the software is that it needs quite a high resolution screen to run on. This rules out most of the netbooks / ultra compact laptops. (people familiar with other blackmagic software such as Media Express will already know the BM software designers like to give you a fixed size interface - i'd much prefer some kind of scalability so that users with lower resolutions screens could still make use of the software, and people with high resolutions screens could have more instant access to the various functions which are currently a bit hidden away due to the large number of tabbed options used in the software interface)
As well as the basic switching operation the software also allows you to load up stills into the ATEM media players - it seems to be happy with JPEGs, a transparent PNG file did cause some issues though as it failed to correctly interpret the alpha channel embedded in the PNG. Actually getting graphics into the media players with their correct alpha proved to be really quite difficult. It is possible (as the example files which ship with the switcher show) but it requires some extra steps in photoshop which are currently undocumented in the manual (actually the old Echolab ATEM manual gives a step by step method for creating the alpha channels - this is the same process required by the Blackmagic ATEMs). Another drawback of the media player implementation is there is seemingly no way to capture an input into the frame store, the Echolab units could capture a still frame from any input which was a very useful function and one i hope that Blackmagic will add in the future. A plugin for photoshop is provided which allows you to send images direct from photoshop to the ATEM, This works well and makes it easy to tweak graphics after having looked at them on your output monitor.
I tested a capture via the USB socket, Media Express running on my laptop was able to capture some very nice quality MP4 video. However I was unable to capture audio alongside my video as I do not have an audio mixer with AES/EBU outputs. (these digital outputs are becoming more common, but i would of preferred to see analogue audio inputs as these are much more widely used in the kind of low-budget productions the ATEM TVS is aimed at) Currently only Media Express can capture from the ATEM TVS - you cannot use the MP4 compressed USB output for live streaming to the internet. (hopefully this will change with the SDK release allowing 3rd party manufacturers to support the capture methods of the ATEM TVS)
So there we have it! The first hands on review of the ATEM Television Studio. I'm going to add additional information as well as videos and pictures in the next few days, but I wanted to get some text up quickly as I know many people have been anticipating this switcher for some time. So sorry for the somewhat limited look at the switcher, more information will be added as time goes on. If you have a specific questiobn or something you'd like me to try with the unit please leave a comment below.