About seven years ago, I reviewed Blackmagic Design’s (BMD) ATEM Television Studio for another publication. What it could do for the price was groundbreaking at the time, and it became a very popular switcher in the AV services business. It had lots of flexibility and, at under $1,000, was the go-to switcher for people who couldn’t afford a pro console. Because of the price, we overlooked issues like needing a computer to control it — and the fear of what would happen if the computer crashed during a live show. (It never happened in my experience, but we wondered, “What if?”)
BMD has now updated its entry-level switcher with the introduction of the ATEM Television Studio HD. Besides the name, not much else is the same. The ATEM Television Studio HD is a half-rack unit with four HD-SDI and four HDMI inputs. It outputs two HD-SDI program outs and an HDMI multi-viewer out.
The most conspicuous new feature is a set of buttons that allow you to use 90% of the unit’s features without a computer. A single row of eight large buttons represents the eight video inputs. Above each is an Audio Follow Video button to enable or disable the feature. At the far right is a group of four smaller buttons, Media Player 1 and 2, Cut and Auto trans. While most switchers have two rows of input buttons, this ATEM gets away with one, using a scheme where whatever is on air is lit red and what is set for up next is green. You switch by hitting the Cut or Auto buttons.
On the Job
In the short time we had the ATEM Television Studio HD, we got to use it on a couple of real jobs. One job was just switching live camera, video playback and a full-screen logo. The second was a graduation that we did as a three-camera live switch, with a PowerPoint presentation mixed in. Set-up was fairly simple on the first job. The hotel provided a router that took HD-SDI and sent it to the 12,000-lumen projector as VGA. The camera was feeding it HD-SDI, and the playback was coming from a computer via HDMI.
A nice feature about this new switcher is that all media stills are remembered if it’s kept on long enough before a power cycle is performed. The computer need not be connected to the ATEM when it starts up again, but the ATEM must be on for a few minutes after the stills are loaded in order for it to save them into the memory for retention over a power cycle.
For the graduation, one camera was HD-SDI and a second camera was HDMI, but due to cable length we converted it to HD-SDI. The third camera was using the IDX CW-1 wireless HDMI transmitter with the receiver plugged into the ATEM HDMI. We also had a MacBook running PowerPoint. When we went to hook the switcher up to our projector, which required HDMI input, we found, much to our horror, that the new ATEM didn’t have an HDMI out. We had lots of HD-SDI to HDMI converters, but none going the other way. Luckily, I had decided to bring along BMD’s Teranex HD “just in case.” It was overkill for the problem, but it worked.
The Missing Link
BMD: why? How could you take the single most-used AV interface and leave it off a product that will probably be used in that capacity more than any other? Not a smart move. A huge mistake. BMD said the decision was made because “HDMI cables aren’t reliable enough for long distances.” To that I respond, “We don’t always need to run long distances.” BMD does make an inexpensive HD-SDI-to-HDMI Mini Converter (MSRP $85), but I prefer the port right on the unit. It means one less piece of equipment to keep track of.
Another complaint. I really wanted to use the buttons to do the switching, so I did that with the smaller job. I found the ergonomics difficult. First I tried the ATEM on a table, and pushing the buttons on the table was just really awkward. For the next job, I put it above my live audio mixer/amp. It was still awkward, and I found myself using the keyboard and mouse more on that job. If the ATEM Television Studio HD had the buttons on top rather than the front, it wouldn’t be rack-mountable, but it would be a lot more usable.
I liked the ATEM Television Studio HD a lot, but I wouldn’t say I loved it. If you have the original ATEM, should you upgrade? It may be worth it if you have nightmares about your computer crashing during a live show and want to have the buttons on the unit as an emergency back-up. If you are doing 1080 60p video switching, you’ll need to upgrade, as the original ATEM tops out at 1080i. If you are happy with your original ATEM, and don’t need 1080p, I don’t think this is a necessary upgrade. But if you are in the market for your first HD video switcher, this one is definitely worth considering. You’ll probably want an HD-SDI-to-HDMI adapter, so work a couple of those into your equipment budget.