Blackmagic Design ATEM Television Studio switcher as NewTek TriCaster backup system

(DigiTek Systems' customer Lee Dickinson recently purchased a Blackmagic Television Studio as a backup to his NewTek TriCasters. He recently posted an excellent comparison of the two products at the NewTek forum. I have reprinted it here with Lee's permission).

While we have a TXD850, a TXD300 (via a partner), and a Tricaster Pro, I have never been especially happy with any of them in backup situations. The 300 is a pretty good backup for the 850, but is an expensive and somewhat heavy item to cart around day to day. While we loved our Pro for many years, dropping back to SD is tough on some productions.

I think if you're serious in the business, you need at least two Tricasters in your stable. While we have that, I wanted something more portable that would be a reasonable backup for lower-profile gigs. I selected the Blackmagic Design Television Studio after reading of Todd/Geeknews's successful use of the same.

I'll share my thoughts specifically as a backup device, touching the key areas and features that are most useful in that role. The TVS doesn't hold a candle to an HD Tricaster in features or usability, but at under a thousand bucks, it's a terrific value as a backup, auxiliary router, or small-event product.

IO Basics
The first thing a Tricaster user needs to understand about the TVS is that it has absolutely no input or output scaling. Us Tricaster users are pretty used to being able to plug just about anything in to our machines and have it scale beautifully in to our sessions. The TVS has no input and output scaling. Once you pick your mode (what we might think of as a session) all of your inputs MUST conform to that mode. This is true of both resolution and framerate. The various options are listed on the BMD literature, but it has 480, 720P and I, and 180I, in a few different rates.

There is no 1080p.

Once you've matched all your input resolutions, think about your output devices too. Projectors? Be sure you have a way to get HDMI or SDI in to them (perhaps with a DVI adapter), as you don't have a VGA or Component or SD aux to use. This is going to be important in designing your backup plan, as you simply don't have any flexibility in formats other than SDI vs HDMI.

The TVS also has no audio mixing or other tools; you'll need to do that entirely external to the switcher. It strips audio from the SDI or HDMI feeds. It does have an AES audio input that you can use with the built in H264 recorder; more on that later.

Switcher Interface
The switcher is operated from a laptop which runs the control surface software; this is used in conjunction with a multiview display on either SDI or HDMI.

A typical "Program/Preview" bus setup can be selected (A/B is available, but I don't know why anyone would want that anymore.) You can hot punch by clicking on the program bus with the mouse; there are keyboard shortcuts for the preview bus and probably other functions that I haven't found yet.

Enter runs a transtion, spacebar a cut.

The T-Bar stays at the top or bottom after a movement; I like the way the Tricaster snaps back, so the T-bar is always rolling from Preview to Program, but if you're used to a hardware surface, the bar staying at one side or the other is nothing you need to get used to. It doesn't get "lost" as the T-bar always follows the "Auto" or "Cut" commands. The overall feel is very much like any other switcher, and you get used to the different layout very quickly.

There is what we would think of as a "transition delegate" area, with background and the one available upstream key. You can also link the two downstream keys to the transition with the "tie" buttons above their controls.

Transitions can be a cut, fade, or one of the basic wipes that comes included.

Upstream Key
An upstream key is the closest to what we might think of as a Virtual Input. It allows you to assign a key source and fill to an input for simple chroma or luma keying. This is what you'd use if you had talent on a green screen.

Understand that the TVS has one upstream key, whereas the Tricasters allow you to apply Livematte to any input.

Downstream Key
The TVS has two downstream keyers; these don't use chroma/luma keying; instead you have a key and fill source.

For Tricaster users, this is where you're probably going to do your lower thirds and bugs. You can pull them in from an external titler, or use the built-in media player as a source. An external titler will use two inputs (key and fill), just like the implementation of an external titler on the Tricaster.

The internal titler allows you to specify the media player as both your key and fill source if you have an image with alpha.

In our case, what we do for backup is export all of our pre-built titles as PNG files, and use them in the DSK on the TVS.

You can cut or fade a DSK; no vectors or wipes.

Media Player
The TVS has 20 memory positions for still graphics. There is no video playback capability.

Within the switcher interface is a browser that allows you to load media in to one of the 20 available positions. You then load a picture into one of the two players, and either take it as a source or use it as a lower third, bug, or whatever in the DSK. 

This is clunkier than the Tricaster - you don't get a thumbnail, so label your images well.

But, as I wrote above, if you export your CG files as PNGs, they load up nicely in to the media player. Remember, no scaling, no positioning! Export your PNGs in the right pixel dimension to start with!

We happen to have Livetext installed on the same laptop we use to control the TVS, so exporting our projects as PNGs as part of our pre-production process is nice.

There is NO titler built in to the TVS, so you need fully composed PNGs in the media bin ahead of time.

Additionally, there is NO facility for video playback. You'll want an external player or laptop for this; I'm thinking of using one of our Samurai's as a video player connected to one of the SDI inputs. 

BMD did a nice thing on the TVS, and included a real-time H264 encoder. This outputs over USB3, and shows up as a video device on the connected computer. You can use their Media Express software to record, or use the Capture control on the switcher interface. You can record in a few different formats and quality settings; if you do additional transcoding on your computer, it can be resource intensive, but in my tests capturing to the same computer that is running your switcher panel software poses no problems at all.

I'm pleased with the recording; I was expecting this to be a real shortfal that would need to be solved with an external recorder. We've got some Samurais that we will probably use simultaneously as backup, but you could just as easily use the TVS with its capture functionality as a backup to your Tricaster.

Important note here: To get audio in to your recording (or stream, below) you will need to mix externally and provide the TVS with an AES input on a BNC connector. We will be looking at the Behringer Ultramatch to provide for XLR to AES A/D conversion.

Here is a pleasant surprise: While none of the various BMD software supports streaming of any kind, the TVS shows up as a source in Livestream's Procaster, and works great.

Additionally, there are other software programs (MX Light, for example) which will take the H264 stream and pump it out to any RTMP server.

Again, I was expecting to need to run another capture device and streaming package on a separate computer, but I spent much of the morning today pushing out to Livestream, again all from the one laptop. 

This was a nice surprise, and really solidified the TVS as a viable backup to the Tricaster, but remember what I said above about audio: You need to provide the AES stream OR perhaps select your laptop's mic input in Procaster.

Working with the Blackmagic Design Television Studio is decidedly different than the Tricaster. With no scaling, no positioners, no video playback, and very limited keying (comparably), you're not going to turn out TV-truck quality broadcasts with the same ease as the Tricaster. But the bones are there, and it kicks the pants off of whatever old analog switcher we were carrying that day as a backup. I'd absolutely take the TVS over the Panasonic HMX100, at 1/5 the cost.

For workflow, you need to be sure you pre-produce your media in a way that allows you to transition to your backup machine. On the Tricasters, this usually just means pulling your session drive and putting it in your replacement Tric. For the TVS, you will need to have your titles exported as PNGs, and organize these with your stills in a way that allows you to effectively move them as-needed in to the 20 memory locations.

You will need to have your video playback available on an external player that can match the session resolution. Blue ray player, hard drive player, laptop with full-screen media software and an HDMI output, etc.

Test everything thoroughly ahead of time; again, with the Tricasters, we are used to being able to say, "Oh, that's not quite right, let me throw it in a Virtual and scale it or crop it or whatever." We are used to people handing us a flash drive and saying "Play this obscure format in its weird resolution in 40 seconds."

If you can manage those shortfalls, it's hard to beat the TVS as a sub-$1000 backup to your Tricaster system. __________________
E. Lee Dickinson | Partner
Advanced Visual Production |