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Review: Blackmagic Design ATEM Television Studio

The ATEM Television Studio is a software-driven video and audio mixer that, for less than $1000 (US), allows you to mix up to six cameras down into a single output program feed, live. You can also add keys, masks, and titles, and it features a built-in H.264 encoder that puts this little stick of tricks firmly on the webcaster's radar.
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Although it may have a place being used to shoot, switch, and stream adult content, even in the comparatively tame confines of business or religious broadcasting, the Blackmagic Design ATEM Television Studio is a truly sexy piece of technology.

On with the serious business of a quick technical review. This is a precursor to a longer piece that should appear in Streaming Media magazine in a few months, once I have run it through its paces in the field a little.

What Is It?

The ATEM Television Studio is a video and audio mixer (or switcher, as the old guard call it). It allows you to mix up to six cameras down into a single output program feed, live. You can add keys, masks, and titles, and it features a built-in H.264 encoder that puts this little stick of tricks firmly on the webcaster's radar.

What Problem Does It Solve?

As recently as 2009, all the kit that I needed to run a three- or four-camera SD composite video shoot with live encode and IP streaming back to the CDN would fit snugly into the back of a Mercedes VITO Van. The video and audio production and mixing technology alone took up about a sixth of the space in the vehicle, and the encoders, switching, and monitoring took up another third, with the rest being allocated for cables, UPS and seating.

My kit bag with the ATEM TV Studio in it fits in a briefcase. With my laptop, iPad, and a small portable CellMux in this bag, the contents of my briefcase provide not only an equivalent capability to the kit in the VITO, but at the improved SDI or HDMI HD standards, and with a hardware H.264 encoder instead of a dual pair of software-based encoders (which, though more flexible, were less reliable).

With the ATEM in my kit, I can carry a six-channel TV station in a single bag.

Two Shortcomings

If Blackmagic Design had included an analog input-instead of the higher-quality, but less common AES / EBU digital audio input--I wouldn't have to carry the Tascam Audio converter (which, while light, is relatively big). This appears to be a common complaint on various forums. While I also like the rack form factor in some ways, I would also like to see the unit small enough to drop into a shoulder bag (rather than stick out). Given that this is simple a case-and-board layout issue, I would hope to see Blackmagic Design introduce more field-ready (rather than data center-ready) form factors in time.

The other shortcoming I found is that while the app supports loading the media slots of the device with image files, it appears I need a more expensive and bulkier model to load animations/ MOVs and so on into the media slots--its really a question of adding a little memory to the device.

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