Buyers' Guide: Video Mixers
At the most basic level, video mixers are hardware or software tools that allow you to switch between different video inputs or mix them together via picture-in-picture, as well add effects like titles and graphics. They can also include much more advanced functions like audio mixers, chromakey, scoreboards, and many other features.
This buyers’ guide is for newbies trying to understand the different types of mixers available and their strengths and weaknesses. Accordingly, I’ll start by identifying different categories of mixers, discuss their characteristics, and then conclude with a list of questions to ask before buying. As always, product mentions are not exhaustive but rather are representative of products in that category. If your product isn’t mentioned, please feel free to add it via a comment on the web version of this article.
Let’s jump right in.
These are video mixers that you install on your computer. Products in this category include Telestream Wirecast (Mac/Windows; Figure 1, below), vMix (Windows), and the open source Open Broadcaster Software (OBS; Mac/Windows/Linux).
Figure 1. Wirecast Gear system from Telestream
These products tend to be affordable or free and are very well-featured as compared to entry-level standalone appliances. This simplifies adding text/graphics and pulling together a “shot” that combines background graphics and multiple sources in a picture-in-picture format. Wirecast (Rendezvous) and vMix (Call) both provide a conferencing function that allows you to record and stream remote interviews at very high quality. Both can also accept input from computers and phones on the same network, adding significant production flexibility.
The flip side of this flexibility is ease of use. While these programs don’t require a computer science degree to operate, you wouldn’t want to hand off operation to a marketing intern or church volunteer without providing several hours of training.
The other issue is audio/video input, which you need to supply, and which can get problematic. If you try to input four cameras via dongles on a MacBook Pro, you’re almost certainly going to run into problems. These software tools can handle complex productions, but if you plan to produce with three or more camera inputs, you’re better off buying a turnkey system like Wirecast Gear or vMix systems available from multiple vendors, which will provide all the necessary inputs and a beefy enough CPU to handle the load.
In general, this category is best for reasonably sophisticated computer users who will set up and run the live event themselves.
Entry-Level Hardware Mixers
Entry-level hardware products include the two shown in Figure 2 (below): the Feelworld LivePro L1 ($329 at Amazon) on the left and the Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini HDMI ($295 at Amazon) on the right. Both enable switching among the various inputs with transitions and picture-in-picture capabilities so you can mix a talking head with PowerPoint input from a computer.
Figure 2. Entry-level hardware devices provide two extremes of functionality and usability.
Though the price is similar, the ATEM Mini prioritises functionality over usability, while the LivePro does the opposite. For example, while the LivePro provides a preview of all four inputs on the body and via HDMI out, the ATEM Mini doesn’t provide either. There’s also no headphone jack on the ATEM Mini, but the LivePro does have one.
That said, the ATEM Mini software provides much more advanced features than the LivePro, including an audio mixer with a six-band parametric equaliser, chromakey capabilities, and the ability to deploy images with alpha channels in your streams.
Note that both units need a computer and streaming software to actually stream live. That is, neither can connect to the internet directly and instead outputs a USB 3.0 signal that looks like a webcam to live-streaming software programs like Wirecast, vMix, or OBS.
From a target-user perspective, the ATEM Mini was designed for the technical user looking for inexpensive access to relatively high-end mixer features. In contrast, Feelworld serves users who need basic switching functionality that’s simple to use.
If your budget can extend up to $900, you might also consider the YoloLiv YoloBox portable shown in Figure 3 (below). This unit can accept two HDMI inputs, plus one USB input, video from an SD card, and web input, for a total of five video sources. You can create titles and overlays in the software and perform all mixing via the touchscreen interface.
Figure 3. The YoloLiv YoloBox is an intuitive all-in-one unit.
Unlike the Feelworld and ATEM units, the YoloBox can encode your outbound stream onboard for streaming via Ethernet, Wi-Fi, or 4G LTE Sim card and can record to an SD card right on the unit, so you don’t need to drag a computer to your remote locations. By default, the live output stream is routed to the YoloLiv platform for delivery to up to three destinations, including YouTube, Facebook Live, Twitter, Twitch, and a custom Real-Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP) location.
Action cams remain a popular option for action sports (of course), POV video, drones, underwater video capture, and vlogging applications where a front-facing screen makes a difference. GoPro's Hero 9 Black still grabs most of the headlines, but other contenders round out a thriving and reasonably diverse action-cam market.
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