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Buyers' Guide: Video Mixers

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All-in-One Mixer Appliance

What if you like the simplicity of the Feelworld LivePro but need more functionality, like XLR input, multiple video outputs, an audio mixer, or chromakey capabilities? Here’s when you might consider an all-in-one mixer appliance like the Roland VR-4HD (Figure 4, below). For basic operation, units like these are exceptionally easy to use; with literally 2–3 minutes of coaching, you can have someone up and running for basic switching. If you don’t mind attaching a separate preview monitor to the mixer and don’t need as many inputs, consider the Roland VR-1HD ($1,095), which I reviewed at go2sm.com/vr1hd.

Roland VR-4HD

Figure 4. The very-easy-to-use Roland VR-4HD mixer ($2,495)

It should be noted, however, that graphic and text capabilities vary significantly between these mixers. Neither Roland unit, for example, can generate text titles. Instead, you have to create titles on your computer and load them onto the system via USB. If your productions are title-intensive, you might consider more advanced Roland units or high-end systems from Datavideo that have text-generation capabilities. Or, choose a different category.

In addition, note that both Roland units output a USB stream that you have to input into a computer to deliver to a livestreaming service; they can’t connect directly to a service. This means that, for many products in this category, you’ll need a computer or other streaming device to produce a live stream.

This category is best for productions with more advanced I/O needs than the previous categories, but when ease of use is more important than advanced functionality. Examples might be houses of worship and high schools, where productions are driven by volunteers or students.

Lecture Capture

Though not mixers in a traditional sense, lecture capture systems like the Epiphan Pearl Mini, shown in Figure 5 (below), can input multiple audio and video sources, arrange them in a picture-in-picture layout, encode and transmit directly to a streaming service, and record a local copy. You can drive the system using the touchscreen or via a browser using a computer, tablet, or mobile phone and preconfigure picture-in-picture layouts for simple production switches.

Epiphan Pearl Mini

Figure 5. The Pearl Mini production system

Though Pearl Mini supports basic text creation and overlay, along with still image support, you can’t import disk-based videos to the production or produce more complicated effects like chromakey. Products like the Pearl Mini are great for academic institutions as well as live presenters who want an easy-to-use platform that can mix and deliver the live stream.

Other products in this category include Discover Video’s Spider Multi-Encoder ($4,495) and the Matrox Monarch LCS ($2,495). Though neither has a touchscreen, they both can connect directly to your streaming service provider, so you won’t need a separate computer. You can configure all three units remotely via a browser and preconfigure them so that all users need to do to begin the show is to turn it on, plug in cameras and Ethernet, and press the start button.

Computer-Based Mixer

The top-end products I’ll discuss are computer-based mixers, the poster child of which is the NewTek TriCaster. I say computer-based because the TriCaster runs atop Windows 10, though NewTek goes to great lengths to make sure you don’t modify the system in any way: no games, no applications, no nothing. That way, the system stays clean and stable for trouble-free operation. The TriCaster Mini (Figure 6, below) starts at around $5,995.

NewTek TriCaster Mini

Figure 6. The TriCaster Mini starts at around $5,995.

TriCaster includes basic features like title creation and overlay, support for video-on-demand (VOD), instant replay, scoreboard integration, a full audio mixer, and integrated motion graphics, as well as integrated video composition with virtual sets, social media and Skype integration, extensive I/O options, and other options too numerous to mention. Basically, with the TriCaster, you can produce shows like any you’ve seen on TV, such as the evening news, the Academy Awards, and the Olympics.

Of course, this level of functionality doesn’t come easily; you’ll invest hours learning how to perform basic connection and switching functionality and days learning intermediate-level production techniques. This video mixer can only be driven by an experienced, dedicated operator.

The systems that come closest in the feature set to the TriCaster are the turnkey systems discussed in the first category, and you’ll find both Wirecast and vMix much easier to learn than the TriCaster. In truth, all three programs share a large core of similar features; unless you’re truly trying to push the envelope, Wirecast and vMix in a dedicated computer can probably get the job done in a less-expensive and easier-to-learn platform.

Mixers for Mobile Video

The final category that I’ll address is tablet-based mixers for primarily mobile-based sources like smartphones and tablets, which include Switcher Studio, SlingStudio, and Teradek Airmix (Figure 7, below) Because these mixers run on tablets, they combine a good deal of computer-based functionality like titles and overlays with touchscreen drag-and-drop simplicity.

Teradek Airmix

Figure 7. Teradek Airmix

Note that while Switcher Studio and Airmix are pure software products, SlingStudio requires a hardware hub that provides a single HDMI input and HDMI output and is controlled by an iPad or Mac. All three switchers can input video from tablets and smartphones via Wi-Fi, while SlingStudio also sells an adapter to convert DSLR or camcorder output to wireless. All three can encode and transmit your live streams directly to a live-streaming service provider or social media outlet.

These products seem best for mobile productions, where most of the input sources are smartphones and tablets.

Questions to Ask

So, these are the basic categories of mixers. Here is a list of questions to consider before you choose a mixer:

  • What video inputs must the mixer support (number, type)?
  • What audio inputs must the mixer support (number, type)?
  • What features must the mixer support (switching, transitions, title creation, title display, graphics overlay, scoreboard, picture-in-picture, chromakey, social media support, instant replay, remote conferencing)?
  • Does the system support multiple operators?
    For example, can one operator control switching, another create titles, and yet another monitor and respond to social media?
  • Who will be using the system, and what are
    their technical capabilities? How important is ease of use?
  • What other equipment is needed besides the mixer? Will you need a separate monitor?
    Will you need a computer or other device for
    live streaming?
  • Do you need a battery-powered unit?
  • Do you need a high degree of portability?
  • Do you need a local recording?
  • What outputs do you need to access and how many? Beyond streaming, do you need HDMI output for monitor display?

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