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A Decade of Game Changers, Part 2

As the calendar flipped to 2020, we decided to review and select the best video production gear over the past decade. Partially, this is a list of the best of what we have used in our own productions, but it is also an opportunity to highlight some true pioneers and game-changers. Part 2 of a 2-part series.

In part 2 of this 2-part series on the video gear that defined the 2010s for professional producers, we'll look at monitor/recorders, hardware and software switchers and mixers, protocols, and more.

On-Camera Monitor

Anthony: For me, the game-changer here isn’t a single product, but a manufacturer: Atomos. They have delivered one solid product after another, listened to end users, and expanded the range of product from the 5" Shinobi monitor-only to their new 19" Sumo monitor/recorder (Figure 1, below). They’ve even taken a page out of the Convergent Design playbook and offering multicamera input and live-switched recording solutions. They have refined their solutions, upgraded the OS, and are ready with updates to handle new cameras and new recording capabilities soon after announcement.

Figure 1. Atomos Sumo 19

Shawn: The announcement of the original Ninja came from new startup Atomos back in 2010, and since then they have been the feature and value leader in external monitors and recorders. I got my first one in 2011, and incorporating its intraframe ProRes codec into my dual HD online and widescreen SD-to-DVD workflow resulted in a dramatic improvement to the quality of both. The massive quality jump came from bypassing the lossy internal HDV compression from my Sony Z7U in my workflow and being able to take advantage of the uncompressed Full HD HDMI output.

Subsequent models upgraded the screen size, resolution, dynamic range, brightness, and processing power to support the increase in supported resolution, frame rates, and adding RAW support. With every NAB that passed, Atomos continued to move the bar higher and higher and with price points that no other company dared to touch. For me, the original Ninja is still the model that made the biggest impact to my workflows. But for producers that rely on HDR and RAW workflows, they will likely feel that some of the newer models were more significant to their workflows. Regardless of which particular Atomos made the biggest impact, my pick for external on-camera monitor and recorder is, like Anthony’s, the entire line of Atomos monitor recorders.

External Recorder

Shawn: For most of the decade, I felt that Atomos monitors had a significant advantage over AJA Ki Pro models in their ability to easily recover recordings when the power was accidentally lost during the recording. But recent AJA models added the ability to finalize and ultimately recover interrupted recordings. This isn’t an insignificant issue. While it’s always advisable to run a battery-backup UPS with external recorders and other mission-critical devices, this doesn’t always happen.

The lost-power issue was something that once happened to me on a job that I was freelancing on for another company as technical director. I insisted on backing-up their Ki Pro with one of my Atomos recorders, mostly because the Atomos monitor was useful for me for its scopes, and the Ki Pro model didn’t have a monitor. Then the power to my recorders was cut by the electrician as soon as the live show was done. He thought this was the best way to turn off the LED wall, but he cut my power too. I was really worried that both of my recordings were unrecoverable. The AJA recording was going to be a very expensive send-away recovery with no guarantees, while I was able to rebuild the interrupted Atomos recording myself within hours.

Ultimately, my pick goes to the first external recorder that can record 4 HD signals simultaneously in the H.264 codec. The Ki Pro Go (Figure 2, below) gives its users the option of connecting HDMI and HD-SDI devices and adding in a standard XLR audio input. Recordings can go to USB flash drives or a connected external USB SSD drive for ease of client delivery and transfer to an NLE.

Figure 2. AJA Ki Pro

Anthony: I agree that being able to deliver high-bitrate H.264 files to clients who aren’t looking for editing masters is a worthy feature that I wish was available on the Atomos monitor/recorders. I get H.264 deliverables all the time in my TriCaster and iOS apps, but it’s harder to find in hardware recorders.

HD Hardware Video Switcher

Anthony: This one might seem out of place, but I think it’s worthy, and actually in the right place, looking back with 2020 vision. This HD video switcher had a profound impact on the market and industry: the NewTek Tricaster Mini (2014).

I know it’s essentially a software-based video mixer. But it is intimately tied to the hardware on which it comes, and nary the two shall part. It was/is one of a line of similar products. But it condensed capabilities previously available only in $10,000, $16,000, $25,000, and $40,000 TriCasters into a tiny little $5,900 cube. Not only was there was no broadcast-level hardware-only solution that came close—one of the other TriCasters could match the ROI of the Mini.

The separate pieces of hardware required to provide video mixing, source/preview/program viewing, customizable graphics creation, video playback, a second video playback, a second graphics player, audio player, audio mixer, multiple video recorders, video streaming appliance, not to mention TriCaster features like virtual sets, a great chromakeyer, downstream keyers, and a whole lot more, would fill a couple tables, require multiple operators, take considerably longer to setup, and cost a lot more than a single TriCaster Mini.

At the time the Mini was introduced, though, there was no NDI. So it required hardwired connection for each camera, and offered an optional hardware control surface much like a traditional broadcast video mixer. But later software upgrades, “Advanced Editions,” as well as NDI integration turned this little 4-HDMI box into an 8-input video mixer that needs no video cables, and can be controlled by software virtual interfaces, or even remotely.

The HDMI Mini evolved into an SDI model and, in 2019, a 4K NDI-based model without a single hardware video input on the box (Figure 3, below). The low cost of the Mini and its subsequent software updates also legitimized software video mixing in a way that no other product has. Paving the way for the acceptance of numerous software-only solutions, and even iPad and iPhone-based video mixing apps.

Figure 3. The new NewTek TriCaster TC Mini

Shawn: For most of the past decade, hardware video switchers were a step behind video cameras and delivery standards. Whereas video cameras moved from progressive HD to 4K and beyond, hardware switchers were mostly stuck as first-gen HD 1080i60 devices. I remember back in 2014 trying to decide if I should invest in the Sony MCS-8M or Panasonic AG-HMX100—both 1080i60 video switchers—or continue to use my 2012 vintage Blackmagic ATEM 1 M/E, also a 1080i60 switcher, paired with a software control panel.

It took all the way until 2018 until I found an HD switcher that had both progressive HD support and hardware controls. The Roland V-60HD (Figure 4, below) is still my go-to switcher, despite my also owning the ATEM Television Studio 4K that I will discuss in the next section. For me, the V-60HD focuses on the features that I need the most and the controls are more accessible without having to connect a software control panel. I love that the V-60HD has an AUX output with hardware buttons. I use this when I need the program from the recording or webcast feed but also need to send a different feed to the projectors. I like the mix of SDI and HDMI inputs. I like that the HDMI inputs also have scalers. I like the XLR audio inputs. I even like the audio auto mix feature for panel discussions. There is a lot to like and it doesn’t leave me wanting for more, except maybe a built-in USB output for streaming from my laptop.

Figure 4. The Roland V-60HD

4K Hardware Video Switcher

Shawn: I was one of the first Blackmagic ATEM 1 M/E owners back in 2012, after Blackmagic acquired Echolab. I couldn’t afford nor did I feel that the expensive hardware controls for the rackmounted ATEM switchers were a good value. So I operated them with software control panels for years. This all changed in 2017 and 2018 when Blackmagic launched two ATEM Television Studio Pro models, the HD and the 4K (Figure 5, below). I bought the 4K, despite not really ever using it in real-world 4K workflows.

Figure 5. The Blackmagic Design TVS Pro 4K

I’m going to let Anthony talk about most of the features, but I do want to highlight the ability to create, memorize, and recall a series of controls with the push of a button. This feature is called a macro and I find I use it to control my aux output and I do so from a network connected laptop running the BMD software control panel software. I rely on this because, unlike the V-60HD that has a dedicated row of physical AUX buttons, to change the AUX outputs on the TVS Pro 4K, it requires a few more button-pushes, and you momentarily lose the ability to make changes to the preview and program while doing so.

Anthony: I agree with Shawn, primarily because the ATEM TVS Pro 4K was the first frequency-agile video mixer from Blackmagic Design since they started selling the ATEM video mixers years ago. Instead of every input having to be externally grafted to one video standard, and producers needing a half-dozen external scaling widgets to handle odd sources, this Blackmagic 4K video mixer essentially incorporated a Blackmagic Teranex scaler on each input.

Blackmagic also put Fairlight audio capability on every audio channel, giving the TVD Pro 4K some serious audio mixing capability, built-in multiview, greenscreen, 2D DVE, motion video clips, built-in camera coms on the talkback channels, and remote camera control capability (with Blackmagic cameras and external hardware or computer control). It even offers some basic, physical audio mixing controls. The icing on the cake is that all of this was built into the video mixing control surface that used to cost thousands extra, in addition to the video mixer.

Related Articles
As the calendar flipped to 2020, we decided to review and select the best video production gear over the past decade. Partially, this is a list of the best of what we have used in our own productions, but it is also an opportunity to highlight some true pioneers and game-changers. Part 1 of a 2-part series.