In the Studio: Focus Enhancements MCSDI-1
Posted Jun 1, 2008

Technology seems to keep pushing the envelope, making things smaller, cheaper, faster. Sometimes, it’s a good thing; at other times, it’s a royal pain. This is one of those "good thing" moments. Focus Enhancements is now offering a device called the MCSDI-1. This isn’t a product that will serve every videographer situation that every videographer will have. But when the time comes, you’ll be glad (as I am) that they made this puppy.

The MCSDI-1 is a small box that can attach underneath your video camera, and then to your tripod. But it’s a box with a lot of power. It can take composite, component, audio, and HDMI input from either an SD or HD source (such as an SD or HD video camera), automatically detect the format, and output that video and audio uncompressed through an auto-switch SD/HD SDI port. All of this for a price tag of only $699.

What’s really cool about this device is its size and affordability. It allows smaller, cheaper cameras to function with an uncompressed signal in a broadcast type of environment. Instead of having four big, expensive, SD broadcast cameras, you can have four smaller, more affordable prosumer HD cameras giving you the same, if not better, image performance.

The price of expensive broadcast studio productions just came down quite a bit!

figure 1 From Box to Broadcast

Imagine this scenario: Small college broadcast school, on a tight budget because it’s recovering from a hurricane (yes, I’m writing from the Crescent City). It purchases four Canon HV20 HD cameras at $700 each. Each has an HDMI cable coming out of it to an MCSDI-1 box mounted between it and a tripod. Each of those four MCSDI-1 boxes has an SDI cable that feeds into a main control HD switcher, such as the Focus HX-1. Now you have an HD broadcast studio set up for around $16,100. That’s about the single unit price for some full-size broadcast cameras alone.

Re-imagine this scenario using a JVC HD100, Sony EX1, or Panasonic HVX200 cameras. All these cameras capture uncompressed HD signals—since compression only happens at the moment the signal is recorded to physical media such as P2 or SxS cards, or tape—and with the MCSDI-1, you can get those uncompressed signals out of the camera and into a switcher for live-switched delivery. And no one says you can’t also record compressed video to those physical media at the same time!

The point is, today you can get amazingly great image quality from the composite outputs of prosumer cameras, bypassing the internal codec compression schemes that throw away image data. And this can be done with HD cameras that capture higher-resolution images than an old-school SD broadcast camera, but cost much less. By using the MCSDI-1 with a setup such as the 4-camera HD studio switcher I described previously, you can achieve amazing HD video resolution on a much tighter budget.

figure 1 How it Works
So how does the MCSDI-1 work? About as easily as your toaster at home. The input side of the box has video inputs for component, composite, and HDMI. It will automatically sense what it is being fed and adjust appropriately. That could be SD analog or HD analog in 1080i at 50/59.94/60 fps, 720p at 50/59.94/60 fps, or digital HDMI. Audio is captured via stereo RCA ports. LED lights on the side of the box show the status of the video signal—be it SD, or one of the flavors of HD—as well as audio status, power status, and the like. A set of dip switches next to the LED lights allow you to manually adjust the audio input to high or low impedance at -8dBu, +4dBu, or 0dBu, with a sample rate of 48kHz and 24 bits.

The output is even simpler. It’s an auto-sensing SDI port with embedded audio that will output a signal matching the one coming into its input ports. Using an RG11 cable, you can have runs up to 1148" for SD, and 656" for an HD signal.

Another really cool feature is that if a valid signal is connected for 10 seconds or more and becomes severed, the MCSDI-1 will output a noncalibrated test pattern to that last valid input signal it had. When the camera stops sending a signal, and the unit remains on, you’ll have a test pattern for verification during set redressing.

For convenience, the MCSDI-1 comes with what Focus calls a cable routing kit. These are two cable ties that have an eye on one end and accompanying screws. There is a screw hole for them on each of the MCSDI-1’s sides to hold them, and you can wrap them around your camera’s cables to keep them from hanging all over and getting in the way. A very nice touch, I must say.

Broadcast on Budget
All in all, the MCSDI-1 is a really small, light, simple device that packs a ton of potential in bringing down the cost of studio setups for the independent producer. Independently produced interview shows are now closer to affording multiple-camera live shoots with much higher-quality video.

I passed this unit by some local broadcast professionals to see what they thought, and they were very impressed. They all agreed it could bring the cost of live HD broadcast down for the academic, independent, and professional broadcast organizations. In testing it on an HVX200, I found the image quality a bit superior to what I captured via DVCPRO-HD compression and played back on a 62" HDTV screen.

There’s not really much to the unit itself, which is part of its genius. It fills a niche need, works simply, is rugged and reliable, and provides high-quality output to boot. For those that produce multicamera live-switched events, the MCSDI-1 can boost you to uncompressed signals from lower-priced cameras, increasing your final product’s quality, and decreasing your overhead. A clear winner for those that do this kind of work!

Ben Balser (benb at bbalser.com) is an Apple Certified Trainer based in southeast Louisiana. He teaches Final Cut Studio for LA Tech College and the N.O. Video Access Center.